Hungarian musicians in America in the second half of the 19th century
Following the unsuccessful 1848-49 War of Liberation led by the charismatic Lajos Kossuth against the ruling Hapsburg dynasty, several thousand Hungarians fled abroad. Some remained in the Ottoman Empire but most gravitated to western Europe, particularly Great Britain. Given the difficult economic conditions in England, a substantial number eventually moved to the United States.
Creating an existence in the new homeland was a difficult task. While the overwhelming majority of the refugees were from the educated classes, their skills were not much in demand abroad. Moreover, while most spoke German and French, very few knew English. Among those who fared better, at least initially, were those who possessed skills in music. Being international in scope with a universal language, music had no barriers. The formidable Malwida von Meysenbug, dubbed Rebel in Bombazine, herself a refugee from Germany, once facetiously remarked that every Hungarian in London was a musician.
Among the 1848-49 refugees who earned their living by music in the United States three names stand out: Edouard Remenyi, Edward Zerdahelyi and Joseph Mocs. Remenyi needs no introduction among music lovers of the world. His fame as a violin virtuoso - firmly established in his own lifetime - is assured for all eternity. An outstanding pianist, Zerdahelyi was a friend and pupil of the immortal Franz Liszt. As a matter of fact, Liszt's famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1, composed in 1846 and published in 1851, is dedicated to Zerdahelyi. While Mocs did not bask in the limelight as Remenyi or even Zerdahelyi did, he nevertheless made modest contributions in his chosen profession.
A scion of a family long prominent in the history of Nyitra County, Zerdahelyi was born in 1821. His considerable musical talents were evident from an early age. According to Károly Kertbeny's Alfabetische Namenliste ungrischer Emigration,1848-1864, a most valuable source on the émigrés published in 1864, Zerdahelyi served with the revolutionary forces during the War of Liberation, was captured, and imprisoned for a time at Olmütz. Upon regaining his freedom, he went to Weimar where he stayed with Liszt, and then emigrated to Great Britain. Taking up residence in London, he became secretary to Miklós Kiss de Nemeskér, one of the most prominent of the Hungarian exiles.
The émigrés eked out a living as best as they could and for many it was a very precarious existence. A number of them, especially the more notable politicians and soldiers, sat down to review the political implications and the military campaigns of the War of Liberation. The British public, which followed the struggle with profound sympathy, extended a generous hospitality toward the exiles. The multitude of books from their pens were favorably received by the English readers. The memoirs of György Klapka, the dashing young general commanding the great fortress of Komárom, the last bastion against the Hapsburg and Czarist armies, in particular enjoyed great popularity. A few years later, when the young couple at whose home Klapka resided while writing his book had a baby boy, the proud parents bequeathed Klapka as his middle name. Better known to the world as Jerome K. Jerome, he grew up to be a famous humorist and playwright.
In November 1850, Richard Bentley, one of the principal London publishers, released a book bearing the title Personal Adventures during the Late War of Independence in Hungary. It was written by a rather mysterious woman who called herself the Baroness von Beck. The vivid narrative featured dangerous spy-missions, hair-raising escapades, romantic entanglements, and bloody encounters. The British public was thrilled with the book; it was partially serialized in a newspaper and new editions, including one in German, soon followed.
Reviewing the book, the prestigious journal Athenaeum in its November 30 issue said: "If more important works on Hungary have appeared already, we can safely say that there is none to compare with this for absorbing interest. To pronounce that the lady's volumes are as exciting as a novel, is to characterize them feebly. Let us say at once that she writes well and forcibly, in good idiomatic English, - that the page is alive with movement, incident and character, - and that her weakness lies in an occasional display of those petty little vanities which are nevertheless a charm rather than an offence in a woman whose virtues incline to the masculine order."
But not everyone was pleased with the book. Certainly not Zerdahelyi who was depicted by the Baroness in rather unflattering terms. Even more displeased was Ferenc Pulszky, the Hungarian government's representative in England during the War of Liberation and, with Kossuth still interned in the Ottoman Empire, the unofficial leader of the émigrés. The Baroness intimated that Pulszky was to blame in no small measure for the death of her husband on the barricades of Vienna. She also accuse him of being tight-fisted in helping the needy exiles from the funds raised through the generosity of the British public.
Investigation into the background of the mysterious Baroness revealed that she wasn't really a baroness, not even a von Beck, and she never had a husband. She was unmasked as Wilhelmine Racidula, a low-level agent who did carry out several clandestine assignments in behalf of the revolutionary government. Since the "Baroness" was not a highly educated woman, it was obvious that she had help in the form of a ghost writer to create her book. That individual turned out to be Dániel Kászonyi, a prolific author, once a friend of Pulszky but lately a bitter enemy.
Pulszky launched legal action against her for defamation. As court proceedings were about to start, the "Baroness" to everyone's horror dropped dead of a heart attack. But matters did not end with her demise. It dragged on for years and even Kossuth, who eventually settled in London, was summoned to testify.
Zerdahelyi's involvement with the episode ended when he emigrated to the United States. He settled in Boston, the hub of American cultural life at the time.
Along with several other exiles - most notably István Kinizsi, a former cavalry officer, and the Reverend Gedeon Ács, a Protestant clergyman - Zerdahelyi became a most welcome figure at the home of George Luther Stearns, wealthy abolitionist, fervent admirer of Kossuth, and steadfast patron of Hungarian refugees. This small group constituted what has been dubbed Stearn's Hungarian Club. According to books about Stearns, he learned much about European history and Europe in general from his well-educated and cultured guests and of course the whole Stearns family enjoyed Zerdahelyi's music.
Another prominent New Englander who was always ready to receive Zerdahelyi was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, America's beloved author of such classics as Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, and The Courtship of Miles Standish. Years later, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet's son, recalled Zerdahelyi as follows in the chapter "My Father's Friends" in his book Random Memories: " A certain Hungarian, Szerdahaly - if that is the right spelling, which probably it is not - at one time came much to the house. He had been an officer in the army and had fought under Kossuth. He was wonderfully well-read on all military matters, and could describe all Napoleon's campaigns and battles in great detail. What his special attraction was, to my father, I do not know, certainly not his recital of battles. Probably his being an exile was enough for my father to be kind to him."
On May 31, 1861, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Zerdahelyi enrolled in the 39th New York Infantry Regiment and was appointed 2nd lieutenant of Company K on July 30 of the following year. Also known as the Garibaldi Guard, this polyglot unit, was initially commanded by Frederick George D'Utassy, a fellow Hungarian. The 39th New York, wasn't as some authors purport, overwhelmingly Hungarian; as a matter of fact, there were less than two dozen Hungarians in the regiment throughout its existence. A comprehensive history of the regiment, entitled Lincoln's Foreign Legion by Michael Bacarella, mentions Zerdahelyi albeit cursorily.
In reminiscing about his famous uncle, Frank Preston Stearns states that Zerdahelyi married in Boston sometime before the Civil War. But because his wife was not from a "proper" family, the city's society - apparently a very snobbish lot - ostracized the couple and many doors formerly open to him became closed. Another account has him marry, but much later and in Philadelphia. Unfortunately the memoirs of his two close companions in Boston, Ács and Kinizsi, do not shed any light on this matter as both of them returned to Hungary before the start of the Civil War.
What is known with certainty is that Zerdahelyi and his wife lived and worked in the environs of Philadelphia for decades in the post-Civil War era. For more than twenty years he was professor of music at the Sacred Heart Convent (Eden Hall, Torresdale). He died in August of 1906, while his wife passed away in 1922.
Before going on to Remenyi and Mocs, two other Hungarians deserve more than a passing mention. Etelka Gerster as well as Rafael Joseffy had a significant impact on the American musical scene in the latter part of the 19th century. Both were born after the War of Liberation; hence they were not 1848-49 refugees, although Etelka's uncle, Anton Gerster, a noted engineer and Union captain during the Civil War, was.
A native of the city of Kassa born in 1855, Etelka Gerster studied under Mathilde Marchesi at the Vienna Conservatory. When Giuseppe Verdi herd her sing there in 1875, he recommended her to the Fenice Theater in Venice. She duly made her debut there as Gilda in Rigoletto on January 8, 1876. Her performance was an enormous success, launching her stellar career. She not only possessed a coloratura voice of beautiful and individual quality, but had a winning stage personality and skill as an accomplished actress. Her first visit to the United States occurred in 1878. The New York Times reporter who interviewed her on the evening of November 3 described her in the next day's edition of the paper as "a young lady of winning presence [...] Her manners are that of a lady of culture, and when she converses her mouth wears a peculiarly charming smile, her blue eyes sparkle, and her voice is low, but very musical."
Gerster's popularity quickly rivaled that of Adelina Patti. Said Harper's New Monthly Magazine, May 1881: "The lovers of opera in New York must al all times have an idol to worship [...] The present occupant of that exalted throne before which all the devotees of the opera and all lovers of song bow in admiration is that bright gem of modern song, Gerster, whose winning gentleness, grace, and dramatic power have charmed every listener." According to one biographical dictionary devoted to musicians, she was "one of great brilliance and at her best she was undoubtedly one of the important operatic artists of the last century."
Incidentally, while Etelka Gerster did not settle in the United States, her illustrious brother, Dr. Arpad Geza Gerster, an outstanding physician, did. Following studies in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Dr. Gerster came to the United States in 1873 and quickly established an enviable reputation as an outstanding surgeon and a gifted teacher. For years he was professor of surgery at New York Polyclinic and Columbia University.
Born in Hunfalu in 1852, Joseffy lived as a child in the city of Miskolc where he began playing the piano at the age of eight. Following studies in Budapest, he gained admission to the Leipzig Conservatory in 1866 and then spent two years furthering his education in Berlin. During the summers of 1870 and 1871 he took lessons from Liszt in Weimar. Joseffy made his American debut in 1879 and subsequently he settled in the United States. He toured with Theodore Thomas and his orchestra. He also gave numerous recitals, and was one of the first to perform Johannes Brahms's works regularly. Critics and fellow artists were in unanimous agreement over his prodigious talents. Eduard Hanslick, the noted musicologist and first great professional music critic, admired his brilliant technique.
The article entitled "Music and Musicians in New York" appearing in the May 1881 edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine declared: "The most successful artist of late has been Joseffy - a second Liszt in technique. Certainly no such extremely delicacy of touch, marvelous felicity of execution, and exquisite finish have been reached by any artist ever heard in this city. In Chopin, Joseffy is unsurpassable, . . ." His book School of Advanced Piano Playing, published in 1902, is highly regarded to this very day.
Born on January 17, 1828, in the city of Miskolc, Remenyi was educated at Eger before attending the Vienna Conservatory from 1842 to 1846. Following his debut at Budapest in 1846, he gave performances in Paris and London. During the War of Liberation he was on the staff of General Artúr Görgey and fled abroad after the victory of the Hapsburg and Czarist armies.
Recalling his arrival in the United States in 1851 decades later to a New York Times reporter, Remenyi said: "At that time the people of this country knew such enthusiasm for Kossuth and the Hungarian cause as you of to-day can never know for anything [...] Oh! the memory of those times makes the heart warm. Citizens of the town came down to the ships to welcome the exiles [...] I became the guest of John Keeze Bailey, a Knickerbocker."
He didn't remain long in America; in 1852 he toured Germany with Johannes Brahms. Next year he visited Franz Liszt in Weimar.
In September of 1854 Remenyi accompanied Count Sándor Teleki and Jácint Rónay, a prominent Roman Catholic clergyman, on a trip to the Isle of Jersey, home to a number of Hungarian exiles. Sharing the island with the Hungarians were political refugees from sundry other parts of Europe, among them Victor Hugo. Remenyi spent many evenings enchanting the Hugo household with his music. According to Rónay's diary, the great writer was so overwhelmed by Remenyi's play that he proclaimed him to be the king of violinists. Whereupon fellow Frenchman Charles Ribeyrolles, a strict republication, declared that Remenyi is certainly the first and foremost violinist in the world, but he is not their king. The political correctness of this opinion was applauded by everyone, even Hugo.
An even more tangible honor was accorded to him when he was appointed solo violinist to Queen Victoria, a post he retained until 1859. Under amnesty he returned to Hungary in 1860 and was subsequently appointed to a court position by Emperor Franz Joseph. After a sensational appearance in Paris in 1865, he toured Germany and the Netherlands.
Eagerly awaiting Remenyi's arrival to the United States in early November 1878, the New York Times wrote on October 28: "His career has so far been exceptionally brilliant, [...] From Theophile Gauthier down to the most impersonal and least influential writer of the press who has contributed his mite to make or mar a reputation, all have trained their pens to indicate the most dulcest phrases about this renowned artist."
A crowded audience greeted his appearance at Steinway Hall on the evening of November 13. Anointing him "a true musical genius," the New York Times on the following day described his performance as "a kind which is essentially original," and added that "there is a peculiarity in Remenyi, a poetic passion and fever which is unsurpassed."
Remenyi was an eccentric performer; he was a virtuoso first and always as critics were apt to remark. He never tired of playing antics, rebuking the audience and engaging in similar behavior. On stage he never remained still; he was constantly in motion.
The New York Times, January 12, 1882, called Remenyi's concert at Steinway Hall on the preceding evening as "marked by features which stamped it as the most unique occasion thus far in this musical season," and added that Remenyi has again demonstrated that "he is equipped with nearly the entire intellectual, aesthetical, and physical stock in trade of a great violin player."
Two years later, on May 19, 1884, Remenyi was at Henry Ward Beecher's famous Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Thirty-three years earlier, on December 18, 1851, the distinguished clergyman, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, welcomed Kossuth and the great patriot delivered one of his most memorable speeches. Although Beecher urged Remenyi to play on the pulpit platform, he preferred to seat himself on the steps as he went through his repertoire, opening with a concerted piece and closing with the Hungarian national hymn. Upon finishing, Beecher thanked him for delighting countless thousands of Americans with his music.
Following a visit to India, Remenyi wrote a letter to the Madras Mail, which was reprinted in the July 6, 1886, issue of the New York Times. He enthused that "all my wildest expectations were surpassed [...] I had the pleasure of coming into personal acquaintance with many a learned and gentlemanly Hindu and Mohammedan; [...] a long life would not be sufficient to investigate thoroughly even a thousandth part of India." Touching on politics, albeit most briefly and superficially, Remenyi opined: "Englishmen ought to congratulate themselves on the happy results of their government of glorious, grand old India, for through her colonizing genius, England has done more good to humanity than thousands of visionary utopists and politicasters. But one great fault I find with the English, and that is that they do not assimilate themselves sympathetically enough with the people they are called upon to govern."
Remenyi was one of the featured performers at the grand charity concert for the benefit of the Hungarian Association of the City of New York in mid-December of 1894 at the Grand Central Palace on 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue. The Honorary President of the committee staging the event was Dr. Arpad Geza Gerster. Among the musical arrangements on the program was Liszt's First Hungarian Rhapsody, a work, which as mentioned previously, had been dedicated to Zerdahelyi. Having taken up residence in the United States, Remenyi and his family lived at 73 West 85th Street.
On May 15, 1898, he was playing at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. He was in excellent form and the enthralled audience responded to the magical music with deafening applause. Then without warning he collapsed and died on the stage. In describing his final performance and sudden demise, the New York Times said on the following day that as if Remenyi "knew this was to be the culmination of his career and had determined that his final appearance should mark his greatest triumph."
Reporting on his death and commenting on his career, the Brooklyn Eagle, May 16, 1898,declared: "He had the sympathies, understandings and tastes of a man of unusual cultivation [...]As a revolutionary he was compelled to fly from his native country, Hungary, and came to this land years before his name was known to our people [...] he was an artist of accomplishment, fire, "temperament" and musical learning. Other men of less ability have won more fame."
When news of his death reached New York City's Hungarian community a Remenyi Memorial Committee was formed to arrange for an appropriate funeral and burial. His body arrived in New York on May 27 and was met by members of the Yorkville Hungarian Society. It was carried to the Society's premises at 304 East 78th Street.
On the 29th Remenyi's body was conveyed to the Lenox Lyceum for a public funeral with various Hungarian societies of the city serving as an escort while a band of the Musical Mutual Protective Association headed the huge procession. The 2300-seat capacity music hall on Madison Avenue near 59th Street was packed to overflowing with friends and admirers. Among the mourners were his son and daughter, but Mrs. Remenyi was against absent due to her infirmities. Numerous tributes were delivered and appropriate musical pieces played, including the Hungarian national anthem.
The body was then taken to Evergreen Cemetery and laid to rest. Among his pallbearers were Rafael Joseffy, John Philip Sousa and Thomas Alva Edison. Remenyi and the Wizard of Menlo Park enjoyed each other's company and often conversed on a multitude of diverse subjects.
Remenyi wrote only a few compositions. His brief essay on Johann Sebastian Bach was published posthumously in the New York Times, June 4, 1899, through the courtesy of Charles R. Baker, his former manager. His prodigious talents, exuberant and fiery style, and marked individuality are attested to in a vast multitude of theatrical reviews and reminiscences by contemporaries. The book, Eduoard Remenyi: Musician, Litterateur, and Man by G. D. Kelley and G. P. Upton (1906), provides further insight into his artistry.
Remenyi's legacy persists in many other ways; for example, the House of Remenyi, Toronto's great music store, carries on the tradition of musical excellence. In addition to offering fine instruments, the store supports a wide spectrum of cultural events. On November 23, 2008, it was one of the sponsors of an evening remembering the late Tibor Polgár, outstanding conductor, composer and pianist in Hungary and Canada.
A while ago, much to my pleasant surprise, I found a link between some my family and Remenyi. As I was perusing József Szinnyei's monumental Magyar írók élete és munkái for details on Ferenc Beszedits and his wife, I noticed entries for Dr. Ede Beszedits and his daughter Margit (Pécs Gyuláné). Not being familiar with these names and because the entries were rather sparse, confined to their literary endeavors, I undertook some additional investigating. I learned that Dr. Ede Beszedits was a very prominent physician in Tapolca and that today a clinic bears his name. At the same time, I came across an announcement in a Tapolca newspaper that Margit's popular book Régi emlékek, régi emberek (1935) has just been reprinted. When I contacted the editors of the newspaper, they were kind enough not only to send me a copy of Margit's work but also a fairly comprehensive biography of Dr. Ede Beszedits. The facts contained in this publication confirmed that Dr. Beszedits is indeed a family relation and that he maintained an enduring friendship with Remenyi.
Unlike Zerdahelyi, Gerster, Joseffy and Remenyi, Mocs attained only a small measure of fame. Nevertheless, he enjoyed considerable local popularity and it was music which provided him with a respected and reasonably comfortable livelihood.
A captain during the War of Liberation, Mocs, like many others, moved abroad after the victory of the Hapsburg and Czarist armies. Shortly after arriving in the United States, Mocs became a founding member of the choir formed by fellow émigré Gábor Harczi in August of 1851. The objective of the ensemble was to acquaint the American public with Hungarian songs and to provide income for its members. One of the other founders was Charles Zagonyi, who gained lasting fame in the Civil War when he led General John C. Frémont's Body Guard in a death-defying charge against an overwhelming number of Confederates on October 25, 1861.
Curiously, while almost everyone in the choir was a recent arrival on the Devonshire which entered New York harbor on August 2, 1851, Mocs's name does not appear on the ship's passenger list nor is he recorded in the diary of Jácint Rónay as among those who boarded the vessel in England.
In 1858 Mocs married Emma Baxter, a young lady from Florida, and in the following year - more precisely on April 18, 1859 - became an American citizen at Troy, New York. Their two daughters, Isabella (later Mrs. William H. Stair) and Beatrice, were born in Florida. Unlike many of the other exiles, Mocs, for whatever reasons, did not participate in the Civil War.
Death ended his life at the age of 74 in 1899 at which time he was residing at 23 Prospect Place. The cause was erysipelas, the result of a recent attack of grip. According to his obituary notice in the Brooklyn Eagle, July 21, he was a man of striking appearance, and strong physically and mentally until the last. Funeral services were held at his home on the evening of that very day and internment of his earthly remains took place shortly afterwards in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Notes: Pertinent details on Zerdahelyi's life and career are scattered throughout the literature in books and in magazine and newspaper articles. Accounts of the Baroness von Beck affair are told in English, Hungarian and German. A succinct summary in English is given in Thomas Kabdebo's Diplomat in Exile, a book about Ferenc Pulszky's political activities in England between 1849 and 1860. Like nowadays, every move of popular entertainers was closely followed by the American press in the post-Civil War era and thus reports on Gerster, Remenyi and Joseffy abound. Of course their biographical sketches appear in numerous reference works about music and entertainment. Another valuable source information on these three performers is the comprehensive multi-volume Annals of the New York Stage. For certain details about the life and career of Joseph Mocs, I'm deeply grateful to David Stair, his great-grandson.