An Interview with Peter Gary, Composer
By Mary Hannon, Editor and Publisher of Piano Forte
Mary Hannon: When did music become important to you?
Peter Gary: I come from a musical Hungarian family. My aunt was a world famous pianist by the name of Lili Krause and my mother’s cousin was Eugene Ormandy, Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for many decades. I started piano lessons at age 5 and the first orchestral music I remember owning was a vinyl record of Ravel’s Bolero. It got my attention because of the haunting rhythmic pattern and textual building in the orchestra. From then on, music became my most intimate language.
MH: How did your career in music develop?
PG: After studying piano privately, I attended the National Music School while attending high school and then went on to the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. My intention was to become a composer/conductor rather than an instrumentalist because I realized early in life that I was not able to express myself mechanically with an instrument as well as hearing and writing as a composer or hearing and translating music with groups of musicians as a conductor. I had to learn to play an instrument in each orchestral group, practice all instruments and do the composition work. Often they would lend us out to play for opera or ballet rehearsals. It was a grinding existence.
MH: Tell us about your classes with Kodaly and Bartok.
PG: Kodaly and Bartok were colleagues at the Royal Academy at the same time. Both were exploring the melodies of peasants but Kodaly was very different from Bartok. He stayed within the accepted Western melodic style, was far more conservative in his orchestrations and the bulk of his music library consisted of choral music. He was the more accessible of the tow and taught solfeg and choral conducting. I took solfeg from him and I’d describe him as aloof, not your charming teacher. His method of choral conducting is still practiced today because it is considered the best method of communicating with choirs. When I was 17 and in the upper classes of the Royal Academy, my Aunt Lili recommended that I attend Bartok’s master class. She had studied piano with him and because of her, I was accepted as one of 7 students in his class. He never taught composition, only piano, so that was my only exposure to him. The 7 of us were pianists and composers but I was a poor example of a pianist. He asked each of us to play for him and after my performance he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You know, you’re not very good” and I said, “I know.” He said, “How come your aunt is” and I said, “Well, so it goes.” He asked me how I was going to make a living and I told him I wanted to be a conductor. Little did I know that both he and Kodaly hated conductors because they thought conductors screwed up their music.
MH: Were your master classes about piano technique and interpretation?
PG: No, they were more abstract. He wanted to know how we envisioned our musical life in view of what we had learned and experienced at the Royal Academy. It was quite rebellious in those days and there were two camps at the Academy – everyone was either a Wagnerian or a Debussyian. We Debussyians believed you can’t bang on the doors of Heaven with over-orchestrated garbage and the Wagnerians believed we were little tutu-dancer-people moving to the lean sensitivities of Debussy and Ravel. Bartok was greatly influenced by Debussy. I found Bartok to be a very quiet, shy, elegant man. Communicating in words was not his forte but he answered all our questions. We were baffled by his chromaticism. We learned that he was bringing music forward by interweaving 3 elements – modes, chromaticism and folk melodies. Music advances to new horizons when a composer has something to say and Bartok had a lot to say. This quiet man exploded with new ways to incorporate his ideas into different forms – piano, orchestra, opera - and always with the heart of the peasant unadulterated. Sincerity is very important in the arts and music is the most abstract of all the arts. European artists, during the tumultuous years of World War I and World War II, lived through social change that affected their music. Bartok, in his quiet way, incorporated a warning into his lectures of the different pitfalls that we could encounter by fate or fortune. He had an absolutely lasting effect on my life not only as a pianist and composer but also as an utterly genuine and sincere human being.
MH: Did you ever see him in America?
PG: No. He died in America a heartbroken man. He and his wife lived in a Hungarian lady’s house outside of New York City and he worked for Columbia University cataloguing folk songs for $2,000 a year. My uncle told me that when Bartok came to Los Angeles in the early ‘40s to give a recital at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, there were 46 people in attendance. When he was dying of leukemia, my Aunt Lili was instrumental in having Koussevitzky’s widow commission an orchestral work in honor of her late husband. Bartok received a cash advance for writing one of his last works, Concerto for Orchestra.
MH: Did you continue your musical career after the Royal Academy?
PG: No. Then came 3 ½ horrendous years during World War II when I was caught in the claws of history and taken to the Warsaw ghetto and 3 different death camps. I had a complete divorce from everything normal in my life, including my musical development. After liberation, I worked for the American Military as an interpreter and they transferred me to Paris where I continued my musical life with studies at the Sorbonne and classes at the conservatory. I conducted small orchestras in France and Germany before coming to the United States in 1950.
MH: What happened when you came to America?
PG: My uncle was a staff writer at MGM Studios and he got me into the Music Department that was full of Hungarians. I worked for Miklos Rosa who was set conductor at the time. I did orchestrations for the movie Quo Vadis, working at MGM for 4 ½ months before the Studio went under. Then I left music and developed a career in medical rehabilitation. I retired 16 years ago and wrote an oratorio that deals with the life and death of 6 million Jews 60 years ago. The title is The 20th Century Passion, for orchestra, chorus and soloists. It has been recorded and portions of it have been performed. I was a visiting professor at UCLA for 14 years and taught a special graduate course in ethnomusicology. I took my own experience and expanded it into how simple peasant melodies from countries such as Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia, impacted the music of composers like Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Khachaturian.
MH: What does music mean to you?
PG: On April 15, 1945, the day of my birthday, I was liberated from the death camp and I promised myself that I would use every second to enrich my life. I will follow the sun with music, sharing myself with others. Music is melody and rhythm, song and dance. Great artists don’t play instruments, they make music. Any person can fiddle with the blacks and whites and all of a sudden you hear yourself making music. By opening the door to this magical world you get the joy of your own participation in what Life is all about. And that is what music can provide.
From Piano Forte, Vol. 18, Number 4, Fall/Winter 2015
Original interview conducted in 2007
Used by Permission
Piano Forte is a quarterly publication for lovers of music, particularly those who have returned
to the piano as adults.
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