Prodigious Talent: How Violinist Jenő Hubay Drew a Generation of Stars to His Budapest Studio

By Sasha Margolis | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

In Budapest, at the dawn of the last century, a collection of jaw-dropping violin talents gathered to study at the city’s Academy of Music. Between 1900 and 1905, the school’s halls rang with the phenomenal fiddling of the inspirational Stefi Geyer, the flamboyant Jelly d’Arányi, prodigy-of-prodigies Ferenc Vecsey, the inimitable Joseph Szigeti, the inquisitive Emil Telmányi, and the influential Imre Waldbauer. These marvelous players gave the world endless hours of beautiful violin playing—and something else. Collectively, they sparked the composition of some of the century’s greatest violin music. 

And the thing that brought these young geniuses together in Budapest was the promise of learning from Professor Jenő Hubay. 

One of the preeminent violinists of his day, Hubay (1858–1937) was a Budapest native who studied with Joachim in Berlin and Vieuxtemps in Brussels and Algiers. As a soloist, he dazzled Saint-Saëns and Massenet. Parisian critics hailed him as “a new Paganini.” Back in Budapest, he played chamber music with Liszt and Brahms, giving first performances of Brahms’ D minor Sonata, C minor Trio, and the revised B major Trio. This almost impossibly well-rounded musician was also an accomplished pianist who could play nearly any accompaniment from memory. He would sometimes improvise accompaniments on the violin as well, and composed not only a slew of short violin pieces—among them the popular Hejre Kati and Zephyr—but also lieder, concertos, symphonies, and an international opera hit, The Violin Maker of Cremona.

Hubay took his teaching position in Budapest in 1886. Before long, he’d attracted a parade of prodigies, who seemed to spring from the Hungarian soil like mushrooms after rain. The Hungary of those days was prodigy-crazy, every stratum of society fascinated by the phenomenon of brilliant little fiddlers in short pants and petticoats, and many parents eager to get in on the act. 

For a small country, Hungary had always produced a surprising number of great violinists. The region’s Magyar, Roma, and Jewish populations boasted centuries-long fiddling traditions, and bygone giants Joachim, Eduard Reményi, Leopold Auer, and Carl Flesch were all Hungarian. But in Hubay’s teaching days, prodigy-ism went into overdrive, supplying him with the aforementioned students along with many other talents including Ilona Fehér, Lorand Fenyves, André Gertler, Eugene Lehner, Eugene Ormandy, Erna Rubinstein, Tibor Serly, Zoltán Székely, Tibor Varga, and Sándor Végh. (Notable non-Hungarian students included Wanda Luzzato and Gerhard Taschner.)

Hubay with student Stefi Geyer – Lebrecht Music Arts / Bridgeman Images

Interpretively, Hubay advised playing as simply as possible—which entailed difficulty enough, he explained—and urged students to perform with abandon, leaving thinking behind in the practice room. Technically, his aim was to make playing feel natural, free from restrictions resulting from physical tension. He emphasized calm, even breathing; relaxed joints to allow the body to remain in balance; and an open stance with torso upright, never leaning back. The violin was to be held securely between the collarbone and chin in order to liberate the left hand, and straight in front, since he believed a leftward angle pulled the bow off course and compromised tone production. 

Much work, some done without the bow, was aimed at relaxing the right arm. Hubay himself was said to hold the bow “lightly, as if catching a feather.” His American student Eddy Brown recalled that “he did not believe in giving too much time to left-hand development, when without adequate bow technique, finger facility is useless.” According to Hubay, overcompensation for faulty bow technique and poor tone production could result in many ills, including exaggerated vibrato, excessive movement of the instrument, and an uncontrolled left hand. As a result of his priorities, his students were known for what Geyer described as a “full and sonorous sound” and the sweep of their bowing.


Advertisement


Detractors complain that Hubay and certain students vibrated only intermittently, used an overly slow and wide vibrato, and employed slow, prominent slides with audible bridge notes. Some might ascribe such old-fashioned traits to a degree of ignorance or incompetence. But it seems wiser to understand them as artifacts of a period with different expressive norms—norms already being eroded by the alternate approach of players like Fritz Kreisler, and soon to be washed away by the wave of Russian violinists about to crash over Europe and America. 

The older aesthetic had its passionate defenders. As late as 1950, Jelly d’Arányi’s sister Adila, a student of both Hubay and Joachim (who was Adila’s and Jelly’s great-uncle), complained about “the unremitting, nauseating vibrato used by present-day violinists,” and the “downright unmusical habit” of sliding between notes on one finger. “I can remember,” she wrote, “how both Hubay and Joachim rebuked me when, either by negligence or youthful crudity, I made such slides; and how ashamed I felt.” 

Hubay started teaching Adila in 1896. But his first bonafide star, arriving in 1899, was Stefi Geyer (1888–1956). One of Hubay’s favorites, and a dedicatee of his Fourth Concerto, Geyer began touring while still under his tutelage and was quickly compared to some of the greatest players of the day. The French press nicknamed her “Kubelik in petticoats” (en jupons). When Mischa Elman appeared on the scene a few years later, one wit suggested he should be called “Geyer in knickers” (en culottes). 

Geyer had great personal charm. Composer Othmar Schoeck fell hopelessly in love with her and wrote her an intriguing concerto, though she didn’t return his affections. Béla Bartók was likewise smitten and composed his First Concerto for her, with a first movement portraying her as a person, and a second portraying her playing. Despite this tribute, Geyer told him they could never become engaged, perhaps owing to conflict between her Catholicism and his atheism. Bartók sent her the concerto’s only manuscript, inscribed, “No two stars are as far apart as two human souls.”

Hubay with student Joseph Szigeti, circa 1910

Eventually, Geyer settled in Zürich, becoming an important part of musical life there while still touring heavily. A 1935 London review praised her “strong, clinging bowing, and honey-smooth tone”—hallmarks of the Hubay style. It was only after her death in 1956 that Bartók’s concerto was found among her things and performed for the first time.

Hubay’s next great star was Vecsey (1893–1935), who joined his class at age eight. Vecsey made his Berlin debut in 1903, and his musicality won over Joachim—not a proponent of prodigy-ism—with whom he proceeded to make further repertoire studies. By 1904, he was considered one of the three most in-vogue violinists in Europe, along with Ysaÿe and Kreisler. One writer, bowled over by his precocious artistry, described hearing him play Bach “in his little socks and knickers, as if love, death, and the Weltschmerz had been in his thoughts for half a century.” Vecsey received the dedication of Sibelius’ new concerto, a perfect match for his silvery tone and poetic temperament, and also of Hubay’s Third Concerto. 

During WWI, Vecsey served in the Austro-Hungarian Aviation Troops, and while flying had an accident that was thought to have ended his career. But he returned to the stage in the ’20s, making multiple tours, especially in Europe and South America. He was so popular in Berlin that he had to perform at the gigantic Scala Theater, normally reserved for mass entertainments. In Rome, according to a 1922 review, he was “regarded as the greatest living violinist.” Vecsey was also a composer; his Valse Triste is still in the repertoire. He died at only 42, after an unsuccessful operation for a pulmonary embolism.


Advertisement


As Vecsey was leaving Hubay’s class in 1903, Szigeti (1892–1973) was arriving. Szigeti recalled his student days with chagrin, describing “an atmosphere of such puerile technical rivalry, we were so completely absorbed by the externals of our craft.” He attributed this state of affairs not to Hubay, but to the prodigies themselves, “and, above all, to our parents who generated such unhealthy impatience. . . . It was quickened by the coincidental meteor-like ascent of Vecsey. . . .” 

Szigeti stayed at the Academy of Music for two years, and continued intermittent study with Hubay after launching his career. Having left Budapest, he consciously emulated the new aesthetic he heard abroad in the playing of Ysaÿe, Kreisler, and Elman. But recalling a 1908 return there, he spoke of “the master whose worth had been revealed to me in ever-increasing degree during those years, paralleling my generally maturing outlook.”

Szigeti would emerge as one of the foremost soloists of the century, an intellectual musician and sophisticated stage presence known for serious programs that eschewed mere violinistic fluff. He was esteemed for his playing of the classics, but also championed new music, popularizing Prokofiev’s First Concerto, receiving dedications for Bartók’s First Rhapsody and Ysaÿe’s First Solo Sonata, and co-commissioning Bartók’s Contrasts with Benny Goodman. Ernest Bloch, whose Violin Concerto Szigeti premiered, wrote: “Modern composers realize that when Szigeti plays their music, their inmost fancy, their slightest intentions become fully realized, and their music is not exploited for the glorification of the artist and his technique, but that artist and technique become the humble servant of the music.”

Described by Szigeti as a “picturesque personality,” Jelly d’Arányi (1893–1966) joined Hubay’s class in 1904. Her impetuous approach quickly made a mark: One early reviewer described her as a “stormy gymnast with the temperament of a Gypsy.” Her family was friendly with Bartók, and she performed with him, inspiring both an unrequited crush on Bartók’s part, and the composition of his two violin sonatas. After the first was finished, d’Arányi wrote in her diary: “It is good and great that I should have inspired that gorgeous sonata—but apparently a woman can’t inspire the soul of a man without doing great harm. It is sad, too sad, that I should make this great man suffer.” Later, she grew to find his attentions tiresome.

At a 1922 soiree the pair performed his First Sonata, while d’Arányi also played the Ravel Duo, with its composer in attendance. Afterward, Ravel asked her to play some “Gypsy” music, which she did till 5 am. This inspired him to write Tzigane. Other dedications included Vaughan Williams’ Concerto Accademico, and for Jelly and Adila together, Holst’s Double Concerto.


Advertisement


The d’Arányi sisters were avowed spiritualists. In 1933, they claimed to have been visited at a series of séances by the ghosts of Schumann and Uncle Joachim, who pointed them toward a Berlin library where Schumann’s long-forgotten Violin Concerto lay neglected. When the piece was then unearthed, an international race for a first performance ensued, with Jelly eventually coming fourth, three months behind Georg Kulenkampff’s official, Nazi-sanctioned premiere. The story, a stew of musical politics and mysticism, is brought to life in Jessica Duchen’s novel Ghost Variations. 

Telmányi (1892–1988) enrolled with Hubay in 1905. An avid performer of contemporary music, he received the dedication of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto in 1911, and eventually settled in Denmark and married Nielsen’s daughter. A 1922 Vienna review notes that “his big tone again fascinated all hearers.” Meanwhile, Szigeti lauded his “musicianship and unusual programs.”

In the 1950s, Telmányi became interested in the “Vega” bow, invented by a Dane, Knud Vestergaard. Using this curved bow, which could play on all four strings at the same time, Telmányi made a fascinating recording of three of Bach’s unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas.

Also in 1905,Imre Waldbauer (1892–1953) entered Hubay’s class. His father had been violist in Hubay’s quartet, and Imre co-founded his own quartet, the Waldbauer-Kerpely, at 17. This ensemble would premiere the first four of Bartók’s six quartets, beginning in 1910, while Waldbauer and cellist Kerpely also premiered the Kodály Duo. The quartet was known for its assertive bowing style. 

Waldbauer was intrigued by the biomechanics of playing, learning from such diverse sources as the sculptor Rodin and the German physiologist Steinhausen. Janos Starker, a chamber-music student of Waldbauer’s, wrote that “in a two-hour session, you could learn more from him than in six months of cello lessons.” Waldbauer also taught two major figures in violin pedagogy, Kató Havas and Paul Rolland. All three students, in their own way, carried on something of the glorious Hubay legacy.