The fascinating life of Thomas Rajna

The fascinating life of Thomas Rajna

Hungarian pianist and composer, Thomas Rajna, moved to Cape Town in 1970. His contribution to the South African music landscape is indelible. His spirit and fascinating life comes to the fore in this interview.

Please share your memories of your very first music teacher and the influence she had on you.

I am the product of a dedicated piano teacher of the type who does not exist anymore, but who in Budapest between 1937 and 1943 called regularly at our middle class home to first give lessons to my older brother and then later to take me into her care.  Having decided that I was worth the trouble, she then lavished infinite care over my musical education which extended to corporal punishment with a wooden spoon on my posterior if she thought I did not practice enough and spent too much time with my friends chasing around in our garden or climbing trees.

I think she thought of me as her masterpiece and somebody who was going to fulfill her own unrealized ambitions.  Anyway, I benefited immensely from her attention and tuition and I can truly say that my technical grasp of the keyboard is entirely due to her efforts and her sound principals.  In my teaching I have passed on these principals throughout my working life. I also owe her a lot for encouraging my earliest efforts to compose and for persuading my mother that I had gifts in that direction and that it amounted to more than idle doodling on the piano wasting precious practicing time.  By 1944 I was performing some of my own pieces in public.

In 1944, at a time when Hungary was under Nazi occupation and Jews were excluded from higher education, Lili, my teacher, and I set off on a special journey, our overcoats folded so that the compulsory yellow star, that rendered every Jew to the mercy of the roving German soldiers, was hidden from sight. This was a dangerous gambit that could have had very serious consequences if any suspicious Nazi challenged us for our papers. Lili fixed me up with a bag of piping hot roasted chestnuts obtained from a street vendor, so I could clutch it to keep my hands from getting numb in the freezing cold, and then proceeded to smuggle me into an examination room at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music for an unofficial audition.  I proceeded to thunder through my treasured Piano Rag Music by Stravinsky (1919), to the astonishment of the piano professors gathered round, to whom this bold and aggressive piece was still quite unknown.  This incident became a clandestine demonstration against the evil Nazi occupation of Hungary and ensured my admittance to the Academy after the hated Nazis were defeated and the war ended in March 1945.

What were your circumstances in Budapest towards the end of the war?

In December 1944, Budapest with the Nazi army inside, was put under siege by the Soviet forces, with the allied air forces of the UK and the USA assisting from above in annihilating the occupying German troops. My father miraculously survived right to the last weeks of the war without being transported to a German extermination camp, due to his protected medical status. Two thirds of the Hungarian-Jewish community was marched off to their deaths.

We, who were left behind, had to camp for six weeks of the siege, as almost the whole of the Budapest population did, in the cellars of our homes to escape sudden death from bombs that rained down impartially on inhabitants and occupiers alike. I was 16 years old that time and distracted my attention from the appalling reality by finishing the sketches of an early attempt at a piano concerto. Very occasionally, defying my parents’ fierce objection, I would take advantage of a temporary lull in the hostilities and slip up into our bullet-scarred flat to try out my compositions on our piano. The eeriest experience I ever had was to sit there overlooking a totally deserted city with no people and no traffic and no sign of life, even the nest of the German anti-aircraft guns outside on the public square abandoned, and suddenly hear from a nearby block of flats the strains of another pianist playing a Chopin Nocturne.

Somebody must have decided that my Father’s survival was against the rules and informed the Hungarian Arrow Cross, a mob of self-appointed semi-military accomplices of the Nazis, that there was a Jew in hiding. They came to our cellar on 8 January 1945 and dragged him away to execute him somewhere along the Danube, no doubt in the company of a few other Jews flushed out of their hiding places, as there were plenty of willing informers who looked to benefit from their treachery.

The Arrow Cross gang did not bother to take my mother who was very ill and bed-ridden. They certainly would have taken me, but by an extraordinary stroke of luck I was on a visit to a gathering in an adjacent cellar (these Budapest cellars formed a vast catacomb-like network of interconnected subterranean passages),  and as I was returning, a well-wisher of our family slipped into the passage to wait for my return and warned me not to enter till the thugs were gone.  When I returned my father was gone and my mother was in total collapse. My father’s body, most probably tossed into the river, was never found. The Germans were defeated a few weeks later and the Hungarian Nazis dissolved into thin air.

How did you end up studying in London?

I started picking up the shattered pieces of my existence by enrolling at the Academy of Music. My outstanding memories of the two years as a full-time student there were playing   “Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este”  at a Liszt competition, where I won a prize, and playing the solo keyboard part of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto at a public concert with a student ensemble.
In December 1947, by which time the Nazi occupation gave way to the Soviet communist regime, I shook off the dust and the evil memories of Budapest and left for London to continue my studies at the Royal College of Music (RCM).  This was an important phase in my life, as I gathered assurance and experience both as composer and pianist.  This period also widened my horizon, inevitably restricted in Central Europe.  A memorable occasion was performing Bartok’s “Contrasts” with clarinettist Colin Davis (now Sir Colin). In 1951, my last year at the RCM, I gave the first London performance of Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto, written just six years earlier.

Share some experiences from your early career.

Early on in my career, in 1963, I recorded Stravinsky’s complete solo piano music, which to my astonishment was reissued 30 years later (1993)  by Emergo in their SAGA Classics series.  Some random highlights from my London years:  performance of my Movements for Strings at the Cheltenham Festival; a little Rajna “festival” in Glasgow in 1961, when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra directed by Norman Del Mar performed my Suite for Strings and accompanied me in Bartok’s 2nd Piano Concerto; performing as one of the four pianists in Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall on two separate occasions: once under Colin Davis, who, while gently curbing my Dionysian fervour, with which I tackled my part during rehearsal, explained to the other somewhat put- out pianists that I was a fierce and excitable Hungarian, who had a different perception of Stravinsky from the rest of them. In the end I had to go with the flow and as they would not step up their intensity, I toned down mine. The other time we were directed by Carlo Maria Giulini, a calm and wise musician.

I think back with pleasure to the performance of my 1st Piano Concerto at the Camden Festival, the premiere of my Cantilenas and Interludes by the English Chamber Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the premiere of my Movements for Strings at the Wigmore Hall.

I gave two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, first time playing some Liszt, Rachmaninov (2nd Sonata) and Rajna and then in 1969, as my last major appearance in London, I presented the entire “Vingt regards”of Messiaen.  I had been busy recording this work for CRD at various times over a whole year in a church in Hampstead and finished sometime before the Wigmore recital very late on a freezing November night.  In spite of the cold I was stripped to the waist, partly because I worked up quite a heat wrestling with Messiaen’s vast textures and partly because due to overheating, I had developed a painful rash in my armpits and couldn’t stand my shirt chafing against the effected area.  People just don’t know how much sweat can go into an all-out effort such as this.

I should mention that I have briefly met two of my idols. I saw Stravinsky at the BBC Maida Vale Studios in the early sixties after he conducted a performance of Oedipus Rex. I showed him my Stravinsky LP and he was civil and benevolent.  I was a little scared beforehand as one heard so many stories about his waspish remarks and cruel put-downs.  One of these legends is actually very near the mark: an aspiring young pianist went up to him and said “Maestro, I play all your piano compositions”.  Stravinsky answered curtly:” So do I” and turned his back on him. This did not happen to me. 

I went to see Messiaen in 1968 after a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in honour of his 60th birthday,  clutching my copy of Vingt Regards. When he was told that I had recorded the entire work (at that point there existed only one other recording, that of the dedicatee, Yvonne Loriod), he took my score and disregarding the thronging VIPs in the artist room, proceeded to write in painstakingly precise hand a message of thanks for my labours to learn and record his very difficult work and expressed the hope that his harmonies and rhythms would bring me some joy. To this day I treasure his inscription in my book.

My interest in Stravinsky resulted in being approached in the early sixties by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to play the solo piano part in a recording of Petrushka in Festival Hall, and subsequently to perform it at the Festival Hall under Otto Klemperer’s direction.  Klemperer ordered me to his hotel suite to check me out, but after I played to him the four bar solo in the Russian Dance, he waved away any further auditioning and spent the rest of our time talking about the sad neglect of the marches he had composed for the working classes. He was partially paralyzed by a stroke by that time and when it came to the recording, the insistent 5/8 bars in the first tableaux were held together only by providence and the leader’s strenuous body language. Things did not improve during the subsequent sessions and the disc was never released, though the Festival Hall concert took place as scheduled.

I was contracted again for the same task by the New Philharmonia in June1970.  This time the recording and concert was directed by the dynamic Erich Leinsdorf.  The concert was a great success and the disc, the first product of DECCA’s historic phase-4-stereo series, became a landmark recording.

You also recorded this piece with Sir George Solti?

Yes, on an earlier occasion things were less cosy when in 1964, the London Symphony Orchestra engaged me to play the orchestral piano part in a recording of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste under their explosive resident conductor, George Solti, a compatriot of mine.  I undertook this task with great enthusiasm, which was modified somewhat when I heard that no fewer than two very experienced players have already fallen by the wayside after some stormy rehearsals of the piece that Solti had taken by that time.

Once again I was ordered into “the presence”. Maestro Solti, clad in his dressing gown, received me at his Hampstead home, and put me through my paces. Immediately he upbraided me for my insufficient rhythmic precision. I was quite indignant and told him that my rhythmic drive was one of the things most of my critical reviews agreed on.  He was not greatly impressed and dismissed me with dire warnings to follow his beat at the forthcoming sessions.  The circumstances of the demise of my two predecessors began to be clarified.

I took the trouble to spend the best part of the night before my first rehearsal with learning to fit my part into the orchestral texture with the help of the full score and a recording I had.  I was pretty confident that I would keep my place in the piece in spite of the hair-raising rhythmic complexities and a rogue conductor.

The recording the next morning started with the second movement, which uses the piano soloistically and I plunged into my first solo with relish.  There were a few rumbles from the podium and naturally I had to re-do the passage half-a-dozen times before Solti thought it was a good enough take for the recording. But this was mere routine, and I am no less strict with myself during my own recordings.  Then real trouble loomed up. My next entry, the most important solo in the movement, came after the piano had a rest of 130 bars of 2/4 and one of 3/4, in the 6th quaver of which I had to enter. The texture is full of syncopations and cross rhythms and, though I knew every bar of the score, I may have been a fraction of a second late.

Solti perversely insisted on doing the entire passage with my 130.83 bars rest again and again (though there was nothing wrong with the LSO, who were playing like angels) and he naturally got me rattled.  He was red in the face and screaming at me by this time, so I decided to stand up to him. I addressed him in Hungarian to point out the folly of going back 18 pages of the score just to get my entry right and told him to start 10 bars before my entry and there will be no problem. I could see he was furious and looking for a reason to object, but the good sense of my suggestion prevailed. The orchestra was profoundly puzzled about this incomprehensible exchange, but I had my way. Solti capitulated, started at the point I suggested and the piano entry was perfect first time. Round one to T.R!  However, there were no more rounds. Perhaps Solti decided that he could not afford to loose a third pianist. The recording went ahead without any more major tantrums and the finished disc, containing also The Miraculous Mandarin, is now a respected item of his discography.  In fact, the incisive precision of this recording so impressed the conductor of the Philomusica of London, that he engaged me for another performance of the same work at Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1968.

What prompted you and your family to settle in South Africa in 1970?

The late Lamar Crowson, at that time towards the end of his first spell at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town, was asked by Prof. Pulvermacher, the Dean, to recruit me for the College, while Lamar was on a return visit to London in 1969. As we had been fellow students at the RCM from 1948 on, there was a good camaraderie between us and he told me that though he had to make contact with a few other musicians, I was by far the best qualified candidate and the job was mine if I was interested.
I accepted the offer of the new position as I was tired of the vagaries of freelance existence in the UK, where accomplishment was not rewarded by security and I thought my young family would also benefit from the change of lifestyle.

You have an extended discography. Give us a brief overview of your recordings to date and which of your recordings would you say are particularly special?

From 1963 onwards I worked for commercial labels, such as Folio Society, Saga, Gemini and CRD.  My earliest recording was the complete solo piano works of Stravinsky for the Folio Society, who, when they went out of business, sold the rights to Saga in 1968. They also folded, and the disc became unavailable. To my astonishment the disc resurfaced 23 years later, having been re-issued by Emergo in their Saga Classics series. I recorded Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, also for Saga, in three spurts over the year of 1968 and consequently played the entire work in Wigmore Hall. One of my most important undertaking for CRD was the complete piano works of Granados,, for which I was called back from Cape Town to London where I returned to in 1973, 1976 and 1977 to complete the eight LPs.  It was my philosophy never to say no to any worthwhile recording task I was approached with, however daunting. That is how I came to record the complete set of the Transcendental Studies and the 12 Studies, op.1 of Liszt, again for CRD, in September-October 1978 in 10 gruelling days. Most of these pieces were not in my repertoire and were learnt specifically for the above listed recordings.

From the eighties onwards I collaborated with Donald Graham, founder of Claremont Records. He recorded Andrea Catzel and me in a programme of Spanish songs, and The Hungarian Connection, a collation of chamber music and solo piano works by Dohnanyi and Rajna. He also helped me to turn into CDs some of my more successful SABC recordings. This produced discs like Goyescas of Granados (my second version), my 1st and 2nd Piano Concertos, the Harp Concerto, my Piano Preludes and orchestral works like Video Games, Divertimento Piccolo, Clarinet Rhapsody, Cantilenas and Interludes and Movements for Strings.
In 2001, after Donald died, I went independent and formed my own label, Amarantha Records.  Appropriately, the first issue was my opera, Amarantha, a double album that also included some songs and choral items. My second opera, Valley Song appeared as both CD and DVD.  After this I concentrated on the onerous task of re-mastering and transferring to CD format my earlier LPs. My Scriabin LP for Gemini had this treatment. Another offering was the double album of the Liszt Transcendentals and 12 Studies, op.1, augmented with special recordings of Rhapsodie Espagnole and Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude, thrown in for good measure.  Messiaen’s Vingt Regards made another double CD issue. I did not worry about the Stravinsky disc or all the Granados music beyond Goyescas, as these items were reissued in the nineties by Emergo and Brilliant Records respectively. All the Claremont Records issues have been transferred to and are available from Amarantha Records.

I then turned my attention to the most satisfactory live recordings of public concerto performances of the past decades that were still available.  These re-mastered transfers to CD include the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos of Bartok, Prokofiev’s Third, Brahms’ Second, Stravinsky’s Capriccio, concertos by Barber and Schumann and a clutch of Bach keyboard concertos played and directed by me from the harpsichord. 
You might regard this archival undertaking as the equivalent of a painter or sculptor holding a retrospective exhibition of his works, except that they, unlike me, did not have to spend months after months supervising the re-mastering of their products, design and print graphic artwork or write and supervise the printing of the analytical booklets for each item.  Add to this the fact that in the same period I wrote two operas, an oratorio, a set piece for the 2002 UNISA International String Competition and a Violin Concerto and you will understand why I have been at this task for the past ten years!

Nor do I consider the task completed.  If I can muster the energy, I will take under my umbrella some of my Poulenc and Prokofiev solo piano recordings and the historic, once-in-a-lifetime South African performance in 1990 of Messiaen’s vast ten movement Turangalila Symphony, which is a disguised piano concerto and which only took place because of the boundless enthusiasm and insistence of Omri Hadari and myself.
I played the work with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Omri. This performance was also of special technical interest, because Bruce Cassidy, a one-time member of the megagroup, Blood, Sweat and Tears, did not use the electronic Ondes Martenot that Messiaen, who was very partial to it, prescribed in his score. But there were probably only 4 or 5 people in the world who owned and could play one, and it was wholly unmanageable for the CTSO to get hold of instrument and player. We were rescued by Bruce, who used his Electronic Valve Instrument (a device entirely outside Messiaen’s experience), which is employed in some progressive jazz groups. Bruce proceeded to prove that the E.V.I. was a brilliant substitute, every bit as versatile as its older predecessor, if not more so.

Besides your performing career, you are a composer of note. Tell us where your love for composing comes from.

Quite early in my life I became enthralled by the music of 20th century masters such as Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.  The visceral excitement while listening to their music sent shivers down my spine. Perhaps unwisely, but understandably in the first flush of my youthful confidence, I decided to do my damnest to try to write music that will communicate the same kind of excitement to others. It still is my goal some sixty years later, though I am more humble in my expectations.

In your composition work, were you influenced stylistically by anyone/any style in particular?

Well, your answer is there in the list of composers above. I can recognize the fingerprints of all of them here and there. But these ingredients coalesced into a personal style, as a good cook will create a new dish out of his ingredients.

How would you describe your style of composition?

Contemporary lyricism. I have never questioned the pre-eminence of melody and the need to have an emotional commitment. I have tried my hand at abstract procedures a number of times, but never threw out the aural guideline of a recognizable structure.  There was a time when this wish of mine to communicate counted against me.  Many years ago someone said to me reproachfully: “Your music is too easy to understand. I like music that is beyond my understanding.” 

But the avant garde of the sixties, which succeeded in flummoxing and alienating the public, and which regarded itself as the only valid way forward, was on the wrong track.  Like all bubbles, it burst in the end. Minimalism, which took over, has links with pop culture, and so has a better chance to stay the course. I think I will remain an independent.

Where do you start when you have to compose something?

I run and jump around in my studio and -you won’t believe this- stare intensely at my large speaker and imagine some exciting sounds of my making coming out of it. I hum and have a good time because this is the painless part.  However, all it does is to set the mood, without giving me anything definite.

The pain starts when I sit down at the piano and try to salvage something out of the elusive fragments churning round in my head. Eventually a phrase or figure emerges from the reluctant piano. More jumping around follows, as I figure out how to treat and develop the germ of an idea.  I decide on a course of action and dash to my desk to write out a set of instruction.  It will be something mundane, eg. repeat the phrase three times in progressively higher pitches and extend or shorten the line on each repeat.

Then back to the piano to find the right notes for my scheme. Then, depending on the scale of the piece I am working on, I bit by bit uncover my material in the next few days, weeks, months or years. Please don’t tell me that Mozart did not work this way.  I know.

What instruments/ensembles is your preferred medium of composing; or what would govern composing for a specific individual instrument or a combination of instruments/voices?

The task requested governs the combinations called for. I have covered most genres from solo piano to opera.  In my film scores I exploited the singing saw and the Hungarian cimbalom for special effects depicting suspense and Tibetan rituals respectively. A commission to write a short solo harp piece led to the birth of the 25 minute Concerto for Harp and Orchestra and later to my Suite for Violin and Harp.
Sometimes it is simply a matter of close association with an instrumentalist. I wrote my Dialogues for Clarinet and Piano for a friend who was my fellow student at the Royal College of Music. (This became my first published work- by Alphonse Leduc, Paris,- in 1970, 20 years after its composition.)

I was also influenced by the magic of Debussy’s Clarinet Rhapsody which I have accompanied on various occasions.  My interest in the clarinet spread into the rest of my working years. I used it as an obligato for a song and subsequently wrote a symphony-length Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra. Most of my orchestral scores feature demanding and virtuosic clarinet solos, in particular the harp and the violin concertos and the opera, Amarantha. Keith Puddy, the clarinettist for the English Chamber Orchestra, who played in the 1968 Queen Elizabeth Hall premiere of my Cantilenas and Interludes, asked for my permission to take a copy of his part home and use it for honing up on his technique and that of his students.

My interest in opera dates from my early teens. My father’s patients included the leading dramatic soprano of the day, Ella Némethy.  This grand lady, knowing that my father was a music lover, habitually offered my father two tickets for every opera performance she starred in.  I was the chosen partner he would take with him and I was very susceptible indeed to the magic of opera. I fell in love with Lohengrin and Tannhauser. Afterwards, as we had the vocal scores among our sheet music, I used to browse through them on the piano and swoon over the glowing love music, the Bridal March, the Prelude to the 3rd act from Lohengrin or the Pilgrims’ Chorus, the Venusberg music, and so on, from Tannhauser.

Némethy was also a great Brünhilde and a splendid Princess Eboli, so I became spellbound by Walküre and Don Carlo as well. Opera became in my mind the highest achievement in music, an art form that encompassed the whole gamut of human experience. It was always at the back of my mind to write one during my ensuing career, but it was not till 1991, some 50 years later, that I finally came to grips with the task and started the four year long trek towards the completion of my first opera, Amarantha. There followed an even longer trek to find funding for staging the piece, but that is another story that does not belong here.

Any compositions/commissions you are busy with or that you have lined up in the future?

The last major work I completed was my 2007 Violin Concerto. These days my main compositional tasks are revising and editing my scores as and when required. A very important task I hope to get around to is to re-notate, with my Sibelius programme,  scores like my Four African Lyrics, which after decades still exists only in a pencil manuscript as well as the two-piano reduction of my 1st Piano Concerto, a manuscript inked by three different hands and very congested indeed. 

I doubt if anyone apart from me could learn from the photocopies of these works and I am aiming at the production of new publishing-standard versions with the aid of Sibelius.  I have little doubt that while re-notating my music, I will find myself also revising the text extensively. Oh, for time, enough time to carry out all these worthy plans…

During your extensive career you must have experienced many highlights. Please share some that stand out.

Taking part as rehearsal pianist at Artscape in the production rehearsals of my opera, Amarantha. Watching Angelo Gobbato daily for over two months with his fanatical attention to the minutest details of the production, his limitless energy, leaving the cast and me exhausted.  Seeing my conception coming to life in his hands, experiencing the birth of a piece of theatre and music drama.  Heady stuff.

Sitting in the UNISA Great Hall in Pretoria and listening to 11 violinist competitors in the 2002 UNISA International String Competition, young and wonderful musicians from all over the world, who in their first round chose to play my Tarantulla (specially commissioned for the Competition) and watching one after the other ploughing into the piece with zest and enthusiasm, making light of the considerable technical demands.

Taking a bow after playing my 2nd Piano Concerto at Artscape with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra at a concert in 2008, honouring my 80th birthday, and feeling the genuine affection and sense of enjoyment of the audience as they gave me a standing ovation.

Besides music, which other interests are close to your heart?

I used to be a keen chess player in my youth. I packed it in eventually, when my teenage son, Daniel, to whom I taught the game, started beating me. I am fond of swimming, though I never got past the breaststroke, in a geriatric version of which I still indulge from time to time.

In 2005, greatly surprising myself, I became a civic activist and fought tooth and nail the proposed erection of a multi-story block of flats totally unfit for our low rise residential area. I fought the developers, the Town Planners, the Council, Heritage Western Cape and Provincial Administration.  I organised petitions, wrote numerous letters for the local paper and addressed the Council’s Spatial Planning Committee.  It all seemed a doomed effort in the face of the Council’s declared policy of densification (it would be more honest to call it a policy of de-greening, overcrowding and prevention of cruelty to developers), but perhaps all the fuss I and my fellow objectors have made had some effect, since six years have passed without the condominium showing any sign of springing up and the three 83 year old family houses, that Heritage Western Cape delivered to the developers for demolition, still stand.

Published 15.08.2011

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