The two Hungarians not only played music, they were themselves the music – in every nerve – down to their fingertips.

Adelheid von Schorn on Reményi and Liszt

The secret is the openness in the profession and the solid foundations from the Liszt Academy—Interview with Judit Varga

3 June 2019

The Erkel Ferenc Prize winner and Bartók–Pásztory Prize winner is going to continue her teaching activities at the Vienna Academy of Music from the next academic year. Judit Varga, professor at the Liszt Academy of Music, shared her impressions of her prestigious appointment and her way there.


Photo: Andrea Felvégi


You spent more than ten years at the Liszt Academy, first as a student and then as an instructor. Could you mention a few highlights of the knowledge acquired here?

Being a student of the Academy was a life-changing experience. I still remember the inspiring atmosphere that I felt from the first minute I entered the mysterious Art Nouveau building and became part of this unparalleled subculture. It is to the Liszt Academy that I owe the high level of instrumental, technical and theoretical knowledge I can still make good use of today. This knowledge is an enormous advantage over training courses available elsewhere, and it is my conviction that Hungarian musicians take the obstacles more easily due to the well-laid foundations. A decisive experience at the university was organizing contemporary music events with fellow students at the Old Academy of Music or at the Solti Hall, so we could try ourselves as young, fledgling composers during our university years.


You returned to Budapest in 2013 as a teacher after your bachelor’s degree. You taught Composition, Applied Composition, Film Music Analysis and 20th-21st Century Orchestration at the Department of Composition. What did teaching give you?

For me, the teaching position was a huge challenge and opportunity. I started teaching at a young age, the university shaped me into a true teacher, and I am very grateful to the Liszt Academy, especially Head of Department Gyula Fekete. Learning to teach is a long process; I remember I was either teaching or preparing for lessons in the first year, it was an intense period. After learning the ropes, I realized that teaching brings me the same joy as composing. I came to understand that education is not just knowledge transfer, but also applied psychology. A teacher-student relationship must not stop at supporting students in their professional development, it also needs to extend beyond that, to the people themselves. It’s important, as this period is also about coming of age. For composers, this may even be more important, since we shape our innermost feelings into music, and as a professional mentor, I cannot dissociate myself from the spiritual balance and well-being of my students.


 After the experiences of the past few years and your appointment as a professor in Vienna, what advice would you give to students learning composition?

My department, Applied Composition is dynamically changing. Styles and techniques are in constant motion. There is a need for continuous training to keep up, and I encourage my students to do so. As a teacher at the Liszt Academy, I set the goal of revitalizing the students' initiative and revive the tradition of student organized concerts. For a student in composition, this activity is indispensable because concert organization develops management skills, and also helps build professional relationships with the instrumentalists, an absolute must for shaping future careers. I’m glad to report that our students gave dozens of their own concerts this year, and I trust this number will only grow.


Judit Varga graduated in Composition in 2004 at the Liszt Academy with honours, and at the same time she was successfully enrolled to the Composition, Media and Applied Composition, as well as Piano Departments of the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. As a composer and pianist, she works in Vienna, and since 2013 she has also worked as a teacher of both the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna and the Liszt Academy, where she teaches composition, film and media art. Her works are featured in the program of prestigious festivals and concert halls (CAFe Budapest Contemporary Art Festival, Wien Modern, Konzerthaus and Musikverein Wien, Juilliard School, etc.). In 2016, the Hungarian State Opera presented her opera titled Szerelem (Love). Her music written for Deine Schönheit ist nichts Wert was awarded the Best Film Music Award by the Austrian Film Academy in 2014. In 2017, she received the Bartók Béla–Pásztory Ditta Prize, and in 2018, she won the Erkel Prize. She is a member of the Hungarian and the Austrian Composers' Association, as well as the composer group Studio 5, founded in 2017.


The other cornerstone of your professional life is the Vienna University of Music, where you have been teaching since 2013, and since September this year as a professor of Multimedia and Applied Composition. What can you tell us about working abroad and being appointed as a professor?

As a student of the Academy, I participated in foreign scholarship programs several times. That’s when I decided to pursue part of my university education abroad. In 1997, Iván Erőd was the head of the Composition Department in Vienna, and after graduation, I sent my application to him, earning a place at the Vienna Academy of Music, but finally I started my studies at the Liszt Academy. Two years later, in 1999, I went to Vienna, where I encountered a completely different environment from the Liszt Academy. The structure of the university, the education is different, emphasis is placed elsewhere. Foreign and Austrian students are not separated in Vienna, you can expect to have at least ten different nationalities sitting in one class. It was like being on an international island, a huge change for me after the more closed Hungarian environment. I applied for professor status two years ago, and I reached the appointment through a multi-stage auditing process. During this time I changed a lot, having grown up in spirit to the task.


Looking back over the past decade, the intercultural Vienna environment has probably had a positive impact on your art and personality.

The international community has made me more tolerant, both in human and professional terms. Because of my nature, I never wanted to specialize in one direction, but remained open to many fields. I am glad that I never gave up my vision since the beginning of my career, as today more than ever polymaths have the cutting edge, and the diverse Viennese environment has provided an excellent starting point for this. A musician who builds a "patchwork" career, and acquires versatile knowledge in a variety of fields, achieves more. This openness within the profession coupled with the solid foundations obtained at the Liszt Academy is the perfect mix, and I think this is the secret to my success. My long-term desire is to bring the two schools closer together; it would be worth passing on the "know-how" of both institutions in education.


One of the pivotal themes in your professional career is bringing contemporary music closer to the audience. Do you think contemporary classical music is suitable for this?

It's hard to understand contemporary music, sometimes even for professionals. In order for this to change, as composers we need to help the audience explore the music, creating channels that help the message get through. On the other hand, an open attitude is needed from the audience. We can help them by showing a path to the music, a point of reference that can lead them to understanding and acceptance. I have a fond memory of such an event, when one of my songs was played at a concert at the Eisenstadt Haydn Festival. Since I hadn't found the right title yet, I spontaneously asked the audience, consisting mostly of elderly people, to help me give a title to the piece. To my great surprise, about twenty people came forward with ideas at the end of the performance.


You have composed several pieces for films and the theatre. Do you think contemporary music is easier to understand if it is accompanied by visual presentation?

Visuality helps a lot. While during a movie scene even the most discordant music is easily received, hearing the same work on Spotify or at a concert, most people start looking for the exit. Therefore, images facilitate the delivery of contemporary music to the audience, but does not solve the problem of prejudice. The issue can also be addressed through education: I consciously strive to educate my students to communicate better with their audience. Learning applied composition along with contemporary music composition helps students create more effective ways of communication with the audience.


Anna Unger