A young, Hungarian talent – organ stories of András Gábor Virágh
20th June, 2012. Gabriella Bokor
It is a special experience when the organ player of the Basilica, awarded with the Junior Prima prize in 2011, leads a journalist to the organ through mysterious doors, spiral staircases and corridors hidden from public view. András Gábor Virágh explained to me the functions of the keys, and also showed me the different effects of the instrument. András has been an organ player in the Basilica since 2010. In addition, he composes musical pieces that are played by more and more players in Hungary and worldwide. He organized his diploma concert in composition at the beginning of June. After examining the organ thoroughly, we talked about the instrument, composing and the more prosaic things in life in a café not far from the Basilica.
– Where, at which location did you feel that all conditions for playing are optimal?
– In Nantes where I played in October 2005. The cathedral is massive and beautiful. I can compare the organ to meeting a beautiful, ageing lady, who must have been a beauty when she was young and is still very noble, but is at the same time a little out-of-date. Maybe this is the reason why it was so good to play there: the instrument was far from perfect, but it had a beautiful texture, the organ player and the audience were really nice, I had an own apartment just opposite the church, and the priest took me kayaking, so things worked out well. Additionally, people were much friendlier than in Paris.
– How do such invitations come around?
– I started playing in the Downtown Parish Church where my grandfather used to be the musical director, and now this position is filled by my father. I had played a number of masses here, and at the end of one, I was contacted by a gentleman who told me that he had really liked what he had heard, and he would love to refer me to Nantes through his contacts. It is strange, but this is how things actually happen. I have received several invitations to different festivals just because they have heard me play. Quite a few times have I been asked if I compose pieces by any chance?
– Obviously they noticed how well you can improvise. This is one of the skills an organ player must have, right?
– Yes. This is because there are several segments in Catholic liturgy whose length cannot exactly be defined – and these must be filled with music. Therefore, it is not really recommended to play one piece or another, but one has to improvise. For example, you cannot tell if the next segment of the mass is going to take three or eight minutes, or if one priest will provide Eucharist to two or three hundred people or three or four priest would do the same. In addition, different songs must be introduced each time.
– Last year, you played the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is exhilarating to enter that building as a tourist, let alone an artist.
– Exhilarating is a mild expression compared to that, since it is the centre of the Catholic Church, and only rarely do they organize organ concerts there. A version of Ferenc Liszt’s Esztergom mass was composed with the consent of the Master, but for some strange reason, it was never presented, and it wasn’t even published. A manuscript of this piece, which was written for an organ, strings choir and four soloists, was found in my father’s archive of sheet music. After two years of discussion, we managed to present this piece in Saint Peter’s Basilica. This piece premièred in Rome, additionally, it was presented during a mass, so this has been a significant milestone in my church music career.
– Hopefully, you will have some similar experiences as well. You have mentioned your father and grandfather. Many do not like learning from family members, but you seem to be an exception from this rule.
– It would have been silly to skip this opportunity. They are both great teachers, and taught the basics not only to me, but to other organ players as well. I have benefited a lot from their ways of thinking, and, of course, from others’ ways of thinking as well.
– So the teacher-student relation seemed to work within the family.
– Absolutely. Since an early age, I have wanted to learn and acquire more and more, because I think this is a key motivation in every subject. And anyway, people tend to lose what doesn’t apply to them after a while. Around the age of thirteen my father, who still has a good sense for pedagogy, told me that I should not choose this profession just because of them. However, if I wanted to start, it was time to start then. Of course, I had been playing the piano before that.
– Have you ever had the feeling that you only learn music to comply with the expectations of the family?
– No, never! They should have locked me away from the piano rather than encouraging me to play, so there was no question in my case. Sometimes I told my parents that I had to start school early, and went on to practice in the church… My granddad had tons of sheet music – not only organ pieces, but all sorts. I was always looking at these – this was a pastime for me in my teenage years. From an early age, it was a hobby of mine. If I wasn’t playing in the church, practising or composing pieces, then I was observing sheet music. This is what happened until the age of seventeen, then I realized I need friends and company too.
– Especially, considering that composing music and playing the organ are sort of lonely activities. By the way, where could you practice? I assume there were no organs at home.
– No, there wasn’t one at home except for my granddad’s small, three register organ, which, I believe, is in my father’s possession now. On Saturdays, I always visited my grandparents, and my grandfather was my first teacher. So I could practice there, but rather, I practised in the church. I played six or seven masses a week, which is more than enough, and after the evening mass I usually stayed to practice till eleven or midnight. I could get away with this, because I finished the last two years of Béla Bartók Secondary School of Music as a correspondence course. It was a lot easier this way, since I had to attend school two mornings a week. Practising till midnight was not a problem.
– The organist of the Basilica plays concerts regularly, and gets a lot of requests to compose pieces. Which do you think will come to the forefront in the future? Playing the instrument or composing? Or can they run consecutively?
– They should run consecutively, since both activities are organic parts of my life. By the way, a piece about to be born is similar to having a child. It may sound trivial, but this is true. I can see it conceive, I can see how it is born, at the same time, I can see its mistakes as well, but it is my own. And it is a lot closer relationship than playing others’ pieces. I was only five when I was writing little pieces of music, and I copied some excerpts from the works of Back as a gift to my grandparents. It all came naturally to me, in spite of the fact that I did not really know what composition was at that time. It was quite evident for me to write little “pieces” based on the shapes and genres I was listening to.
– When you compose, don’t you want to play your own pieces?
– Not really. I hardly ever write music for keys. I only have one or two pieces for organs, because I play this instrument more than enough, I believe. I prefer dealing with chamber music. So, in most cases I don’t get to play my own music, therefore, I have to acknowledge the fact that I can make up any structure or concept I want to, performers may not play it at all, if they don’t like it. Maybe on the night of the premier, but not by themselves. The fact that I also play an instrument helps me better understand their situation.
– So the most ideal case is if you know the performer and their strengths.
– In general, I know who will play my work, because I am lucky enough to continuously get requests from ensembles or performers. Quite a lot of things have to be considered, and it is essential to know the characteristics of a given instrument, and I have to consider the general performer and the actual performer in question. I have to arrange it a way so that the specific performer can play my piece, but even if they are gifted with special skills, they should not be the only ones who can actually play my work. If only one person can perform my piece in this country, then this is it. My composition would be forgotten. I believe that a composer should never force extreme difficulties, because then performers tend to choose a different piece, since they usually have a wide repertoire. So, as you can see, many factors have to be considered.
– I have noticed you compose quite a few pieces for saxophone. You must be in love with this instrument.
– Very much so. If you get to know a performer that can inspire you, well, that might result in a long-term professional relationship and friendship. I have written several pieces for Erzsi Seleljo playing sax, and quite a few were composed for her and her sister, Irén who plays the piano.
– You have also mentioned that you must be familiar with the instrument. At the same time, you can’t learn to play each of them – saxophone, for example.
– No, I can’t play the saxophone, so I can’t completely get to know it. You can only learn the characteristics of an instrument that you can play. However, if I listen to a lot of other compositions, and I ask musicians to talk about their instruments, then I can discover and feel the instrument without actually being able to play it. A chamber piece was played at my diploma concert for a soprano clarinet and a string quartet. The violinists told me that the piece was absolutely playable, there is one position in the second violin which is a bit inconvenient. So this is how you can learn: you compose pieces and let others play them. I never release score until I find a performer I trust whom I ask to play their parts. And I might get surprised, even after these preventive measures.
– When watching some romantic movies, laymen tend to think that composers walk around with fluffy hair, and when inspiration comes, they rush back home immediately to jot down the melodies. At the same time, we know that Schubert had a strict schedule to compose every day. Do you have any sort of schedule for composing?
– No, sometimes composing takes it all, and sometimes I don’t write a single note for weeks. My life doesn’t make it possible for me to run a pre-arranged schedule for composing, because I have to go to the university to learn as well as teach, and, as a church musician, I have no free Sundays or holidays. But I don’t mind this at all. You need to take a break every once in a while with music, you can’t be jotting down notes, practice, play the instrument all your life, because you’d get full. It is better this way, because playing the organ and composing are substitutes to each other. I need to play Bach from time to time to act as a performer. I can get really tired of composing, at the same time it keeps me energized. It makes me depleted, but I can’t sleep, because my mind is still active. This is when I must play for a while, because the best way to ease the tension caused by music is to play music. Swimming doesn’t help.
– Is it easier for you to fall asleep after a concert?
– Yes, a little bit easier, because you can get rid of your energy then. Composing is different, because the composer writes the piece, but they will play no part in performing it.
– In addition to music, what other ways of relaxation do you know?
– I swim quite a lot, and I love playing with Lego. My sets of Lego were the best toys of my childhood. Last year there was a day when I felt that I couldn’t stop my brain and I had to do something. I noticed a Lego car in a shop window, and I bought it immediately. Sometimes I play with it, it really turns me off. Composing is very similar to it. You have the building blocks, and you can assemble them as you want. Some like it, some don’t. It’s all in the game.
English translation: translating.hu