One February evening in 2018, the Philharmonix ensemble played at the Viennese Konzerthaus. Their performance fused classical style with pop. However, it was Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 that took the audience’s breath away, by lashing out from under the strings into gentle dance melodies. Perhaps it was the three Hungarian musicians, perhaps it was Brahms’ notes – all in all, it was an outstanding performance of what is sometimes called the Hungarian “sub-anthem,” with its melancholy bursting into the jolliest of czardas.
In the 19th century, the Viennese court invited Hungarian musicians to join the international art scene in the city. The deep-rooted tradition of working in Vienna was continued by refugees escaping communism in Hungary in the 1950s and after, and lives on with the arrival of musicians looking for a more open and liberal musical experience in a city with a deep musical tradition, and where classical music still commands high prestige.
“I could talk for hours about my first years in Vienna,” said Ödön Rácz,a double-bass soloist in the Vienna Philharmonic. Discovered for his outstanding talent by international professors during his studies at the Franz Liszt Music Academy of Budapest, he was most inspired by a stern and demanding professor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna (MDW), who “encouraged me to grow.”
“I had no student visa, no money, not even a mobile phone in 2001,” Rácz continued. With his talent in his pocket and the help of his friends, he found his place in the city, and was soon acknowledged as a rightful member of the classical music scene. Born to a family of musicians, “we had more double-basses at home than chairs to sit on. How could I have chosen anything else than playing?” Already at a young age, he won international competitions, which launched his career abroad.
Soloist, teacher, and member of the Vienna Philharmonic, Rácz is also a founder of the Philharmonix ensemble formed with six of his German and Austrian colleagues. Two of his friends, Stephan Koncz (cello) and Daniel Ottensamer (clarinet), also have Hungarian roots. “When we are playing Hungarian-themed classical music, their sound has the spicy flavor of stuffed pepper and Goulasch.” Indeed, the way they play Brahms demonstrates that “they always know when they have to add another spoonful of sauce.”
“Unfortunately, too many talented musicians leave Hungary to look for a better future,” said Rácz in a melancholic tone. Despite his performances world-wide, he rarely gives concerts in Hungary. Still, whenever he visits Budapest, his birthplace, he takes a stroll on the boulevard to capture the city’s spirit. “I insist on cultivating my Hungarian roots. I could have taken Austrian citizenship many times. But the fact that I started learning music in a Hungarian school and that my father, an accomplished Hungarian gypsy musician, is my greatest role model, do not allow me to give up my Hungarian citizenship. It would be a dramatic break in my identity,” he said. “My sole aim in life is to keep our unique musical tradition alive in the world, and in me.”
A Hungarian Vienna
Pianist Béla Korény left Hungary with his family in 1956 at the age of 10 to find refuge in Vienna. Over a cup of tea in his favorite haunt, Café Korb, he spoke about his childhood and career in Hungarian that is still flawless. “What is more important than experience is how we go about it,” he said. “To play authentically, you have to learn from locals.”
Seeing his father making a living as a musician, after the nationalization of private property in 1948, gave him the motivation to start playing the piano already at the age of 5. He now plays many different genres including jazz, chanson, Latin and cabaret. In 1984, he founded his renowned Broadway Piano Bar, in Bauernmarkt 21, where he designed a cozy nest for music lovers and invited world-famous performers.
“Lenny was the smartest, finest man I’ve ever met,” recalls Korény of his friendship with Leonard Bernstein, who frequently played at the bar and amazed the audience with his humility amid an evening of music and comraderie.
In addition to his special shows, including Vienna for Beginners (Wien für Anfänger) and his cooperation with world-famous Austrian singers, his mission is to keep the Jewish art tradition alive, he said. He tells the stories of migrating Jewish communities in a unique combination of music and literature. “I play their music and read their books without pushing historical and political issues on my audience. They deal with it as they like. I do my research and put it on stage, because I feel very close to the European Jewish spirit.”
Reflecting on his first international experience, he underlined that “in Vienna, I’ve never had any atrocities discrimination or unkindness, cruelty? Because I am Hungarian. We have always had a special position in Austria; the lifestyle is no different, it’s very easy to assimilate.” He adds: “I’m not Hungarian anymore. I was 10 when I left, now I’m 74. What am I? Human.
Composer Samu Gryllus embraces the same creed. “I strive for universality in following the European dream.” Having his professional base in Vienna and his family in Budapest, he defines himself as “a bridge between two cities; an ambassador here and there.”
Through his father’s musical career, he was acquainted with Vienna as a child, but only after completing his studies in jazz-bass at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest, did he move to Vienna and continued his development in media composition at the University of Music and Performing Arts (MDW).
From his studies in the US, he brought back the interdisciplinary sign-language called soundpainting” to Vienna and Budapest. According to his website: “[i]n real-time compositional processes any performer […] with or without any special musical education, can work together with the help of a “sound-painter”, who can lead them with hand signs. It is a fine tuning of control and creativity, allowing the improvised moment to merge with structured knowledge.”
Besides teaching at the Vienna Music Institute, at the Szecheny University in Győr and the University of Theater and Film in Budapest, Gryllus works as a composer and soundpainter. “In Vienna’s circulatory system, the classical tradition is very dominant. But while it provides a strong foundation for musical studies, it can pose obstacles to the installation of new trends. Sometimes it is difficult, but people are getting more open to contemporary music.”
In Vienna, modernity too “has deep roots,” Gryllus emphasized. “People live in a tradition of multiculturalism, which fosters the acceptance of novelties.” Although he considers himself a European, he finds his Hungarian cultural background crucial for his work. “Universality gives credit to individual colors,” he said. “I would like to keep the European Dream as long as I can and maintain both settings of my life.
Throughout history, Hungarians have gone abroad for a reason, seeking freedom, cherishing the hope of better opportunities in international settings. What makes their voices special are the fractures caused by leaving things behind and putting the pieces back together. Vienna, a cradle of opportunities, provides space for new beginnings close to home.