Jewish Musicians in Hungary

Significant development of classical music in Hungary, including music education, did not begin until well into the second half of the nineteenth century.  The Philharmonic Society (Filharmóniai Társaság) was formed in 1853, while the Opera House opened only in 1884.  Despite this relatively late beginning, standards were high from the outset.  The highly skilled composer/conductor/pianist Ferenc Erkel headed both institutions.

Erkel conducted the first Philharmonic concert on 20 November 1853 as well as a further sixty concerts in subsequent years.  He remained at the helm of the Philharmonic Society for eighteen years (1853-1871), and stability was maintained through the fact that all the chief conductors who succeeded him served for long periods.  Ernst von Dohnanyi (Dohnányi Ernő) was the longest serving music director (1918-1943).  Composers such as Brahms, Dvořák, Mahler, Mascagni, Prokofiev, Ravel, Respighi, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky conducted their own compositions, while guest conductors included, among others, Hans Richter and Arthur Nikisch. Programming was innovative; for instance Mahler’s first symphony was premiered by this orchestra in 1889.  The orchestra also served as that of the Opera House – a model still in use today – and in that capacity one of its music directors was Gustav Mahler from 1888 to 1891.

The establishment of the Hungarian National Conservatoire (Nemzeti Zenede) in 1840 was a great boon to music education.  Standards improved further with the opening in 1875 of the Music Academy, whose founder-director was Ferenc (Franz) Liszt.

Jewish participation was significant in all Hungarian music institutions, as in other cultural fields.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the proportion of Jews at opera performances was so high that the political right-wing objected to state subsidy for the opera.  Nevertheless, by 1888, the Jewish Gustav Mahler was serving as music director.  Jews also participated actively in Opera House productions.  One of the most popular singers in the company’s early history was the Jewish bass David Ney, and repetiteurs included Antal Dorati (Antal Deutsch, 1927-1929) and Georg Solti (1933-1939).  Solti made his highly successful conducting debut here in March 1938 with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  On the other hand, Dorati conducted concerts with the Opera orchestra – that is, with the Philharmonic Society – in 1932 and 1933.

Jews also made up a significant proportion of teachers and students at the National Conservatoire as well as the Academy.  Ferenc Weisz, who later as Franz Weisz was a leading composer and pianist in Holland (until he was deported to Terezín and subsequently murdered), undertook all his studies at the Conservatoire.  At the Academy, teachers included the cellist David Popper (the son of a Prague chazzan) already in the 1880s. The Jewish pianist István Thomán was a favourite student of Liszt before becoming a teacher at the Academy.  Among others, he taught Dohnányi and Bartók.  Composer and chamber music tutor Leó Weiner, one of the most influential teachers in Hungary, was on the teaching staff from 1908. Jewish students at the Academy included conductors Antal Dorati, Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, pianists Louis Kentner and Ilona Kabos and violinist Joseph Szigeti.  Many Jewish musicians who trained at the National Conservatoire and at the Academy perished in the Holocaust.

Jewish participation in cultural fields, as in other fields, was hampered by the numerus clausus law passed in 1920.  According to the laws, Jewish students were to be represented at universities in accordance with their proportion of the population.  Many Jewish students were thus unable to gain admission to Hungarian universities, and thus left to study elsewhere in Europe.  Under pressure from the League of Nations, a new law passed in 1928 changed the race/religion percentage to that of class percentages, but this change still left Jewish students at a disadvantage. However, it appears that the Music Academy ignored, even sabotaged, the numerus clausus law.  During 1920-26, the percentage of Jewish students at the Academy was 40.9% rather than the required 5%.

By 1920, antisemitism was more evident on the streets, and it also reached the Opera House.  In April, during a performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, an anti-Semitic demonstration in the auditorium was directed against the Jewish baritone Lajos Rózsa.  Rózsa accused some of his right-wing colleagues of organising the demonstration.  He left the Opera House and immigrated to America.  Although under less dramatic circumstances, other Jewish artists – for instance conductors Fritz Reiner and George Szell – also left.

As a result of pressure both from within Hungary as well as from outside, in 1938 the first Jewish law was passed in the Hungarian parliament.  Article XV specified areas where the Jewish workforce could not be larger than 20%.  The term Jewish here meant people of the Jewish faith.  In 1939, a second Jewish law tightened the noose.  By now, a person with at least one parent or two grandparents born into the Jewish faith was classified as a Jew.  In cultural fields the 20% quota was reduced to 6%, although in exceptional circumstances a further 3% could be employed.  In theory, Jews were not allowed to work in state sponsored institutions at all.  In practice, until the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, Jews continued to work in the above mentioned percentage.  Nevertheless, the second Jewish law forced the Opera House to dismiss 37 of its Jewish performers.

The Jewish laws did not eliminate Jewish participation from Hungarian musical life.  The database for Budapest concerts – in autumn 2012 under construction at the Hungarian Institute for Musicology – shows Jewish artists in evidence in public concerts.  In 1939, distinguished pianists Ignaz Friedman, Lajos Heimlich Hernádi, and Annie Fischer and violinist Joseph Szigeti all performed on Budapest concert stages; Imre Ungár and Annie Fischer appeared in 1940.  The Music Academy’s public concert stage continued to serve Jewish students and ex-students such as singer Vera Rózsa, composer Sándor Vándor, and pianist Jenő Deutsch.  Annie Fischer performed at the Music Academy in 1941, and Imre Ungár appeared as late as 1943 and 1944 in the prestigious Pesti Vigadó concert hall, as did composer-pianist György Kósa (although the latter at the Scottish Mission).  [The Scottish Mission, a Protestant group, had been active in Budapest since 1841. They opened their doors to everyone during the Jewish persecution.  Their leader, Jane Marianne Haining was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz.]  Gradually, however, Jewish artists were squeezed out of public concert life.

Right-wing individuals and press made the most of the Jewish laws.  Andor Tolnay, a theatre director in Pécs, broke his contract with Jewish conductor Vilmos Komor on racial grounds in 1938, despite the fact that within the 1938 law Komor was entitled to continue his work.  Journalist Zsolt Ihász attacked conductor Komor in Összetartás, a weekly newspaper published by the fascist Arrow-Cross Party, on 7 August 1938.  Ihász accused Komor of employing an excessive proportion of Jewish artists for his longstanding orchestral series and charged that he was anti-Christian.

The musical press seems to have maintained a neutral attitude.  The Magyar Zenei Almanach, reporting on and summarising Hungarian music life for the period 1942-43, lists musicians and singers as individuals as well as ensemble members for 1942-43.  Their list of 500 individual artists does not seem to include a single Jew, not even bass Mihály Székely, who was the only Jewish principal singer appearing in the Budapest Opera House right until the German occupation in March 1944.  (On the other hand, the list of artists supplied by the Opera in the same Almanach does include Székely).  The Almanach’s list of about 900 choirs ignores the choir led by Jewish composer Sándor Vándor.  The Hungária Zenei Lexikon (published in May 1945, apparently without alterations, although with additions after the main text) includes Jewish artists without mentioning their Jewishness and subsequent fate.  For instance, this is what the Lexikon states about two outstanding singers: 'Andor Lendvai, 1902-, opera singer, baritone. He was member of the Munich and Budapest opera houses.' 'Gabriella Relle, 1902-, she studied with Anthes at the Music Academy and was employed already as a student by the Opera until 1939. Excellent dramatic soprano.' Not a word is offered as to why Lendvai and Relle were no longer members of the opera house.

A Zene, a distinguished fortnightly music journal with excellent musicologists among its contributors, appears to have aimed at balance.  In March 1938, it reported on the Byzance Suite by Jewish composer György Ránki, but also reported on the Adolf Hitler music schools in Germany.  In April 1939, the news section reported that Vienna had changed some of its street names; hence the street names Mendelssohn, Mahler, Meyerbeer and Ferdinand Lőwe had ceased to exist.  No comment is added to this piece of news.  There was one article that openly took sides against political interference in music: in March 1941, Ödön Geszler questioned movements such as the Nazis’ Entartete Musik, which judged music on political rather than musical grounds.  But in May 1942, a piece by Tibor Miklósy (a Hungarian writing from Berlin) praised the principles and activities of the Reichsmusikkammer.  It took no issue with the requirement that Reichsmusikkammer membership was governed by the Nuremberg race laws.  However, Miklósy mentioned that a few selected Jews were allowed to work in the Reich and that the same principle should be applied in Hungary too.

Banned from public appearances by the Jewish laws, Hungarian artists of the Jewish faith found refuge in the form of paid work within the OMIKE Artist Action, which was started in 1939. OMIKE (the Országos Magyar Izraelita Közművelődési Egyesület, Hungarian Jewish Educational Association) was founded in 1910 and was intended to cultivate traditional Judaism within a modern environment.  The brainchild of Géza Ribáry, a lawyer, passionate music lover and amateur pianist, the OMIKE Artist Action aimed to provide at least a modest income for a large number of Jewish artists.  The number of unemployed Jewish musicians and singers was higher than that of Jewish artists in other fields.  As a result, musical events, operas, and concerts were more numerous than theatrical performances and events dealing with fine arts.

Initially, operas within the OMIKE Artist Action project were given in concert performances with piano accompaniment: for instance, Verdi’s Nabucco (January 1939), César Franck’s Rebecca (February 1940), Beethoven’s Fidelio (November 1940) and Halevy’s The Jewess (December 1940).  In 1940, conductor Vilmos Komor was appointed to be in charge of opera.  He insisted on full-blown theatrical performances to achieve the highest possible standard.  Thus the Goldmark Hall, a venue for Jewish cultural activities since about 1930, was reconstructed to facilitate a theatre with a stage as well as with appropriate space for the orchestra.  The reconstructed theatre seated only 372 people, but the standard of performances rivalled and probably even surpassed those given at the Opera House; thus audiences were willing to pay for higher ticket prices.

Between January 1941 and March 1944, when the German occupation of Hungary terminated all OMIKE activities, twenty operatic productions graced the Goldmark stage: Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Puccini’s La bohème, Verdi’s Traviata, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Verdi’s Masked Ball, Goldmark’s The Queen of Sheba, Verdi’s Rigoletto, Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Eugen d' Albert’sThe Lowlands, Verdi’s The Troubadour, Verdi’s Aida, Donizetti’s Lucia Lammermoor, Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Gounod’s Faust. The singers included such outstanding and experienced artists as Dezső Ernster, Oszkár Kálmán, Andor Lendvai and Gabriella Relle.

OMIKE concerts seem to have been of a very high standard.  Song recitals, instrumental recitals and orchestral concerts included repertoire from Bach to contemporary music.  Pianists Jenő Deutsch, Annie Fischer, Ági Jámbor, Renée Sándor, György Sebők, László Weiner, violinists Ferenc Ákos, Viktor Ajtay/Adler, Róbert Gerle, György Trietsch, violist Pál Lukács, cellists Vera Dénes, Pál Hütter and Janos Starker, flute player Pál Pollák as well as many others including orchestra members were highly gifted and highly motivated artists.  Orchestral conductors were also musicians of high quality: Sándor Fischer, László Káldi, Vilmos Komor, Frigyes Sándor, László Somogyi and László Weiner secured excellent standards. The performance of Händel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus in the magnificent Dohány synagogue on 23 June 1941 must have been a truly poignant occasion.  Conductor László Weiner, solo singers Pál Fehér, Dezső Ernster, Zsuzsa Pogány, Vera Rózsa and György Weiner as well as chorus, orchestra and indeed the audience must have felt the significance of the Maccabees’ victory and, perhaps, hope too was present on this occasion.

On 11 December 1941, A Magyar Zsidók Lapja (The Journal of Hungarian Jews) reported that at the previous Monday evening’s OMIKE concert – presumably referring to Monday 8 December 1941 – Bartók’s Divertimento for string orchestra received its first performance in Hungary. The audience was overwhelmed by the Hungarian mood and colourful instrumentation of the piece; their enthusiastic applause was rewarded by the repeat of the third movement as an encore. Other pieces on the programme were a Händel overture, a Bach concerto and Mozart’s G minor symphony. The excellent conductor Frigyes Sándor was warmly appreciated by the audience. Bartók’s Divertimento is mentioned again in connection with an OMIKE concert on Monday 9 February 1942. According to the ten-line report by the influential daily Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation), the gifted young conductor Sándor had not only premiered Bartók’s Divertimento in Hungary but, on this occasion, he performed it for the fourth time. The reviewer highly praised Sándor’s interpretation of the piece which was performed alongside Bach and Mozart, Sándor’s other ideal composers.

The OMIKE Artist Action did not forget the significance of music education. Under the expert leadership of music scholar Zsigmond László, the Goldmark Music Academy was established. Noted scholars and artists contributed their skills to overcome what they regarded as a temporary situation.

All OMIKE activities had to cease when the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944. Some OMIKE artists survived the Holocaust. But others, as many of their audiences, perished.

by Agnes Kory


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