Arthur Frid about his father
Wartime in Amsterdam *
In Hungarian“Come out from under the table, kid. They’ve left!” It is one of my first childhood memories. Pa together with Ma, terrified by the balcony window – petrified in silhouette – and little ‘Thur instinctively hiding under the large oak dinner table. The English bombers screaming down right above our house, to bombard the Gestapo headquarters a few streets further on.
Wartime in Amsterdam. Even a born optimist like my father was subject to the “everything’s in vain feeling”, as he would explain in his autobiography [poem] half a century later. A former Hungarian with increasing international fame as a pianist-composer “living in the Netherlands”, now as a stateless Jew condemned to the – in his view – worst possible sentence: not working!
Forbidden to work, forbidden to travel, the Jewish star, outlaw. Occupying himself for years with endless card games with fellow sufferers and countrymen. Somber, fatalistic. Even so, the twinkle remained, even if it appeared for only a fraction of a second. Sometimes little Arthur would be summoned to the living room: “Say something in Hungarian!”. Now, this shrimp’s knowledge of foreign languages was restricted to just one long, drawn-out but perfectly formed sentence, which he would obediently recite. Whereupon the men would always, without fail, fall about laughing. (Only about fifteen years later would it become apparent exactly what a coarse damnation had emanated from this little man’s uninhibited lips …)
Fear, hunger and thirst, in hiding. Listening to English radio (strictly forbidden, so “concealed” under the cloth on the occasional table), the clandestine and therefore highly dangerous house concerts (at home or at friends’ houses), a sten gun in the piano (but no idea how it worked), and later the activities in the resistance movement (with his friend Sándor Baracs, commander of the Amsterdam Home Guard, and colleague Bertus van Lier, head of the artists’ resistance, as contact persons).
Whimsical and brilliant
The delivery of Eylarda Frid-van Hall, just before the war, lasted more than fifty hours: both mother and son only just survived it. To the doctor’s enquiry as to whether this was her first (yes), my mother, though only half conscious, is said to have answered, with absolute veracity, “No doctor, my last!”.
For the proud ancestor, for that moment oblivious to the threat of war, there was concern of quite a different calibre: the acid test, so to speak. The true Frid in the male lineage has a characteristic spot on the left ear. To his relief he could personally confirm that this weighty tradition was tangibly maintained then in 1939, and 30 years later in the case of grandson Igor [photo] .
Whether my parents’ marriage was indeed the “harmonious alliance” [photo] reported by the papers in 1937 is a matter of some doubt. Ella was a most promising singer and pianist [poster] [article] from a wealthy, authentic Dutch aristocratic family, who consistently, but without much success, resisted the traditional role of the housewife; indifferent health, a fan of Agatha Christie, and obsessed by philosophy. Géza, hailing from a simple labourer’s family in a small East-European provincial town, was a creative and performing artist in heart and soul: whimsical and brilliant, domineering and a bon vivant.
Even so, they managed to sustain almost fifty years together in their rented house at the edge of Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, near the Concertgebouw. In one mysterious way or another, they could not manage without each other. “Les extremes se couchant”, my father would say.
In 1948 Frid was, at long last, naturalized. ‘The Hungarian Dutchman’ soon became one of the key figures in our national musical life. As concert pianist, as accompanist and sometimes as conductor he went on tours all over the world. He began to win prizes for his compositional work both at home and abroad; he received commissions and was for many years one of the most frequently performed Dutch composers, along with Hendrik Andriessen, Henk Badings and Léon Orthel. He became music editor for the newspaper Het Vrije Volk and later professor of chamber music at the Utrecht Conservatory. He served in the management team of BUMA (the Dutch organization responsible for performing rights), and was the champion of his two teachers, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. He wrote dozens of articles: about music, of course, but also about other art forms, politics and literature.
My adolescence *
It was at that time – my adolescence – that I began to rebel against everything that bore the slightest hint of serious music. I had by then had piano lessons from the age of four, followed in rapid tempo by violin, recorder and composition lessons. Downstairs, mum at the piano, with her unpretentious singing; upstairs, dad at the piano, with that endless, monotonous studying, rehearsing and composing. And for ever and always going along to dad’s concerts.
You’d go to the home of a schoolmate for the first time. Yes, the inevitable: “And might you be the son of Géza Frid?” I hated it, really hated it. “No, mam, I’m just Arthur, and no, I’m not named after Toscanini”, but I never said that.
As soon as I possibly could, I grabbed at the chance to back out as quickly as possible from all my musical duties, with the excuse of “much too much homework”. Football in the street, liberating apples from the neighbours, playing jazz records, or, worse, rock ’n roll! My mother moved heaven and earth to save the apple of her eye for ‘real’ music. My father reacted as only he could: “Men don’t talk” (about their emotions, he meant). It was one of his many unshakeable principles, to which he adhered with almost dogmatic precision. So he said nothing and just acquiesced.
I must say, it worked well. For I knew without its being spoken that he might bestow on me an unprecedented musicality, a shining career, but also that I could with his full approval become a rag-and-bone man. Without recrimination. My father in turn knew that I sometimes found his compositions quite beautiful and his music on the piano often boring but beautifully played, hey Dad? Yet, “One doesn’t say such things”.
My father as a father. I couldn’t have done better. My mother did herself justice and showered her only child with loving care and attention. And my father in the role of educator? Again, I couldn’t have wished for better. Elbows on the table, coming home too late – everything was all right by him. “Géza, for goodness’ sake say something for once!” my mother would sigh in desperation. If, as far as she was concerned, I had to help with the washing-up, then as far as he was concerned I could come for a round of chess in his study, because, “The boy is already so busy at the grammar school”.
And so on. But when my parents argued, I always took the side of my mother, as a kind of penance. She needed that, and he knew it.
Try sometime – as “the son of” – to characterize such a man in just a few words!
Work. Work was his life. He pursued it with a rigid self-discipline. When he was at home, that meant the study from 9 a.m. until noon, from 2 to 5 p.m. and from 8 to 10 p.m. In his sixties and beyond he kept the evenings free to watch – read, fall asleep in front of – the television. Until his seventieth birthday never a day sick and never any holiday, but in the summer preferably “gloriously alone in the heat” composing somewhere in southern Europe. Often travelling as pianist: he gave more than 2000 concerts.
The contradiction. When my father had a performance coming up, he would appear at a mealtime downstairs in dressing gown for a light meal (scrambled egg with bread, and some fruit added – “vegetables are for cows”), telling round the table a series of rather flat jokes before escaping for half an hour in the bath. With coffee. And in the evening, there is that dad then, in another dimension, in the Concertgebouw, distinguished in dress suit, concentrated, virtuoso.
Géza hungered after knowledge and was blessed with a photographic memory. Interested in science, socially involved and fascinated by space flight. For his own pleasure he read all parts of the encyclopaedia (bought in instalments) from A to Z and back again – “Only nature can be stolen from me” – spoke seven languages and was a devotee of literature (Goethe, Romains and Zola, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and Zweig, but also … Churchill and Hitler).
His circle of friends was immense: Wolfgang Wijdeveld, Zoltán Székely, Marius Flothuis, Theo Olof and Herman Krebbers, Jo Juda, Tibor Serly, Sonja Gaskell, Lex van Delden, Dick and Christiaan Bor, Godfried Bomans, André Gertler, Luctor Ponse, Erna Spoorenberg, to name but ‘just’ a few. He had, of course, his opponents, too, not surprising in view of his politically left-wing leanings and his flamboyant character.
He was totally impractical, could literally not get a drawing pin into a wall, was not in the slightest hindered by false modesty, hated every form of materialism and was a convinced atheist. He liked working with contrasts, held firmly to self-control, hated flowers and was a gourmet – “Boiled potatoes must be banned” – talented in acting and improvising, a romantic, too, crazy about symbolism, numerism, alliterations and the discovery of new words.
He claimed widely in the early 1930’s, when he still spoke hardly any Dutch, to have invented a term in Dutch (lekkertje), roughly translated ‘tasty little thing’, equivalent to ‘chick’. This would not surprise me in view of his preoccupation with female beauty. At the end of the day, this attractive preoccupation even determined his choice to settle in Amsterdam rather than in Brussels, London or Paris!
Sport: important. Countless appointments would be rearranged for large competitions to be followed – football and athletics, especially the World Cup series and the Olympic Games. He was an unconventional and therefore excellent chess player. His proverbial luck at table tennis or billiards (an astounding number of edge and net balls and ricochets) was acknowledged by friend and foe alike: the so-called ‘Frid shot’. Also hereditary through the male line, it would seem. Also at tennis he seems to have been the Vice Champion of Marseilles, or perhaps even of the South of France. In doubles, with a ‘chick’, of course. That went, according to legend, more or less as follows. First round: exemption in the draw. Second round: opponent’s ankle injury: abandoned. Third round: walkover. Quarter final: opponent gets ball in eye: abandoned. Semi-final: abandoned due to ill health. The legend does not recount how the final went. It will have been 6-0, 6-0: exhausted, I suspect.
Finally, humour ran through his colourful life as an illuminating thread. In fact, he made jokes about everything. Always. He had the tendency to colour reality, expand it somewhat. Exaggerate, you could say. In my eyes this is a common artistic exercise, providing some relief from ordinary everyday life. Because, if there was something he really hated, it was the ‘happy medium’, the middle course.
“Géza’s jokes are serious stuff”, my mother said. “And the other way round”, he would invariably add.
There’s something in that.
Just simply telling a joke was not his style. No, there always had to be some association or other, a motivation (if necessary, self-created). Especially filthy, obscene or otherwise shocking jokes could count on a willing ear and an even more graphic reproduction from his side, where that was possible. What was attractive for my father, I’m afraid, was especially the constant repetition. And the anti-humour, the unfunny, apparently working towards a punch line, with a great deal of fuss and verbosity, only to leave everything in the middle. Telling stories, creating situations, the pleasure in which was totally and exclusively that of the teller himself.
It’s time for school. The doorbell rings: a friend comes round to collect me.
“Hello boy, what’s your name?”
“And your surname? Arend, too, sir: Arend Arend.”
“That’s nice! Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Yes, sir, one brother, Piet.”
“So of course he’s called Piet Piet, hey?”
“No sir: Piet Arend!”
Mission accomplished, great mirth. And imagine that continuing for years on end …
Another ‘classic’ example, during the Hoogoven chess tournament, artists’ group. Pa opens with d2-d4 and asks his opponent in perfect seriousness: “Resign?”. Godfried Bomans and Frid are flying to Budapest. A German is sitting next to them. “Look at that, there’s a Volkswagen driving along”, they say in German to each other, flying above Munich. “But there are an awful lot of Volkswagens in Germany”, explains their neighbour, helpfully.
Hilarity for days on end.
One of Boman’s regularly returning dead-enders, that I considered ‘stupid’ at the time, but later actually rather nice, was the following. “Pleasant guy, that Jan, and always so modest!” (as one says in polite Dutch usage). “Modest, where?”, was Boman’s regular response.
Youthful sentiments *
“Men don’t talk.” Except when they’re in Géza’s native country. Then father and son walk as a matter of course arm-in-arm through Budapest. In Amsterdam they would never imagine doing something like that! And you see, suddenly loads of youthful sentiment and other feelings are released from the realms of taboo and, often on location, made public (i.e. to Frid Junior). The son has in the meantime himself become a father. That helps.
So the ‘old man’, or ‘oldie’ as I had to call him once he became a grandad, recalled during a tour of the beautiful Ferenc Liszt Academy ‘the triumph’ from his conservatory days. On one occasion he left the building at the same time as his teachers Bartók and Kodály, both of whom were already unassailable celebrities. By chance the three of them went the same way, Géza in the middle. Suddenly he saw in the distance his mother approaching with her shopping bag. He quickly took the arms of both companions and passed her by, engaged in lively conversation, too busy to notice her. Perplexed stares followed him.
He told of his boyhood years in ‘the paradise’: his native town Máramarossziget in north-eastern Hungary, “One of the most beautiful and healthy areas on earth”. He told of the barren pilgrimage together with his father to Yasnaya Polyana, in Russia, where he had “ridden piggy-back on the shoulders of Tolstoy”. He spoke about the move with his parents 500 km westwards to the capital so that he could continue his piano studies there at the age of nine. About the deep poverty during his student years in Budapest – how for toothache he visited three separate dentists to avoid paying, and so forth … About his ‘piano craze’, with sometimes twelve to fourteen hours’ practice per day, his ‘nocturnal escapades’ on the hills of Buda. About his experiences in Italy and France, before he went to the Netherlands.That, for example, he once, together with his already famous friend, the violinist Zoltán Székely, had performed at the house of the even then notorious Mussolini. That, in his then home town of Marseilles, he went for a drink after an exhausting concert, and that the cabaret artist upon my father’s entry – shabby raincoat over evening suit, wearing an alpine hat – immediately and precisely on the mark had commented, “Voilà le type qui vient d’échapper de la prison”. (There you have the type who’s just escaped from prison.) That he had there withstood for once the charms of a ‘chick’ because he was simply too tired. And that he a little later, on the way home, was accosted by a mumbling old whore who attempted to seduce him with, as special recommendation, “Pas des dents, monsieur, pas des dents!”. And so he recounted and recounted ….
Back to paradise
True, he confirmed. Little Géza had given his first piano concert at the age of six. So what? Wonder children, I understand, were to be found by the dozen in that world. Nothing special. The director of the Liszt Academy would always address his students: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children and child prodigies!”. It was very special, however, for my mother and me to be able to tread for the first time, in 1971, in the footsteps of ‘the oldie’ and to witness his historic comeback in the same building in which, exactly 60 years earlier, he had made his debut. Máramarossziget was in the meantime renamed Sighetul Marmatiei; eastern Hungary had become western Romania, with a fearsome fanatic communist regime. The word had got around about “the return of a famous artist from the west”. Civic reception and weighty government officials fussing around. The state television sent a TV crew from Bucharest (800 km!) who dragged bright lamps, cables and cameras back and forth across the podium during the concert.
But the overfull, dingy hall with its wooden floor accommodated an authentic and enthusiastic audience on squeaky chairs; one of the legs of the aging grand piano gave way, and from outside the building came the sound of wagons and horses on the gravel. Dream concert.
That day, for the first time in my life, I saw my father weep.
Turning point *
In 1974 came the turning point. The oldie was offered by the Concertgebouw a sparkling jubilee concert on the occasion of his 70th birthday. He was applauded and knighted, and then left for America.
Those were two hectic months: press conferences, interviews, radio and TV broadcasts and forty (!) concerts. Enterprising as he was, he decided on this occasion to cross the USA by Greyhound bus, from east to west and back again. He spent in total two of the six weeks in the bus, day and night; that’s one way to see things. Here and there he was able to meet, among others, Christiaan Bor, Yasha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, and Antal Doráti, who was responsible for the world première of Frid’s Toccata with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC.
The young man of 70 returned as an old man of 70. “I’m st-st-stuttering, boy!”, is the first thing he had to report with a grin at Schiphol. No joke, thus. Just like the cheekily raised right index finger, that is apparently paralyzed. Holes had also been punched in his infallible memory, and he was dead tired. We suspected a minor stroke. But never mind that. After attempting a few months later a concert once more – “A disaster: never again!” – he changed course completely. More time to compose (“Will grandad reach his opus 100?”), perhaps now and then a short holiday, more time for “the little grandchildren” and especially for writing. “It’s all right!”.
His first book, unfortunately no longer in print, appeared just two years later, in 1976. ‘Eye to Eye with …’. In this the reader could make the acquaintance in Frid style with writers, a dictator, a conductor and composers, namely: Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Bomans, Mussolini, Mengelberg, Bartók and Ravel. While being initially not too keen on the idea, in 1984 he published his memoires: ‘Around the World in 80 Years’. A bulky tome of almost 300 pages with a treasure trove of anecdotes and outpourings. An ego-document in both the positive and negative sense.
On the back burner
“Where’s the green box, boy?” (Furious when I don’t understand immediately that his red case is missing again.)
“Shall I phone you?” (Translation: will you phone me?)
“Yes.” (Translation: no.)
“I’m looking in the mirror, getting a shock and thinking: there stands the negro from Uncle Cabin.” (Translation: I’ve got a tan today – reminds me of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)
About ten years of productive work followed, his raison d’être, albeit “on the back burner”. My parents stumbled on comfortably together until 1985. Then things started to go wrong. My mother broke her hip, dementia set in, and she died in 1987. My father managed for another year at home, preoccupied with basic tasks, but no longer “gloriously alone”.
He felt like the last of the Mohicans, lost interest in his surroundings and fell downstairs. “I don’t understand things any more!”, he joked, knowingly.
In 1988 my wife Irah and I brought my father once and for all to Bergen, where he commuted between our house, hospital, old people’s home and nursing home. He could still enjoy a drink, at 5 p.m. on the dot, tried secretly to put the clock forward. Was sometimes, for an instant, something of the former ‘oldie’: “You’re looking rather nice today!” complimenting Irah in bikini in our garden.
The famous hungarian Dutchman
“Aged musician scalded in the bath in Bergen”: newspaper headlines in August 1989. Unimaginable but true. They had left my grandfather to his fate in the nursing home. He was transferred to the Burns Unit in Beverwijk, where, after two terrible weeks, he luckily passed away.
Disbelief, impotent rage, incomprehensible grief. The press smelt news. “That artist, that’s Géza Frid, the famous Hungarian Dutchman who …”. Newspaper stories, radio and TV. So he comes from the gloaming to stand once again in the spotlights. It was grotesque and bizarre.
Frantically you tried, as he would have, to provide a positive interpretation. Such an explosive, dazzling life does not lend itself to being extinguished like a candle in the night. For him nothing mattered any more. Yes, and so … So I kept to my solemn vow, so often wrung from me in the past: “Yes, dad, I know, there must be laughter at your funeral. I’ll see to it.” It would be the most difficult speech of my life. Irah comforts me afterwards by assuring me that, “the anecdotes from the life of an expert in the art of living” have hit their target. My father has had them rolling in the aisles again: people have been laughing, even laughing their heads off.
Not only the publicity, but also the interest in his compositions flared up in the first years after his death. In Budapest Irah and I received from the Burgomaster’s hand the prestigious Béla Bartók Prize, awarded posthumously to my father as “internationally celebrated musician of Hungarian extraction”.
It was the Dutch violinist Radboud Oomens ( www.radboudoomens.de ), living in Germany, who breathed new life into the smouldering embers. In the series ‘Van heinde en ver’ (‘From Far and Near’) he gave a Frid concert in the Beurs van Berlage with his trio Kairos in 1996. He described how, in his attempts to avoid the standard repertoire, he had come across my father and had then discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that “You’re successful everywhere with Frid”. In the meantime he had looked thoroughly into Frid’s life, was wildly enthusiastic and would like very much to set up a Géza Frid Foundation along with ‘the son of’. This indeed happened in 1998, with the aim of: “bringing to public attention the extensive and varied oeuvre (…) and giving it a permanent place in the Dutch and international music world”.
In cooperation with The International Holland Music Sessions the foundation organised a Memorial concert in 1999 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of my father´s death in Bergen (N.H.) where he lived at the end of his life. In 2001 “The Géza Frid composer´s portrait” was organised in Eindhoven, a three day festival in cooperation with, amongst others, the Brabants Orkest, Muziekgroep Nederland and Concertzender. In 2004, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, a number of centennial concerts took place, not only in the Netherlands but also in Hungary under which in the famous Bartókhouse in Budapest. Also in Budapest a special exhibition was dedicated to him. Subsequently, at the end of 2005, at a concert in Amsterdam, the festive presentation of the first Géza Frid CD followed! This CD was recorded in Budapest and released by Hungaroton : “Choral Works”, performed by the Dutch Liszt Ferenc chorus (www.lisztferencchorus.nl), conducted by Peter Scholcz and accompanied by Hanna Devich, piano (www.hannadevich.com).
A new beginning
What happened in the years after this is very encouraging. It is possibly too early to speak of a real Frid-revival. But the fact is that the interest in and appreciation of my father´s work has increased noticeably. More and more often one of his compositions is performed at concerts in concert halls and also on radio at home and overseas. It looks as if Dutch composers who were undeservedly dropped during the seventies of the last century are get-ting a new chance today. Young musicians who want to break out of the standard repertoire are searching for forgotten (master)works. This development connects seamlessly with the attempts of our Foundation to familarise artists with the oeuvre of Géza Frid, especially the younger ones. We hope that those performers will subsequently research his compositions further and also perform them – not because we say that his music is so exceptional, but because they have come to that conclusion by themselves!
The four “Amarylli” and Tchiba c.s.
In this way the second and third Frid-CD´s also came into being. The members of the German-Swiss Amaryllis Quartett ( www.Amaryllis-Quartett.com ) were made aware of Frid by Radboud Oomens. They soon realised his work was something special and decided to perform four of his string quartets on CD: “Fantasia Tropica”, Coviello Classics. In June 2008 their CD was introduced during a sold out concert in Hamburg. The reactions from the press and the public were heartwarming. The ‘Neue Musikzeitung’ claimed to be “wirklich überrascht”: Géza Frid, ac-cording to this magazine, is one of the best composers Hungary has produced. His stringquartetts are declared equal with those of Sjostakovisj and Bartók. The music critic of the ‘Westfälische Nachrichten’ wrote: “The public, of course, looked forward to Schubert. (…..) But thé event of the evening was the work of a musician completely unknown here.” Good to hear this from someone else!
When still a young talented pianist, the Hungarian-German Martin Tchiba ( www.martin-tchiba.de ) visited the Summer Academy of The International Holland Music Session in Bergen (N.H.). Unexpectedly he ended up one evening at the Memorial Concert of my father. This caused him, ten years later, to record four chamber music pieces of Géza Frid together with the Dutch violonist Birte Blom (www.birtheblom.com) and the Hungarian cellist Ditta Rohmann (www.dittarohmann.com), again released by Hungaroton. This was presented in December 2009 during promotionconcerts in Brussels and Hoorn, where all works were performed by the aforementioned musicians. Not only the press, but also the Dutch and Hungarian radio and television now paid attention to the third Frid-CD within four years. “On CD, outside The Netherlands, there seems to be a fresh Frid-renaissance” is the opinion of Guido van Oorschot in ‘de Volkskrant´. Jan de Kruijff is full of enthousiasm in ´Musicalifeiten´ (da-tabank for classical music) about this “welcome recording of four distinguished chamber music pieces”. He fears that Frid´s orchestral works will never be played, because the production is too expensive, “but string quartets and more chamber music are begging for attention”. The last phrase of his review ends with a question which for the last twenty years has been the cry of my heart: “Is this the beginning of a necessary re-evaluation?” His answer, the same as mine: “Hopefully!”
My father is lucky in having his present advocates! Both Tchiba and the members of the Amaryllis Quartett have received various international prizes. They are very promising and inspired young musicians, who idolize ‘their Frid’! My wife Irah and I have become friends with all of them and they now have two more uncondi-tional fans. They perform Frid´s compositions regularly during their concert journeys throughout Europe. Good excuse for us to make a pleasure trip now and then to Brussels, Budapest or Barcelona in order to listen to Frid.
In short, positive developements and a promising future! Indeed – but still … Now and then it still happens. Almost always it is an older person who speaks to me as follows: “Frid? Frid? Oh, are you perhaps related to ah… Caesar Frid, the wellknown ah… Bulgarian violinist?” “I am his son!” will be my proud reply.
Arthur Frid (1939) was from his earliest years lovingly immersed in music by both parents. By the age of 12 he had already decided – I want to do something totally different! It would be the familiar jack-of-all-trades situation – salesman, radio telegraphist, driving instructor, couchette attendant. When his long cherished ideal, journalism, began to pale in the reality of daily life at Het Vrije Volk, he decided to turn to law studies. Then he discovered most decisively ‘the other side’: he was for 25 years a member of the Legal Faculty of the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam, as criminologist.
Arthur now enjoys retirement in Bergen (North Holland). Plenty of opportunity for something completely different. Baby-sitting, for example, now and then a journey in the tropics, a lot of tennis. And still – but now con amore – occupied, along with the Géza Frid Foundation, with the revival of his father’s music.