A Tear in the Curtain: The Musical Diplomacy of Erzsébet Szőnyi
Musician, Composer, Teacher of Teachers
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
- About the Author
- About the Book
- This eBook can be cited
- Table of Contents
- List of Illustrations
- List of Tables
- 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
Figure 41. Gilbert De Greeve and Erzsébet at Duquesne University ← xiii | xiv → ← xiv | xv →
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
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 (ePUB)
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2014 (August)
- influence education composition
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 320 pp., num. ill.