Birthday Letter to János Sebestyén

To the superb musician, to the radio polymath, to the outstanding colleague and friend on his birthday...

Although you've been a radio personality for just over half a century - its entire history is yours. You carry within yourself all of the radio's 77 years, along with the whole history of the 20th century, its marvels and monstrosities. With the genius of a creator and the sensitivity of a musician, you recreate historic symphonies or frail human miniatures, conjuring up both great spirits and dreadful memories of the past and present. You've created an inimitable radio genre, these "musical features," written memoirs of a bygone era reclaiming our spiritual past through a harmonious balance of original audio documents and other evidence that you have so relentlessly pursued.

However, you started your collecting and research from nothing. In the space of a decade and a half, the radio archives were twice destroyed. What WW II left untouched, the revolutionary storm in 1956 took away; human stupidity destroying what fragile shellac and tape had survived.

But you did not give up... you listened to every valuable fragment. With anxious care you transferred and preserved what you discovered, making them public knowledge in your hundreds of programs. And what you did not find, you uncovered from the debris of basements, from family estates, from the collections of many friends, or you searched for it during your concert tours around the world.

Today, there is not a music editor in the radio who directly or indirectly did not learn from your example: your sound musical instincts, the proportion in your programming, the "ins and outs" of reporting and your learned respect for past masters. There is no unimportant task at the radio because every moment of the broadcast is full of responsibility. Despite decades of professional routine, we cannot fail to be reminded of your careful preparation and planning (down to the second) incorporated into every program. The truth is, there are legends about you... your knowledge of recordings, groove by groove, or in your handling of a script for a live broadcast, where thousands of pieces must come together, and yet, despite the constraints, your flights of improvisation magically delight the senses.

Yet you still remain a mystery. Successful organist, professor and founder of the harpsichord department at the Academy of Music, visitor to every corner of the world with innumerable artist friends, students and admirers, and yet, again and again, you prefer to shyly withdraw into the musical and historical treasures, working passionately into the early hours.

We last worked together during the Béla Bartók Memorial Day in September, when the Bartók House and Bartók Radio had twelve hours of live programming, crowned with Those Radio Years. I asked you on the phone if it is possible to recall the connection of the composer and the radio for a special program in your series Diary of a Radio Man. I had barely hung up when your ideas began to flow, revealing Bartók through mysterious x-ray foils "only God knows from where," never broadcast concert tapes from Washington D. C. and report fragments; a true "Sebestyén" audio document. The two-hour program, never tedious, fascinated us with its authenticity.

Your decades long radio programs, month-by-month, open up and immortalize the last century's Hungarian history - and we are still only in the 1940s. We have no other choice but for you to continue to discover secrets for at least another half century. Your good health and undiminished energy will be happiness for us all. Hence, God give you long life and the love of friends for at least another 72 years!

With friendly admiration,

János Szirányi
March 2003

Special thanks to Ágnes Ivánffy for her assistance with this translation.


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