The death of Hungarian violinist and composer Zoltan Szekely last week
marks the passing of "one of the greatest violinists of our time," says Tom
Rolston, the man who knew him best for the past 28 years.
Szekely died in Banff, essentially of old age. He was 97.
Rolston, summer artistic director at the Banff Centre, said he was at the
hospital when the death occurred. He had been admitted the same day,
complaining of systemic shutdown. "He was breathing quietly and then he
just stopped breathing."
He described Szekely as "very inward, quiet, thoughtful, gentle, and very
beautiful. He was constantly solving musical problems. He was always
saying, 'Why did Beethoven do it this way and not that way?' He didn't
practise much, but he thought a lot."
Rolston, who met Szekely in 1956, said "the violin wasn't of particular
interest to him. It was the chance to get to these great masters. He was
constantly challenging himself to find ways to make horribly different
things more simple, in the methodology. It seemed so effortless."
Born in Kocs, Hungary, in 1903, the son of a physician, Szekely studied
violin and composition at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and in 1921,
at 18, began appearing in public recitals with Bela Bartok. The two became
For the next two decades, until the outbreak of war in Europe, Szekely
gained fame as a concert violinist. His solo career reached its zenith in
1939 in Amsterdam, when he performed the world premiere of Bartok's violin
concerto, a work dedicated to him by the composer.
For five years during the war, Szekely was trapped in Holland with members
of what became the world famous Hungarian String Quartet, of which he was
first violinist. During that time, the ensemble occupied themselves by
perfecting the Beethoven Cycle. Afterward, for almost 30 years, they
travelled the world, bringing the classical canon to music lovers the world
over, and recording extensively.
When the quartet disbanded in 1973, Szekely became artist-in-residence at
The Banff Centre, where he remained until his death, teaching and appearing
frequently to play the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and the
contemporary masters. His favourite composers were Bartok and Beethoven.
During the 1920s, Szekely also composed many works. These, according to
Rolston, lay piled in a corner untouched for years. But in recent years
they were dusted off and widely played, most notably by the New Zealand
"These pieces hadn't been looked at by Zoltan by for 60 years," Rolston
said. "It was big and difficult stuff, marvellous music. I told him he was
going to become famous all over again. People who know these things say his
Sonata for Violin Alone is the greatest of the 20th century, greater than
During the Banff Centre's 1981 Bela Bartok Centenary Celebration, the Franz
Liszt Academy bestowed its highest honour on Szekely, naming him Honorary
Professor, as it had previously honoured Casals, Strauss, Sibelius and
Other honours followed: in 1982, the Bartok Award, in 1983 the Kodly Award,
and in 1987 the Bartok-Pasztory Prize (for composition), and, the same
year, the Order of the Flag of Honour, bestowed by Gyula Budal, Hungary's
Ambassador to Canada, to mark Szekely's 80th birthday. In 2001, an award in
his honour was established at the Banff International String Quartet
Szekely leaves his son Frank Szekely Everts, daughter-in-law Ann, and two
grandsons Eric and Alec. They live in Los Angeles.
The Banff Centre has scheduled a musical tribute to Szekely with the New
Zealand String Quartet on Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
"Zoltan was also posing musical problems," Rolston said. "And he found most
of the answers."