Who was Agi Jambor?

by Marcus Ferrar

Budapest 1909: Agi Jambor was born into a family with a high vision of cosmopolitan culture. Their ideal: a life devoted to art and the mind. Agi Jambor was a musical child prodigy, and studied with teachers such as Edwin Fischer, Zoltán Kodály and Alfred Cortot. They infused her music with a particular sensibility, which made her into one of the most distinctive interpreters of Bach, Mozart and Chopin of her generation.

After her amazing escape from war-torn Budapest, Agi went on to build a life in America, where she was rapidly asked to perform a piano concert at the White House. She married and divorced the British Hollywood actor Claude Rains (of Casablanca fame) and kept company with Nobel Prize winners. As a sought-after soloist, she played under the baton of Eugene Ormandy and Bruno Walter, and recorded several albums for Capital Records in New York. She then made a career teaching at several universities and conservatories of music.

As a professor of classical piano at Bryn Mawr, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, Jambor pioneered ethnomusicology, insisting that a younger generation of musicians had to “live in the music, recreate the music of non-Western peoples, even if they have no spoken words, no ideas to help them”. Her idea was that music could be a way out of a muteness imposed by the trauma of history and dramas of individual lives.

Agi was a feminist and a vocal human rights activist. She took on the FBI in the McCarthy era and protested against the Vietnam War – setting up the Agi Jambor Fund to raise money for food for Vietnamese children.

She lived an extraordinary life, enjoying a creative freedom rare for women of her time. She found true love in her first husband, the scientist Imre Patai, success everywhere she went, and the recognition and satisfaction of being part of the most vibrant artistic and academic circles.

Yet she was also afflicted by tragedy – losing a child, a country, a husband and an idyllic life. Ill health plagued her towards the end of her long life. What makes her story exceptional is precisely this ebb and flow of triumph and disaster, of blessedness and horror. Agi was a small, gutsy, warm-hearted woman who defied the odds and survived to live life to the full.

Marcus Ferrar, 2019

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