Obituary: Gyorgy Sebok

JUST AS the Nazis' advent to power did the musical life of Western Europe and the Americas an unintentional good turn, so, too, did the Russians when they suppressed the Hungarian uprising in 1956: countless musicians fled westwards, enriching their adoptive countries as the Hitlerfluchtlinge had done two decades earlier. Among them was Gyorgy Sebok - "one of the greatest pianists in the second half of the century, if not the greatest", in the view of a fellow Hungarian, his fellow pianist Livia Rev. Another Hungarian musician, the cellist Janos Starker, with whom Sebok played for 60 years, pulled ever fewer punches: "First-hand, second-hand or in recordings, Gyorgy Sebok is the greatest pianist who ever lived."

Sebok gave his first solo recital at the age of 11 and was only 14 when he played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 1 under the baton of Ferenc Fricsay, chief conductor in Szeged since 1934, though merely eight years older than Sebok. At the age of 16 he became a student at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where his teachers included Zoltn Kodly for composition and Leo Weiner for chamber music.

Then life turned very grim. After his graduation in 1943 Sebok was conscripted into the army of the occupying Germans and, since participation in the armed forces was barred to anyone of Jewish ancestry, he was set to work breaking boulders in the Carpathian mountains to provide gravel for road- building - two years of forced labour in the most primitive conditions. With the return of peace, Sebok sought to escape the deprivations of war- battered Hungary by moving to Romania, where a concert with Enescu brought him numerous offers of engagements; instead, like his friends Starker and Rev and many other Hungarian musicians, he moved to Paris.

His year there ended when the prospect of helping rebuild musical life in Hungary lured him back and in 1947, at the age of 24, he took up an appointment as professor of music at the Bela Bartk Conservatory in Budapest; he also took to the concert trail, playing across central and eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Although in 1952 he won the Liszt Prize, Hungary's highest accolade for musicians, and the next year was chosen to perform in Hungary's first Bartk memorial concert (thus becoming the first Hungarian citizen to play the Third Piano Concerto), Sebok was not prepared to stay there after the Soviet intervention in 1956 had re-imposed hardline Communist rule, and he moved back to Paris, re-establishing his duo with Starker that was now to become one of the greatest institutions in chamber music.

An introduction to the artistic director of the French label Erato brought Sebok a contract to make eight recordings, the first of which immediately won the Grand Prix du Disque. A second contract followed, also for eight records, and a third, and a fourth. Sebok, no longer "playing for his life", as he put it, was soon one of the best-known musicians in Europe.

That life entered its most productive phase in 1962 when he was appointed to the faculty of the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, one of the world's most distinguished music colleges; he was tempted there by Starker, who had moved to the United States in 1948. Sebok arrived in Bloomington without any English but picked up the language, he joked, by watching Johnny Carson. His teaching was to change the lives of many thousands of students.

Sebok thrived on the combination of teaching and touring, filling every cranny of an exhausting schedule with work. He regularly gave piano and chamber-music masterclasses at the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin. The first three weeks of June generally took him to the Banff Center of the Arts in Alberta, whence he continued to McMinnville, Oregon, for a week-long masterclass at Linfield College, the only one he held in the US outside Indiana.

Every November would see him in Tokyo, teaching at the Toho School, usually travelling on from there to the Royal Conservatory in Amsterdam. For many years he held masterclasses at the Conservatoire de Paris and the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. He was also a frequent visitor to the Liszt Academy in Budapest, the Hochschulen der Musik in Freiburg and Stuttgart, to Barcelona.

He spent each summer in Ernen, a small village in the Swiss Alps, where in 1973 he founded "Ernen Musikdorf", a three-week masterclass, adding an annual "Festival of the Future" in 1987, which he also co-ordinated. His work in Ernen he ranked of equal importance to his teaching in Bloomington.

In Starker's view Sebok was "one of the greatest teachers of all time". David Cartledge, a student of Sebok's for the past seven years, reported his keen awareness of the role of music in the larger picture of things. He maintained a strong awareness of the world at large, informing himself thoroughly in developments in science, philosophy, art and literature. This meant that a lesson with Mr Sebok could easily range in discussions - and far from superficial discussions at that - from Einstein and Feynman, to Proust, to Fred Astaire, to Ella Fitzgerald, whilst still remaining germane to the musical point at hand. One cannot help but emerge from his studio with a larger perspective of what music means, and what it means to be a musician.

There was no Sebok "method", Cartledge feels; instead,

He was able to put music in its context, and truly made the student feel part of the heritage of pianism dating to Liszt. All of this teaching varied with the specific needs of each student. He had a unique ability to tailor his approach to each student, and to present ideas and concepts in a way appropriate to that student's musical development. Perhaps what makes it difficult to summarise his teaching is that there was no "one" path that each student followed: each student had an intensely personal experience.

The violinist Janet Packer, a chamber-music student at Ernen in the late 1970s and early 1980s, observed how Sebok

would respond with physical advice, psychological probing, historical anecdotes, back-to-the-score literalness or poetic evocation. He had an uncanny gift for sensing the obstructions blocking a student's progress, deftly revealing them for what they were, and working with a surgeon's skill to remove them. The illustrations he gave at the piano had the zen-like quality of sounding perfectly right.

Sebok felt that his experience breaking boulders had, as he said, reduced him to zero, from which point he had had to think through everything he had learned until then. He put the insight gained from this "self-demolition and rebuilding" to work in his teaching, as Cartledge recalled:

he generally felt that he was helping students "unlearn" those things they needed not to be doing as much as learning that which they should. He taught the elimination of unnecessary tension: those actions where flexor muscles and reflexor muscles fight each other to no musical effect. At the same time, he taught where tension could be harnessed and used in controlled fashion to great effect.

Piano technique was, as was everything else, holistic. One learned how to use one's whole body to assist in getting around the keyboard, whether it be to remember to keep a relaxed pelvis, or to tighten one's stomach, or to twist one way while reaching the other . . .

His own playing revealed a remarkable ease and fluidity: even when teaching rather than performing, he seemed to have the bulk of the repertoire in his fingers at any given time.

Cynthia Cortright, Sebok's biographer, recorded his view that

Not only is music a language, but every composer, I think, is a language in itself. It has its own grammar. One has to feel that, and understand that. And, still, there are dialects possible. If you speak English as they do in Boston, then that's fine. And if you speak it as they do in London, then that's fine, too. And if you speak it as they do in Tennessee, that's also fine. But if you speak English as I do, then it is wrong. The pronunciation is wrong; the accent is wrong. It's English spoken with a Hungarian accent. Playing Mozart with a Chopin accent is wrong, too.

That self-deprecating humour was a consistent feature of his teaching, making his masterclasses simultaneously informative and entertaining.

Sebok was playing in Spain in late October when acute stomach pains forced him to abandon the tour and return to Bloomington. There cancer was diagnosed, the illness spreading so rapidly that he barely had 10 days of the short time he was given to live.

The violinist Nathan Milstein once memorably described Stravinsky as being "made of angles". Sebok gave the opposite impression: he seemed to have no edges at all, emanating instead a sense of warmth and gentle humanity - with his very appearance on the concert platform your heart went out to him as to a favourite uncle: this was someone you could trust, and it is clear that his colleagues and students loved him deeply.

Sebok wasn't interested in fame (almost all his available recordings are in the chamber music he loved, not the soloist's spotlight), and his rather roly-poly, cuddly exterior seems to have saved him from the attention of the marketing men; as a result his stature is better appreciated among musicians than the wider public. But his relative celebrity is immaterial to his true worth - in the words of Janos Starker, his friend and partner of six decades, he was "a giant of music".

Gyorgy Sebok, pianist and teacher: born Szeged, Hungary 2 November 1922; married 1945 Edith Lorint (marriage dissolved), 1956 Eva ("Vica") Mandel; died Bloomington, Indiana 14 November 1999.

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