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Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay - Playing to God


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Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay - Playing to God

  1. 1. P L A Y I N G T O G O D M y F a t h e r a n d t h e S p i r i t u a l i t y o f M u s i c a n d A d d i c t i o n Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay A Senior Thesis Submitted to The Department of Religion, Princeton University In partial fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts Professor Albert J. Raboteau April 12, 2010
  2. 2. i This composition represents my own work in accordance with University Regulations. I authorize Princeton University to lend this thesis to other institutions or individuals for the purpose of scholarly research. I further authorize Princeton University to reproduce this thesis by photocopying or by other means, in total or in part, at the request of other institutions or individuals for the purpose of scholarly research. ------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------
  3. 3. ii For M.E.
  4. 4. iii The First Poem Within that exploding and gaseous cavern from which all life pours itself out in beauty or in terror from that place stares my loved one out. Innocent in this terrifying current, yet not drowning, (not comprehending the breakneck forces, the impending threat of being extinguished) But sending out his own melodious sprout from a beaming soul. Robin Kissinger October 1979
  5. 5. iv Table of Contents Acknowledgements v List of Photographs vi Prelude: Playing to God 1-16 First Movement: Death Brings in God 17-26 Second Movement: The Savior of the Family 27-49 Third Movement: The Concert Hall and the Casino 50-73 Coda: A Homily 74-76 Bibliography of Works Cited and Consulted 77-81 Bibliography of Interviews and Ephemera 82
  6. 6. v Acknowledgements This thesis is a map of my father’s spiritual journey. I am reflecting on music and gambling and their place in my father’s life—the spiritual freeways he traversed, the roadblocks he encountered, and the people he met along the way. I have been blessed not only with the facts that provide directions, but also with the memories that form the landscape. For such gifts, I am grateful to my father’s inability to throw anything away and to the Peabody Conservatory and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Archives for following suit, and I am indebted to all those who agreed to a conversation (or many) and shared their memories with me. Without their willingness to lead me on this journey, I never would have made it to the end. My Religion Department advisor, Albert Raboteau, has been an invaluable resource and guide. I’d like to thank him for encouraging me to explore the holy wherever it can be found. John McPhee also has never been without advice when I’ve asked for it, for two years and counting, and I feel honored to call him a friend and mentor. My friends have given me inestimable support and encouragement, especially my pseudo-editor Benjamin Knudsen, my best friend Anna Heffron, and my beautiful mother. They deserve inestimable thanks. Finally, here’s to spirit, and to this gift of life.
  7. 7. vi List of Photographs Mihaly Virizlay Cover Baltimore, circa 2000 Janos Starker and Mihaly Virizlay 32 Bloomington, IN, circa 1997 Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay, Robin Kissinger, 36 Mihaly Virizlay, Vilma Virizlay, and Ilona Virizlay Hungary, circa 1994 Mihaly Virizlay 38 Hungary, circa 1950 Sarolta Kodály, Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay, and 40 Mihaly Virizlay Hungary, circa 1994 Agi Rado and Mihaly Virizlay 45 Hungary, circa 1955 Domenico Montagnana Cello 53 Tricia Shallin and Mihaly Virizlay 56 Hungary, circa 1970 Mihaly Virizlay and Paula Childress 57 Baltimore, circa 1975 Robin Kissinger and Mihaly Virizlay 59 Baltimore, circa 1990 David Virizlay, Stefan Virizlay, Mihaly Virizlay, and 61 Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay Baltimore, 1988 Ed Patey, Mihaly Virizlay, and Larry Temple 63 Baltimore, circa 2002 Mihaly Virizlay, Robin Kissinger, and 67 Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay Baltimore, circa 1990 Vilma Virizlay, Mihaly Virizlay, and 70 Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay Hungary, circa 1994 Mihaly Virizlay and Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay 73 Baltimore, 1988
  8. 8. Playing to God
  9. 9. 1 Prelude: Playing to God The foundation of my life is three things— my children, love of fellow human beings…and music. Mihaly Virizlay, 20001 My father’s relationship with the cello lasted seventy years. It was the longest relationship he had—longer than those with his wives, his children, his friends, or his bad habits. Aside from the basic necessities of eating, sleeping, and breathing, music was his most faithfully practiced activity. The place music held in his worldview becomes clear in interviews he gave The Baltimore Sun during his forty-year tenure as principal cellist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO). In 2002 he said, “Being in an orchestra is like being in a church and being a part of a Mass […] to be in the middle of it is an unbelievable experience.”2 Though he was raised Catholic, my father spent more time in rehearsals and performances for the Dallas, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore Symphonies than he could have possibly spent in a church. And if the symphony was his church, then the masters of composition were his saints. In 2002 this is how he described his favorite composers: “The Bible was written by Bach […] the foundation for classical culture was laid by Haydn. Mozart opened the door to heaven. Beethoven opened the door to everybody on this big planet of ours. And Schubert was sitting on God's lap when he composed.”3 Music was so pervasive in my father’s life that he used it to describe the ineffable connectedness of people to each other, to the past, and to God. A former colleague said the 1 Mihaly Virizlay, quoted in Tim Smith, “Playing a Different Tune,” Baltimore Sun, September 10, 2000, 8E, 2 Mihaly Virizlay, quoted in Tim Smith, “BSO Honors Cellist for His Endless Enthusiasm,” Baltimore Sun, June 6, 2002, 1F, 3 Mihaly Virizlay, quoted in Tim Smith, “Playing a Different Tune,” 8E.
  10. 10. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 2 cello was “the love of his life.”4 It was also his medium for expressing love. “He had a very loving heart, and you could hear that in his sound,” said his third wife and fellow BSO cellist, Paula Childress.5 “His second voice was the cello,” she added.6 In the same article, my mother, pianist Robin Kissinger, said, “He always had a sound like no one else's. It spoke straight to your heart.”7 For my father, love and music were so related that he married four musicians. There is general agreement among scholars of music and scholars of religion on the inherent connection between the two—from religious ceremonies replete with or requiring music to the effects that music has on man—but to ask for proof would be a tall order. Consider that faith and music are two of the most difficult things to put into words. Perhaps the inadequacy of words to express how one feels God or hears music is why so few have attempted to relate the two concretely; however, the rhetoric used to describe music and spirituality is almost identical, and this thesis will argue that the two were almost identical for my father. In their stoutly secular book called The Music Effect, Dorita S. Berger and Daniel J. Schneck discuss the nature of music and its effect and hold on man. Their analysis uses physiological, psychological, intellectual, and emotional reactions to describe what they call “the music effect,” defined like this: The music effect is about music’s ability to truncate the fear spiral, and to evoke emotional and intellectual connections both with oneself, and with the creator and any listeners or other participants. Why? Because music has a profound effect on 4 Calman J. Zamoiski Jr., quoted in Frederick N. Rasmussen, “Mihaly ‘Misi’ Virizlay,” Baltimore Sun, October 16, 2008 22A, 5 Paula Childress, quoted in Frederick N. Rasmussen, “Mihaly ‘Misi’ Virizlay.” 6 Ibid. 7 Robin Kissinger, quoted in Frederick N. Rasmussen, “Mihaly ‘Misi’ Virizlay.”
  11. 11. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 3 human behavior; because it can resonate with basic physiological function to ‘transport me into another state,’ in the words of Leo Tolstoy.8 Berger and Schneck’s definition of the music effect echoes the language used by those who have found religious faith or spiritual guidance. Many look to religion to overcome fear, which, for Berger and Schneck, is a programmed response to perceived threats in our world. Their analysis refrains from drawing connections to religious conceptualizations of fear, which identify the sensation—as it stems from experiences of suffering, distrust, injustice, or doubt—as having the paradoxical potential to test faith, to renew or destroy it. As religion requires a positive reinforcement of faith to overcome fear, Berger and Schneck require the positive reinforcement of music to reprogram what they call the “fear spiral.” They claim that music’s physiological effects are able to bypass cognitively programmed responses and that the sustained influence of music can change these responses in the long-term, just as some say sustained faith can overcome doubt. In addition, Berger and Schneck’s quoting Tolstoy indicates at least an understanding that music is similar to religion in that it can “transport me into another state.” Berger and Schneck also describe the music effect as bringing those affected into connection with themselves and others, including the creator. Their use of the word creator, in following with the rest of the book, is secular. It relates to the musician, composer, and instrument. I suggest, however, that the word itself hints at another meaning, that of the Creator. Though Berger and Schneck do not draw this spiritual parallel, I do not think they would reject it. They clarify that, “Music is the receptacle into which one’s feelings are placed 8 Dorita S. Berger and Daniel J. Schneck, The Music Effect: Music Physiology and Clinical Applications (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006), 249.
  12. 12. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 4 in order that one may reveal one’s self to one’s self, as well as to others,”9 a description that echoes other writers’ conceptions of the role of spirituality for man. Compare, for example, Berger and Schneck’s description of music to the following definition of spirituality: “It is concerned with our ability, through our attitudes and actions, to relate to others, to ourselves, and to God, as we understand Him.”10 This definition could be a paraphrase of Berger and Schneck’s description of music, though it comes from Jerry Dollard’s pamphlet Toward Spirituality: The Inner Journey, published by Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center. In addition, for Dollard the first step towards reaching a positive spirituality is to move from fear to trust.11 With these two sources, we begin to see the relation of music to spirituality. As I use the words “spirituality” and “faith,” I am making a distinction between being spiritual and being a practitioner of a particular faith. The above definitions of music and of spirituality are broad, concerned not with practice but with desired effect. What I mean to say, therefore, when I say that my father was spiritual is that he felt a longing for meaning and for communion—communion with himself, with others, and with his conception of God. It is important to note that my father’s spirituality was not rooted in aspirations to reach a heavenly realm or to experience divine transcendence. His was a remarkably human spirituality that emphasized connectedness and that saw music as the means for connection. In a footnote in his book Thresholds: Rethinking Spirituality Through Music, Marcel Cobussen explores music’s connective potentials: Certain modes of interacting among musicians might perhaps be considered traces of the spiritual as well. I am thinking here about musical, interactive and (thus) social connections based on risk, vulnerability, and trust during the course of performances 9 Ibid., 248. 10 Jerry Dollard, Toward Spirituality: The Inner Journey, Pamphlet (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1983), 7. 11 Ibid.
  13. 13. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 5 that exceed the conscious technical input of the individual musicians separately […] In that sense, we should also take into consideration the notion that spirituality is not about the interior but about the exterior, about departure and, therefore, about a fundamental instability of personal identity. Spirituality occurs or happens in and through connections to the world, to other people, to [through] music.12 Cobussen emphasizes connection as the occasion for spirituality. The sentence preceding this footnote discusses more explicitly the connective potentials of music as they are related to spirituality. He writes, “Spirituality refers to a relating, a certain relation between a subject (a listener, a musician) and an object (music), a relation which is at the same time possible and impossible, necessary and contingent, enforced and unverifiable.”13 According to Cobussen, spirituality constitutes, creates, and implies not only longing but also fulfillment, and it has as its foundation a desire for connection. Spirituality, like music (or as music, as Cobussen would say), can therefore be secular as well as religious. I believe, however, that both music and spirituality provide an opportunity to transcend, in that they can lead man to a deeper understanding of himself, of his relationship to others, or of his relationship to creation. Therefore, for the purposes of this thesis, the connection sought through spirituality can be with oneself, with others, or with God. These relationships are similar in nature; they imply a mutual connection that is missing from associations not based on reciprocity. And though these connections are intangible, they are also indispensible. Music’s ability to form these connections is rooted in the nature of music itself. In his book, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, musicologist Joscelyn Godwin notes, “It is not necessary to be so philosophical in order to recognize the existence of an unheard music all around us, 12 Marcel Cobussen, Thresholds: Rethinking Spirituality Through Music (Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2008), 143-144. 13 Ibid., 143.
  14. 14. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 6 even permeating our own bodies. All matter is perpetually in a state of vibration.”14 Berger and Schneck take this idea and explore the physics of music and the physiology of men, and how the two interact. They claim that “music resonates symbiotically with instinctive physiological attributes,” meaning that it can bypass cognitive functions, which is the reason they find music so effective a tool for reprogramming learned responses.15 They link music’s physiological effects with emotional rather than cognitive responses, an argument that supports their theory that music can be used to treat mental illness, but there are bigger implications. If the emotional effects of music are a direct result of vibrational energies interacting with man’s physiology, then all men are physically predisposed to respond emotionally to music. Berger and Schneck write, “In fulfilling the need to emote, to expel, convey, and share emotional energies with others everywhere, a universal language was necessary, one that everyone could understand and to which one could instinctively relate. Music is that language…Music is all about just being—human.”16 Music’s universal ability to elicit emotional responses in men invests it with the potential power to develop connections. Similarly, I would argue that faith provides an outlet to fulfill universal needs “to emote, expel, convey and share emotional energies with others everywhere,” and that it too is “all about just being—human.” Since neither music nor faith is cognitive, they are each their own “universal,” emotive language; they can bypass bias and transcend language barriers. In addition, the language of music and the language of spirituality, though they may be recorded, are in essence ineffable. They are felt, not thought. 14 Joscelyn Godwin, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: The Spiritual Dimension of Music from Antiquity to the Avant- Garde (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 14. 15 Dorita S. Berger and Daniel J. Schneck, The Music Effect, 115. 16 Ibid., 248.
  15. 15. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 7 Many people affirm that my father was not religious, and he wasn’t in the sense of practicing within the institutional structure of his Catholic heritage. I argue, however, that my father was profoundly spiritual, that music was his spirituality, his access to others, and his means for overcoming fear. “He used the cello,” Paula said.17 “It was his way of getting along in life, getting through the good and the bad.”18 My father’s passion was made manifest in his devotion to practicing, studying, performing, teaching, and bearing witness to music. But there is another side to my father’s relationship with spirituality. From the sixties through the early nineties, my father split his time between the concert hall and the casino. Especially after the opening of Atlantic City in 1978 and the introduction of the Lottery to Maryland that same year, my father’s gambling affected the trinity of things he found sacred in devastating ways. His marriages dissolved, his children’s time was split between him and their mothers, and he sold at least one cello to pay off debts. Much of the literature on addiction claims that behavioral and substance dependencies indicate misguided spirituality. The most famous example of this ideology comes from Alcoholics Anonymous. Carl Jung, in correspondence with AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson, wrote that a “craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in mediaeval language: the union with God.”19 Jung’s letter has been incorporated into the mythology of AA, and his theory has been more broadly applied to other rehabilitative groups, including Gamblers Anonymous. GA’s website cites “certain spiritual principles which had been utilized by thousands of people who were recovering from other compulsive addictions” as having led to the recovery of its founding 17 Paula Childress, in conversation with the author, August 9, 2009. 18 Ibid. 19 Carl Jung, letter to Bill Wilson, January 30, 1961, in Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1984), 383-385.
  16. 16. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 8 members.20 Their emphasis is on relatively secular traits (“kindness, generosity, honesty, and humility”), but their mission includes reaching out to other gamblers—it is impossible to ignore the religious parallels.21 Jung ended his letter to Wilson by drawing a semantic connection between spirituality and its opposite. He writes, “You see, Alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”22 Jung’s understanding of spiritus alludes to an idea of spirituality that Godwin expounds—that spirit in all its permutations “can mean anything from the Third Person of the Trinity to the volatile fumes that emanate from brandy.”23 Godwin continues: In particular, they have been used in two distinct ways by writers belonging to the Western esoteric tradition. Recently, under the influence of Theosophy, Spirit tends to mean the most divine part of Man, equivalent to the Greek Nous or Higher Intellect, hence superior to its companions Soul and Body. The other meaning, which prevails in earlier texts, is of something far lower on the scale of being that is neither body nor soul but in some way unites them.24 Godwin uses this latter definition of spiritus in his book, and Jung’s formula spiritus contra spiritum also implies this usage, for those who seek the “highest religious experience” or “the most depraving poison” in essence seek the same thing. That both could be related to the spirit implies not that man’s spirit is a perfect entity at the mercy of man’s imperfection, but that it is a nebulous entity capable of joining man both with depravity and with enlightenment. 20 Gamblers Anonymous, “History,” 21 Ibid. 22 Carl Jung to Bill Wilson, in Pass It On, 383-385. 23 Joscelyn Godwin, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, 25. 24 Ibid.
  17. 17. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 9 Spiritually based rehabilitation groups all emphasize the presence of an absence, a longing of which compulsive behavior is a symptom. Inherent in this theory is not an absence of faith but a need for it, one that gets fulfilled by other, destructive forces. Man’s spirit can therefore connect the base to the high or the high to the base. It flows in both directions; it is connective and full of potential. Spirituality can lead man to unity or fragmentation, to heaven or hell, to music or gambling. When I use the word spirit or spirituality, I wish it to evoke that indefinable thread between here and there. My father’s spirit led him to both ends of this spectrum. Thus, whether he was playing a concert or playing craps, I believe my father was playing to God. As I said, my father, though raised Catholic, was not observant. His rehearsal and performance schedule necessarily superseded his regular attendance at Church, but there may have been other, more theological reasons for his religious disassociation. My mother said that he felt alienated from the Church because of his four divorces, a practice not condoned by the Catholic faith. According to a colleague, he also felt residual guilt over the injustice done to Jews during World War II, especially after meeting and marrying his first wife, a Jewish-Hungarian pianist whose entire family was killed in concentration camps. My mother agreed that these two things—not his schedule—led my father to reject the practices of organized Catholicism, out of guilt and doubt. Loss of faith in organized religion is one point at which a person can, in an attempt to compensate for that loss, become susceptible to addictive behavior. One article on addiction and spirituality cites Percy M. Sessions, who “explains this apparent contradiction by proposing that the alcoholic often rebels or resorts to agnosticism ‘as a reaction to’ or ‘in flight from’ certain aspects of what Sessions calls ‘superego’ or guilt-centered religion.”25 Such 25 Howard P. Brown, Orville Cunnin and John H. Peterson, “Rationale and Theoretical Basis for a Behavioral/Cognitive Approach to Spirituality.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 5, 1/2 (1988): 52.
  18. 18. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 10 rejection or rebellion also presents a barrier to being open to an “act of grace,” one of Jung’s solutions to addiction.26 The other solutions he saw were “through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism.”27 My father never received an act of grace that I know of. His cure then, according to Jung, should have come from communion with friends or an education “beyond the confines of mere rationalism.” Jung placed special emphasis on relationships with others, should an act of grace not be forthcoming. He wrote to Wilson, “I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community.”28 Here, Jung underscores the tendency for man to fall into fear or doubt, and such a fall’s potential to lead the doubter to addictive behavior. To demonstrate the spiritual implications, one could call such behavior sin. As psychiatrist Gerald G. May writes in his book Addiction and Grace, “Theologically, sin is what turns us away from love—away from love for ourselves, away from love for one another, and away from love for God.”29 The addict’s physical and mental consumption by the object of his addiction certainly turns him away from these interpersonal connections. As my father rejected organized religion, whether consciously or not, his second chance at filling the spiritual void—according to Jung—depended on his friends. A 1987 article for The Baltimore Sun says, “Affection is central in Virizlay’s life. He has a need to shower it on his family, friends and audiences. He has just as great a need to receive it.”30 26 Carl Jung to Bill Wilson, in Pass It On, 383-385 27 Ibid. 28 Ibid. 29 Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 2. 30 Stephen Wigler, “Mihaly Virizlay: Cellist’s Strings Tied to Hungary,” Baltimore Sun (morning edition), February 8, 1987, sec. E.
  19. 19. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 11 This need for physical reciprocity was key to understanding my father, because I think he often confused displays of love with love itself. He played music as a demonstration of his love, and he expected equal amounts of love to be delivered in return—whether through the cheers of an audience, the accompaniment of a wife, or the embrace of a child. But these displays are not love; they are acts of love. Acts of love are tangible entities that can be exchanged, whereas love is a mutual connection that is ineffable. I would say that, as he was addicted to gambling, my father was also addicted to acts of love—both to giving them and to receiving them. In order to distinguish between love and its tangible manifestation, I will call these acts affection. For my father, even something as simple as a meal became a medium for expressing and receiving affection. In a profile for The Baltimore Sun’s food section, my father explained, “I love to make the food and I love to see the success when people love it.”31 Food was love for my father, and its enjoyment love—but in reality both his act of preparing food and his guests’ reactions (which my father used to tally the level of his “success”) became displays of affection first given then returned. Confusing these displays for the ineffable sensations they represent can propel man from one end of the spiritual spectrum to another without his realizing it. My father longed for the connection of love, but became consumed with desire for its tradable manifestation. My father viewed his every act as affection. One could replace the word “food” in the above sentence with almost anything else my father cherished—from music, to success, to love itself. My father’s acts of making music, making money, and making love then became party to his desire for reciprocated acts of love. With so much affection being given, it is inevitable that he was sometimes disappointed with the amount he got in return. My mother 31 Mihaly Virizlay, quoted in Scott Duncan, “A Chef of Note,” Baltimore Sun (evening edition), October 30, 1985, sec. C1.
  20. 20. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 12 said he was “always demanding, ‘Show me your love, show me your love, show me your love,’ and some people get tired of that.”32 In certain Buddhist traditions, there is a word for a being with the kind of insatiability that my father had for affection. Pretas, or “hungry ghosts,” are depicted with swollen stomachs and narrow necks that prevent them from swallowing.33 They inhabit the preta realm, a type of purgatory for previously greedy or jealous people, where they are reborn with insatiable urges for often disgusting things.34 Of course I am not calling my father’s hunger for affection disgusting, but I wonder whether his understanding of love was a blessing or a curse—whether it confused the kind of mutual love that could be called divine with a material love made up of checks and balances. I know he had access to both. Here it is necessary for me to clarify what I mean by the words “divine” and “material,” as I will use them to describe my father’s spirituality. Divine spirituality is that which travels upwards, towards peace, unity, love, and beauty. Music, as I will define it in the First Movement, is the ultimate medium for and representation of this divine spirituality. On the other hand, addiction, as Jung defines it, is the symptom of a confused spirituality to which all those with a spiritual longing are susceptible. To describe this misguided spirituality, I will use the word “material.” The choice is calculated. My father’s gambling devoured his spirit, leading him to seek divine spirituality through material means. The capricious nature of gambling disrupts concepts of order and harmony, and the quest for money remains a material, not a divine, impulse. In a similar way I have distinguished between affection and love—the former is a material entity, the latter divine. 32 Robin Kissinger, in conversation with the author, September 1, 2009. 33 Hungry ghost sketches (images), Hungry Ghosts, _ghosts/pages/images.html. 34 Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. “hell,” available from Princeton University Library, http://libguides
  21. 21. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 13 My father’s friends perpetually came to his aid. Former wives balanced his checkbook and managed his accounts. Financial consultants offered their services for free. Fellow symphony members, old friends, and even a nurse he met in the hospital during a heart- bypass surgery gave him rides, took him to lunch, and indulged his most needy tendencies. What bound my father and these people with such strength? As his child, I am forever bound to him, as are my two brothers. For the others, was it music? His former wives, colleagues, and admirers would say so. But for his nonmusical friends—was it love? If it was, was it his love for them, or their love for him? Or was there something about his enthusiasm for showering love on everything and everyone that was contagious? Did they feel as if they owed him something? My father was rarely alone, though much of his family has said he was lonely. When I asked her about it, my mother said pointedly, “Gamblers are very lonely.”35 Though my father would have interpreted his friends’ acts as affectionate, they would by all clinical accounts be considered enabling. My father’s friends kept his head above water. Most of the conflicts between my father’s genuinely good intentions and his destructive actions stemmed, I think, from avoidance of the real problem he faced: spiritual longing. His friends never stopped supporting him, so he never fully had to confront the spiritual implications of his loneliness, and he never had to seek one of Jung’s true cures for addiction. The last of Jung’s theories for reforming addicts is an education that overcomes rationality, a spiritual education. Though a master of language, my father’s formal education was exclusively musical. Plato understood the potential of musical education to inspire grace. In Book III of his Republic, he writes, “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly 35 Robin Kissinger, in conversation, Sept. 1, 2009.
  22. 22. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 14 educated graceful.”36 As I will discuss in the Second Movement, my father’s education in Hungary coincided with a time during which similar ideas of music’s spiritual potential were being incorporated into the Hungarian musical curriculum. As it developed, my father’s music—whether he heard, played, or composed it—certainly allowed him moments of grace. Those who were touched by his musicianship are a testament to this fact; however, since music was my father’s profession and therefore tied to his material security, it is easy to see how his conception of music could lead him to a misguided spirituality centered on material success. In the last years of his life, my father was silent. A massive stroke in the left hemisphere of his brain paralyzed his right side and left his tongue mute. It was his second stroke, one from which he would not recover. My father never took care of his health, so I cannot attribute his stroke purely to psychological responses. But increasing numbers of studies on psychosomatic illness demonstrate a link between psychological duress and physical illness. Berger and Schneck cite prolonged stress, and I would include spiritual stress, as a cause for strokes and other potentially fatal afflictions. They write, “It’s the stress, manifesting itself in all of these consequences, that kills.”37 In his last three years, before complications from a third stroke ended his life, my father was unable to practice music. Listening to it caused him great suffering, so we stopped playing it. Less than three months before he passed, my mother sent him a letter, which she asked my brother to read to him. The following passage comes from that insightful and tender letter: I also hope that you are able to use this time of great aloneness to go within and recognize the gifts of your spiritual self. This is work that can only be done alone. 36 Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Millis, MA: Agora, 2001), The Internet Classics Archive, Daniel C. Stevenson, 37 Dorita S. Berger and Daniel J. Schneck, The Music Effect, 102.
  23. 23. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 15 Your life has always been so full, with so many distractions. Maybe this quiet time is God’s gift to you for reconciling your life and your choices and finding the peace and joy that are more durable (infinite even) than accolades, society and even music— since all that music flows from the inner cosmos.38 My mother’s words are profound, and they highlight the longing that, I believe, deeply influenced my father’s life. I can’t know if my father heeded her advice. My brother doesn’t remember his reaction to the letter, though he guesses it probably “just pissed him off.”39 This would have been true of my father before the stroke, when matters of faith and spirituality were inconsequential in comparison to his search for affection and devotion to musical accomplishment. This period of his spiritual journey is the subject of the Third Movement. As absent as my father’s voice was from his last three years, so it is from these pages. With a subject who wrote his thoughts on napkins and brochures more easily thrown out by our housekeeper than cherished, and who can no longer explain his intentions, many of the remarks I make are necessarily interpretative—interpretations of behavior, and, even more subjectively, of memory. To explain my use of and relationship with memory, I turn to novelist Julian Barnes, who grappled with memory’s potential problems in his recent memoir on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. His brother, a philosopher, argues that “‘on the Cartesian principle of the rotten apple, none is to be trusted unless it has some external support.’”40 Barnes then reflects, “I am more trusting, or self-deluding, so shall continue as if all my memories are true.”41 While I’ve tried to check my memories with others’, and those with what evidence there is, I’ve also invested a certain level of trust in these memories, even when they conflict. Impressions are subjective. Relationships are subjective. It is my belief that there 38 Robin Kissinger, letter to Mihaly Virizlay, July 31, 2008. 39 Stefan Virizlay, in conversation with the author, February 28, 2009. 40 Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 7 41 Ibid.
  24. 24. P r e l u d e : P l a y i n g t o G o d 16 is as much value in two conflicting accounts as in one definitive account, though their values are of very different natures. For chronology and detail, definitive accounts are essential, but for illuminating the dynamic between the rememberer and the remembered, conflicting accounts are precious. My father was not a world-renowned cellist, though, of course, I think he should have been. I would therefore like this introduction to serve not only as an outline of the ideas to be explored in this thesis but also as my chance to introduce others to my father, Mihaly “Misi” Virizlay, a man whose story deserves to be told again and again. He was a person who required and demanded attention; he also deserved it, for what his life has taught me is valuable for anyone attempting to find meaning in the world. Over the course of conducting the interviews and research that I will reference in these pages, I have invested an immense amount of time in understanding those three things—love, family, and music—that my father found so sacred. This thesis will hold its place in the long spiritual tradition of filial piety, but it strays from that tradition in that in the end, such loyalty will not be the greatest testament to my father. What will be the greatest testament is that, in the process of writing my thesis, I have come closer to my family, to music, and to my own sense of spirituality. I hope his story will do the same for all those who meet him hereafter. Princeton University February 2010 P.S. My father would like you to remember—in addition to love, children, and music as the three most important things in life—the five Ls: Love, Live, Listen, Learn, Laugh.
  25. 25. 17 First Movement: Death Brings in God My husband and I had the opportunity to attend the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Because Misi was the principal cellist, we had a clear view of his face from our box seats above the stage. It seemed as though Misi was transported as he performed that night, once again his face becoming a canvas of a myriad of human emotions as he played through each phrase of the Requiem. Immediately following the performance, my husband and I were invited to go backstage to see Misi. As we entered the backstage area, we could see him sitting alone on a chair with his cello still perched against his shoulder. We were alarmed as we approached him and found that he was quietly weeping. When we inquired as to the reason for him being upset, he looked up at us and in a voice cracking with emotion, he softly told us what he was feeling. “He never had the chance to finish the Requiem,” Misi said, “And when he died, he was thrown into a common unmarked grave.” Not knowing how to respond, my husband and I placed our hands on his shoulders and stood there with Misi as he continued to cry. It was clear that what he was feeling transcended anything we could truly comprehend, and we were in awe of the depth of emotion that Misi was experiencing as a result of the performance he had just completed. Carol Jean Young, March 201042 My father died what Julian Barnes would call “a modern death, in hospital, without his family, attended in his final minutes by a nurse,” which is how Barnes’s own father died.43 In an interview about the memoir this quote comes from, Barnes, a self-proclaimed agnostic, said, “I covered love and stuff in my earlier books. This one's about death. And death brings in God, and how you spend the period before death brings in art. And then there's how you 42 Carol Jean Young, e-mail message to author, March 23, 2010. 43 Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, 10.
  26. 26. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 18 got here, which is family.”44 Barnes worked in reverse from death, to God, to art, to family— a progression that seems logical to me after thinking for so long about my father, perhaps because, as my father’s last child and the only one not to have reached legal age by the time of his death, my strongest memories of him have been as he approached the end. And, because this has proved to be my spiritual journey as much as a parsing of my father’s—one that has led me from reflections on his last years, through his spiritual struggles and artistic passions, to his family (my family)—that’s where I’m beginning: the end. Because only once I knew what things he had lost did I understand what those things meant to him. My father died alone around breakfast time in room 230 of the Merwick Care Center in Princeton, New Jersey. Room 230 was next to the “Casino Corner,” an ironic though innocuous locale for a bedridden, reformed gambler. My brother Stefan had left his bedside a few hours before—and I had left a few hours before that—to get some sleep. My father had been unconscious for a little less than a day. I was then a junior at Princeton and had just finished acting in a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Two days before my father’s death, Stefan pushed his wheelchair the few blocks from Merwick to the theater for the matinee, but my father didn’t see me perform. He was audibly uncomfortable, and, out of consideration for him and for the audience, my brother sat with him outside in the fall sun for the entire show. Inside was a much darker scene. I was playing Queen Elizabeth, a character whose sons and husband fall victim to Richard’s murderous plot through the course of the play. Luckily, my tears over my father’s absence weren’t so out of place. I spent intermission holding his hand outside in Victorian clothes of mourning—a strange and eerily prophetic 44 Susannah Herbert, “The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2008: Julian Barnes—Not Dead Yet, Just Dying,” Times Online (UK edition), March 16, 2008, tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/ article3533651.ece.
  27. 27. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 19 sight. I couldn’t stop crying, and to put into words why is as difficult to express now as it was then. I missed my father. He had always clapped the loudest and now couldn’t even sit in the theater. He couldn’t lift his right hand to applaud. I didn’t walk back to Merwick with my dad and brother after the curtain call. In fact, I didn’t see my father again until the next evening, when I got a call that he was unconscious, though “still with us.” I didn’t understand the phrase. My father hadn’t been “with us” for almost three years. He hadn’t played the cello, composed, conversed, cooked, or lived at home since the stroke that disabled him in early 2006. His spirit, however, hadn’t left him until that evening. The unconscious body I sat with all night was not the man who had used his functioning hand to flip off a teasing friend, or who had flirted with the nurses when he couldn’t speak by winking his left eye. His unrelenting spirit is what I miss today. I listen to its manifestation in recordings of his performances or compositions. I sense its renewal when I reread letters he sent me at summer camp or the articles written about him. I taste it in my mother’s approximation of Hungarian chicken paprikás and cucumber salad, made with the spirit of improvisation that prevented my father’s recipes from being recorded. (It’s a common saying in my family that my father “cooked the way he lived life: he improvised.”45) But like those non-existent recipes, I feel the need to capture his spirit in these pages before I forget the combination of spices that made up his irresistible—even at its most distasteful— personality. His spirit is why those last three years with my father contain my most cherished memories of him, my most meaningful interactions, and perhaps the reason I pursued a degree in Religion. With no words and little movement available to him, all I could engage with was his spirit. They were often sad engagements, full of shared longing, pain, and desire. In a strange reversal of parent-child dispositions, I longed for a chance for emotional and 45 Paula Childress, in conversation.
  28. 28. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 20 physical reciprocity. I wanted him to say, “I love you”; I wanted a hug. He simply longed for everything he had had before the night of January 18, 2006, the night of his stroke. He’d returned that day from the hospital—a relief after a week of treatment for unexplained internal bleeding. Although he’d used a cane since his first stroke in 2002, I remember clearly his triumphant march up the front stairs of our home in Baltimore, where he’d lived for over four decades. It was a bright, if windy, afternoon. Our dog Fred nipped at his feet, and, gesticulating with the cane as he climbed the stairs, my father shouted, “Oh, it’s good to be alive!” The next day he could not speak. In an email I wrote after my first visit to the hospital following the stroke, I said with certainty that my father recognized me, though he may not have been able to comprehend words. The stroke had occurred in the left hemisphere of his brain, the center for speech and communication. Although it paralyzed much of his right side, I was hopeful. I went on in the email to say, “He understood ‘I love you,’ though, and he waved goodbye when we left […] PT will hopefully reverse some of his paralysis.”46 His body seemed deflated, and his mind disoriented. Though I’m sure he was lying on his back during my first visit, he had the vulnerable look of a lost child in his eyes, and to this day I imagine him in a fetal position—all the more so because, to help the nurses insert an NG tube, I cradled his head in my arms. I ended my email, “The shock of what happened yesterday was magnified all the more by the short-lived relief of his hopeful return home the day before. I hope you will, if not pray, keep him in your thoughts. We are all hoping for the best.”47 Everyone did hope and work for the best. From the beginning we kept music playing, made attempts at verbal or written communication, and encouraged him to move parts of his 46 Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay, e-mail message to Henry Lord, January 20, 2006. 47 Ibid.
  29. 29. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 21 unresponsive right side. In one of the last of these attempts that I remember, I opened a large music manuscript notebook to a blank page, positioned a pen in my father’s non-dominant left hand, and asked him if he could compose something. We had noticed by then, several months after the stroke, that music was becoming more and more difficult for him to bear. When friends and students came to play for him, tears pooled in his right eye that he couldn’t stop from falling. Sometimes when he heard a recording—of Mozart, say—he would shout out loud, a sound that became a visceral, almost animalistic, rejection with no words to tame it. Since he couldn’t play music, and couldn’t tolerate listening to it, the notebook was our final attempt to reconnect my father to his life- long love by giving him the tools to invent it. The scribbles he left on that page—and the force with which he eventually pushed the notebook away—still haunt me. I tried to imagine my life without music—unbearable enough. Then I thought about the effects of such a loss on a musician, whose relationship with music is not passive, but active, participatory, and creative. The musician exists as both a creator of and medium for that ineffable connective power conjured by music. His is a strange role; it is at once powerful and submissive. Marcel Cobussen discusses the role of the musician, particularly the composer, as being “in a double inbetweenness as they are suspended on a putatively existential level situated between heaven and earth while at the same time existing on the level of consciousness somewhere between the initiates and the laypersons.”48 Cobussen places great emphasis on locating music as well as spirituality “inbetween,” as connective tissues whose function is to bond concrete spheres (heaven and earth) without themselves becoming concrete. He is harkening to a long and enduring tradition of music as a gift from and reflection of God. 48 Marcel Cobussen, Thresholds, 44.
  30. 30. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 22 The idea dates back to the origin of the word itself, which derives from the Nine Muses of Ancient Greece, divine beings revered for inspiring the creation of art in general and music in particular. The mother of the Muses is Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory, and their overlord is Apollo, God of Harmony. Joscelyn Godwin explains, “The Memory of which Mnemosyne is patroness is not the everyday memory that recalls things from the past, but the power of recapturing our other modes of being: of remembering whence we came, who we really are, and where we are going.”49 He adds that the artist cannot rely on this Memory alone, but must be able to compose music that others can interpret. The composer thus requires the “blessing” of Apollo, “god of order and beauty, supreme wielder of the bow and lyre,” in order to transcend himself and deliver his message of Memory to an audience.50 Conversely, having the faculty of Apollo without a sense of Memory will lead to technically proficient works, but not to art or music that bridges the gap between this world and others; technical music lacking a divine Memory cannot touch the spirit. Cobussen notes that music itself has a double potential, like spirit. He agrees with Godwin, writing that music “is—or at least was—a strategy running parallel to religion. Primordially, music as well as religion has as its function the creation, legitimation, and maintenance of order. […] Both music and religion honor harmony and are produced to make people believe, to believe in order.”51 Cobussen then cites economist Jacques Attali’s claims in the book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, to point out the power of music to subvert such an order. Cobussen writes, “Music has another facet as well, a dark side, marked by subversion and ambivalence. For Attali, music is always already permeated by noise, that is, internal and external powers that threaten and finally undermine the existing (musical) 49 Joscelyn Godwin, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, 82. 50 Ibid. 51 Marcel Cobussen, Thresholds, 25-26.
  31. 31. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 23 order.”52 Truly, dissonance can be an unsettling sound, and minor keys can be depressing indeed. (As classical musician Benjamin Zander quips about the minor interval between the notes B and C, “The job of the C is to make the B sad…composers know that. If they want sad music, they just play those two notes.”53) Music’s potential to drive human emotion has been developed in stories ranging from religious myths to scientific and cultural folklore. One such story, which beautifully demonstrates music’s emotive powers, concerns Pythagoras, the classical philosopher known for possessing and encouraging awe for numerical order. For Pythagoreans, music is directly and naturally related to the soul, for both “share a basis in number.”54 The belief that music is akin to and able to influence the soul is illustrated by Godwin’s retelling of a simple story of Pythagoras himself: Walking out one night to contemplate the heavens, he came upon a young Sicilian who had been jilted by his woman, and incited by the Phrygian music of a nearby aulos-player, was preparing to set fire to her house. Instead of accosting the crazed youth, Pythagoras approached the musician and asked him to change his tune to a slow and solemn spondaic one. The youth, his emotions already in thrall to the music, responded instantly by calming down, and soon went home.55 The youth in this story reacts strongly to the quality of both pieces, demonstrating the potential for music to access and augment a range of emotions, from distress and rage to peace and solemnity. This story also hints at the immense power inherent in music. The link between music and the soul invests music with a power that can be damaging or rehabilitating, and it implies that the musician has a certain power over his listeners’ souls, 52 Ibid., 26. 53 Benjamin Zander, “Benjamin Zander on Music and Passion,” TED, February 2008, http://www.ted .com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.html. 54 Joscelyn Godwin, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, 29. 55 Ibid., 30.
  32. 32. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 24 that he can drive his listeners’ spirits across the ineffable space between the divine and material planes. As stated above, Cobussen claims that musicians, like priests, exist between heaven and earth. He describes them as having a paradoxical interaction with the connective forces of music in that they act simultaneously as a guide and as a bridge; they are at once powerful and submissive. What’s more, making music itself can be symbolic of the two realms to which music has the potential to connect listeners: the divine and the material. Musicians, according to Cobussen, “introduce us to an inbetweenness of music evoking divine feelings using human means.”56 He explains that the relationship between the human and the divine qualities of music is symbolic of the “inbetweenness”—the unnameable location—of spirituality, which opens the tangible sphere to the divine sphere: The world in which music exists is a spiritual world…But even when we thus assume a close connection between music and spirit, this spiritual dimension needs to be incarnated in order to sound, which means that this incarnation is no accidental supplement, but an inevitable necessity. Not only do we need our ears to hear music, the musician needs his body and/as an instrument to awaken music. Ears, drumming hands, stamping feet, the bow that moves the strings of the cello: these are all part of a bodily world. Music is born in a space that connects a spiritual and an embodied world.57 When my father lost bodily function, he lost his ability to perform the “double inbetweenness” of the musician. And for the musician, this inbetweenness is an expression of spirituality. Though my father’s spirituality was that of a double-edged blade—the kind of spiritus that opened him both to sin and to salvation, dissonance and harmony—I wondered 56 Marcel Cobussen, Thresholds, 44. 57 Ibid., 45.
  33. 33. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 25 what could remain of his spirit, helpful or harmful, after the loss of his access to that opening. In each moan and tear, I sensed he was losing faith, not just in his ability to overcome, but also in his deepest held beliefs. Music had become so enmeshed in his being that it was his means for communicating love. Everything he loved, from food, to women, to children, to astronomy, he had throughout his life described, understood, or related to through music. Now, he was silent, invalided, restricted to a diet of thickened liquids, and mostly alone, unable even to call a friend. His loss was profound, the deepest spiritual challenge I could imagine. He had lost that entity through which he expressed love and explored spirituality, that ineffable bridge that could relate the chaotic world to a divine order. My father’s first teacher and eventual colleague, Janos Starker, has said, “If I don’t hear music or I don’t make music, it has the same effect on me as being starved.”58 He diagnoses how my father must have felt after the stroke: starved. The sensations that music at its best evokes are of peace, order, harmony, and connectivity, those sensations that provide relief and security in the face of doubt, fear, or pain. How could one live without such support in the time of greatest doubt, fear, and pain, with death at its most imminent? In those last years, I spent as much time with my father as possible. His move from a nursing home in Baltimore to Merwick in Princeton occurred so that, as a student here, I could visit him after classes. I watched his detachment grow, but I also felt my attachment strengthen. This attachment manifested itself in music. I sought catharsis outside of the nursing home by replaying recordings of his that I had hoarded, by attending concerts, and by recalling memories of the times I had felt his spirit without realizing it—that is, those moments when whatever angst I was feeling as a spoiled toddler, as a self-important adolescent, or as a detached teenager dissipated, and I loved him absolutely. 58 Peter P Jacobi, “The Starker Story: A Life in America Since 1948,” unpublished pamphlet, i.
  34. 34. F i r s t M o v e m e n t : D e a t h B r i n g s i n G o d 26 Tears often identified these moments. Before the stroke, they would be marked by a sense of resentment for the manipulative powers of his music. In 2003, for example, I attended a performance of his orchestral composition based on the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I sat next to my father in the audience and cried while holding his hand and listening to the magnificent piece, which, as legend has it, he composed on a bet. My tender reaction was at the age of fourteen, when I could barely stand to sit through dinner with my parents. At the end of the concert I wiped my eyes and hardly looked at my father when he thanked me for showing him that I loved him, a sentiment he inferred from my reaction. For weeks I held a grudge against him for making me so vulnerable, but today I consider those moments to be dear indications of his music’s beauty, proof that his music could bridge gaps, heal wounds, and connect souls. My father’s music always served to remind me that I felt connected to him. In fact, I am certain that music will always be able to bring me into connection with my father, even now that he is gone.
  35. 35. 27 Second Movement: The Savior of the Family On a tour of Albania, I performed at a gala concert in Tirana, the capital, which was attended by the premier and a large number of soldiers. During an encore, I glanced up to find several soldiers arguing and gesticulating wildly. To my astonishment, the commotion soon erupted into a full-scale brawl. Shaken, I thought about leaving the stage, but decided to continue playing. When I finished, the soldiers shouted and lunged toward me. I grabbed my cello and somehow managed to out-run them. Only later, when the manager of the theater finally caught up with me, did I learn that the rival garrisons of soldiers were fighting to determine which would carry me out on its shoulders. Since then, I haven’t played a concert that could match “the Albanian Success.” Mihaly Virizlay, undated59 He who does not love others cannot be loved by others; at most they can marvel at him. And woe to those great men who command only wonder and not love! Love is eternal, like God; wonder is transitory, like the world. Sándor Petöfi, July 184760 My father’s music—in training, performance, character, quality, and composition— was inextricably tied to his native Hungary. Hungary has a vast musical tradition, but his connection to his homeland went even deeper. Even after he became a citizen of the United States, my father never forgot his Hungarian roots. A constant reminder of this fact was in his accent and intonation, which rumbled and soared through glottal stops and sung vowels and maintained the Hungarian’s inability to discern between “he” and “she.” He embraced 59 Mihaly Virizlay, undated ephemera. 60 Sándor Petöfi, Rebel or Revolutionary? Sándor Petöfi as Revealed by his Diary, Letters, Notes, Pamphlets and Poems, ed. Béla Köpeczi, trans. Edwin Morgan and G. F. Cushing (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1974), 147.
  36. 36. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 28 America and all she offered; a former student remembered “his pride and joy of being an American and religiously watching and falling asleep during Orioles’ games.”61 But his love of America, at its root, came from the idea that the true American is allowed—required even— to remember his past and to be proud that his country is made of people like him who come together to share their history and create their future. My mother remembers him saying, “When I go back to Hungary, I go home. When I return to the U.S., I come home.”62 From the music he created, to the accent he maintained, to the lace and china gifts he imported, to the food he cooked and the literature he read, my father shared Hungary with America. The above lines from Hungarian poet Sándor Petöfi come from my father’s collection of his writings, which I have inherited. Petöfi lived and wrote during the Hungarian revolution of 1848, and, though his revolution occurred more than a century before my father’s, there is a kinship between my father and his favorite poet—a Hungarian artistic sensibility. Petöfi used his art to express romantic, ideological, political, and national sentiments—his art was inseparable from his beliefs, and he recognized the potential for his art to allow him to connect with others. The Hungarian artists that my father grew up studying and admiring expressed any and all ideas with a level of idealism, romanticism, and fervor I’ve never seen replicated. These artists—from 19th Century Petöfi to my father’s future teacher Zoltán Kodály—shaped my father’s character, not just in how he approached art but also in how he approached life through art. Only by knowing them too can one attempt to understand the origins of my father’s music and character, his life and spirit. A Hungarian musician is never alone. I can’t find a period in my father’s life when he wasn’t associated with another musician imported from Hungary nor a time when reviewers 61 Sam Matthews, “Mihaly Virizlay,” Alumni Association, Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, 62 Robin Kissinger, telephone conversation with the author, April 11, 2010.
  37. 37. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 29 didn’t jump at the chance to mention the “grand Hungarian tradition of the early 20th century,” as demonstrated by his playing and composing.63 The Hungarian tradition is hard to shake, not that anyone would want to. Marked by a combination of romanticism and technical proficiency—the extreme both in feeling and in physical feats—Hungarian music has a certain charm, which is now a part of its history. In addition, Hungarians offer each other a community that is strong, passionate, and, though teased sometimes for its dalliances, ultimately respected—especially when it comes to music. My father was born into this community on November 2, 1931. His father, an electrician by trade but a violinist at heart, began teaching him the violin at age four. Three years later, he took my father to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where he began taking private cello lessons with 14-year-old prodigy Janos Starker. For an instrument that became so important to my father, the cello’s initial appeal for him makes a curious story. At the Academy, he was told there were too many violinists and was asked to switch. As he told a journalist, “I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I got tired of standing all the time.”64 Although ending up with a cello rather than a violin seems like it was an arbitrary choice—a matter of circumstances—the cello surpassed every other instrument in my father’s mind by at least 1987. That year he asked a Baltimore reporter, “‘You know what the cello possesses that the [more powerful] piano and the [more brilliant] violin don’t? That magical middle range that has the power of the human voice.’”65 That fated decision at the start of his musical career gave my father his second voice. Starker doesn’t remember much from when he was a 14-year-old Academy student with a seven-year-old former-violinist under his wing. “I was only busy trying to tell people 63 Stephen Wigler, “Mihaly Virizlay,” sec. E. 64 Mihaly Virizlay, quoted in Jill R. Yesko, “Baltimore Cellist Enjoys Life-Long Love Affair with Music,” Encore, August 17, 1994, 23. 65 Mihaly Virizlay, quoted in Stephen Wigler, “Mihaly Virizlay,” sec. E.
  38. 38. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 30 the right thing to do,” Starker said when I asked him about it at his home in Indiana.66 He did add that he remembered enjoying working with my father because he was, “as we say in the music world, a digitally, aurally, and mentally gifted person.”67 He meant he had the dexterity, the ear, and the mind to be an accomplished cellist. Starker left Hungary after World War II and would later play an integral part in my father’ immigration to America. He told me, “When the war was over and I left Hungary, from then on [your father] started being the shining star of the cellist generation.”68 Although Starker was gone for most of my father’s rise through the Eastern European musical circuit, as the person who introduced my father to the cello and in whose footsteps my father followed more than once, I look to Starker for an understanding of the Hungarian musician’s mentality. Luckily, he’s good with words. Starker’s autobiography, The World of Music According to Starker, is full of parallels to my father’s life—from smoking to gambling to playing to teaching. His writing demonstrates that for him, artistic passion runs deep. His art is the lens through which trials and successes are viewed, through which philosophy is spouted and ideas spread. The following excerpt from The World of Music demonstrates his perspective: In the [concert] halls, wherever I was, a spirit of unity prevailed—the love of music brought together individuals of totally different backgrounds, regardless of their color, religion, and nationality. But outside of the halls, under the guise of religion or nationality, the same people went on killing their fellow human beings, as if God commanded them. […] I cannot belong to any party, nor does a Sunday sermon give me solace or answer these questions. I pray to my God that the day will dawn when not only cures for 66 Janos Starker, in conversation with the author, June 4, 2009. 67 Ibid. 68 Ibid.
  39. 39. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 31 cancer and AIDS will be found, but also a common chord will be sounded to eradicate the exploitative nationalism that serves only the few. […] Then maybe more and more members of society will sit in concert halls around the world and praise the beauty given to them by the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and their contemporary counterparts.”69 Starker’s God—the same as my father’s, I believe—resides in and presides over the peaceful concert hall, wherein beauty and love compose the atmosphere; however, as much as Starker protests “exploitative nationalism,” I believe his own national identity strongly influenced his worldview. As became clear when I met with him, as tenacious as the Hungarian accent is, so is the Hungarian culture. In a short profile about him, a biographer writes, “Cellist Starker emigrated to the United States, a country that took him in and that he then gratefully and wholeheartedly accepted as his home. He would never forget his Hungarian roots; they would be proudly displayed in his habits, his conversation, and his music making.”70 In fact, visiting Starker was the closest I’d felt to having my father back since I’d lost him. With the disparate threads of personal memory, staunch opinion, political commentary, and playfulness that he wove seamlessly into our discussion of music and my father, Starker exemplified a familiar trait. Namely, that it is never one thing or the other with Hungarians; all topics are related. They lead into one another with an apparent lack of rhyme or reason, only to come together in the end to tell a single story, like music. Starker and my father’s musical education came at a time of renaissance in the Hungarian music curriculum, focused on building national character and independence. In 1945, around the time my father would have been entering the Franz Liszt Academy, the 69 Janos Starker, The World of Music According to Starker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 33-34. 70 Peter P. Jacobi, “The Starker Story,” 6.
  40. 40. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 32 Janos Starker with my father Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály wrote an essay titled “Hungarian Music Education.” In it he places special emphasis on the importance of uniquely Hungarian music, not only to create consummate Hungarian musicians, but also to invest Hungarian citizens with a strong sense of national identity, pride, and independence. He writes, “When all is said and done, we must make a choice: shall we continue to be a colony or shall we become an independent country not only politically but culturally, in asserting our own personality, too? If this is what we want we must find the roads that lead to the freest and fullest possible expansion of our
  41. 41. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 33 musical individuality.”71 For Kodály, as for Petöfi a century before, a country’s art and its national identity were reflections of each other. One had to exemplify the other for Hungary to be truly free. With his views on music education, Kodály did not wish to alienate others from Hungarian music or culture; rather, he wanted a dialogue wherein national traits would be shared among a broad and educated global community through music. In the introduction of his biography on Kodály, Percy M. Young summarizes the themes of Kodály’s national and musical mission. He writes, “When one looks at Kodály’s works it becomes apparent that their character can only be understood in relation to the whole life of the Hungarian people and to the progress, hitherto sadly chequered [in 1964], of their musical tradition.”72 Kodály’s reform of music education began by refusing to “teach people the music by ignoring, by throwing aside, what the people know of their own accord,” which is why he laid such emphasis on the Hungarian folk tradition.73 In his 1929 essay, “Children’s Choirs,” Kodály describes the devastating effect that a curriculum of strictly foreign music, music devoid of relatable characteristics, can have on young students: “When it is from this outwardly more cultured but inwardly emptier music that he receives the spiritual nourishment he has been craving for, he loses his faith in better music and remains in this state of musical infantilism for the rest of his life.”74 By allowing musical education to reflect Hungary’s national character, a child’s first exposure to music could touch him deeply, because it would be relatable and full of meaning. 71 Zoltán Kodály, The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály, ed. Ferenc Bónis, trans. Lili Halápy and Fred Macnicol (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1964), 154. 72 Percy M. Young, Zoltán Kodály: A Hungarian Musician (London: Ernest Benn, 1964), xiv. 73 Zoltán Kodály, quoted in Ibid., 91. 74 Zoltán Kodály, Selected Writings, 125.
  42. 42. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 34 Kodály’s emphasis on instilling youth with a love for music stemmed from his idea that good music nourishes spirituality, that it opens the soul. He emphasizes this point in “Children’s Choirs,” when he likens bad music to spiritual disease: Bad taste in art is a veritable sickness of the soul. It seals the soul off from contact with masterpieces and from the life-giving nourishment emanating from them without which the soul wastes away or becomes stunted, and the whole character of the man is branded with a peculiar mark. In grown-ups this sickness is in most cases incurable. Only prevention can help. It should be the task of the school to administer immunization.75 Young summarizes Kodály’s technique: “Bad music, where there could be better music, bad teaching, where there could be good teaching—those were wrongs which he himself could right. And in so doing, for his view is comprehensive, other evils could be overcome. At the end of the road was the vision of a unity in human relationships, of which music could be at once the catalyst and the outward symbol.”76 The goal, therefore, always was to instill a love of music in children that could develop into profound spirituality with age. Young describes Kodály’s views on a national music culture not as exclusionary or radical, but as a demonstration of his profound understanding of human nature—of man’s interconnectivity with and dependence on his fellow man—as it can be accessed through and represented by music. In Kodály’s view, this fundamental human characteristic has the potential to overcome barriers of race, nationality, religion, and politics, but it cannot do so if the individual’s soul has not been opened to the universal qualities of music. That opening is best achieved at first with a familiar music, one rooted in national character, which is why a national music education was tantamount for Kodály. It is such a view that he strove to instill 75 Ibid., 120. 76 Percy M. Young, Zoltán Kodály, 91.
  43. 43. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 35 in the pupils of the Franz Liszt Academy. From this standpoint came his national agenda, his abhorrence for the oppression of culture and national difference, and his vision of a national music culture and education. These political ideals became particularly relevant during my father’s first years as an official student of the Franz Liszt Academy, when Hungary became involved in World War II. The country was first occupied by German troops in the summer of 1944, and as the year turned came the Soviet siege of Budapest, one of the bloodiest events of the war. Although it marked the end of the German occupation of Hungary, it was only the beginning of a Communist rule that would persist until the late eighties, and Hungary’s Soviet liberators were all but freeing. Their defeat of the German forces included the slaughter or expulsion of many pro-German Hungarians as well as Hungarian civilians with Germanic backgrounds. The Soviets’ celebration when the siege finally proved successful sparked fear into the hearts of the remaining citizens, who had never been evacuated. The Soviet troops looted what remained in buildings devastated by one hundred days of intense warfare, and they raped civilian woman indiscriminatingly. As Historian James Mark writes, “During these months, for the majority of the inhabitants of the city, rape was a common occurrence that might be suffered by family, friends, acquaintances or neighbours”;77 my father’s household was no exception to such a threat. My father’s father died in the middle of the war, during an unnecessary medical procedure in a time when medical supplies and technology were lacking. Left without a patriarch were his wife Vilma and her sisters, his daughter Ilona, and my father. About his father my father once wrote, “During my early years, our daily practice sessions together and frequent visits to rehearsals and concerts had an enormous influence on my musical 77 James Mark, “Remembering Rape: Divided Social Memory and the Red Army in Hungary 1944-1945,” Past and Present, no. 188 (Aug. 2005): 133,
  44. 44. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 36 development. His early death when I was twelve left a tremendous void in my life.”78 Not only did his father’s death leave him without the musical guidance he had provided, it also deprived him of the protection that an adult male could lend in a Hungary under siege. At twelve years of age, my father became the sole male figure to protect his sister, mother, and aunts. Visiting my father’s father’s grave. It is one of the stories I’ve been told time and again in different permutations—it has become legend now, in my family. What remained of the Virizlays stayed hidden in their tiny apartment day after day. “They were starving,” my father’s third wife Paula told me. Some accounts say the women hid in boxes, others say there was nothing to hide behind. Either 78 Mihaly Virizlay, undated ephemera.
  45. 45. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 37 way, the Russian conquerors soon arrived at their building. “It was a disaster,” Paula said.79 “They could hear the Russians going from apartment to apartment knocking on the doors, and they’d hear screaming, and they’d hear, you know—they didn’t know if they were going to be raped. There was no man there to defend them.”80 All the retellings agree on what happened next. My father had continued his cello training throughout the war, and in a moment of desperation, foolishness, brilliance, or all three, his mother told him to get his cello. “When they come through that door,” she said, “you start playing your Russian folk songs.”81 He did, and, “According to Misi they stopped, put down their guns, and they listened. And some of them cried, and they offered them some of their rations—whatever they had.”82 Ironically, the lack of a Hungarian music culture had blessed my father with the tools to win over his Soviet oppressors: the music of their homeland. The soldiers stole nothing, and they left the apartment without laying a finger on a single woman. It was a miracle. My mother gives “The Story of the Russian Soldiers” a special emphasis in her account of my father’s development, especially as concerns his relationship to women. Not only was he now the only male in the household, my mother said, “He was a musical prodigy, gifted, so all of the doting of everybody went on him. And then he was the savior of the family. You know, who wouldn’t grow up a little imbalanced?”83 She quickly added, “And truly he could just move people so much with his playing.”84 My father was by then a thirteen-year-old virtuoso, spoiled by the attention of the women in his family and heralded as a shining young star. “He didn’t have to battle anything 79 Paula Childress, in conversation. 80 Ibid. 81 Composite of multiple retellings. 82 Paula Childress, in conversation. 83 Robin Kissinger, in conversation, Sept. 1, 2009. 84 Ibid.
  46. 46. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 38 over there. He didn’t have to prove anything over there. He was just adored for who he was. There was nothing better than that,” said his second wife, Tricia Shallin.85 Opportunities to meet women came hand and hand with my father’s role as a performing musician who played solo concerts and toured across Eastern Europe. He was young, promising, and talented, and he took full advantage of the fact. I have a hunch that the stories he told me were tamed for my benefit. One involved an intimate hayride under the stars. My father told me he blushed to hold the girl’s pinky finger. (In later years he would admit, “Okay, we were necking.”) Still another recounted something lost in translation after a concert in Albania. He was sitting with an Albanian girl by a fire. He didn’t speak Albanian, but somehow I doubt they were talking. Suddenly, the girl’s mother burst in with a huge smile and kissed my father on the cheek; apparently “alone time” in Albania was then equivalent to an engagement. Needless to say, my father got the hell out of Albania. My father as a student in Hungary 85 Tricia Shallin, in conversation with the author, September 13, 2009.
  47. 47. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 39 My father’s charm was not unbreakable, however; once at a fair, he took his date on the Ferris wheel. Stuck at the top, his motion sickness got the best of him, and he ruined her dress. “She never spoke to me again,” I remember him saying dejectedly, even at seventy years old. His musical magnetism still needed time to develop the strength his future wives would describe. My father continued his studies at the Academy during the relative peace of Soviet political control after the war. After Starker’s escape, Adolf Schiffer and then Leo Weiner became my father’s teachers. Of Weiner, Starker writes, “From the 1920s to the ’60s all Hungarian musicians of any future consequence attended his classes,” so my father was in good company, but from the beginning he distinguished himself.86 His first public appearance was a year after he began lessons with Starker, and his professional debut came the same year as he saved his family from the Russian soldiers, “after winning a contest to perform Haydn’s ‘D Major Concerto’ with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.”87 While pursuing his Artist’s Diploma at the Academy, he won the Hungarian International Youth Competition and received a solo contract with state-owned concert management, the Philharmonia. But there was one distinction during the years of Russian occupation that would impact my father’s professional and personal development more than any other. He was asked to play the Kodály “Sonata for Cello and Piano” on Radio Bartók. The very next day, he met the composer for the first time in the halls of the Franz Liszt Academy. According to my father, Kodály’s “first comment was, ‘So, that’s what you look like. It’s rather pleasant to sip wine and hear my music when it’s not badly performed.’ I later learned that ‘not badly’ was one of his superlatives.”88 86 Janos Starker, The World of Music, 15. 87 Mihaly Virizlay, undated ephemera. 88 Ibid.
  48. 48. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 40 My father and I with Mrs. Kodály That meeting began a mentoring relationship that would permanently influence my father’s musicality, nationality, and personality. “We discussed everything from breathing correctly and my diet to painting, folklore, cello and my own compositions,” wrote my father. “During a very difficult period in Hungary, he made certain that I had a beautiful cello and an apartment, and often, before important concerts, he had me sent to the State’s artists’ retreat.” My father cited Kodály as the second most influential person in his life, after his father.89 Starker commented that my father could never “shake the influence of Kodály,” referring to the compositions he would come to write in the United States.90 More than just affecting his compositions, however, I think that Kodály’s views on music and education 89 Ibid. 90 Janos Starker, in conversation.
  49. 49. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 41 instilled in my father some of his deepest held beliefs—that music can be a language through which all of life is understood and communicated, and that it can be used as the form and the means for expressing self, nationality, and, finally, that most universal quality of human nature, love. In fact, both Kodály and Petöfi—at the same time as they allowed their works to express their ideology and culture—wrote numerous love songs and poems. I’m sure these odes had an equally strong influence on my father’s understanding of the purpose of and uses for his own art. In addition to presenting the opportunity for my father to impress, befriend, and become the protégé of Kodály, my father’s relationship with Radio Bartók would have one other significant effect. In the early fifties, he received a letter from the station asking him to play a program with the already well-established solo pianist, Agi Rado. Agi remembers, “All of a sudden I got a letter from the radio and so did he. […] We met, we rehearsed, and six months later we were engaged, for better or for worse.”91 As my father’s first wife and the only Hungarian he married, Agi holds a special place in my father’s story and its complicated narrative of love and music. Unlike my father, Agi was raised Jewish. Her experience during World War II deserves its own story, but it has its place in this one too. Despite Hungary’s late entry in the war and its slow and lenient adoption of anti-Jewish regulations, Agi and her entire family were interned in concentration camps. She was the sole survivor, and this in itself is a miracle. In her short memoirs, she describes the journey back to Hungary: “On the way, entering a deserted German house, I found an old upright piano. I sat down and tried to recall Beethoven’s Sonata OP. 110. It seemed like heaven.”92 When she finally arrived home and 91 Agi Rado, in conversation with the author, November 25, 2007. 92 Agi Rado, “Autobiography of Agi Rado,” unpublished.
  50. 50. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 42 learned of her entire family’s death, the only solace she had were an old family friend whom she calls her “auntie” and her piano. She calls them “the two anchors in my life.”93 Both Agi and Starker have commented that my father felt tremendous guilt over the injustices committed during the war. “There was not one bone in his body which would be discriminatory,” Agi said.94 “He was always very, very touched by my past.”95 Starker’s perspective was even broader, and it linked directly to my father’s sense of musicianship. He said, “You have to project yourself or imagine that the musicians, all the musicians he admired—except for Kodály and Bartók and so on—all the other instrumentalists were Jews. And if there’s something which is difficult to explain to somebody two generations later,” he added, “he was one of those persons who felt guilty of what happened to the Jews.”96 Although their war experiences were very different, Agi and my father had much to bond over, especially when it came to music. “We were so compatible in music,” she told me in a conversation at her apartment in Baltimore, “because I am an emotional person who puts soul in the music, not just notes.”97 For both Agi and my father, music and feeling were inextricable, and certainly this sensibility was a large part of their marriage, but not to the extent that it would be in my father’s future affairs. That is, Agi was already my father’s musical equal. Their styles and sentiments were similar because of their Hungarian musical education. While other women have said my father’s attraction was his music, for Agi his music did not have the same magnetism. “I could make the same kind of music,” she said, “so music didn’t have any magic over me.”98 Instead, Agi was drawn to another aspect of my father’s life: his family. “I was yearning to have a family,” she said.99 “That was almost the 93 Ibid. 94 Agi Rado, in conversation with the author, September 6, 2009. 95 Ibid. 96 Janos Starker, in conversation. 97 Agi Rado, in conversation, Sept. 6, 2009. 98 Ibid. 99 Agi Rado, in conversation, Nov. 25, 2007.
  51. 51. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 43 only reason besides the music. I loved his family, and since I had none of my own except my auntie, I was very glad that I could become part of a very gentle and loving family.”100 Not to mention—though Agi has, time and again—”it was very romantic.”101 But it was not easy. Kodály helped them to find a one-room apartment in Budapest, but it was not ideal. “You would call it an efficiency apartment, but it wasn’t very efficient,” Agi said.102 The living room held Agi’s grand piano, their double bed, a table, and chairs. “The sad thing was that I had to practice where the piano was, and Misi had to find a place to practice for which he was forever sore.”103 This marked the beginning of a competitive relationship that would persist throughout their marriage. Their musical career as a couple, however, thrived. In 1956 Kodály asked my father to record two of his compositions, the “Sonata for Cello and Piano” and the “Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello.” One of my father’s enduring regrets was that, “Unfortunately, after signing the contracts, the October political events put a halt to the recording, and I left Hungary shortly thereafter.”104 According to Agi, in October 1956 she and my father attended a performance of some of Kodály’s Choral Works, of which he wrote many. I don’t know which pieces were performed that night, but some of Kodály’s most recent compositions at the time were, unsurprisingly, in reaction to the oppression first of the Germans, then of the Russians. Two titles from 1944 compositions were “The Son of an Enslaved Country,” and “Still, by a Miracle, Our Country Stands.” As one researcher of Kodály’s life and work writes, ”His chorus ‘Wish for Peace’ (1953) expresses the most universal human desire.”105 100 Agi Rado, in conversation, Sept. 6, 2009. 101 Ibid. 102 Ibid. 103 Ibid. 104 Mihaly Virizlay, undated ephemera. 105 János Breuer, A Guide to Kodály (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1990), 215.
  52. 52. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 44 The choral work composed and premiered closest to the Revolution was called “Hymn of Zrinyi,” based on the political writings of a 17th Century Hungarian nationalist. This mixed-part chorus is instilled with “the wish for freedom and patriotic sentiments.”106 Young calls it “a prophetic work,” alluding to the impending political events.107 But unlike what was to come, Young writes that in “Hymn of Zrini,” “the end is in hope, in a nine-part chord of D major.”108 Whichever of Kodály’s choruses were played, this is how Agi described their reception: “At the end, the audience was screaming. It was a few days later that the Revolution started.”109 My father had received his Artist’s Diploma by 1956, but he always prided himself on having taken part in the student-initiated uprising that awoke Budapest on October 23 of that year. At the time, he was partaking in a revolutionary tradition whose precedent was set a century before by Sándor Petöfi; parallels were drawn even then, with some students organizing into “The Petöfi Club.”110 At the time, however, my father could not have known how different the outcomes of the two revolutions would be. In his retelling of the events of October and November 1956, journalist Reg Gadney quotes the words Hungarian writer Tibor Meray used to describe the unimaginable escalation of violence: “The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began as a student demonstration, like that which had taken place one hundred and eight years earlier; it was followed by an armed uprising against a foreign power possessed of crushing military superiority, and it ended with the execution of its leaders.”111 My father and Agi’s apartment was in the middle of a busy boulevard. When Soviet tanks arrived in Hungary on November fourth to put down the Revolution, they shot at every 106 Ibid. 107 Percy M. Young, Zoltán Kodály, 141. 108 Ibid. 109 Agi Rado, in conversation, Nov. 25, 2007. 110 Reg Gadney, Cry Hungary: Uprising 1956 (New York: Atheneum, 1986), 25. 111 Tibor Meray, quoted in Ibid., 18.
  53. 53. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 45 building their vehicles passed. The window in the apartment Kodály had helped Agi and my father to find became a gaping hole, so the Virizlays took shelter in their neighbor’s basement. “Ours was on one side of the circle and his was on the other. And in the middle, the tanks,” Agi said.112 My father with Agi Rado Agi told me a story about “the shooting time,” as she called it.113 She and my father never had children, but they did keep a small parakeet. “That bird was an important part of the family,” she said, “because it was taught to say, ‘Misi, Agi, practice. Misi, Agi, you are a crazy bird.”114 Agi said that my father left the relative safety of their neighbor’s basement to 112 Agi Rado, in conversation, Nov. 25, 2007. 113 Ibid. 114 Ibid.
  54. 54. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 46 retrieve it, though their apartment was “right on the front line.”115 My father held the cage in his hand, and the bird in his inside pocket. It was the bravest and stupidest thing I’ve heard of him doing during this period, but I admire him for it. The story reminds me that for him, family was worth saving. My father reveled in retelling how he threw paving stones and Molotov cocktails in support of the uprising, the truth of which is hard to say. Regardless of his pride, the failure of the Revolution and the brutality of its suppression left his and Agi’s future equally destroyed. “When the Revolution was totally wiped out, everything seemed to be in ruins, and I thought, ‘There won’t be any musical life here. I don’t want to stay here,’”116 Agi said. She began making plans for their escape. She was able to secure visas for the two of them to go to Vienna as performing artists, under the pretense that they would play a concert. The night before they left they slept with his family in a tiny hotel room next to the train station. Early in the morning on December fifth, they said their goodbyes to Hungary and to the family they held so dear—including the parakeet. It would be a harrowing journey. The train itself was overrun, and the platform was swarming with anxious civilians, police, and Soviet soldiers. By then the quota of citizens allowed to leave Hungary had been filled, and the soldiers pulled visa-less would-be refugees off the train through its windows. Between the Hungarian drop-off and the Austrian border there were five kilometers of no-man’s-land, which everyone had to cross on foot. My father carried his state-issued cello on his back, in keeping with the story that he and Agi were to play a concert. “We were totally out in the open where anyone could shoot us,” Agi said.117 Agi and my father’s reputations may have provided the means for their escape from 115 Ibid. 116 Agi Rado, in conversation, September 6, 2009. 117 Agi Rado, in conversation, Nov. 25, 2007.
  55. 55. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 47 Hungary, but their departure meant losing the comfort of their homeland and the security of their local renown. On the other side of the border, things were different. Some confusion almost cost my father and Agi their safety, when, out of fear their visas would be revoked, they insisted they had arrived as musicians. According to my mother, the guards replied, “No, you are refugees.”118 The couple relied on what connections they could make, receiving slightly more comfort here and there than their fellow, unknown expatriates. They even managed a broadcast with Radio Vienna. The idea of going to America was forefront in Agi’s mind, though it took more maneuvering to secure what would be a dangerous and uneasy passage, which Agi describes in her memoirs: When I realized that a small number of Hungarian refugees were being allowed entry into the United States, I immediately sensed that this would be the opportunity of a lifetime for both of us. The quota was already full, but some people who worked at the emigration offices knew of us and managed to get us on the list. We left by bus for Munich—a three-day trip—and in Munich we boarded a big old-fashioned propeller plane belonging to the Army. Before departure, we were briefed on how to use shark repellent powder in case we had to ditch the plane, and we were also instructed to sign our last will and testament. After this “comforting” beginning, there followed a very rough 24-hour flight, during which we had to make an emergency landing because of the loss of one engine. Finally, we arrived at our destination: the U.S.A.! We had to spend three miserable days at Camp Kilmer, a former detention camp for war prisoners, but not even this difficulty could dampen our happiness at starting a 118 Robin Kissinger, in conversation, Sept. 1, 2009.
  56. 56. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 48 new life, happiness that superseded our anxiety over all the unknown elements of this new life.119 Starker acted as their sponsor in the States, though they were held at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey until they could reach Starker to confirm their story. No one believed that two Hungarian refugees with barely any English between them could have such a well-established sponsor. Starker was at that point principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under fellow Hungarian and master conductor Fritz Reiner. So Agi and my father went to Chicago, where they began to look for work. Agi recalled, “I had no particular goal as to where to go other than the United States. That was every European’s dream. Let’s go to America. The wondrous country where everything grows on trees, and you just have to pick it up, and it’s gold.”120 My father also had big dreams. According to Starker, “He imagined that he was going to make it, because in Hungary he was a star musician. That’s not the way it works when you come to America. It takes a little longer. The question comes up that you have to make a living.”121 Luckily, a living came, though under circumstances that were nothing like what my father and Agi had hoped. A member of the cello section in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where Starker had been employed before joining Chicago, lost an arm. “The Dallas Symphony called me to ask if I could recommend a cellist for the job,” Starker said, “and I said ‘Yes! I have one sitting in my room in Chicago!’”122 He added that the timing was “a miracle in some sense,” though it 119 Agi Rado, “Autobiography of Agi Rado.” 120 Agi Rado, in conversation, September 6, 2009. 121 Janos Starker, in conversation. 122 Ibid.
  57. 57. S e c o n d M o v e m e n t : T h e S a v i o r o f t h e F a m i l y 49 was a somber beginning to what would be a series of short-lived stints in symphonies across the country that were less than ideal, for my father and for Agi.123 By their arrival in America, Agi and my father’s marriage was troubled. Their professional competitiveness, augmented by the fact that Agi had to follow him wherever symphony positions were available, put tremendous strain on their relationship. He would ask her, “‘Why aren’t you satisfied, just to sit and enjoy my playing and accompany me at home and at practice?’ Like a servant,” she said.124 Despite her anger in such moments, Agi felt tied to my father for reasons that went beyond the security of his paychecks. She was afraid to leave the only person who, after losing her family in the war, she said represented “that thin line of family.”125 From their arrival in America in 1957 until 1962, Agi followed my father from Dallas, to Chicago (where my father briefly succeeded Starker as first chair), to Pittsburgh, and finally to Baltimore, where they made their divorce official. Their marriage had lasted over ten years because, Agi lamented, “I was petrified of being totally alone.”126 I don’t know whether my father had the same fears after their divorce or not, but his musical reputation was growing in every city, as was the admiration of audiences, musicians, and women. With this admiration came great temptation. 123 Ibid. 124 Agi Rado, in conversation, September 6, 2009. 125 Agi Rado, in conversation, Nov. 25, 2007. 126 Ibid.