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An elegy to Bela Boszormenyi-Nagy.

It has been over ten years since the death of Hungarian Pianist Bela Nagy (pronounced "Nahj"), a brilliant pianist with a keen intellect, and my teacher and mentor for seventeen years. He was mysterious, gentle, marvelously eccentric and sometimes maddeningly absentminded. Since his death in 1990, I have felt his absence deeply, both personally and musically. I am grateful to Bela Nagy for stretching my thinking beyond the ordinary to possibilities I did not know existed.

Nagy possessed a mystique. Mythical tales shrouded him. His students whispered that Nagy had memorized an entire Bartok Piano Concerto, without the aid of a piano, using his extraordinary photographic memory, while en route by train to a European concert where he was to be soloist that night. In my initial weeks as a freshman at Boston University, there also were tales circulating about Nagy's amorous conquests. He was reputed to have been very handsome in his younger days. The stories intrigued me.

At my first lesson, I waited with a mixture of awe and trepidation for Nagy to walk through the door. In walked a distinguished-looking, although disheveled, man who looked as if he'd just awakened from a nap. He wore a wrinkled blue oxford shirt. I could see a white undershirt beneath the unbuttoned collar. He ran a hand through his graying hair in, as I later learned, a characteristic gesture of vanity. A few recalcitrant hairs strayed onto his forehead. His hands were well padded. Years later, they would often look puffy and bruised around the knuckles: He would sometimes wince when he played. His eyes were intense, distracted. He said my name: "Sah-dah." I could understand only a few of the words he said. In a kind, muffled voice as if speaking through velvet, he asked me to play for him. I realized I had been holding my breath as my nervousness started to fade.

Freshmen piano majors at Boston University had two or three monthly lessons with Linda Jiorle, Nagy's assistant and future wife, and one or two lessons with Nagy. Linda was a fiery, talkative, petite woman, and a remarkable pianist herself. She dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, had curly, dark hair that she often tied back, vivid brown eyes full of light and small, agile hands. I liked her right away.

Veteran Nagy students spoke of his remarkable memory; his incredible knowledge and ability to play from memory a large part of the piano repertoire; his immense knowledge of the historical periods; his insightful views on relevant political issues, current and past; and the legendary gourmet meals he liked to cook for his friends and students.

Nagy had a unique teaching style. He would wander around the room picking up and rustling papers stacked on the cluttered piano, looking out the window, calling someone on the telephone. I wondered if he really was listening. Then I would play a note, dynamic or phrase that was not to his liking, and he would rush over to the piano to check the score, phone in hand, pencil sticking out of the hair over his ear, asking "Vat vas dat?" He was listening.

Nagy hummed along with what sounded like a curious mixture of a low-pitched drone and a whistling wind. At first it was comical. Over time I learned that he was following the music and phrasing through his humming. His voice would swell or taper off, depending on the phrase. He punctuated certain notes with an emphatic, guttural "Dah!" or "Yah!" I would jump, startled by the sounds. Then I would laugh.

Sara Krohn holds a D.M.A. degree in piano pedagogy from The Catholic University of America. She is an active composer and teacher living in Manchester Center, Vermont. Krohn enjoys teaching children with learning challenges and is pursuing an M.Ed. degree in special education and reading from the College of St. Joseph. While I played, Nagy's hands made intricate gestures, as if dancing by themselves. They would swoop and fall, bounce along, glide and soar. I learned to watch those gestures out of the corner of my eye. He was like a great conductor, and I was the orchestra. The real brilliance resided as much in Nagy's gestures, humming and sheer presence, as in what was spoken.

I wish I had taped even a few of my lessons with Nagy, although it probably would have sounded like a piano playing against a background of humming, rustling papers, a few "Dah! s" and an occasional telephone ringing. The only written notes I have from the lessons are his scrawled pencil marks in my music: a word here, a phrase mark there, lines sticking up to show important notes and an occasional awkward instruction in English, roughly translated from his native Hungarian. When I play from those treasured scores now, the marks invoke the humming, the gestures and Nagy's presence.

Intensely interested in the composer's musical intentions, Nagy would rumble, "Vere do you rink ze musical line goes? Vy do you tink he wrote it zis vay?" He relentlessly pursued the development of motifs: how a motif in the first movement might, in the last movement, return in a different key; or how it might be inverted or retrograde. In one lesson, Nagy distilled the ethereal late Beethoven Sonata in A-flat Major, Opus 110, boiling it down to the Schenkerian skeleton of a few important notes. Did I think, he asked, that Beethoven had planned that ahead of time, or had he composed instinctively? Lessons often were peppered with personal anecdotes: "I heard Bartok play this piece in Budapest. This is how he wanted this section played. Ze score doesn't tell you ze whole story.... " He described his own performances of the pieces I played, or the cultural milieu in which a piece had been composed. Lessons were so much more than piano playing.

Nagy's teaching methods often were unorthodox. While other teachers demanded strict technical regimens stressing finger independence, Nagy's simple response to questions about technique was: "Ze technique has to come from ze music." Invent exercises from passages in your pieces, he would tell me. Take your most difficult passage, break it down and practice that as your technique. Play a mirror image with your left hand. And listen to the music, even when you are playing exercises. Exercises without music are meaningless. "You know your scales, arpeggios and chords. You can practice them yourself. Why do I need to hear them in the lesson?" he would ask.

Other teachers and students were horrified at this blasphemy. No exercises? No technical book? Nagy assumed the student would do independent technical work. He was more of a musical coach, guiding interpretation rather than dwelling on pure technique.

Nagy often complained about muddy pedaling that obscured the musical line. He was meticulous concerning use of the pedal. Unlike many other teachers, he was not averse to completely changing the pedal marks suggested in a score, if that made more sense musically. Other pianists cringed when I shared Nagy's fingering suggestions for splitting a difficult passage between two hands. "It isn't what the composer wrote!" they exclaimed. Nagy argued that if it sounds the same, and it is easier to play, why not try it?

In a single hour, Nagy could completely transform my interpretation of a piece. In one lesson, I had prepared the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue by J.S. Bach. I performed a sanitized and "correct" version of the Fantasy, entirely in the style, but without conviction or presence. Nagy looked at me when I finished and said quietly, "Veil, ve have some vork to do."

Looking back on the lesson, I suppose he was thinking, Can't she play with any passion? Doesn't she know Bach is not meant to be sterile? But he was kind. Nagy did not demonstrate on the other piano in the room. He spoke few words. He stood beside me, close. His humming became tense and ominous, like bubbles rising from below the dark surface of a pool of water. His gestures were abrupt and compelling. We went over and over the Fantasy until I inwardly felt the anguished outburst of the opening, the controlled abandon of the improvisatory chords, the anger and isolation of the solo lines, the tragic resignation and, at last, the acceptance and hope at the end. I have never forgotten the clear vision he gave me of the Fantasy's dark, tempestuous character.

Several months later, I played the Fantasy in a master class in which the pianist asked if I was familiar with the highly respected Landowska recording. Embarrassed, I said that I was not and prepared for my performance to be shredded. Instead, the master teacher praised the way I had captured the mood of the piece. I silently thanked Nagy for his wonderful lesson.

Often distracted or preoccupied, Nagy would cancel or reschedule lessons at the last minute or telephone to suggest a lesson later that same day. Nagy's piano literature class was infamous for its scattered, though brilliant, structure. His classroom was alive with music, details and ideas. My notes resemble a collection of musical facts, bits of history, anecdotes, listings of works, performance suggestions and political discussions. Performers dropped by to play for the class, ranging from former students and colleagues, such as the well-known Paratore Brothers piano duo, to fledgling student chamber music groups. At the time I did not appreciate the depth of Nagy's teaching. Looking back, I can see that all the rapidly delivered threads were part of a larger piece of musical fabric.

Nagy gave mammoth piano literature exams. In one, Nagy took his place at the grand piano to test our knowledge of all the Mozart Piano Concerti. "I vant you to identify ze themes. Vat movement and concerto do zey come from?" A groan of disbelief went up from the class. Playing from memory, he transposed all the themes to different keys to increase the challenge. Written exams required broad knowledge of areas that might or might not have been covered in class, but which we were expected to know. I often wondered if Nagy ever read my exams; I assumed Linda did. Fortunately, my grade for the class didn't seem to have much to do with my performance on the exams.

From 1973 until 1990, Nagy was my most important teacher: for four years as an undergraduate at Boston University and for thirteen years as a master's and doctoral student: at The Catholic University of America. As the years went by, he took on the role of musical mentor and supportive friend, affectionately patting my arm as he walked by in the music school hallway. He always was encouraging. One summer when I had no money, he taught me for free. During a troubled time in my life when I was not sure what direction my life was taking, Nagy called. There was an administrative job for me at a university's music department, if I was interested. It would offer tuition so I could continue my studies. "When could I start?" he asked. He seemed to know what I needed without being told.

Lessons with Nagy after 1984 were more sporadic. I had weekly lessons when I periodically spent several months in Washington, D.C., to pursue my studies; otherwise, I took a few lessons at his home in Sharon, Massachusetts. By the mid-eighties, he treated me more as a colleague than a student. We kept in touch by letter or telephone; our conversations focused on how my own performing career was going, on my marriage and on my life in Vermont.

I attended as many of Nagy's concerts as I could. One of my most cherished memories is of a performance I heard in 1975 as a student in his special summer program in Sion, Switzerland. We sat in an intimate chapel, gilded woodwork gleaming, hand-painted frescoes decorating the walls, a Bosendorfer concert grand piano in front of the ornate altar. Nagy took a dignified bow, smoothing his hair as he straightened, adjusted the piano bench and sat in silence for several seconds. He didn't smile. His expression was serious and focused. Beethoven's extremely difficult Diabelli Variations then came to life with a breadth of expression I had never heard. Pianissimos were so soft they whispered, the fortes were imbued with a warmth and strength that echoed through the chapel and up to its high, vaulted ceilings. Nagy played as if he were creating the piece at that moment. There was an instance of stunned silence before the applause.

I was shocked to learn of Nagy's cancer in a telephone call a few weeks before he died in January 1990. It had spread quickly. I couldn't believe that this great man, this famous concert pianist and teacher who had traveled the world, who had studied with his famous compatriots Bartok and Dohnanyi, who in his seventies had a clear and penetrating mind, was about to die. "Ze pain is tremendous," he said. His voice still carried the thick, Hungarian accent, once incomprehensible, now familiar though still mysterious. I asked if he were taking medication for the pain. No. If he took it, it dulled him, and he couldn't think clearly. He'd rather have the pain, he said, his voice betraying the enormous effort expended simply to speak. He could take the pain. No, there was nothing they could do for him. That was the last time I spoke with Nagy.

At Nagy's funeral in Boston, I met with Linda, his widow, in the hallway. I thought of her two daughters, still young, and I could see the grief in her face. We talked briefly. She had acknowledged in a previous conversation that she had taken a chance by marrying Nagy, knowing that she would likely outlive him by many years. But love didn't recognize age.

At Nagy's memorial concert at The Catholic University of America, students and colleagues took turns in the recital hall playing a chosen piece dedicated to his memory. While one person played, others cried silently. Oddly, I thought of the radiator pipes clanking throughout my entire chamber music recital a few years before, Nagy barely visible in the audience as part of my jury, ready to assign a pass or fail.

When it was my turn to play at the memorial service, I adjusted my eyes to the bright stage lights and bowed to the audience. As I played the second movement of Brahms' Sonata in F Minor, Opus 5, I imagined Nagy standing across the stage. I imagined I heard his voice humming in a low whisper as I played the opening, a duet between the two hands. I imagined Nagy telling me to picture something "otherworldly" as the piece intensified then diminished. As the piece built to the last jubilant page, I sensed his hands moving in a strong gesture of triumph. The music tapered off, its energy nearly expended. There was a burst of thickly textured chords before a final pianissimo, barely audible. I took my bow and returned to my seat, exhausted. And in the dimness of the recital hall, I imagined Nagy applauding, pleased that I was carrying on his legacy.
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Author:Krohn, Sara
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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