András Schiff talks family, war and humanity


The acclaimed Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, a part-time London resident who was knighted last year, returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 18 for a recital of late works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Later in the week, on Oct. 22, 23 and 24, he’s scheduled to play and conduct three concerts in the hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 (K. 503) and Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.” 

Earlier this month, a day after his packed recital at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Schiff sat down in his hotel suite to discuss his artistry, his continued public stand against anti-Semitism and the degradation of public life he sees in Hungary. 

In 2011, Schiff, 61, became a controversial figure when he announced a self-imposed exile from his homeland. According to Schiff, things have not improved since that time. 

“It’s much worse,” Schiff said, “because during communism, this anti-Semitism was somehow repressed. Now it’s really broken out. It’s not official, but it’s unbelievable. What kind of language is being tolerated? Unimaginable hate speech — in parliament, in the press.

“They say this is freedom of speech,” he continued, “but it’s hate speech, and it’s disgusting. It should not be legally forbidden, but in a decent culture, there should be a consensus that there are certain things you don’t do or say, because it’s not decent.”

Schiff said there are about 100,000 Jews remaining in Budapest but currently no effective counterforce to the irrational hatred — a hatred he recalled experiencing firsthand as a 4-year-old growing up in Budapest.

“I was the only Jewish kid in a neighborhood of Catholics and Protestants,” Schiff said. “They didn’t mind us, because my father was a very good doctor who was respected and quite liked. I was playing soccer with the other kids — I loved soccer — and one day the neighbor kid said, ‘You can no longer play with us because you are a Jew.’ This kid was maybe 3. It was the first time I heard the word ‘Jew.’ So I asked, ‘Why is that a problem?’ And he said, ‘You people, you killed our Jesus Christ.’ Since I was not schlagfertig [quick-tongued], I could not say I was at the dentist that day.”

Schiff laughed, but clearly the memory still hurt.

“I’m just telling you this because how does a 3-year-old kid, probably a good-hearted kid, where does he hear it from? From his parents? The church? They haven’t learned that Jesus was a Jew. That’s news for them. All these figures of Christianity were Jews. These religions go hand in hand.”

Maybe that’s why Schiff feels comfortable with religious works by famous Christian composers such as Bach and Haydn. “You ask me about the Jewishness, and yet I’m most attracted to these sacred pieces, like Haydn’s ‘Creation’ and Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ and ‘Mass in B minor,’ ” he said. “It couldn’t be less Jewish. And yet it’s the spiritual element. It’s this divine connection. When these composers wrote for the church, they really outdid themselves.

“But it’s also like when I did Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ last year,” he said. “When I went back to Beethoven’s late sonatas, they gained a new dimension. He was working on the last sonatas simultaneously with the ‘Missa,’ so then I can say [when interpreting a sonata], ‘Aha, here is the Credo, and here is the Gloria and here is the Agnus Dei.’ ”

Schiff left Budapest in 1979 for London. He is the only child of Holocaust survivors. Both parents lost their first spouses in the Holocaust; his father, an amateur violinist, also lost a 4-year-old son from his first marriage. His mother, trained as a pianist, had hoped to become a piano teacher. 

“She came back from the war with no strength to continue with music,” Schiff said. “But a piano was in the house, and I showed interest.” Schiff was 5 when he started to pick out tunes he heard on the wireless. Though Schiff took up conducting many years ago, he said he would never be “unfaithful” to the piano.

“I know exactly my abilities and limitations,” he said. “I will not conduct the ‘Rite of Spring’ or Mahler symphonies. Nor would I like to. The music I do — Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms and Schumann — this I can do from my experience on the piano and from chamber music and ensembles. I can play these scores on piano, but it’s not like the real thing.”

In his role as conductor, Schiff said Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” is especially relevant. In 1973, during the height of Vietnam War protests, Leonard Bernstein performed it at the National Cathedral in Washington. Hearing this, Schiff said, “Good for him: a big statement.” 

“When I programmed the Mass, I didn’t see what is happening in Europe,” Schiff said. “It is a disaster. War has become a huge business. In [George] Orwell, ‘War is peace.’ Politicians preach peace but tell us when they are not selling arms, the economy is not doing well. It seems to me the economy is only doing well when they make war. But preferably, not in your own place. So when you say ‘Mass in Time of War,’ there is always war.”

Like war, anti-Semitism has long blighted humanity, and all his life, Schiff has been trying to understand it.

“I wish I knew the answer,” he said. “Unfortunately, the issue is more general. The problem is with human beings. It’s jealousy, hatred, envy — those categories. To find an outlet for those emotions, people look for scapegoats, and the Jews are at hand. In Hungary, the Gypsies are also at hand. But if you go back to Cain and Abel, if the human race were one race, one nation and one family, they would still kill each other. If you have minorities or people who are different from the majority, then it’s a good excuse.”

For tickets and more information about András Schiff’s upcoming appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall,