„...Studying with Thomán is more than to exquisitely accomplish the mastery of piano playing, the nurturing I receive from Thomán is not only for the pianist hand and musician ear, but straight for the human soul"-wrote Béla Bartók about his former master in 1927.
István Thomán is an artist professor of outstanding significance at the life of the Academy of Music, who transmitted authentically the musical-pedagogical heritage received from his masters, primarily from Liszt. He was educated by the primary teachers of the institution during his years at the Academy of Music (1881-1885): Ferenc Erkel, Sándor Nikolits and Robert Volkmann. He got into Liszt's class in 1883 and soon belonged to those privileged students whom the master took along with him to Weimar and Rome. He won Liszt scholarship in the school years of 1882/83 and 1884/85. An interesting evidence of that Thomán later transmitted the spirit of Liszt - both in performing and teaching - to his students is to confront Thomán's memoires about Liszt with the teacher-portrait which was given by Bartók on him:
‘A thousand words cannot to explain the performance of a composition in such a way as its exemplary performance can. I had learned this from the great Master and that became one of my most important guiding principles on my teaching career' – wrote Thomán, and Bartók continued the same thought: ‘Although he strived to influence the development of the poetic expression of the student's soul by all his knowledge and suggestive power, he was careful that this impact should always be natural, not artificial. Such a natural impact can be achieved by no other means than the teacher's performance for the student. For that the teacher certainly needs to be such an outstanding artist of his instrument as István Thomán.'
The performance, presentation for the student is a tool for the same aim of the artist-teacher at Thomán and Liszt: to develop a tight and harmonic relation between the spirit of the composition and the musical imagination of the performer. ‘However what was unequalled at Liszt, as a master: the formation of the sense for styles and the preservation and development of the individuality. Those two have primary importance in artist-training' – declared Thomán and highlights Bartók, as well, from the heritage received.
‘…the independent talent could conceive his fantasy by the art of his master, without impairing his individuality. The pianist career of Thomán has not forced thoughts on the student, but called forth the right thoughts in him.' Thomán considered this principle so important that he required his students to study the playing of other great artists, as well. Bartók highlighted especially the Liszt and Chopin interpretations of Thomán, from which he had learned a lot.
István Thomán taught at the Academy of Music between 1889 and 1907. He led a private music school in the capital after his retirement. Bartók met Thomán through the mediation of the other great student of him, Ernő Dohnányi in1899. By that time Dohnányi had been studying with him for 5 years. Thomán paid outstanding attention to Dohnányi, the pianist genie. He wrote: ‘One of the great honors of my musical career is that my master was one of the greatest musicians, Liszt, my other great honor is that another greatest musician, Ernő Dohnányi was my disciple.'
Besides Bartók and Dohnányi, other students of Thomán became famous, as well: Arnold Székely, Frigyes Reiner, Iván Engel and Imre Ungár. Emil Ábrányi, Béla Várkonyi, Elek Radó, Mária Weigl were also among his students. His collection, The Technique of Piano Playing was published in 1906 in six volumes. It became subject matter for generations of students of the Academy of Music titled as Alapvető gyakorlatok egyenletes és virtuóz játék elsajátítására [Basic exercises for the acquirement of even and virtuosic playing].
Besides his activity as a teacher, Thomán was also a renowned artist Europe-wide: he appeared as a soloist and chamber musician. His compositions are from his youth, written for piano and orchestra. Nevertheless, his role at the Academy of Music made his name immortal, which Bartók put as:
‘Such a large-scale and extensive fulfillment of he profession of pedagogy means a whole, self-sacrificing lifetime with patience, fatigue and ceaseless work. But patience, fatigue, great prudence and delicate discretion are not enough for this kind of work; a harmonic coexistence of deep humaneness and great knowledge is needed to achieve such results in the course of forty years, as István Thomán did.'