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Organ Recitals in 1990-1 and the Politicisation of the Organ in Hungary

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

The Organ Minders! In this Guest Post, Alan Sutton reveals the joys, woes and hazards encountered as a result of politics playing a role in - of all things - playing the organ in Hungary c 1988-91

Photo: Alan Sutton at the organ of the Presbyterian Church in Odessa, Ukraine.

​​Kester’s article on Ózd (see KesterTester 31, March 20) reminded me of my organ recital there in 1990, and also called to remembrance the curious way in which organists were classified in socialist times. Readers may be surprised to consider how such a staid and traditional activity as playing the organ could be politicised, but this was indeed the situation when I first arrived in Hungary. In fact my first visit to Hungary was not for work, but to take part in the Liszt International Organ Competition in 1988, where, along with all but two of the other contestants from the “capitalist countries” - as they called us - we imperialists all got eliminated in the first round. We were staying in the Liszt Academy Hostel in Gorky Fasor (now Városligeti Fasor), where it was HUF 1 for a coffee and HUF 2 for a coffee with milk. I remember one of the American contestants, who did perform better than some of those who got through, being very angry at being made a stooge, as he considered it, for the heroes of the working classes. Ironically, of the two West German contestants who got through, one went on to win the whole competition and the other one came third. I suppose it was easy when they had eliminated so much of the competition. I did, though, get to know quite a few of that generation of Hungarian organists and renewed acquaintance with them when I returned in 1989 and 1990, this time for work. The political aspect worked this way: there were two kinds of organists, church organists and concert organists. Church organists played in churches. Religion was not banned under communism, but it was not encouraged. One way of not encouraging organists to become church organists was to forbid them from giving concerts or recitals. There may have been loopholes but this was the basic rule. Concert organists on the other hand, could not play church services, and most of the aspirants at the Liszt Music Academy wanted to give concerts. Don’t ask me how they got over the fact that so many organs were located in churches, but this was the case. Another peculiarity of the time was the secularisation of titles. So if someone, for example, performed a chorale prelude with a title such as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, it had to be changed to a secular title on the programme, or failing that just “Bach, Chorale Prelude”. I heard of one recital where the programme included a whole string of items all labelled “Bach, Chorale Prelude” with no indication as to which one. The pantomime villain of this arrangement was Gábor Lehotka, the Head of Music at the Academy, and Party Secretary, a technically good if not very inspiring performer, who was on the Jury that voted us all out in 1988. Amusingly after the system change of 1990, this gentleman went through a series of conversions being I believe at various times a Buddhist, a Baptist and who knows what else. He did though find time to design the new organ at the Dohány utca Synagogue, and I was present at its inaugural recital which was given by him, and memorable for a nice improvisation on Handel’s “See the conquering hero comes” from Judas Maccabeus. On the side of the church would be Ferenc Gergély, organist of the Ferenciek Templom from 1931 till his death in 1998. Feri bácsiwas the Hungarian organ world’s link to the pre-socialist times, having been a pupil of Messiaen, and he was the teacher of practically all of the next two generations of Hungarian organists, including Lehotka and many of my acquaintances. He was also a quite superb improvisor and someone I am very proud to have known. The survival of the Kántor tradition in Hungarian churches also owes much to him, as when the Kántor training facility at the Liszt Academy was closed down in 1950, he developed parallel courses. In 1990, I was working in Alagút utca and was able to get practice time at the Tabáni Templom, which was just down the road. As a church organist who gave the occasional concert, I was thus something of a novelty, and the then organist there arranged a series of concerts for me, all unpaid, but which were all well attended. The first was in Budapest at the Egyetemi Templom, and did not go well. I performed the Elgar Sonata, which has a lot changes of registration in it. Before the concert, while practising I was interrupted by one of the priests. It was quite amusing. He came into the loft, genuflected towards the altar in a holy manner, crossed himself a few times in an even more holy manner, and then proceeded to berate and shout at me. I didn’t speak much Hungarian then but was able to gather that I had been making too much noise. Now, most of the public seem to think that organs play themselves. This is not true. As every organ is different, it is necessary beforehand to go through the pieces, and mark in the stop changes. I put these in the score with yellow post-it papers. Registering the Elgar takes between one and two hours, especially if it means removing all the post-its from the previous performance. Maybe I should not have picked that piece, but the organ at that church is one of the better ones in Hungary (and there are not that many) and I thought it was worth a go. In any event, when I came back for the concert there was a cipher. A cipher is when there is a fault in the mechanism - which here was electric - which results in one note sounding continuously. It ruined the recital, and I still won’t believe 30 years later that it was not one of the priests who did it. The vidéki ones were more successful. There was one at Hatvan. I played the Mendelssohn 4thsonata. The church was packed, they liked it and I played at least two encores. Then there was Ózd, where the Tabáni organist took me in his clapped out Polski Fiat to the Lutheran Church, close to the steelworks. It was a small church but also packed out. I think it was a small organ and I just played Bach and some simple pieces. We then went to some wonderfully named culture centre to toast the heroes of the working class.

The best was Abasár, near Gyöngyös, to the east of Budapest. I have forgotten the concert entirely, but not the dinner. We decamped to a monastery, which looked just like a normal house. The dinner was various roast game, deer, wild boar and so on. I asked them where they got the deer. “Brother John shot it”, said someone, pointing to a jovial young man in a monk’s habit, with a round red face, sitting in a chair, laughing at something. A bit later I asked about the boar, to get the same answer “Brother John shot that too”. All washed down with many glasses of Abasár riesling. I had one other concert at this time, not organised by Tabáni, but by one of my colleagues who worshipped at the Lutheran Church on the Budavar. The organist at this church was György Peskó, whose father Zoltán had also been an organist. György was notable for having lost three fingers while a child when he was fooling around on a bomb site and picked up a grenade which exploded in his hand. I remember him being particularly cantankerous before I played. It was not a concert (concerts were not allowed) so it was within the framework of a service, which was in German, not Hungarian. This meant a chorale before I played, another one after, and I should allow a break in the middle for a sermon. Peskó insisted that he would play the chorales. I agreed with the pastor where to break for the sermon. The break was before the main piece which was Liszt's “Weinen, Klagen” (it helps to play Liszt in Hungary, it keeps the audiences happy). Now Liszt wrote this piece after the death of his son. It has five musically descriptive sections, one for each of the words, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (weeping, wailing, worrying, fearing) and then after a tremendous build up, a dying away and a statement of a chorale “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” – Whatever God does, is well done, before a triumphant close where I imagine Liszt’s son being carried into heaven by the angels. In the first part, I matched this with a Partita by Pachelbel on the same chorale, so very nicely, the pastor preached his sermon on the same subject. I think the concert went well as by the end, Peskó had cheered up and he presented me with a record of various organists playing at the Fasor Church in honour of his father. A change of job in 1992 took me out of central Budapest to Rákospalota, and I did not give any more recitals in Hungary till 1995, by which time I had swapped the Tabán for the Domonkos Templom in Thököly Utca, and the two types of organist concept had ceased to exist. It may now be just a bad memory and even a source of amusement, but at the time a real nuisance for the people it affected and part of life under Hungarian socialism.

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