Back to School: Dour music teacher passed along love for the true classics

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His name was Mr. Toth.

His first name remained unknown to us youngsters. Student-teacher relations were rather formal in Hungary in the 1950s, starting with the understanding that if a teacher entered the classroom we should all rise and stand erect next to our desks. That was how we greeted our teachers and then waited for the nod of permission to sit down.

We sure were an obedient bunch! Individuality was kept to one's self, and if expressed, why, that could get you -- and your parents -- in big trouble in Budapest. So there we sat in neat rows looking up at our teachers and at the giant pictures framed above their heads. Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Engels stared down on us.

Singing patriotic songs about liberation from imperialism, value of collective work and the happy life of the workers on the farms was the vogue of the day. We junior high students cheerfully belted out songs at the top of our voices praising the rightness of the communist way of life.

Mr. Toth was our choral director. He was a tall, balding man older than our other teachers. No one ever saw him smile. He spoke slowly in a measured voice. His mannerisms indicated an old-fashioned gentleman who commanded respect without ever raising his voice.

In a school without musical instruments, Mr. Toth followed the required music curriculum and had us sing the newly minted patriotic songs. If anyone walked by our classroom, they could hear us well. But a few minutes after class started he would wave his hands to silence us and turn to his desk.

From there he picked up giant posters of sheet music and secured them to the blackboard. The sheets were hand-copied by him and visible even from the last row. He pointed to the bottom of each poster and read out loud the name of the composer.

"Now this is the real music you must get to know," he commanded.

With his baton he pointed to the notes, row by row, and sang the tunes in his clear baritone, and then he made us sing along. First tentatively -- then as we became more familiar with the melodies, confidently -- we followed our teacher in unison and learned choral pieces from famous operas.

We learned forte meant loud, piano meant softer, pianissimo meant almost a whisper. We sang Verdi's famous tunes. We sang Schubert's "Ave Maria." We learned the names of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Puccini and others by humming their music with the appropriate intonation and feeling.

There seemed to be no end to this dour-looking man's ambition to pass on to us the love of classical works. During that school year in 1956 he copied and displayed pages and pages of sheet music, teaching us clueless pre-teens the love of the glorious melodies of the past.

One day he displayed yet another poster with the name of Ludwig von Beethoven on the bottom. He told a story about this man who lived and wrote music in Vienna. The brilliant composer was a most unfriendly and grumpy individual, he said, though he was welcome in the palaces of kings and queens.

On this very day we were going to learn new music of this famous composer who was, mind you, totally deaf. We were told that he was a daring inventor who wrote a symphony and added the human voice to all the instruments in the big orchestra.

"Has anyone heard of the name of this composition?"

"Beethoven's Ninth," I yelled out before anyone else. I had learned that from my mom, who told me this was the very piece of music the Viennese Philharmonic performed upon the Soviet troops leaving Austria after World War II. For once Mr. Toth seemed to smile, and he placed his hand atop my head.

"Yes, we are going to learn the last part of that symphony, and it is called the 'Ode to Joy.' "

The following school year he was gone. Our new, young teacher went back to the modern tunes of the day. Nobody knew what happened to Mr. Toth. Maybe he retired. Maybe it was found out that he went against the political correctness of the day and lost his job. There were so many unexplained events in those days.

One thing I do know -- about age 11 under the direction of my choral director I fell in love with myself and the belief that I understood classical music. What a gift!


Susanna Fussenegger, a counselor from Harmar, can be reached at The PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to First Published September 5, 2012 4:00 AM


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