János Sebestyén Obituary

An earlier version of this obituary was published in the May 2012 issue of the magazine The Diapason.

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 as organist and harpsichordist. 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 formal music education began at the State Music Secondary School in 1946 as a student of pianist István Antal, organist János Hammerschlag, and composer Ervin Major. He continued his studies with Ferenc Gergely at the Academy of Music, where he graudated with an organ diploma in 1955. His association with the harpsichord came about by chance in 1957 when he was asked to play the instrument for a performance of Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante. The harpsichord was unfamiliar to audiences in Hungary and this performance awakened an interest with both the public and a number of composers. Sebestyén soon established himself as Hungary's leading harpsichordist.

At the same time he was working for Hungarian Radio. His career there began in 1950 and from 1962 he was writing and hosting his own programs. These broadcasts continued for forty-five years, dealing not only with music, but politics and history as well. 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 prior to the airdate. 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 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. The recordings in Italy were always rushed and the instruments far from ideal. Sebestyén, rarely happy with the results, once commented “... you cannot be free from the records, they are coming after you. You want to hurry away, but the records are following ...” Some of these records remained available for decades.

It was his collaboration with violinist Dénes Kovács for a 1970 recording of Corelli's sonatas that led 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 musically. 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 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