Bálint András Varga: Skillful Interviewer and New-Music Advocate

Bálint  András Varga, author of four widely hailed books for the University of Rochester Press, died on New Year’s Eve 2019. A few years ago, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross called this quiet, attentive man “one of the great listeners in the recent history of music” for his keen musical responsiveness and his ability to elicit startling confessions from movers and shakers in our musical world.

Bálint András Varga (born in 1941) was one of the University of Rochester Press’s most prolific and admired authors. We published four of his books, which focus almost entirely on the challenges that serious composers of concert music and opera have faced in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Image by Andrea Felvégi

I was delighted when Bálint brought his first manuscript to us. It consisted of comments by the great Hungarian-Jewish composer György Kurtág (b. 1926) on his own music and that of his slightly older contemporary (from a similar background) György Ligeti. The book came out in 2009 and was widely welcomed, not least because Kurtág has rarely allowed himself to be interviewed.

Bálint’s next URP book really made the musical world sit up and take notice. Three Questions for 65 Composers is a slim but astounding volume: as conductor Simon Rattle has put it, the book is “necessary reading for all who care about the music of our time.” The composers who agreed to answer Varga’s intriguing questions range from Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, and Sofia Gubaïdulina to John Cage, Elliott Carter, and Steve Reich.

Bálint next translated for us a selection of interviews he had done in earlier years, with such notable figures as violinist Yehudi Menuhin, pianist Alfred Brendel, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. At my insistence, he enriched the book with recollections of his own life as a Hungarian Jew under Nazi and then Communist rule. These sometimes-amusing, often-gripping chapters give great insight into the structures of musical life in Hungary, including at the state-owned radio network (where he worked in the 1960s) and in the music-publishing business (in Budapest, with sidelights also on his experiences in Vienna and London).

Though his health began to decline a few years ago, he rallied superbly for a new set of interviews with composers, with a different set of intriguing questions for them to answer. This time, he probed how a composer deals with and often may resist the expectations of those around him: performers, fellow composers, critics, and the listening public. He gave the book a very pointed title (with lapidary touches of alliteration): The Courage of Composers and the Tyranny of Taste. Once again, a stellar list of leading figures rose to his challenge, including John Adams, George Crumb, Pascal Dusapin, Libby Larsen, Wolfgang Rihm, and music critic Paul Griffiths (himself a multiple-book URP author).

Though I exchanged hundreds of emails with Bálint over a dozen years, we never met. Still, his personality came through time and time again: his concern for accuracy, his love of finding the right English word (we rarely had to tweak his prose), and his passion for compositions that try to do things in a new way instead of repeating well-established patterns.

Now that I think of it, Bálint himself did this in his four books for URP: each one has its own character and shape. Yet one can make fascinating connections between them, such as by comparing what Kurtág, Gubaïdulina, and other recurring “visitors” said to him in one book and then in another.

I just wrote to Bálint’s family, expressing my regret that I never got to meet a man who became for me a trusted penpal. But his books will endure. They are cited in program notes, magazine articles, and scholarly studies. More basically, they make for extraordinary, and often very entertaining reading. One turns the pages and watches the sparks fly between a composer and a soft-spoken but very shrewd interviewer.

URP is proud to have made his books available for the pleasure of readers—and his fellow listeners—around the world.

by Ralph P. Locke, Senior Editor, Eastman Studies in Music (University of Rochester Press)

Michael Richards, International Sales and Marketing Director, adds:

My colleague, Ralph Locke, has provided an excellent overview of Bálint’s publications and his importance to the field of modern concert music, but he was a man who responded thoughtfully to all the arts – especially painting. Three Questions includes fascinating images that fall somewhere between musical scores and fine art by a number of composers and he was thrilled when we were able to use an abstract painting by British artist, Caro Woods, for the jacket of his book, From Boulanger to Stockhausen.

He introduced me to inspiring artists I’d never encountered before, such as the controversial Austrian painter and draughtsman, Alfred Hrdlicka, and a number of so-called Outsider artists whose work pushed boundaries every bit as much as some of his favourite composers. He was also enormously encouraging about my own artistic endeavours and, when I once expressed frustration with what I felt was my own lack of progress, gave me some good advice which I keep close to hand to this day:

Insecurity and dissatisfaction with one’s work are part and parcel of being an artist. It would be tragic if you were perfectly happy with what you are doing: you would have no incentive to search and experiment further.

Thank you, Bálint, for several years of friendship, guidance and encouragement. You’ll be missed by many here at Boydell & Brewer and the University of Rochester Press.


The Courage of Composers and the Tyranny of Taste

By Bálint András Varga

9781580465939, Hardback, £16.25 or $25.97

From Boulanger to Stockhausen

By Bálint András Varga

9781580464390, Hardback, £19.50 or $25.97

György Kurtág

By Bálint András Varga

9781580463287, Hardback, £16.25 or $32.47

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers

By Bálint András Varga

9781580463799, Hardback, £16.25 or $32.47

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