Three remarkable early Hungarian-Canadians
Today more than 300,000 people of Hungarian heritage live in Canada. About one-half of them reside in Ontario, mainly in Toronto, the province's capital and most populous city. Even though Hungarians began to come to Canada in earnest in the 1880s, their numbers remained small prior to World War II. It was this conflict and the 1956 Revolution that stimulated a large influx. Many of the individuals in these two waves have attained prominence in the adopted land. To name but a few: the writers George Jonas and György Faludy, businessman Peter Munk, University of Toronto professor Levente L. Diosady, composer Tibor Polgar and his chanteuse wife Ilona Nagykovacsi, the artist Dora Pedery-Hunt, and Zoltan Remenyi, the founder of the great music store The House of Remenyi.
Time takes it's inevitable toll and thus it's not surprising that the memory of the accomplishments of earlier Canadian-Hungarians tends to recede with each passing year. However, they must not be forgotten. Three "old-timers" who managed to avoid this fate are the artists Charles Ernest de Belle and Nicholas Hornyansky and the violinist Géza de Kresz.
Born in Budapest on May 17, 1873 of a French father and a Hungarian mother, de Belle evinced great interest and genuine talent for artistic endeavors from an early age. His family was very supportive of his ambitions and at the age of 16 he went to study in Paris. He remained in the French capital for four years.
His endeavors there culminated in several scholarship. A grant from the Royal Academy in London, England, enabled him to travel and further his education on the Continent. Becoming an illustrator for the Dublin Times in Ireland, he married an Irish girl but soon returned to England. They became the parents of seven children.
For his pastel creations he developed his own unique method of fixation, mounting his pictures between two pieces of glass. Around 1904 he expanded his artistic horizons by commencing to paint in oils.
In 1912 de Belle emigrated to Canada with his family. They settled in Montreal and he remained a resident of the city until the end of his life. Given his partial French heritage and training in the arts, it's easy to understand why he chose Montreal. While the city at the time had a substantial middle class and wealthy inhabitants, as pointed out in Terry Copp's classic The Anatomy of Poverty (1974), poverty was the common experience for the majority of the residents due to low wages and persistent unemployment. Substandard housing and slums blighted the landscape. Montreal was one of the unhealthiest cities of the Western world; it's infant mortality rate was similar to that of Calcutta. Municipal administration was riddled with nepotism and corruption.
Fortunately for de Belle, his works, particularly his pleasing pastels, were noted by the city's wealthier elements and he soon enjoyed the patronage of a large clientele. He became known as a painter of portraits, landscapes, and children. His superb winter scenes drew unrestrained praise.
His artistic talents and achievements were recognized by his peers as well; in 1919 he was elected an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts. A history of this association written in 1934 by Hugh G. Jones and Edward Dyonnet refers to him as a "Painter of Children."
In 1920 he presented his memorable creation In Flanders Fields to McGill University in memory of Dr. John McCrae, author of the short lyric considered by many to be the finest poem of World War I. Born in 1872 in Guelph, Ontario, McCrae attended the University of Toronto. His interests extended far beyond medicine and he contributed a number of verses to various literary journals. During the Boer War he served as an artillery subaltern. Upon returning from South Africa he was appointed fellow of pathology at McGill University. At the outbreak of World War I he enlisted as a medical officer in the Canadian overseas forces. He wrote his famous poem during the Second Battle of Ypres in April of 1915. Contracting pneumonia, Dr. McCrae died at Boulogne, France, on January 28, 1918.
De Belle was a faithful participant in the annual Spring Exhibition of the Art Association of Montreal from 1913 until 1936. He displayed some eighty of his works during these years.
He held an exhibition at the home of Lady Mortimer Davis in 1923. Her husband, known as the Tobacco King of Canada, was president of the American Tobacco Company and later founded the Imperial Tobacco Company. He was also a public-spirited and generous philanthropist. Two years later, in November of 1925, de Belle hosted a similar event at the residence of Mrs. Edward Maxwell. Her husband was a prominent architect with an extensive practice and served as Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts from 1917 to 1920.
As he became older, de Belle's health began to decline. When he could no longer control his hands as firmly as before - a prerequisite for paste work - he transferred his emphasis to oils. Despite his old-age infirmities, he had a successful exhibition in the T. Eaton Co. in Toronto in 1934.
De Belle died on September 3, 1939. A year after his death, a little book - an extended pamphlet really, consisting of some 18 pages with 14 illustrations - bearing the title Charles de Belle et Georges Delfosse was written by Olivier Maurault. Delfosse (1869-1939) was a well-known Montreal painter of portraits, religious and historical subjects. A respected author and historian, the Reverend Maurault, a Roman Catholic priest, was rector of the University of Montreal
Nine years later Albert Laberge, compiled the monograph Charles de Belle, Peintre-Poete. It not only covers the salient points of de Belle's life and career but also contains a number of anecdotes about him. De Belle is one of the many artists meriting a chapter in Les Artistes de Mon Temps, the reminiscences of Alfred Laliberte, the famous Quebec sculptor.
In Canada de Belle's works may be seen at the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Parliament Buildings of the Province of Quebec. Judging from notices and ads in art publications and postings on the Internet, the passage of time hasn't diminished interest in his pictures.
The son of a distinguished physician, Géza de Kresz was born in Budapest on June 11, 1882. He acquired his early musical training under such masters as Károly Gobbi, Frigyes Arányi and Jenő Hubay. Following additional studies in Prague under Otakar Sevcik, he became a pupil of Eugene Ysaye, often called the "Belgian Paganini."
He made his debut in Vienna in 1906. From 1909 to 1915 de Kresz was in Bucharest as professor of music at the Conservatory and as leader of the Carmen Sylva String Quartet at the royal court. Relocating to Berlin in 1915, he became concert-master and permanent soloist in the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Also performing in Berlin at the time was the eminent English pianist Norah Drewett. A native of Sutton, she studied piano at Paris, Munich and Berlin and made her orchestral debut in 1904 at Monte Carlo. Their relationship blossomed into love and they were married on September 5, 1918. The following year they became the parents of a baby girl they named Maria; a second daughter, Ilonka, was born to them in 1923.
Berlin was a rather bleak place after World War I as economic and political turmoil raged throughout Germany. Thus when Boris Hambourg, an old friend from his days in Belgium, invited him to Toronto to become head of the violin department of the Hambourg Conservatory, Géza accepted without hesitation and the family set off for North America in the summer of 1923.
Boris and his family, all of them extremely talented musicians, had moved to Toronto a few years before the outbreak of World War I. In 1911, Michael Hambourg (Boris's father) founded the Hambourg Conservatory, a private institution which quickly gained the esteem of Torontonians.
After Géza and Norah gave a joint recital in the city's venerable Massey Hall on October 30, the Mail and Empire wrote: "He played with emotional colour, and the compositions that have dramatic possibilities are interpreted by him with fire and abandon."
Géza took up his teaching duties at the Hambourg Conservatory with great zest and remained a dedicated and conscientious teacher till the end of his life. Among his pupils over the years were Maurice Solway, Murray Adaskin, Arthur Garami, Adolph Koldofsky, and Betty-Jean Hagen, all of whom attained considerable respect and fame as musicians in Canada and abroad. In his memoirs entitled Recollections of a Violinist, Solway refers to de Kresz as "truly selfless and considerate." Arthur Garami declared: "Geza de Kresz will always be remembered as an incomparable professor, a much admired performer and a rare human being in the noblest sense of the word. As a teacher he possessed an absolute mastery of the instrument, with a keen analytical mind which illuminated every point of interest."
Norah also gave lessons at the Hambourg Conservatory and like her husband she had a steady stream of pupils during her career. One of her most eminent students was Ida Krehm; another was Patricia Blomfield Holt.
A notable visitor to their home in 1925 was the eminent Hungarian artist Tibor Pólya. To mark the occasion, he drew a humorous cartoon of Géza. Three years later they entertained Maurice Ravel. "He loved my Italian Creche figures," recalled Norah. "After lunch I played Ondine to him, which he likes intensely sentimental and languorous. [...] Then we played Tzigane, and he was quite delighted with Géza's rendering."
While Géza and Norah gave many superb recitals together and separately over the years, his fame in Canada rests mainly on his association with the Hart House String Quartet. Upon arriving in Toronto de Kresz had in mind the formation of such a group with himself as first violin and Boris on the violoncello, along with two other outstanding musicians, Harry Adaskin as second violinist and Milton Blackstone on the viola. He discussed the idea with Boris. Boris liked the concept and for support he in turn approached Vincent Massey, the scion of a wealthy and philanthropic family whose generosity towards education, arts, and other worthwhile objectives was legendary.
The founder of the family fortune was Hart Massey, Vincent's grandfather. A successful manufacturer of agricultural implements, Hart Massey was a munificent philanthropist himself; for example, the aforementioned Massey Hall was one of his gifts to the city of Toronto. Upon his death in 1896 a large portion of his fortune was channeled through to various charities and causes through the Massey Foundation. The University of Toronto was one of the chief beneficiaries; several of the stately buildings still adorning the campus were erected with Massey money.
The best-known and most imposing of these buildings is Hart House, named after Hart Massey of course. An architectural gem designed in the Late Gothic Revival style, its construction started before World War I and it was formally presented to the University of Toronto on November 11, 1919. Intended basically as a men's club for students and faculty, Hart House came with all sorts of amenities: reading room, library, music room, chapel, gymnasium, rifle range, debating rooms, photographic facilities, etc. It boasted a theater and its Great Hall was used not only for dining but a wide array of public events. Hart House was more than a club; it was a primary cultural center for the entire community.
Vincent Massey was very receptive towards the formation of a string quartet. The small musical soiree was becoming a mark of cultivated society. To gauge public attitude, he arranged for an inaugural concert before an invited audience of five hundred people in Hart House on the evening of April 27, 1924. It was a tremendous success. "The applause was terrific," Adaskin recalled, "and we went out several times to bow." As usual, Vincent Massey made only a terse comment in his diary about the occasion: "I made a short speech introducing the new adventure."
With the wholehearted support of Vincent Massey and his wife Alice, the quartet, officially dubbed as the Hart House String Quartet, begun its musical odyssey. "Becoming a member of the group, Harry Adaskin later wrote "was the great artistic experience of my life." The Globe, one of the city's leading newspapers, noted the founding of the group in the following words: "The Hart House String Quartet was formed in the spring of this year as a permanent organization, and its inaugural concert was given on April 27, 1924." Vincent and Alice Massey, despite their absence from Toronto for much of the time, followed every movement of the group.
De Kresz was a firm believer in the promotion of Hungarian music. Consequently the works of numerous Hungarian composers - established as well as emerging - were performed by the Quartet.
The Quartet appeared in many large and small Canadian communities and became a leading factor on the national musical scene. Commented the Evening Examiner of Peterborough: "Of the many fine musical groups that have come to the city in recent years the Hart House String Quartet is probably one of the most notable [...] they played as one man, blending into a harmonious whole."
Until 1926 the Quartet performed in Hart House Theater but in that year they gave their first concert in the far more spacious Great Hall.
Ian Montagnes's An Uncommon Fellowship, The Story of Hart House (1969), a book which contains abundant reminiscences by J. Burgon Bickersteth, warden from 1921 to 1947, provides a vivid description of that performance and the Quartet: "The Hart House String Quartet [...] was one of the most interesting developments in the life of the House. the idea simply was to give four first-rate musicians an opportunity to rehearse and perform together. [...] They gave their first Sunday evening concert in the Great Hall in 1926. [...] The hall was so full we could get no one else in. The audience sat there spellbound: you could have heard a pin drop. [...] They quickly established themselves as one of the most brilliant ensembles in Canada [...] it did spread the name of Hart House to places where it otherwise never have been heard."
The Quartet also began to play regularly for Canadian and American radio stations. In 1927 they toured the United States for the first time. Participating in the Diamond Jubilee of Canadian Confederation, the Quartet broadcasted from Ottawa on July 1, 1927. The previous year, Vincent Massey became the first Canadian minister to Washington, DC. It was a momentous occasion for it was the first time Canada had opened senior diplomatic relations with a foreign nation independently of Great Britain.
During the 1928-29 season the Quartet gave sixty concerts in forty-four cities in Canada, within a space of five months. The appearance of the Quartet at the Canadian Legation early in 1929 before a glittering gathering was hosted by Vincent Massey and his wife.
Their triumphs were equally resounding in Europe. Following performance in Great Britain in 1929, the Daily Express praised them as a first-rate ensemble while the Morning Post wrote that "it is a double pleasure to welcome these excellent musicians from Toronto. The Hart House Quartet is an admirable body worthy to rank on purely musical grounds with the most serious organizations of this kind." On the way back to Canada the Quartet called on Ysaye in Brussels. The great violinist was absolutely delighted by their performance and declared that the occasion "became an evening of enchantment for me, and I will never forget the profound sensation I experienced in listening to these works played with an incomparable mastery, an ensemble of almost unique perfection."
The international recognition attained by the Hart House String Quartet was a source of immense pride and pleasure for Vincent and Alice Massey.
In the fall of 1932 Géza formed the Little Symphony, a small orchestra composed predominantly of young musicians, many of whom were also members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The Little Symphony gave a handful of concerts in Toronto in 1932, 1933 and 1934. Norah often accompanied her husband.
While the Quartet was in perfect harmony on stage, the relationship between members of the group was not as smooth and became more and more strained with the passing of time. Artistic and personal differences pitted Géza versus Harry and Milton, with Boris taking a discrete and uneasy neutral stance.
When the internal problems of the Quartet reached a point beyond solution, Géza severed his relationship with the group in 1935 and returned to Hungary. That year was also a momentous one in the life of Vincent Massey. Appointed Canadian high commissioner, he moved to London and his interest in the Quartet declined considerably.
Times were difficult and tense throughout Europe as various totalitarian ideologies were jockeying for political control. Géza was appointed professor at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music and in 1941, he was made Principal of the Conservatorium of Music. Decades later, János Starker, one of his pupils at the Academy said: "To me de Kresz was above all, a gentleman and a truly gentle man, and Norah Drewett was a lady."
The end of World War II did not bring an end to the suffering. As a matter of fact, it inaugurated the darkest epoch in Hungarian history for the victorious Western powers handed over the entire eastern Europe to Stalin and his henchmen - a crime unparalleled in the history of mankind. With the helpful presence of the Red Army, the puppets of the Kremlin encountered no serious opposition in "liberating" people and imposing the depraved and degenerate tenets of Communism.
Like millions of others, Geza and Norah left Hungary in 1947 and settled once more in Toronto. However, their daughter Maria remained in Hungary and carved out a distinguished career in ethnography. From 1943 until her death in 1989 she was curator at the Ethnographic Museum of Budapest.
Given their age and absence of a dozen years, the transition wasn't easy but Géza and Norah managed to re-establish their lives and careers. Their joint performance on the evening of March 16, 1949, constituted their formal return to the New York recital field. They presented a comprehensive mélange of classic, romantic and modernist pieces. Due to their long association together on the concert platform, said the New York Times, "their ensemble work was admirable in its accuracy of attack, distribution of light and shade," and their playing "was that of two genuinely serious artists."
In 1952 de Kresz established a small string orchestra, a sort of revival of the old Little Symphony. Their first performance took place on November 22 in the Concert Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto. In that very year his old steadfast patron Vincent Massey was appointed governor-general of Canada.
Géza devoted much of his time putting his thoughts to paper on the most effective methods for teaching violin playing, lectured on violin pedagogy, and contributed two articles on the subject to the influential periodical The Strad in 1951.
On February 15, 1956, he was struck down by a stroke and suffered another one, a more devastating one, a month later. He was confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or to play.
On October 1, 1959, the Philharmonica Hungarica, under the baton of Antal Doráti, gave a concert at Massey Hall. Géza was the intended guest of honor. As he was leaving to attend, he sustained a massive stroke. Despite all medical efforts, he died the following day. His obituary notice in the October 3 edition of the New York Times referred to him as "for many years one of Toronto's leading musicians."
To be with her daughter and grandchildren, Norah moved to Hungary. However, she outlived her husband by only a few months. A heart attack on April 24, 1960 claimed her life.
Géza de Kresz's pedagogical ideas on musical education languished in manuscript form for a decade after his death. Thanks to the efforts of Professor Kenneth McRobbie of the University of Manitoba the work was published in 1969. In that very same year the distinguished artist Dora de Pedery Hunt designed a medallion to mark the inauguration of the Géza de Kresz Memorial Scholarship Fund.
Born in Budapest on August 11, 1896, Nicholas Hornyansky studied under some of Hungary's ablest artists: Ede Ballo, Viktor Olgyai and Vilmos Aba-Novak He had his first public display not long after his sixteenth birthday. Going abroad, he furthered his education in Vienna, Munich, Antwerp, and Paris. In Antwerp he was under the tutelage of Frans Hens, the distinguished Belgian painter, watercolorist, engraver and draftsman, and in Paris he trained in the atelier of Alfred Porcaboeuf.
Like other artists, Hornyansky was influenced by a number of contemporaries and predecessors; in his case, Van Eyck, the younger Breughel, El Greco and Diego Rivera. However, it didn't take him long to develop his own distinctive style marked by unusually fine and colorful work.
In 1927 Hornyansky married, taking Joyce Feldtmann as his wife. They had two children, Michael and Barbara. In 1929 the entire family emigrated to Canada, choosing Toronto as their new home. Hornyansky remained a resident of the city until the end of his life.
1929 was a most auspicious year in world history for it ushered in the Great Depression. Canadians reveling in unprecedented and uninterrupted prosperity nowadays cannot imagine the hardships prevailing during the Great Depression. Reflecting on those difficult times, the distinguished historian Pierre Berton wrote in his The Dionne Years, A Thirties Melodrama (1977): " No country was hit harder by the Depression than the Dominion of Canada. No people suffered more severely than its citizens. No Western industrial nation entered the decade of the Thirties with fewer social services. [...] The lifeline of an export trade based on staple raw materials was choked off by the economic nationalism of former customers. Between 1929 and 1933 the total national income dropped by almost 50 per cent." Disposable income of Canadians nowadays is limited only by personal initiative but in the Dirty Thirties money was scarce. As a result, the purchase of fine art dwindled to practically zero, making it even more difficult for struggling artists to eke out a living.
Hornyansky's reputation gained in Europe helped immensely in these tough times;
Joyce, a talented cellist, also readily adjusted to the new environment. She moved in the same Toronto musical circles as Géza de Kresz and performed solo and as a member
Between 1931 and 1942 Hornyansky participated in every Spring Exhibition of the Art Association of Montreal (which became the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1948). In subsequent years his involvement was sporadic; his last appearance was at the 1960 showing. He was also a regular exhibitor in Toronto art galleries, exhibited in several major American and European cities, and took part in the 1939 World's Fair in New York City and the Modern Sacred Art Exhibition in Buenos Aires in 1953.
According to William Colgate's Canadian Art, Its Origin & Development (1943): "Canadian etchers whose work entitles them to mention are [...] Nicholas Hornyansky for his high pitched colour plates which so often sing in a major key." Paul Duval in his Canadian Drawings and Prints (1952) refers to Hornyansky's etchings as "fastidiously finished landscape reports." His color etching, Closing Time, became the first Canadian print to be placed in the Permanent National Collection of Prints of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. In 1955 he was the recipient of the G. A. Reid Silver Memorial Award, named after the outstanding figure of Canadian arts.
Given to innovations and new artistic expressions, Hornyansky is credited with the discovery of the "superimposed grain" aquatint color-printed etching as well as the positive aquatint.
He is best known for his colored etchings and aquatints of the Ontario, Quebec and Maritime landscape. The Toronto and Early Canada picture collection at the Toronto Public Library contains over a dozen of Hornyansky's colored aquatints of such beloved landmarks of the city as St. Lawrence Hall & Market, Colborne Lodge, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Fort York, and Osgoode Hall. Two of Hornyansky's works in the National Gallery of Canada are Osgoode Hall, a color etching and aquatint dating from around 1940, and Sunshine on the Bluffs, Scarborough, Lake Ontario, an etching done in 1932.
It is often forgotten than Hornyansky was a very accomplished portrait painter. A multitude of eminent people had portraits done by him, among them Miriam Rothschild, Lord Newton, and Baron Wittert Van Hoogland. His painting of the famous Roman Catholic prelate Cardinal Mercier was hung in the Mercier Commemorative Hall in Belgium.
A member of several Canadian and American professional associations, Hornyansky was a founding member of The Guild of All Arts and served as president of the Society of Canadian Painter-Etchers and Engravers (CPE) from 1944 to 1947. With the CPE he founded the Print Cabinets of the Royal Ontario Museum. He was made an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1943.
For years he was an esteemed member of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. The club, founded as an arts club in 1908, played a crucial role in the history of all the arts in English Canada. In 1960 the International Institute of Arts and Letters (Swiss Incorporated) made him a life fellow. It was no small honor for among the other life members of this august organizations were such world-renowned luminaries as William Saroyan, Jean Cocteau, and Marc Chagall.
For more than a dozen years, beginning in 1945, he taught printmaking at the Ontario College of Art. Hornyansky often contributed to the general and professional literature on a variety of subjects; his article in the 1947 issue of Canadian Art describes the steps involved in the process of making a soft-ground etching.
Hornyansky was an active figure in the affairs of the city's Hungarian community. In addition to being a prominent member of the Lutheran congregation, he played a leading role in the establishment of Hungarian House. It was Hornyansky's fervent hope that it would serve as a "second home" to every Toronto Hungarians who did not belong to a church or a political party, and that it would help to keep second-generation Hungarian Canadians "Hungarian."
Hornyansky died on May 25, 1965. The Fall 1965 issue of the Arts and Letters Club Bulletin paid homage to his memory in the following words: "Nick was for many years a great friend of the Club. He loved to explain the annual Print Show which he organized with such skill. He attended most evening meetings where he was always surrounded by admirers of the great master [...] He was world renowned as a printmaker in which art he pioneered many techniques [...]"
Since his death numerous exhibitions of his works have been held in museums and art galleries throughout Ontario. In 1978 the Nicholas Hornyansky Book Trust Fund arranged for the reproduction of more than 300 of his works in a deluxe limited edition.
Hornyansky's works are avidly sought by collectors, especially those interested in Canadiana. One of the most prominent private collectors of Hornyansky's pictures has been Mr. William Tennison of the Maydwell Manufacturing Co. Ltd. His extensive collection of Hornyansky works has been mentioned several times in the newspapers. Mr. Tennyson was the driving force behind a number of Hornyansky exhibitions, including the one held at the Oakville Centennial Gallery in 1976. Many of the pictures displayed were from his collection. When the Etobicoke Historical Board initiated a fund drive in December of 1987 to help renovate and expand Montgomery's Inn, a fine old edifice dating back to the 1830s, Mr. Tennison again graciously lent many of his Hornyansky works in an accompanying exhibition.
The Hornyansky story cannot be closed without saying a words about Michael Hornyansky. Like his parents, he made significant contributions to the cultural life of Canada. An outstanding student, he was a Rhodes scholar, professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, and the author of a slew of acclaimed writings.
NOTES: The history of Hungarians in Canada in recounted in numerous writings. Particularly detailed and informative are Jenő Ruzsa's A kanadai magyarság története (1940) and Struggle and Hope: The Hungarian-Canadian Experience by Professor Nandor F. Dreisziger et al. (1982).
Succinct summaries of Géza de Kresz's life and career appear in a wide array of general and musical biographical reference works. However, the most authoritative source is the 1989 book Géza de Kresz and Norah Drewett by Maria Kresz and Péter Király. Valuable details are also provided in Harry Adaskin's A Fiddler's World (1977), Erich Koch's The Brothers Hambourg (1997), and the Hart House String Quartet scrapbooks spanning the period between April 1924 and November 1941 as compiled by Milton Blackstone. De Kresz's papers are held at the University of Toronto, the Metropolitan Toronto Library, and the National Library of Canada. There is no comprehensive account on the life and attainments of Nicholas Hornyansky, but brief biographical sketches appear in a multitude of art reference works. Various issues of Who's Who in Canada also provide useful information.