A Tear in the Curtain: The Musical Diplomacy of Erzsébet Szőnyi

Musician, Composer, Teacher of Teachers

by Jerry L. Jaccard (Author)
©2014 Monographs XXX, 320 Pages


Why are so few women composers known to the general public and even fewer of their works studied and performed? More than one musicologist told the author that they are not «famous» enough to be considered! So then, can a woman who studied with Boulanger and Messiaen, who won the coveted Paris Conservatory Prize in Composition, who received the highest awards her country can bestow, and who produced some of the finest teaching musicians on the globe qualify as «famous»? This book is about one who can and does: Erzsébet Szőnyi, a Hungarian «Renaissance woman», who, in spite of a repressive regime’s attempts to contain her, ended up wielding an international artistic and pedagogical influence.
Readers interested in music education, women’s and family studies, Kodály studies, Classical education, theory and composition, musicology, creative processes, educational psychology, and the history and sociology of pre- and postwar Central Europe will find A Tear in the Curtain: The Musical Diplomacy of Erzsébet Szőnyi: Musician, Composer, Teacher of Teachers to be a compelling read. One is left to contemplate what society should actually expect from the education of its citizens.
In this book, readers clearly hear Erzsébet Szőnyi’s own voice as she describes her journey through unimaginable joys, sorrows, and personal challenges to emerge as a muse for our age. More like her are needed; perhaps through her life story we can learn how to raise them. The message is clear: Fame is a life lived in the service of others.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Tables
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One. Anchored in Artistry (1924–1942)
  • Early Childhood
  • The School Years
  • A Manifest Career
  • Chapter Two. A Muse in the Making—The Academy Years (1942–1945)
  • Opportunities in Abundance
  • Room to Fly—Life at the Academy
  • Music in Spite of War
  • Chapter Three. Up from the Ashes—Music Triumphant! (1945–1947)
  • Teaching School
  • Challenges and Complications
  • Music out of Chaos
  • 1947—Prelude to Paris
  • Chapter Four. In Paris (1947–1948)
  • Red Tape á la Mode
  • Surviving and Thriving in Paris
  • In Tony Aubin’s Class
  • In Olivier Messiaen’s Class
  • In Nadia Boulanger’s Class
  • Inside the French Solfège System
  • Success in Paris
  • Chapter Five. A New Life in a “New” Hungary (1948–1960)
  • A ‘Bear’ in the House of Hungary
  • First Encounters: Composing under, around and through Communism
  • Composing for the Other Career
  • Final Ironies
  • Chapter Six. The Other Hungarian Revolution (1950–1964)
  • ‘Back to the Future’ of Hungarian Music Education
  • Musical Reading and Writing
  • Composers Who Teach
  • The Woman in Charge
  • A Trusted Traveler
  • A More Sure Foundation
  • The Winds of Change
  • The Sound Heard Round the World
  • Chapter Seven. A New Kind of Teacher, A New Kind of Teaching (1964–1980)
  • In North America
  • Global Turning Point
  • Inside Hungary: A New Generation of Music Teachers
  • A Cross-Section of Hungarian Students
  • Chapter Eight. A Tear in the Curtain (1964–1980 Part A)
  • North America Joins the Revolution
  • The Boston “Ti” Party
  • The Ringer Kodály Fellowship Program
  • More Hands Across the Sea
  • Chapter Nine. Through the Curtain (1964–1980 Part B)
  • An International Presence
  • Closer to Home and Far Away: Western Europe and the Pacific Basin
  • Time to Compose!
  • Chapter Ten. Living Wisdom—The Muse at Home (1980–present)
  • A ‘Break in Transmission’
  • Composing to Please Herself
  • Two Operas and a Musical Play
  • A Motet, a Cantata, and an Oratorio
  • Instrumental Solo, Chamber, and Large Ensemble Works
  • Accompanied Solo Voice
  • Choral Works
  • Musings on Her Art
  • Why She Composes
  • How She Composes
  • Composing for Instruments
  • On Being a Woman Composer
  • On Being an “All Eater”: Elements of Style
  • “What Are You Working On Now?”
  • Pedagogical Lectures and Writings
  • Music for Healing
  • On Living with Freedom
  • Laurels for the Muse
  • Coda. Legacy
  • Appendix I: Table 2 Chronological List of Works
  • Appendix II: List of Prizes & Honors
  • Bibliography
  • Index

List of Illustrations

Figure 1.    Erzsébet and her mother Alice in 1925

Figure 2.    Erzsébet and her grandmother Pisanoff in 1926

Figure 3.    Erzsébet with her parents in 1937

Figure 4.    Choir of the Szilágyi Girls School in the National Opera House

Figure 5.    Erzsébet in her Szilágyi Girls School choir uniform

Figure 6.    First page of the Lement a nap a maga járásán score

Figure 7.    Liszt Academy student recital program, April 12, 1944

Figure 8.    Original 1955 cast of The Stubborn Princess with teacher Emma Serényi

Figure 9.    The Kodálys and Erzsébet in the Liszt Academy director’s box

Figure 10.  At the 1966 performance of The Shivering King in Szombathely

Figure 11.  Hungarian Embassy Reception in Tokyo for ISME 1963 guests

Figure 12.  Erzsébet and Kodály at ISME 1966, Interlochen, Michigan 139

Figure 13.  Erzsébet Szőnyi opening the 1967 Esztergom Kodály Course

Figure 14.  Ruriko Kase and Kyoko Hani at the 1967 Esztergom Kodály Course

Figure 15.  Tibor Szabó conducting the Esztergom Children’s Choir at the opening session

Figure 16.  Erzsébet Szőnyi and Gabór Finta at her home ca. 2000

Figure 17.  Nadia Boulanger’s remarks and Kodály’s “little joke”

Figure 18.  Szeged Teachers College Girls Choir, Pál Kardos, Erzsébet at Teesside, U.K.

Figure 19.  Hungarian Music Education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California

Figure 20.  Erzsébet, Denise Bacon, Dame Margaret Holden, and Kasponis Rimtautas in Budapest, 1967

Figure 21.  Betsy McLaughlin, Denise Bacon, Loraine Edwards, Ann Osborn in Budapest ← xi | xii

Figure 22.  Classroom scenes at the Liszt Academy of Music, in Budapest 1968

Figure 23.  Erzsébet, Elizabeth, Márta and Kyoko Hani, in Kecskemét ca. 1967

Figure 24.  Erzsébet demonstrates for visitors

Figure 25.  Katalin Forrai with preschool

Figure 26.  Visitors observe dictation, 1968

Figure 27.  Concentration during dictation

Figure 28.  Erzsébet’s advanced solfège demonstration

Figure 29.  Erzsébet and the First Ringer Kodály Fellowship cohort, 1968–1969

Figure 30.  Alexander Ringer and Erzsébet observe a class in Szekesfehérvár, 1976

Figure 31.  Erzsébet encouraging students in Room IV of the Liszt Academy, 1974

Figure 32.  Lois Choksy and Erzsébet at the Eastman School of Music, 1972

Figure 33.  Lajos and Erzsébet in their garden, 1970

Figure 34.  Recognition at the premiere of Cantata on József Attila’s Verses

Figure 35.  Isaac Stern’s tribute to Erzsébet in one of her autograph books

Figure 36.  Erzsébet and Klára Márkus, grammar school friends and colleagues

Figure 37.  Sketches and score for Dragons Teeth collaborative project

Figure 38.  Department chairs during the 1975 Liszt Academy Centenary year

Figure 39.  Conferral of honorary doctorate at Duquesne University, 2006 ← xii | xiii

Figure 40.  With Betsy Moll and Christine Jordanoff at Duquesne University

Figure 41.  Gilbert De Greeve and Erzsébet at Duquesne University ← xiii | xiv ← xiv | xv →

List of Tables

Table 1.    Steidl-Pisanoff Family Tree

Table 2.    Chronological List of Works ← xv | xvi ← xvi | xvii →


This biography of Hungarian composer, writer, and teacher Erzsébet Szőnyi cried out to be written, and no one could better have described the life and work of this Renaissance woman than my good friend and colleague, Dr. Jerry L. Jaccard. He refers at one point in this honest and thoughtful biography to her “spirituality, her love of people and her devotion to quality music.” These are the very qualities I observed forty-five years ago when I was a neophyte studying at her feet.

Erzsébet Szőnyi has composed in many genres, both secular and religious works, including opera. Unique among composers today, she has no works sitting on the shelf. Her many compositions for choirs, soloists, small ensembles and orchestra have all been and continue to be widely performed, both in her native Hungary and abroad. A brilliant musician, fluent in several spoken languages as well as in the language of music, this remarkable woman is still composing, still guiding teachers, at the age of 91. She will continue to do so, I’m sure, as long as she draws breath.

My intimate knowledge of this prolific composer first came about because of her close connection to the eminent Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. Kodály taught his students, Szőnyi among them, that to be a composer was not enough; that it was imperative to educate people musically if there were ever to be an audience for new works. One of the major thrusts of what came to be known as “the Kodály Method,” was the development of a literate audience.

Erzsébet Szőnyi took Kodály’s message to heart as a very young woman, and never wavered in her commitment to music education. She considered it equal in importance to composing. At the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, she assumed the task of training teachers to effectively implement Kodaly’s philosophy in the schools of Hungary.

If I were to be asked who I considered to be the most important single music educator in the last century, my unhesitating answer would be “Erzsébet Szőnyi,” my teacher, my mentor, my friend.

The principles and practices associated with Zoltán Kodály’s philosophy of music education have reached into classrooms from preschool to university level on every continent, largely through the efforts of this incredible, indefatigable, multi-faceted woman. Erzsébet Szőnyi has done more in her lifetime to promote universal musical literacy than anyone since the earliest music classes were held in the earliest schools.

She would deny this. She would be the first to place that honor on Zoltán Kodály’s doorstep. However, as important as Kodály’s message was, and still is, ← xvii | xviii without the messenger it would still lie in fallow ground. It was Erzsébet Szőnyi who took that message to the many music teachers she trained in her own country, Hungary, and then to the world.

She accomplished this through her own example, first as an accomplished musician and composer, then as a master teacher of teachers. Through her own classroom practice, and through her lectures, books and articles, she guided and influenced music educators who came from far and wide to observe the phenomenon that was occurring in the Hungarian schools.

I know the latter first hand, because I was early among their number. I went to Hungary, as others before and after me went to Hungary, to learn first-hand what it was that was attracting such international attention. I attended a summer course at Esztérgom organized by Professor Szőnyi for non-Hungarian music education professionals. What I saw astonished me: eight and ten year old children performing music at a level that I, a music teacher at that time of some 16 years’ experience, with an American conservatory background, could barely keep up with. It was both awe inspiring and a bit frightening. The demonstrations I observed that summer left me wanting to see just what was going on in these “Énekzene Iskolák,” the Singing Schools of Hungary.

I was delighted when Professor Szőnyi invited me to return for an academic year, to discover what was happening at every level, from the nursery schools and primary schools through to the highest levels of teacher-training at the Academy of Music. I was given the opportunity to study under her guidance, to discuss what I observed with her, to ask questions, and to draw my own conclusions.

Of course, I accepted her invitation.

When I went, I had no notion of writing about what I saw and heard. The idea that I should report on what I learned, that I should write The Kodály Method, was gently planted in my mind by Szőnyi. She was ever the master of gentle persuasion. She saw what each of us—we foreign students fortunate enough to study with her—could contribute to furthering Kodaly’s goal of universal musical literacy. She sent us back to our homes, each with a mission, all of us changed in myriad ways.

It is an immutable fact that I came back from Hungary a different person, with different, and I think more important, goals and values. With a determination to try to influence and teach others as Erzsébet Szőnyi had influenced and taught me.

I have been referred to as a “disciple.” It’s not a title I would choose, but neither will I deny it. I believe I have been among the fortunate few to study with this incredible woman and then move on to the position of colleague, friend and even confidant. ← xviii | xix

We are separated now by time and distance, but when I think of Erzsébet, I immediately hear her voice. She is soft spoken. I never heard her raise her voice, although when she was displeased, steel could slip into her syllables. Then I recall her laugh. She has an infectious laugh—the kind one waits for, hoping to hear. She exhibits both warmth and humanity to all us fortunate enough to be around her.

Jaccard has captured in these pages, not just the facts and figures of a life lived in music, but also something of the warm human being, the spirit of the woman herself.

Lois Choksy, BSc, MS, DFA

Professor Emeritus of Music

← xix | xx← xx | xxi →


History’s boldest brushstrokes defy being ignored; whether political, economic, geophysical or meteorological, the list is long, varied and complex. For their part, Europeans are still forging a New Europe from the upheavals of two world wars, the Holocaust and Communism. Extraordinary individuals who survived those cataclysms still live among us, inspiring and encouraging our own daily progress with love, grace and boundless productivity. These pillars of our current civilization seem to navigate life by fixing their bearing on some inextinguishable polestar, an inner vision of what could and should be, instead of what is. Journalist Tom Brokaw wrote about some of the American ones in his book, The Greatest Generation, but what about unsung Europeans left in situ to reassemble shattered homelands? This book is about one of them, a remarkably resilient fiber in the paintbrush of recent history: Erszébet Szőnyi, Hungarian musician, composer, music educator, and teacher of teachers.1

How rarely we have the opportunity to ask living composers about their work in detail—and to give voice to their own thinking—in order to not have to be satisfied with second-guessing what they intended long after their passing! Therefore, this book celebrates a remarkable human being who excels in many aspects of music and life, one who is willing to share what her art means to her, how she thinks about it, and why she does it. Erzsébet Szőnyi, who studied with Boulanger and Messiaen, who was the first woman to win the Paris Conservatory Prize for Composition, who helped make Zoltán Kodály’s dream of music education reform become a reality, truly has a story to tell. Her life experiences contain much to illuminate the human condition, and to inspire general interest readers as well as music professionals.

For most of us musicians outside of the former Soviet Bloc, our first glimpse of Erzsébet Szőnyi came in 1973 when she chaired the First International Kodály Symposium at Holy Names College in Oakland, California.2 There, in the middle of the Cold War, 350 delegates and observers from all over the world—including both sides of the Iron Curtain—assembled to learn more about Hungarian music education. Instead of the usual political posturing associated with so many professional organizations, the proceedings were pervaded by a calm purposefulness focused on serving the children and youth of the world through music. As delegate after delegate presented papers followed by panel discussions, Professor Szőnyi moderated the proceedings by effortlessly switching between Hungarian, German, French and English. She cheerfully interacted with various panel members, translated for the audience, and generally kept all ← xxi | xxii engaged in the unfolding dialog. We were undeniably in the presence of greatness!

During the symposium, a host of questions arose among us North Americans, such as “What kind of an educational system could exist in a country as small as Hungary to produce such a musical, scholarly and creative individual?” and “Are there more like her?” We simply encountered in her a depth of thinking about musical teaching and learning that could not be ignored. Since then, many of those symposium attendees studied under or sought guidance from her, and in the process, found answers to these questions. And that is why I am writing this book, to share with others the singularly important life and work of Erzsébet Szőnyi, to tell her story lest it be overlooked, or worse, forgotten.

It was also at the symposium that Sister Mary Alice Hein invited me to attend the Holy Names College Kodály summer course in 1974, which I did, and it ultimately led to my completing the Masters program during the 1975–1976 academic year. There, my classmates and I experienced the notoriously rigorous four-pronged learning processes of Hungarian music teacher education: (1) a unique integration of solfège, theory, music history, stylistics, and form and analysis into a single strand of coursework; (2) child developmental sequential pedagogy along with a full year of supervised student teaching; (3) choral conducting, performance and vocal development; and (4) the innovative use of comparative folksong musicology for developing repertoire and curriculum, as pioneered by Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.

In that same academic year, Lois Choksy—our pedagogy teacher and student teaching supervisor at Holy Names—and I designed a research project to investigate instrumental teaching in Hungary. With funding from the Ford Foundation, I eventually traveled to Hungary where Lois introduced me to her own mentor, Erzsébet Szőnyi, and Erzsébet’s husband, Lajos Gémes. They invited us to the premiere of Break in Transmission, the plot of which was a daring double entendre brilliantly constructed to be just slightly out of reach of the Party’s collective intellectual grasp. That research trip marked the beginning of my decades-long friendship with Professor Szőnyi. Since then, I have also learned much about her as a teacher by working alongside many of her former Hungarian students, now great musician-pedagogues in their own right. It gives me great pleasure to introduce readers to many of them through this book.

During our first interview for this book, Erzsébet Szõnyi and I sat in the dining room of her third-floor apartment in the Buda Hills on a warm spring day with the window open. We were looking directly into the treetops and listening to the busy music of the birds establishing or refurbishing nests. How untroubled by borders they seemed in comparison to the last hundred years of Hungarian history! She had just exclaimed, Roots! Without any real Hungarian roots, that's ← xxii | xxiii → all I can say. I have no Hungarian roots! My Hungarian roots are my husband’s. All that I am has nothing to do with Hungarian roots because my mother comes from German and Bulgarian ones, and my father comes from German ones.


XXX, 320
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
influence education composition
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 320 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Jerry L. Jaccard (Author)

Jerry L. Jaccard received his Doctor of Education degree in Instructional Leadership at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, his Master of Music Education degree from Holy Names University, and his Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Arizona. He currently coordinates the Elementary Music Education Program and directs the InterMuse Academy for Pedagogy and Musicianship at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He is a frequent keynote speaker and guest lecturer in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The Organization of American Kodály Educators honored him as their Outstanding Educator in 2004. He is the lead editor of the Bulletin of the International Kodály Society, having previously served two terms as vice-president of that organization. He is co-author of Intersections: Music, Tradition and Education, and he is the translator of Edgar Willems’s Psychological Foundations of Musical Education.


Title: A Tear in the Curtain: The Musical Diplomacy of Erzsébet Szőnyi
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