Tribute to Béla Katona

Bela Katona (1920 -2018)

A revered teacher remembered with fondness and gratitude by a former pupil.

I was a full-time pupil of Bela Katona for some ten years from the late 1970's. Later in life, and after a longish gap as I made my own way in the profession, I rekindled my relationship with him as I took to him various portions of the violin repertoire. The last time I saw him was in 2014 when he directed from his sick bed a life-affirming and emotionally revelatory crystallization of the G major Sonata opus 78 of Brahms. Few people who experienced his music making as a teacher and guide ever forgot the clarity and truthfulness of these sessions. As an example, I remember taking the Bartok Second concerto to him in March 2007 in preparation for a forthcoming performance; present was a pianist who had never worked with him before, a former pupil and conductor, and an interested observer. Over the course of some uninterrupted 5 hours we made our way through this vast concerto as its workings, its outer and inner life, its form and detail were revealed to us. It was nothing short of a revelation. We staggered away from the unlikely setting of the house in suburban Wimbledon into early evening Spring sunshine unable to speak, aware only that to say anything would be to break the spell and bring down to the level of normal life an experience of sustained and heightened knowledge. Working with him on the Beethoven concerto, the Schumann d minor Sonata, works by Szymanowski, Bartok, Paganini, Brahms and Bach have left a sort of burning emblem in my consciousness of what this music could and should be. It has informed everything I have been able to undertake later in life where my hand has been free enough to allow these things to happen.

In some senses he left me with a problem when, from the mid 1980's, I commenced my professional life as a violinist. The problem was that music without him around seemed so much smaller and less vital. Though I have played and been part of some wonderful musical highs and observed at close hand some of the musical magicians and seers of an era - Tennstedt, Svetlanov, Solti, Davis - to name but a few, the fact is that Bela has remained for me the gold standard for musical truth-telling.

And yet this was only half the story. Commencing study with him at Trinity College of Music where his small class met him for individual lessons twice a week, my ill-coordinated talent was given the framework and minute and careful training in how to play the violin. He asked only that I give him all my energy and enthusiasm - and a minimum of 6 hours practice a day. Like any late starter, I was the one at the front of the class eager to be told what I must do and I submitted myself to as demanding a schedule of practice as I could take. Always utterly clear in my mind as to why I was doing what I was, I was cajoled, chided, coaxed and pushed to levels of work that probably seemed incomprehensible to those looking on.

And yet with a gathering perception of progress to spur me on, I slowly but surely learnt to climb all over the instrument with a finger touch and bow hold that had a Zen-like avoidance of muscular contortion. Long periods of technical work would then give way to the study and preparation of repertoire - the choice sometimes dictated by him, sometimes chosen by me. Though the force of his personality was colossal, somehow I emerged from all this stronger in my sense of myself and my own potential as a communicator. This is so often a central problem in the transmission of classical music from teacher to pupil. Where outward results might be a highly polished coached performance, the cost to the student can be a reduced sense of authentic 'self' and a contraction of fundamental energy to take forward. His teaching, on the other hand, was always an affirmation of a sense of deepest feelings, an enlargement of power and an affirmation of the imaginative, the felt, the understood.

That so few knew of his genius is baffling. Several things did not help him here. His scrupulous adherence to an older style of teacher/pupil relationship - a certain remoteness on the personal level meant he gained few doctrine-declaring disciples; I, to this day, still know so little about him and the details of his life. A shyness and lack of appetite for self-promotion that were probably viewed as bordering on arrogance from the outside, might have made him seem aloof to some. And an impatience, usually followed by dismissal in his estimation, with those who didn't grasp what he and his seriousness of purpose were about - however influential and powerful these people were - could have had a similar effect. As well, there were his two roles; his helping of those who had got into physical difficulty with their playing whilst already into a playing career may have resulted in his being cast too much as a rescuer and healer; a disentangler of muscles and mind. This too, was often a necessarily private affair. Though this ability alone was a unique and invaluable gift, to my mind his real genius lay in his transmission of the essence of music, as an advocate for the highest and noblest aspirations of the student - themselves often only dimly aware of such things. We shall not see his like again.

Thomas Bowes

1st March 2018