Book Review: György Sebők: Words From A Master

György Sebők: Words From A Master, by Barbara Alex

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Carpe Diem Books in exchange for an honest review.]

In order to fully appreciate this book, one has to know a little bit about György Sebők, and thankfully, as this book was written by an appreciative student of that noted master pianist and pedagogue. Sebők was a native-born Hungarian Jew born in the interwar period, an early piano prodigy, who very early on sought to be captured by the music rather than merely play well-practiced music. After being drafted in 1943 into the German-ruled army, and then being sent to brutal work in the quarries, he found his experiences in World War II left him with a great sense of bitterness that closed his heart, which only opened later on when playing Bach-Busoni’s Toccata for organ, which opened the floodgates of his heart. After fleeing from Hungary in the 1956 revolution, he was an award-winning pianist who taught at Indiana University and also held noted summer master courses at Ernen in Switzerland as well as Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, which is where he taught the book’s author. He claimed to have no method and to be always improvising, but from the accounts of his former students here (he died in 1999), he was the sort of person who treated everyone he was teaching or talking with as if they were the focus of his gentle and sometimes paradoxical attention.

In terms of its contents, this book is an extremely thoughtfully displayed collection of Sebők’s wisdom, once the foreword and introduction are completed which put his wit and wisdom in its proper context. The author divides this immensely quotable wisdom [1] into themes like Tension or Resonate or Composers & Pieces, but there is some repetition in a good way, in the way that the same points are made obliquely, even paradoxically, to demonstrate the complexity of what a musician seeks to do in making the music and life of the composer he (or she) performs come alive. It is not merely enough to sing the notes, or to master the other elements written on the page, but one must have a sense of what drove the composer to create a piece, and to pour one’s passion and one’s being into one’s performing, to express what the music is communicating, to turn the notes into something living and breathing. With a little over 200 pages of very thoughtfully placed and organized thoughts, some of them fairly short in nature and others more lengthy, this book captures only a very small part of what was likely many volumes worth of humane wit and gently ambiguous wisdom from a thoughtful man who cared deeply about music and the people who make it.

This book is clearly a labor of love. Not only does it contain a great deal of wisdom, some of which is applicable to areas far outside music, and showing clearly the intense feeling of a man who knew the suffering of oppression and exile from his native land, and who also knew the love and fellowship of other musicians and the instruction that comes from making oneself familiar with great writing, but the book itself is a work of art. Just as György Sebők was a notable pianist, so too the book contains black and white put together in an artful form, from the piano key-inspired dust jacket to the way that most pages are white with black text but the pages that divide sections are black with white text, and the book as a whole is filled with elegant and classy black and white photos of the pianist, sometimes smoking with an elegant female companion, sometimes playing his beloved piano with eyes reverently closed, sometimes playing alongside a student in a classroom full of fellow musicians in rapt attention. The very text of this book is playfully and artfully displayed, in rising and falling text, with varying spaces between letters and words, sometimes in all caps, sometimes in bold or italics, sometimes in different sized font, sometimes divided by lines or with words (like control) surrounded by a harshly limiting box. At the end of this lovingly created book there are suggestions for further reading for those who wish to know more about György Sebők, and also a selected discography of his more notable performances over the course of his long and productive career. Surely, György Sebők was a man who had maximum output, and those who learned from him or have enjoyed his music will no doubt find much to appreciate in this book and in their memories of the man whose thoughts fill it so ably.

[1] See, for example:

“I am against effort, not work. Use minimum energy to get maximum results. Find satisfaction in output, not in input (44).”

“Break a pattern by changing other things. Practice changing your angle or view in relation to the keyboard. It starts a whole chain of liberation and breaks the pattern (59).”

“If I have nothing to say and I don’t say it, I don’t suffer. If I have something to say and I can’t say it, then I suffer. Music starts before the first note (88).”

“Beethoven was a nice man, but hated people. It is important to make this distinction, otherwise we get angry-sounding Beethoven (131).”

“You can produce Beethoven like the phone book or something very interesting. A good book should be very interesting, but the phone book should be very precise. If there’s a misprint in the good book, it’s okay, but if there’s a misprint in the phone book, that is a problem (140).”

“Few composers put so much pain into their music. It’s a kind of hopeless loving, a different kind of pain than Mahler, for example (153).”

“Re: Liszt Funerailles
The history of the people involved thirteen people being executed and Liszt knew several of these people. It’s like a political statement (171).”

“We see the obvious, but Mozart’s writing is one layer beyond the obvious. Play what Mozart wrote, and we gain positive ambiguity. Work against the obvious so it includes the obvious. In Mozart’s slow movements, when a theme appears twice, the second time almost always has an ornament, and that ornament shows the important part of the phrase (174).”

“Show your wounds. Understated is different from secret (175).”

“Things go wrong by accident. They go right not by accident (194).”

“Every note is preceded by fear and followed by guilt. It’s a terrible curse. To get rid of ourselves is difficult, because we’re always here (223).”

“Understanding globally cannot contain details, much like the map and the territory. The map would have to be the actual size to show everything and then you wouldn’t need a map. The map is not the territory. The territory is a primal experience. The map is the printed page. Music is the map. It has musical directions but leads to obedience, not understanding. Our job as a performer is to make sense of it. Read his mind, otherwise we get lost in or with the obvious (226-227).”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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