Tibor Varga

Acclaimed violinist and teacher
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Tibor Varga, violinist, teacher and conductor: born Györ, Hungary 4 July 1921; married 1948 Judith Szava (deceased; one son, one daughter), 2001 Angelika Behrer; died Grimisuat, Switzerland 4 September 2003.

It is an old saying that every Hungarian is born with a violin under his chin. Tibor Varga not only became a solo violinist with an international reputation but was also a conductor and teacher whose career spanned some 70 years. He also founded an orchestra, a summer school, a competition and a festival, all of which bore his name.

Varga was born in 1921 in Györ, Hungary, in the same street as the celebrated Hans Richter, who conducted the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He would also point out that three of the greatest names in violin playing came from the western region of Hungary, Joseph Joachim, Carl Flesch and Leopold Auer.

Both Varga's parents were musicians. His father - who gave him his first lessons - was a talented violinist who had suffered injuries during the First World War that prevented him from following a professional career. So he turned to violin-making and Varga remembered that as a young child he was surrounded by violins instead of toys. His mother was a pianist who was sought after as an accompanist in local concerts.

Varga was only 10 when he played the Mendelssohn concerto at a public concert, and it so happened that the great violinist Jeno Hubay was in the audience. He was so impressed that he brought the young boy to the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where Varga was prepared for Hubay's class by his assistant Franz Gabriel. Sadly Hubay died before Varga's formal entrance, but he was chosen to perform at Hubay's memorial concert. He always regarded that occasion, where he played one of Hubay's violin concertos under Ernö Dohnányi, as a great honour. After Hubay's death he continued his studies under Gabriel.

He also had some lessons from Carl Flesch. On one occasion he did not understand what Flesch was trying to say and asked him to demonstrate. When Flesch obliged, the young boy exclaimed: "But Uncle Flesch, you play differently from how you teach!" Flesch then put his arm around the boy and said to Varga's mother: "Your son does not need a teacher. He will find out everything by himself."

From this time onwards, Varga's career as a soloist gathered momentum. He had been engaged for tours in Poland and France and in 1937, at the age of 16, made his first appearance in England. During this time he was also making recordings and those for Radiola and Hungarian HMV that have survived show an impeccable technique and personality that can be compared favourably with those by Franz von Vecsey, Ruggiero Ricci and Yehudi Menuhin made at a similar age.

During the Second World War, there were few opportunities in Hungary for concert appearances so Varga took up medicine for a year followed by four more years studying philosophy at Budapest University. After the war he returned to his violin playing, began to investigate the repertoire in the Second Viennese School, and proceeded to achieve phenomenal acclaim throughout the continent of Europe.

In 1947, a highly successful Wigmore Hall début and several recordings with EMI/Columbia brought him recognition in the UK. In addition to some short pieces accompanied by Gerald Moore, Varga recorded the Bruch Concerto in G minor and the Bach Concerto in A minor with Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia. Later he recorded the Bach E minor, Mendelssohn and Bartók concertos with Ferenc Fricsay for Deutsche Grammophon; the Bartók is still regarded today as one of the most distinguished on record.

In 1948 Varga settled in London, where he lived for nine years. He took British nationality and, although he later lived in Switzerland for over 30 years, he always held a British passport. Whilst living in England he married a fellow Hungarian, Judith Szava. Their son, Gilbert, is today following a distinguished international career as a conductor.

In addition to his solo appearances, Varga placed much importance on his teaching activities. In 1949 he was appointed professor of the violin at the North West German Academy of Music in Detmold and remained there until 1988. Varga believed that having "clear vision" is an essential part of the teaching process. He would say:

Too often students ask me what they should do to a particular passage. Rather than formulating a musical idea clearly in their mind and then asking how to realise it, they want complete guidance in the execution of something without knowing exactly what that is.

Nevertheless, although he felt that playing the violin should be motivated by musical expression, he was a strong advocate of "technique before music" and considered that technical problems should be resolved before the age of 12. "One's violin training must be complete before life starts."

He explained further:

Naturally one improves all through life, but it is essential that the basics are resolved early. All the great violinists were technically ready by the time they were in their mid-teens. One cannot be a soloist if one has to solve technical problems at the same time as building a repertoire.

In 1954 he founded the Tibor Varga Chamber Orchestra and was its conductor until 1988. He settled in Sion, Switzerland, in 1955 where in 1963 he founded his own summer school. It was started with 60 pupils and at present accommodates hundreds. It now extends for two months and includes a variety of instruments including the piano.

In 1964 Varga established a music festival in Sion and in 1966 a violin competition which, like all his other enterprises, grew into an international event. Varga viewed his competition as a learning experience:

Every competitor's performance is recorded and they receive a cassette tape at the end of the competition. In addition, all members of the jury are at the disposition of the competitors to discuss their performances afterwards.

In addition to all these activities, in 1989 he became Director of Music of the Orchestre des Pays de Savoie at Annecy. He also gave master-classes all over Europe and was frequently invited to the Mozarteum in Salzburg and the Paris Conservatoire.

As well as playing the classical and Romantic repertory, he gained particular distinction in the works of Bartók, Berg and Schoenberg. He was known for his beautiful tone and warmth of expression, which was considerably enhanced by the beautiful Guarneri del Gesù violin dated 1733 which he acquired in 1960.

Margaret Campbell