The least important are not forbidden to dream of great things, and even modestly to aim at them, according to the measure of their abilities.

Liszt to Antal Augusz

Zoltán Kocsis (1952–2016)

10. November 2016

On behalf of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, Dr. Andrea Vigh, the president of the Liszt Academy bade farewell to Zoltán Kocsis, who, as an artist, was born at the Liszt Academy and remained the academy’s own son right until his death.

We know of course that life is finite, yet we know that each death is unfathomable. Still, there are some who we think will live forever. There are some who work with such vitality and have such an elemental aura that we somehow believe that death has no power over them. Zoltán Kocsis was such a person. It is dreadful to put it down in writing that he died on 6 November. He was sixty-four years old, almost exactly the same age as Béla Bartók, his favourite composer, when he died.

It is impossible to enumerate all that he did in his much too brief earthly life, which, however, did occasionally seem as long as sixty-four years. Although he was going to become a composer, his acclaim came as a pianist: from the Liszt Academy, he graduated as Pál Kadosa and Ferenc Rados’s student. At the age of eighteen, thanks to his astounding musical maturity, he came first at the Hungarian Radio Beethoven Competition. At the age of twenty-one, he was awarded the Liszt Prize and when he was twenty-five, he received the Kossuth Prize (at the age of fifty-three, he was for a second time acknowledged with this most prestigious state award). His awards and recognitions could be listed for pages on end. He worked with practically all significant orchestras and conductors of the world. In 1983, with Iván Fischer, he co-founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and from 1997 until his death he acted as the musical director of the Hungarian National Philharmonic. His significance in the musical scene of Hungary is reflected by the fact that he played a decisive role in the history of the two major orchestras of the country.

He had manifold and strong bonds with the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music: he graduated from here and then, in 1973, became one of the teachers himself, and though he formally ceased his educational activity at the academy at the end of the 70s, he kept returning to his former alma mater. At the „Farewell Festival” before the renovation of the Main Building at Liszt Ferenc Square, he conducted all nine symphonies by Beethoven in a single afternoon-evening with the Hungarian National Philharmonic (completed with students from the Liszt Academy) and also returned regularly since the restoration project had been finished: held several masterclasses and conducted the Liszt Academy Symphony Orchestra.  He was no easy teacher; his pupils often came out of his classes weeping, yet they were devoted to him. Because he was the embodiment of music, all of his gestures carried music, and any kind of contact with him had serious and uplifting consequences. As he showed his students a shorter or longer music phrase on the piano, or as he gave insight into musical connections using an extraordinary metaphor, he always left a lasting mark on his pupils. Zoltán Kocsis was a tireless teacher, and no classroom was needed for him to instruct. He taught his musicians during the rehearsals, the audience during the concerts and the young guest solo pianists coming to perform with his orchestra. Even in his last appearance at the Liszt Academy he educated us in a way: at the Festival Academy in the summer, with the participation of the Kelemen Quartet, he gave a nearly 2-hour long dazzling lecture on Bartók’s string quartets in the Grand Hall of the Liszt Academy.



Zoltán Kocsis and the members of the Liszt Academy Symphony Orchestra (2014) Photo: The Liszt Academy / Ákos Stiller

He had a universal genius: he was the incorporation of transcendental talent. The poet János Pilinszky – who was his close friend despite a thirty-one years age difference– compared him to Mozart, Dostoyevsky and Attila József: „Once I was having a chat with someone – said Pilinszky, - who believed that if we simplified things, there were only two kinds of talents. One is born with infinite gifts, while the other is in infinite need of gifts. […] Talent is no less dangerous than someone who is not talented at all but would die without acquiring it. I immediately understood that – as with Attila József – these two things coincide somehow. As an example, I’d name Zoltán Kocsis with whom I sense this kind of tension. This is a trip to hell that virtuosos must go through.” Kocsis knew everything about music in the broadest possible sense: he was not only aided by his incredible memory and his immensely accurate musical ear that enabled him to detect even the slightest off-key note even if played by the last-chair violinist but also by his unique intellect. He was a member of the editorial committee of the periodical Holmi and regularly published in it: his writings combine musical sensitivity, musicological insight and a highly sophisticated manner, which turn his articles into masterpieces of music journalism.

His universal character also showed in his taste in music: his repertoire was determined by his two instruments – the piano and the symphony orchestra – but all important composers or styles in the last four hundred years were part of his musical realm. Bartók was, however, his focal point. Since his youth he had been profoundly interested in the authentic interpretation of Bartók’s music and closely cooperated with the Bartók Archives of the Institute for Musicology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He acted as editor in the release of Bartók’s own recordings, and the new, highly successful and important recordings of Bartók’s works, the ’Bartók New Series’, feature him as artistic director, conductor and piano soloist. He loved Debussy and Rachmaninov, adored Liszt (his more popular pieces just as much as his more esoteric later works), while Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven were like ’daily bread’ to him. He made his audience recognise the classical solidity behind the romantic sensitivity in Chopin’s music, and in the last few years, practically by himself, he launched a Hungarian Richard Strauss revival, conducting the Hungarian premiers of a number of Strauss’s operas in Müpa Budapest. His exceedingly broad music historical perspective is reflected by the fact that in this very period, while performing the works of the supposedly conservative Strauss, he completed the third act of Schönberg’s unfinished opera, Moses and Aron, since 20th century Modernism and contemporary music were of special importance to him. Both as a composer and a performer, he was an active member of the New Music Studio founded in 1970 and worked closely together with virtually all composers participating in it, as well as with his former chamber music teacher, György Kurtág, some of whose works were premiered by him (just this spring, at the festival celebrating Kurtág’s 90th birthday, he could still attend the presentation of the facsimile publication of the „Notebook for Kocsis Zoli” at the Budapest Music Center).

He was a strict man because he was in the quest of artistic truth and because he believed that artistic truth exists. His austerity dissolved as soon as he sat down at his piano, though: while playing he was searching for the secrets of the pieces with a child’s sincere curiosity. As deep inside, he remained a child, the infinitely sensitive yet mentally resolute little Zoli Kocsis who yearned to discover and conquer unknown worlds and who we could not resist loving.

It is pointless to try to put in words how much we will miss him, how sad the future students of the Liszt Academy can be for not being able to listen to Zoltán Kocsis perform live; it is pointless to describe the vacuum he leaves behind, as it is indescribable. We will not even attempt it, as he loathed this kind of patheticism from the bottom of his heart. He had a wonderful sense of humour. He often mentioned that if he had the opportunity, he would listen to Bach play the organ and Chopin play the piano (saying „I already know how Liszt played, anyhow”). We are now certain that he is making music with the great predecessors in the heavenly concert hall, and to mitigate his anger with us for being too sentimental for his taste, to say good bye, we will now quote his favourite poem by Dezső Tandori, which showed as a motto on his homepage for a long while:

Now, when in the same way
as ever,

it's high time to


The death of Zoltán Kocsis is the loss of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music and so the institution will provide funeral honours.