Born: 1904; Hungary
Died: October 5, 2001; Banff, AB, Canada
Perhaps no one is associated more closely with the music of Béla Bartók than his fellow Hungarian and longtime friend, Zoltán Székely, for whom that composer's famed Violin Concerto was written as a musical portrait. Székely studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, and at 18 was already appearing in public recitals alongside the famed Bartók. This partnership climaxed in 1939 in Amsterdam when Székely performed Bartók's new violinRead more extravaganza, the Violin Concerto, dedicated to Székely and created as his showpiece within its structural universe. Other collaborations between the friends came after the fact, such as the violinist's often-used arrangement of Bartók's Eight Hungarian Folk Dances set.
Székely's greatest fame came as first violinist of the long-running Hungarian String Quartet, a group he led from 1937 to 1972. It was no surprise to what extent this group became associated with the works of Bartók. Its recordings of his complete string quartets remain the critics' choice. In its early years, the ensemble was also prized for its interpretations of Beethoven. With whatever composition the quartet tackled, Székely was known for his extremely thorough preparation and analysis of the scores. When the Hungarian String Quartet relocated in the United States for the final 20 years of its flourishing career, it became the first highly reputed string quartet to base itself on American soil. After the quartet disbanded, Székely headed for a decidedly chillier atmosphere. He became artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre in the Rocky Mountains of Banff, Alberta, Canada. His work with this institution continued until his death in the fall of 2001 at the age of 97. In 1975, the province of Alberta granted the violinist special status as Alberta's violinist-in-residence and sent him traveling across the province to serve as a role model for developing musicians, often requiring hops over glaciers. He worked frequently during these later periods with the pianist Isobel Moore-Rolston.
One project that was accomplished during his time at Banff must have been very dear to his heart. In 1937, the violinist had composed a String Quartet and the composition had proceeded to languish in mysterious obscurity ever since. This extended work in eight movements work had never actually been performed until December 1999, at which time the New Zealand String Quartet took it on as a pet project. The group had been awarded a period of three years' sole performing rights to the composition. Members of the Kiwi group include cellist Rolf Gjelsten and violinist Douglas Beilman, both former students of Székely at the Banff institute, the obvious choice for the composition's world premiere. The writing was compared to both Bartók and Kodály, although members of the quartet also felt the presence of an original Székely spirit in the music. "As we played the quartet it was like entering a time tunnel," commented leader Helene Pohl. "Székely wrote as storm clouds of war gathered over Europe; somehow the music took us to that time and the work's conception." The New Zealand String Quartet planned to record the composition in 2001. The same year, the Banff Centre established an award in his honor of Székely, the Banff International String Quartet Competition. Read less
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