Violinist  Victor  Aitay

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

victor aitay

Victor Aitay was born in Budapest on April 14, 1921, and entered the Franz Liszt Royal Academy at the age of seven.  The faculty included Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Ernst von Dohnányi, and Leo Weiner. After receiving an artist’s diploma there, he became concertmaster of the Hungarian Royal Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra, and he organized the Aitay String Quartet. He toured extensively throughout Europe with that ensemble, and also performed in recital and as soloist with major orchestras.

During World War II, Aitay was among the tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust because of the heroic efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Aitay and Eva Vera Kellner were married just after the war on November 17, 1945. In 1946, they left Hungary along with their friend János Starker and other colleagues, and went to Vienna. They soon traveled to the United States, where Aitay auditioned for and was hired by Fritz Reiner, then music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. After two seasons (1946–1948) in Pittsburgh, he joined the orchestra of New York’s Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1948, and was rostered until 1955, serving as associate concertmaster from 1952 until 1955.

In 1954, again at the invitation of Fritz Reiner, he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as assistant concertmaster. In 1965, Aitay was appointed associate concertmaster by Jean Martinon. Two years later, Martinon promoted Aitay to the position of concertmaster. He served the Orchestra in that capacity until 1986, when he relinquished the chair to serve as concertmaster emeritus until his retirement in 2003.

Aitay also served as professor of violin at DePaul University, music director and conductor of the Lake Forest Symphony, and leader of the Chicago Symphony String Quartet. He was awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Lake Forest College.

He died July 24, 2012.

==  Biography (slightly edited) from the Chicago Symphony website.
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Having known Victor Aitays work with the Chicago Symphony for many years, it was my great privilege to sit down with him for an interview in June of 2002.  Portions were used a couple of times on WNUR, and now the entire conversation has been transcribed and appears on this webpage.

As we were setting up to record, our chit-chat included details of his performances, and memories of various musicians . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You were born and brought up in Hungary.  Is it special to bring Bartók all over the world?

Victor Aitay:   Right, and I love his music, though it goes back when I was a very young student.  I never will forget it.  Joseph Szigeti and Bartók played his sonata, and all the audience walked out.  It was so modern for that time.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  What year was this?

Aitay:   It must have been around 1933 or 1934, something like that.

BD:   This was in Budapest?

Aitay:   Yes, in Budapest, and it took a long time until the world realized what a genius he was.  It was not until his death when it really was acknowledged, because he was starving.  He was absolutely starving in this country.

BD:   Koussevitzky gave him that last commission...

Aitay:   Yes, because Reiner and Szigeti pushed it through.  Bartók wouldn’t accept any kind of money, or any kind of help, so the only way they could do it was to give commissions.  That’s how it happened.

BD:   Reiner brought some of his music to America?

Aitay:   He played a great deal.  As for the Concerto for Orchestra, it is one of his famous recordings.

BD:   Tell me a bit about the Forty-four Duos.  When did you first come to them?

Aitay:   I was a young student when Bartók’s Duos were planned to be played in Switzerland [in 1935 or 1936].  I was one of the people who was asked to do it.  As a young student, I played it for Bartók, but the trip just didn’t materialize, unfortunately.  But it was being planned, and that’s how I learned it, and that’s how I played it for him.

BD:   Was Bartók pleased with the way you played his music?

Aitay:   Yes, yes, yes.

BD:   On the recording of the Forty-four Duos, who plays first and who plays second?

Aitay:   I played first!

BD:   On all of them?

Aitay:   All of them.

BD:   On the cover which I have, you are listed second, but you are first on the inside label.


Aitay:   Sometimes they changed the cover.  We had three different covers because it was three different editions.
 Then we played a lot of Kodály.  I played his Trio many times, and we recorded the quartets for Vox with the Chicago Symphony String Quartet.  We recorded the first quartet and the second quartet.

BD:   You were concertmaster of the orchestra, and you also played chamber music.  How is it different to play first violin in a large orchestra, as opposed to being the first violin of a quartet?
Aitay:   One fulfills the other interest.  When you play in the orchestra, and you prepare the solos, and everything, it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.  Then, when you are playing quartets, you play the best music that has ever been written
all the Beethoven quartets, the Mendelssohn quartets, the Mozart quartets.  There’s nothing better, and it gives the greatest joy.

BD:   Do you play the violin differently in the quartet as opposed to the orchestra, or is it just a mental difference?

Aitay:   You may play the solos in the orchestra like a concerto, but in the quartet you play part of four people, so you cannot just play it as a solo piece.  You have to be part of the whole ensemble.  I really enjoyed every phase of music
the teaching, the conducting, the quartet playing, and the orchestral playing.  Before I came to Chicago, I was concertmaster with the Metropolitan Opera for six years, and I loved it.  [Laughs]  That’s a different type of lovethe Italian operas, the Wagner operas... it’s completely different, but I loved it.  I was very happy to be exposed to such great singers and wonderful conductors in the Metropolitan at that time, one after another.

BD:   In the pit, were you able to hear the singers pretty well?

Aitay:   Oh yes, oh, yes!  Wonderful!  You have to hear them because you have to be really very flexible with singers.  The conductor also has to be flexible, and so do the players.  Singers can run out of breath, and they can hold notes for ever if they feel like it, and so forth, and so forth.  So you have to be very flexible.

BD:   When you play a concerto, are you at all like a singer?

Aitay:   I would say so, yes.  As a matter of fact, I feel that if you play the violin well, and you want to produce a beautiful sound, it’s just like a singer... but that applies really for all the instruments, because the basic instrument is the voice.  Everybody tries to imitate a beautiful voice.  All of them go back to the voice, the breathing, everything.

BD:   It’s strange to think of a string instrument breathing!

Aitay:   Yes, absolutely, you breathe the music just like the singers.

BD:   You’ve played concert music all your life.  Is this music for everyone?

Aitay:   Unfortunately, not.  It takes education from childhood up.  It’s very difficult when somebody’s thirty-five, and never been exposed to classical music.  All of a sudden it happens, but it’s much more difficult than if you grew up with it.  That’s why in Vienna, in Berlin, or in Budapest, it’s a tradition.  Children are growing up with classical music, at least they were in my age group.  I don’t know how it happens right now, and maybe it’s changed a great deal.  But that’s the only solution for children to get a musical education in the school.  Unfortunately, this is a budgeting problem.  Right now many schools cut it out, and that’s a tragedy.

BD:   Is the proliferation of recordings and radio broadcasts helpful?

Aitay:   A great deal.  People like Pavarotti have really popularized opera.  He’s a great mentor for the whole world to get to know opera.

BD:   Does this translate to more bodies in the seats?

Aitay:   You can see how popular opera is now.  Every performance is sold out, not only here, but in the Metropolitan, and San Francisco Opera, all over.  It is mainly because of the recordings, the broadcasts, and Pavarotti and Domingo.

BD:   Didn
t we have something like this when Heifetz was going around the world?

Aitay:   Absolutely.  The only difference is that at that time, television wasn’t so in vogue.  It just started around that time, but now all these artists are on television day and night in the opera productions.  Heifetz didn’t have that exposure, unfortunately.

BD:   Should we try to find a new violinist to go out to be the violin-ing Pavarotti?

Aitay:   Could be...  You never know!

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You should volunteer!  [Both laugh]

Aitay:   [Modestly]  Oh, they’re coming up, the young wonderful talent, and who knows when it will happen.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You’ve been with music all of your life.  Has the technical ability of the performing musician gotten better over these years?

Aitay:   Much better!  Much, much better!  The orchestral players are much more advanced.  Years ago, to play a Strauss piece, or The Rite of Spring was a major undertaking.  Now we play it with one or two rehearsals.  Today it’s a repertoire piece, and that proves how much the orchestra players have advanced.

BD:   This is the technical ability?

Aitay:   Right.

BD:   Has the musical understanding also gotten better?

Aitay:   I think so, but that’s really individual.  Many orchestral players are excellent instrumentalists, but do not necessarily have the greatest of musical understanding.  But they are part of a wonderful group, so they are just helping the group the same way.

BD:   Let me ask the very easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

Aitay:   Without music there’s no life.  You need music.  It goes back centuries, even ages.  Music was always part of life, and it will be always part of life.  Maybe music will change in different ways, but it will be always part of life.   You can’t live without it.  Even if somebody has no knowledge of classical music, they still have some kind of music that they enjoy.  It could be rock’n’roll, or it could be anything, but they have their own music which they enjoy, so for them it’s part of life, too.

BD:   Do you partake at all in the more popular kinds of music?

Aitay:   Not really.  I
m not into the hard core rock’n’roll.

BD:   Do you still participate in the new concert music?

Aitay:   Oh, yes.

BD:   When you played Bartók, it was new and unfamiliar.

Aitay:   Right.

BD:   Are we still getting new and unfamiliar music today which will become standard tomorrow?

Aitay:   That’s very hard to tell.  Most of the time we play first performances and never a second.  History sorts out the great composers.  When Beethoven lived, there were other composers but only Beethoven stayed.  When Mozart lived, there were dozens of other composers, but history selects the best.

BD:   Is history right?

Aitay:   I think so.  It proves that it is.  It’s very sad when you find an unrecognized masterpiece.  Most of the time, history tells you which was a masterpiece.

BD:   Even if it lays dormant for a while, it will come back?

Aitay:   It will come back.  Bach was dormant for many years, and now his music is one of the greatest, greatest joys to play and to hear.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of musical composition?

Aitay:   It’s hard to tell.  There are so many ways the music compositions are going, even that electronic music, that it’s hard to tell.  My personal opinion is that eventually there will be a genius coming who can combine all these elements and create something new, just like Stravinsky came and combined a lot of diverse elements.  Maybe somebody will come.

BD:   We are waiting for a musical Messiah?

Aitay:   Yes, I think so.

BD:   Will we recognize him or her?
Aitay:   I think we will recognize them, just like eventually Bartók was recognized, Stravinsky was recognized, and Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  They were all recognized, and they are staying with us because it’s good music.

BD:   Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write music these days?
Aitay:   [Laughs]  Oh God, I really don’t.

BD:   Do you have any advice for young violinists coming along?

Aitay:   Yes... practice!  [Laughs]  No, really you have to do it seriously.  You can’t do it half-way.  If you are committed, and you feel that it’s your life, and you love it, then it’s no problem.  But if you do it just half-way because somebody tells you to do it, that’s not enough.  That never really goes far.

BD:   Do you have some advice for audiences who come to listen?

Aitay:   [Thinks a moment]  Audiences should come regardless of the program because eventually, even if it’s a little bit out of their beliefs, and out of their ordinary space, they still have to listen.  It is just like you go to a museum.  The first time you just go by a painting, but the second time you discover something more, and the third time, even more.  It’s the same thing.  You have to listen to music.  It’s not always something easy right away that catches you.  It’s wonderful if it does, but certain music needs time, and certain music needs several listenings.  I always compare it to museums because you don’t recognize the beauty of some paintings, and get all the details of them right away.  You can make a picture in your mind, but to really understand the artist takes time, and it happens with music in the same way.

BD:   Are you able to understand the mind of all the composers that you play?

Aitay:   Most of them, yes.  Some of the very recent music is difficult, but even those, if you continue to hear them played, you get a better understanding.  After the War, I was in Vienna, and they asked me to play the Berg Violin Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic, which wasn’t played because during the Hitler regime, he was out.  So, I started to practice, and it was very, very difficult to get into the ear at that time.  Berg wasn’t in vogue in 1946, so it was a new sound, and it took time to get acquainted with his style.  But the more I practiced it, the more I studied it, the better I liked it more and more.  So, that’s what I mean.  Certain music needs time, especially if it’s brand new and good.  [Both laugh]  That’s a very important criterion.

BD:   How do we know early on if it’s good?

Aitay:   [Sighs]  It’s difficult, but somehow you feel it.  It’s hard to tell.  Take for instance Berg.  I’m just going back to him.  It wasn’t really acknowledged that he’s a great composer, but you find it when you work on it, and when you look at the orchestration.  You find this is a great man, and that’s probably what happens if you play something else today which is very new.

BD:   Do we, the audience, have to trust you, the performer, to dig out the greatness in any work new or old?

Aitay:   Partly, [laughs] but sometimes it doesn’t work like that.  Not every piece will be a great piece.

BD:   Should we expect every piece to be a great piece?

Aitay:   No!

BD:   Then why do we?

Aitay:   It’s in the education, because there is something new in every composition, some new elements, and we have to get used to them temporarily.  Then if it’s no good, it’s discarded.  I am a great believer that all the great music gets sorted out and stays.

BD:   Perhaps every couple of decades or so, should we re-examine what has been discarded?

Aitay:   Oh, absolutely!  But very seldom you will find anything which was discarded that shouldn’t have been.

BD:   At one point does the mountain of music become too much?

Aitay:   I don’t think that’s so.

BD:   Never???

Aitay:   Never, but that’s for me.  I live with it, I eat it, I sleep it.  [Both laugh]  That’s part of life.

BD:   And then you share it?

Aitay:   That’s right, and that’s the beauty of it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You were concertmaster here and elsewhere for many years.  What are the extra responsibilities of being in that chair?

Aitay:   First of all, the concertmaster is the player who conveys the conductor’s wishes.
BD:   To the audience or to the orchestra?

Aitay:   First to the orchestra.  You prepare the music, the phrasing, the bowing, and you prepare the solos.  You discuss it with all the other string leaders, and try to unify the phrasing, especially in the Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Schubert repertoire.  These are major responsibilities, and you also have to lead the section.  It’s not enough just to play.  Many people can play, but you have to be born to be a leader.  That you cannot learn.  You can learn how to play better and better, but just a like a conductor, he has to have the personality to be a leader.  There are several conductors that can beat the time, but it doesn’t go anywhere.

BD:   The orchestra always seems to respond more to the better conductors.

Aitay:   Because the orchestra is the mirror of the conductor.  The orchestra always plays well, but to play great, you have to have a terrific conductor.  Regardless, the work always has to be played at a very, very high standard.  But to have an exceptional performance, you need a great conductor.

BD:   Without mentioning any names, are there times when you just play on automatic pilot, and ignore the guy up there?

Aitay:   Partly.  It seldom happens, but it can happen.  Many times the orchestra helps the conductor.  [Laughs]  Some conductors are not always up to the standard of the Chicago Symphony.

BD:   Can the orchestra then make the conductor look better?

Aitay:   Right, exactly.

BD:   Is it a point of pride for you to help a conductor, or is it a point of sadness for you that the conductor is not up to your standard?

Aitay:   No, it comes automatically.  Everybody gives of their best.  The rehearsal may be tiring, but come the performance, the orchestra is always on the top.  I have been here now forty-eight years, and I could count on one hand the times when a guest just wasn’t up to it.  We always try to do our best, because that’s our profession.  You can’t really play badly.  Your inner soul doesn’t let you do that.  You want to play the best all the time, and besides, the audience expects it.

BD:   That’s true.  We are spoiled!

Aitay:   Right!  That’s how it should be.

BD:   Does it please you now that you’re getting big ovations here, and elsewhere when you tour?

Aitay:   Yes, it’s great.  [Both laugh]  It’s a great feeling.

BD:   Are you pleased with the recordings that you have made with the orchestra, and also your chamber recordings?

Aitay:   I don’t like to listen a recording very soon after we make it.  It takes a little time to elapse before you really can honestly listen to the piece, because when you play it, you hear every single nuance, and every little thing you feel you could have done better, but didn’t.  But when the time elapses, you are more of the outside listener, not inside, and then you can judge it better.

BD:   After all these years, do they make you happy?

Aitay:   Yes, yes, yes, yes!  It’s a different perspective.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

Aitay:   I don’t know.  There are performances which are better than you were expecting.  If one is perfect or not, I don’t know, but it comes out as an exceptional performance.  What is perfect, really?  If, in the opinion of the orchestra and the conductor, it is better than we ever played it, that’s enough.  I don’t know if it’s perfect, but that’s what we feel, and it happened many times on tours in Europe, or in New York.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Aitay:   Yes, I think so.  There are low periods and there are high periods, but in the long run it goes on and on...

BD:   Is playing the violin fun?

Aitay:   [Hesitates]  It is.  It is fun, but I would say it’s more satisfaction.  You can’t play the violin really just for fun.  You want to satisfy yourself, you want to satisfy the composer, you want to satisfy the audience, and that’s the aim.  The word ‘fun’ represents something different for me.  The word ‘fun’ goes with a game, but playing the violin is serious.  It’s serious and I love it.  It’s as simple as that.  I love it.

BD:   Having listened to you for many years, and enjoyed the performances, it comes across.

Aitay:   Thank you.


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BD:   Thank you for being in Chicago all this time.

Aitay:   Oh, I love it.  It was so funny...  The first two years we kept our apartment in New York.  I took a leave of absence from the Metropolitan because I didn’t know if I would like Chicago, or if Chicago would like me!  So, we stayed in a hotel apartment for two seasons.  Now, after forty-eight years, I think I like it!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Before we go, tell me about your instrument.

Aitay:   I play a Giovanni Battista Guadagnini from 1746.  It
s a beautiful violin.  However, the Chicago Symphony has a Stradivarius violin, and the concertmaster has the opportunity to use it.  So, for many years I used that violin, which is a terrific violin.

BD:   Now with two co-concertmasters, who uses it, or do they rotate?

Aitay:   Actually, they have two Stradivarius violins.  They were donated to the Chicago Symphony.  One is a little bit better than the other, but both of them are wonderful instruments, and we are lucky to have them.

BD:   Is it a good feeling being back to simply playing in the section again?

Aitay:   Yes.  You can’t be a concertmaster for ever.  It’s a very taxing position.  You need a lot of time, preparation, and practice.

BD:   Thank you for speaking with me today.

Aitay:   It was a pleasure.

[If I may, a personal recollection concerning the Stradivarius mentioned above...  Maxim Vengerov has been a guest soloist with the CSO on several occasions.  One time, in the middle of his concerto, he broke a string.  This happens occasionally, so there is a protocol.  The soloist trades instruments with the concertmaster and continues performing.  The concertmaster hands the violin to another player in the section who replaces the string.  He then hands the instrument back to the concertmaster, who returns it to the soloist at a convenient time in the music.  On this occasion, as they were about to start the final movement, the concertmaster that week, Rubén González, attempted to hand the violin back to Vengerov.  The soloist hesitated, looked carefully at the borrowed instrument, and shook his head, indicating that he preferred to keep the Stradivarius for the remainder of the performance.  Everyone smiled, and there was loud applause from the audience.]


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© 2002 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded backstage at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on June 8, 2002.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR three months later, and again in 2014.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.