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Past Exhibition of the Month - December 2011

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SZERVÁNSZKY , Endre (b. Kistétény, Hungary, 27 December 1911; d. Budapest, 25 June 1977)

Endre Szervánszky, the 100th anniversary of whose birth falls on December 27th, was one of the most important and influential figures of post-war Hungarian musical life. (Over the years some confusion appears to have arisen regarding Endre Szervánszky’s correct date of birth. Earlier Hungarian sources give the correct date of 27 December, 1911, the date confirmed by close members of the composer’s family.) As a composer he assimilated the work of Bartók and Kodály and, though constrained by the Stalinist policies which enveloped the entire Soviet East-bloc, resolutely followed his own individual path. In the face of official disapproval, Szervánszky produced the first 12-note composition by a Hungarian composer and as a teacher inspired a whole generation of young composers who were to become the Hungarian avant-garde. He left a lasting impression on all who came into contact with him.

Born into an artistic family, (one artist, four professional musicians - and a pilot!), between 1922 and 1927 Szervánszky studied the clarinet at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest. After a period of study and performing with the family in Italy and Turkey, he returned to Budapest in 1931 to study composition with Albert Siklós.

He then taught music in various schools and his mature compositions date from this time. The piece which first caught the attention of the public was Szervánszky's First String Quartet (1936-8), a work of Bartók-like intensity and passion. (One should not underestimate the importance of Bartók and Kodály's ground-breaking ethno-musicological studies upon the musical life of Hungary. The 'Hungarian' works by Brahms and Liszt were actually gypsy in origin and, prior to the researches of Bartók and Kodály, the immensely rich body of real Hungarian folk music was largely unknown.)

With the outbreak of the Second World War and Hungary's alliance with fascist Germany, Szervánszky joined the illegal communist party and during the war was actively involved in saving the lives of many Jewish people, including his future wife and her son. For the help rendered to Jewish people during the period of the holocaust he was posthumously awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations in 1998 and his name added on the Righteous Honor Wall at Vad Vashem by the state of Israel.

Between 1945 and 1949 he worked as a music critic for the Szabad Nép ('Free People') newspaper and was eventually appointed professor of composition at the Liszt Academy in 1948. Works from this time include the Honvédkantáta ('Soldier's Cantata') (1949), the Clarinet Serenade (1950) and the Flute Concerto (1952-3). He was awarded the first of two Kossuth Prizes - Hungary's highest cultural award.

From the early 1950s Szervánszky embarked on a series of larger compositions, one of the longest being the Concerto for Orchestra in memory of the poet Attila József. Each of the concerto's five movements is based upon a quotation from József's works. Both the String Quartet no.2 (1956-7) and the Wind Quintet no.2 (1957).

Szervánszky continued to be politically active and was a leading member of the Hungarian Artists' Federation. His straight-talking criticism of the restrictive Soviet involvement in his country, which culminated in the brutal repression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, resulted in official repression of his compositions. At a time when performances of contemporary western music were severely restricted in Hungary, Szervánszky produced the first 12-note serial composition by a Hungarian composer, the Six Orchestral Pieces of 1959 - the work for which he would become best known. The first performance received such a rapturous reception that the authorities, fearing both Szervánszky's musical and political influence, immediately banned the work. It was not given a repeat performance or recorded until the 1970s.

Szervánszky did not compose another major work until 1963 - the oratorio Requiem - 'Dark Heaven', based on a text by János Pilinszky which takes the concentration camp of Auschwitz as its theme.Works which followed include the Variations for Orchestra (1964) and the Clarinet Concerto (1965). Endre Szervánszky then suffered a rather protracted period of illness and he died at his home in Budapest in 1977.

He was the brother of the post-impressionist artist, Jenö Szervánszky and the violinist, Peter Szervánszky who gave the Hungarian premiere of Bartók's second violin concerto.

Ronald Cavaye © 2011

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Teaching in the Liszt Academy (with the ubiquitous cigarette)! Teaching in the Liszt Academy (with the ubiquitous cigarette! Posthumous certificate of bravery awarded by the Hungarian government to Szervánszky for his help rendered to Jewish people during the Second World War.

The early Sonatina for 4 hands, 1950. Six Orchestral Pieces, 1959.

Szervánszky's principal works include:

Stage and vocal works

Napkeleti mese ('Oriental Tale'), (a 'dance play') 1948-9
Népdalszvit ('Folksong Suite'), 1949
Honvédkantáta ( 'Soldier's Cantata'), 1949
Tavaszi Szél ('Spring Breeze' cantata), 1950
8 Petöfi Songs, 1951
Petöfi Choruses, 1953
3 Songs, 1956-7
3 Male Choruses (ancient China), 1958
Requiem - 'Dark Heaven' to words by János Pilinszky (oratorio), 1963
Az éj - 'The Night' (cantata), 1974-5


3 Divertimenti, 1939, 1942, 1943
Serenade for strings, 1947-8
Rhapsody, 1950
Serenade for clarinet and orchestra, 1950
Flute Concerto, 1952-3
Concerto for Orchestra, 1954
6 Orchestral Pieces, 1959
Variations, 1964
Clarinet Concerto, 1965


String Quartet no.1, 1936-8
20 Little Duos for 2 violins, 1941
Sonata for violin and piano, 1945
25 Duos for 2 violins, 1946
Trio for flute, violin and viola, 1951
Sonatina for flute, and piano, 1952
Wind Quintet no.1, 1953
5 'Concert Etudes' for flute, 1956
Suite for 2 flutes, 1956
String Quartet No.2, 1956-7
Wind Quintet no.2, 1957
2 Duos for 2 flutes, 1972
7 Studies for flute, 1974-5


Folksong Suite, 4 hands, 1935
Little Suite, 1939
Sonatina, 1941
Sonatina, 4 hands, 1950