János Sebestyén Obituary

There were many sides to János Sebestyén. Few people, even among his friends, knew them all or were aware of his many accomplishments. To record collectors he was an enigmatic figure whose name appeared on often obscure recordings. In Hungary, concert audiences knew him from decades of performances on harpsichord and organ. For others he was a familiar presence on radio and television. His students often knew him only as their professor. I was privileged to experience first-hand his work in all these areas.

János Sebestyén was born in Budapest on 2 March 1931. Both parents were musicians - his father Sándor a cellist and mother Rózsi a pianist. His musical education began with his mother and continued at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music where he studied organ, piano and composition. He graduated with an organ diploma in 1955, a student of János Hammerschlag and Ferenc Gergely. His association with the harpsichord came about purely by chance. In 1957 he was asked to play the instrument for a performance of Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante. The harpsichord was unfamiliar to many in Hungary and this performance awakened an interest with both the public and a number of composers. Sebestyén soon established himself as the only concertizing harpsichordist in Hungary.

At the same time he worked at the Hungarian Radio. His career there began in 1950 and by 1962 he was writing and hosting his own programs. These broadcasts continued for 45 years and dealt not only with music, but also politics and history. He was a true reporter, never without camera and tape recorder. His most famous program, The Diary of a Radio Reporter, was a monthly broadcast that documented in sound the cultural and political events that had taken place fifty years previous to the air date. The radio was his life-long passion.

Sebestyén's performing career outside Hungary began in 1958 with a tour of Scandinavia. Russia followed in 1961 then Holland the following year. A tour of Italy in 1963 was pivotal in many respects and this country would become his second home. It was in Rome that he first met composer Miklós Rózsa, resulting in a life-long friendship. In Milan he was reunited with former Hungarian Radio colleague Thomas Gallia, a sound engineer now working as studio director at the Angelicum, an important cultural center with a permanent orchestra and recording studio.

Sebestyén's discography may be divided into two parts: the recordings made in Hungary, and those in Italy. Most of the recordings in Hungary were for the state label Hungaroton, while those in Italy were published by a number of labels in Europe and the United States. His association with Vox in New York came about after Gallia and Rózsa suggested him to George Mendelssohn, owner of the label. Mendelssohn, famous for his frugality, provided little money and expected his artists to work quickly. Sebestyén was rarely happy with the results; the recordings in Italy were rushed and the instruments he played were far from ideal. He said these recordings pursued him like phantoms, disappearing from one label, only to be resurrected on another. Some remained available for decades.

It was his collaboration with violinist Dénes Kovács for a 1970 recording of Corelli's sonatas that lead to the establishment of the harpsichord department at the Academy of Music. Kovács, then rector of the Academy, charged Sebestyén with the task of leading the department. While Sebestyén was never part of the early music movement, he provided every opportunity to expose his students to the newly emerging historical approach to the harpsichord, inviting prominent harpsichordists from throughout Europe for concerts and workshops. He encouraged his students to explore works outside the standard harpsichord repertoire and insisted they play new music. He wanted them to be as flexible as possible - to feel comfortable also at the piano or organ, and thus not limit themselves. He never considered himself a specialist, relying instead on his musical instincts to navigate the entire keyboard repertoire.

Sebestyén's personal life was as passionate and varied as his professional activities. His circle of friends included actors, artists, pilots, doctors and diplomats. It is no exaggeration to say that visitors flocked to his home, seeking knowledge and advice, or simply to enjoy his dark yet playful sense of humor. No one in Budapest was as well-connected - he knew everyone and had the ability to get things done. His accomplishments were many and there is no doubt he secured for the harpsichord a permanent place in Hungarian musical life and achieved near-legendary status at the Hungarian Radio. He was loved by his students, friends and colleagues, and for me, our friendship was both unexpected and rewarding. János Sebestyén died in Budapest on 4 February 2012.
Robert Tifft

This obituary was first published in the May 2012 issue of The Diapason.


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