Obituary: Bela de Csillery

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The Independent Online
As a Hungarian conductor with a formidable European training, Bela de Csillery was one of the most important music teachers to emerge from Britain during the post-war years. As Kent County Music Adviser from 1962 to 1981 he moulded the careers of hundreds of musicians and made the Kent Youth Orchestra one of the most impressive ensembles of its kind.

I never managed to return his last phone call, the day before he died, when he gently reminded me I had promised to secure him an engagement with one of the orchestras I had conducted recently in Eastern Europe. Such persistence from this sprightly 80-year-old reminded me of the uncompromising determination and energy which characterised most of his extraordinary career.

I first met him when I was 13 years old, singing one of the solos in Britten's Ceremony of Carols in Rochester Cathedral. He was accompanied by the beautiful solo violinist Gillian Samson, whom he had just married. My first impressions were of a kind, multilingual, worldly- wise and cultured musician from a strange, foreign land who had decided to make his home in rural Kent. He was extremely attractive and obviously considerably experienced in the art of being romantic. I still remember the sexual charge between him and Gillian on that cold December evening.

Although a prodigious violinist from an early age, de Csillery initially studied law instead of music and was awarded a doctorate at Budapest University. His law training came in useful in later years. He was always a tough negotiator and very much a political animal with a talent for finding unusual ways to solve administrative and financial problems. Determined to make a career in music, he continued to study at the Liszt Ferenc Music Academy in Budapest, the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik and the Academia Santa Cecilia in Rome. His teachers included Zoltan Kodly, Paul Hindemith, Ernest Ensermet and the renowned conductor Bernardino Molinari. Before the Second World War he enjoyed a successful career as an orchestral violinist and soloist giving concerts throughout Europe and Scandinavia. The many conductors for whom he played included the legendary Willem Mengelberg and the great Felix Weingartner, a protege of Franz Liszt.

His early love for an outdoor life and climbing developed during these years. Later, in the 1950s, he climbed many of the peaks in the Valais region of the Alps including the Matterhorn, an unusual and impressive achievement for that time. At the age of 30 he became Music Director of one of Hungary's main orchestras, the Budapest Municipal Orchestra, where he stayed for four years. When Ernest Ensermet first saw him conduct he immediately engaged him with the famous Suisse Romande Orchestra. De Csillery's conducting career flourished, and he was offered engagements with the Philharmonic Orchestras of Baden-Baden, Dresden, Munich and Barcelona, and the Symphony Orchestras of Madrid, Innsbruck and Radio Turin.

On Ensermet's recommendation he came to Britain in 1953, and was appointed Head of Music at Trinity College, Glenalmond whilst working as a conductor with the Scottish National Orchestra. He always insisted he had chosen to become a British citizen but sadly, the Soviet annexation of Hungary in 1956 prevented him from returning to his homeland.

In 1962 de Csillery came to Kent to take up the post of Music Adviser to Kent County Council, an inspired appointment by the then Director of Education, John Haynes. De Csillery was encouraged to create the Kent County Youth Orchestra in 1963, the year he made his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra. He married Gillian Sansom in 1965 and, with their two sons, they made their home in Maidstone.

In a few years the Kent Youth Orchestra was able to impress by performing Mahler's Fifth Symphony, a work which, at that time, few professional orchestras would dare tackle. As a 14-year-old, I played the seventh horn part in those perfomances. I remember de Csillery's frustration at not being able to extract enough passion from the string section in this emotionally demanding work. As a last resort he turned up one morning with a red heart sewn to the sleeve of his shirt, protesting "Now do you understand what I mean?" It produced the desired result.

The Kent Youth Orchestra was one of the first to record for BBC Radio 3 during the 1960s with a stunning interpretation of Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers and the brilliant young Andrew Haigh playing one of Mozart's piano concertos. The session was later issued on BBC Records. Other recordings included an impressive and valuable account of Dohnnyi's rarely performed Second Symphony.

In the late Sixties the orchestra made their first highly acclaimed European tour of Switzerland followed by extensive tours throughout Germany and Belgium. The orchestra was then chosen to represent Britain in Herbert von Karajan's first youth orchestra festival in Berlin when some players were fortunate to perform for the then still youthful Karajan in Brahms's Second Symphony.

Some of Bela de Csillery's teaching techniques were based on Zoltan Kodly's highly successful choral method of training. At the Kent Junior Music School - which included teachers of equal calibre to the London music colleges - and the Summer Music Schools at Benenden, de Csillery insisted on everyone singing in his choir, even if they believed they had no talent as singers. The results were stupendous. To hear a 200-strong group of instrumentalists with no apparent vocal ability singing Sir Michael Tippett's formidably difficult Plebs Angelica at the Benenden Summer School was simply staggering.

De Csillery's commitment to amateur music-making was also considerable. In Perth, Dundee and Maidstone he transformed the local societies musically and economically, giving regular concerts to packed houses. He formed the semi-professional Kent Sinfonia, taking music to the more inaccessible corners of the county. He was a regular guest conductor with the BBC Training Orchestra in Bristol. His schools concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were a revelation, introducing thousands of children, with his unique wit and depth of know- ledge, to the world of classical music. When I finally became a professional horn player it was almost entirely due to the valuable experience of those years.

His work ethic, regarding a relentless and determined dedication to music, was uncompromising (he was an exceptional and, at times, tyrannically demanding teacher). When I gave up being a professional musician to work for the BBC as a producer, he told me sharply that I was wasting my life. I think, in a way, he felt betrayed. He demanded total loyalty from those he took under his wing. He hated the idea of wasted opportunity and his greatest pleasure was to revel in the success of his students.

Kriss Rusmanis

Bela de Csillery, conductor and music administrator: born Budapest 26 October 1915; married 1944 Johanna Martzy (marriage dissolved 1959), 1965 Gillian Sansom (died 1993; two sons); died Maidstone, Kent 17 April 1996.