Irén Marik: from Budapest to the California desert.


After arriving in Marik’s little desert town, she began to speak about her life’s events, being charmingly formal, subtly spicing her talk with wit and sharp critiques: “There is only one other pianist here in Independence – she lives at the other end of town. She’s a Schnabel pupil. . . and plays terribly.” Her reserve was tossed aside when Irén began to play with raging emotions, visions, poetic metrics of Schubert, spiritual geometry in her Bach, a living grasp of Bartók’s music. How did she get so close to him, a modern and difficult music from her youth. Did she learn it directly from Bartók?:


photo by S.U. Cowdrey


“No, I played some of his works for him at our first meeting and he said ‘I see you understand it. Let’s begin with Mozart and Beethoven.'”

Bartók plays the opening of his Allegro Barbaro (1929 Budapest recording):

Bartók Allegro Barbaro played by the composer

About thirty years later Irén was recorded in the work. Bartók aims to hurl the jagged themes whereas Irén delights in having them mingle more with their setting:

Bartók Allegro Barbaro played by Irén Marik

Irén taught at Sweet Briar college until retiring at age sixty five. Whenever she had to leave for a brief absence, such as to appear as a concerto soloist with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., Sweet Briar made sure to deduct the missed time from her pay. On their English faculty was Evelyn Eaton, a Canadian author. Marik and Eaton became instant close friends and shared a house there. Evelyn retired before Irén and moved to the California desert.

Evelyn Eaton in court dress, England, 1923.

Eaton was part of a noble British family and had been a journalist, writing dispatches from France for The New Yorker in the 1930s, publishing a dozen novels. But in her past was an American Indian ancestry and she found the Paiutes living near Lone Pine, California. Evelyn became close and was accepted as a pipe woman and revealed gifts as a healer. When Irén retired they shared adjacent homes. Irén would start her day with two hours in the rose garden, then on to the piano for three more. Lunch followed, a nap, three more hours of playing. Evelyn was often away at Sweat Lodges and teaching, lecturing, or in her nook of a studio decorated with ancestral stained glass windows. Once with her alone, she confessed that the tapes Irén used to record practicing and concerts were frequently thrown out by her: Evelyn quietly hid them and presented me with a box.

Eager to share their combined interests, they would open Irén’s home for concerts and lectures. One series found Evelyn discussing and reading literature spanning the Renaissance to late 19th century France, Irén following with musical examples from each time and place:

Afterwards, Irén mentioned the composers’ roles in their cultural time-frame.

Irén Marik speaks

Her Ravel evokes nature, the acoustical expansion of space by bells with a hint of Ravel’s fascination with Asian music, in this case Javanese gamelan:


So in this town of a few hundred souls one could find one of the greatest living pianists and a profound erudite author whose knowledge of literature, history, the traditions of the Paiute Indians, and her rapier wit made it into a cultural center of our planet, emanated by two quiet profound deities who gardened, wrote, and cultivated great art.

One unusual result came from Evelyn’s traipsing around the Alabama Hills by jeep, beneath Mount Whitney, outside of Lone Pine. She noticed a clearing amidst the wild projecting rocks where, in her dreams, a stage for Irén and others could be erected. After battling the Bureau of Mines, she bagged a temporary go ahead and created the Deepest Valley Theater.


Deepest Valley Theater


It seemed that Irén’s nine-foot Steinway grand was ‘translated’ (like the Holy House in Loreto) from her living room smack into the clearing. Listeners drove up and down from San Francisco and Los Angeles to settle into nooks in the crags and take in her playing, illuminated by oil lamps after sunset. Sitarists and harpsichordists also made it onto the series.



Once her piano partner John Ranck flew in from New York to recreate Messiaen’s Visions de l’ Amen with her, a work they had unleashed in the mid 1950s in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Imagine these sounds traveling through Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral:

Messiaen Visions de l’ Amen finale (Marik & Ranck in concert)

How did Irén like playing outdoors? “Terrible acoustics!”

After four days I had to catch the one and only early evening LA bus. LIsa, the blond driver who had been Evelyn’s assistant, vanished a few hours earlier, having let her long locks fall onto her shoulders. Irén had gone to bed and the ride led to a sleepless night on an LAX bench before a staggering onto a 7 a.m. flight to Chicago for cousin Joanna’s wedding, seeing all the family surprised and scrutinizing my dazed and elated expression.

I was transported by the memory of her sound, spirit, and rose garden, the aromatic wild sage for smudging, aromas and experiences etching their way inside as the Greyhound bus strode towards the Mojave tabula rasa.

I had promised Irén that I would attempt a trip to Budapest and soon, to find her artifacts and the distant brother she hadn’t seen since defecting from Hungary in 1947, and trace Bartók’s remaining friends.

“View to the Inyo Mono Mountains from entrance”  photo: Irén Marik

Sara Fishko probes Irén Marik on NPR:

Hear Irén Marik in the recordings I discovered and published:

Next blog: Budapest and its mysteries.





Hunting Hungarians: traveling from Liszt to California’s East Sierra desert

A sad blurry overlooked record store on New York’s Eighth Avenue in the 1970s slept next to a mirrored metallic tobacco shop guarded by a life-sized cigar-store Indian. The Chelsea neighborhood was then an obscure backwater filled with Cuban-Chinese restaurants, their arroz con pollo, pineapple chicken wolfed down after hours in the nearby Elgin cinema showing Surrealist rarities. In a corner sat the vinyl’s warden, aimlessly nursing stale coffee. A summer’s day of drudgery had ended and walking without a destination I felt drawn into his void due to the heat and an odd sensation in my upper spine. Nothing, absolutely nothing could be of interest there, no music to speak of. Ennui exponentially heightened, and glancing down to the cracked linoleum floor I noticed a stack of identical neglected vinyl discs missing their covers, swathed in faded crumbling wax paper that a butcher would reject. The label had been designed, if you will, by a hand stencil, its pianist unknown.

Irén Marik had chosen the most arcane Liszt imaginable, works hardly ever played. Who was this mysterious Hungarian lady? “One dollar!” Cerberus barked out. At home I rushed over to the turntable, dropping the needle onto Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu. . .

benediction de dieu 

Stunned by her playing, a vision came of a woman with short hair, in her thirties, seated at a piano with a perfectly straight back, playing while Bartók himself stood over her to watch and advise. A lost master reappears, more compelling and mysterious, clarifying and enigmatic than any other Liszt player, all in an extravagance of sensuous sound and enlightened way of revealing a rare musical experience. After hearing her play any work, you find it has etched itself into you. How did she understand every detail and emotion, every structure and breath? A lost master had to be found.

But was she alive? In 1980 I met Nicholas Milroy, Etelka Freund’s son (see a previous Brahms post.). He remembered Irén arriving in 1947. He had been an interrogator of captured Nazi officers and then worked for the State Department: Milroy knew an older brother who was a diplomat in Canada: She came to the US on tour and immediately defected to escape the communist regime in Hungary. No word of her since 1947: “Try finding her brother.” The Canadians reported that he had died years earlier, childless.

By 1982 her trail had grown cold. One day on a useless walk before heading home, I stopped inside a venerable long-gone sheet music seller behind Carnegie Hall. On their shelf of recordings lay the Draco logo occupying a cover, with Marik’s name and a new program. And the first image of her appeared:

The poetry dwelling in her Benediction found its boldest contrast in Liszt’s early reaction to the Vallée d’Obermann, written in his twenties while wandering around the nature and culture of Switzerland and Northern Italy, getting to the cradle of European culture long before he would make Rome one of his haunts. Her playing was fearless and ferocious, Liszt’s electrifying spirit incarnate:

Vallée d’Obermann

What awaited one in this new recital program? This discovered album was untouched, except for its plastic wrapper having a four-inch gash on the side, not wide enough to let the record slip out. When I opened it an envelope fell onto my pal: a sealed letter addressed to the New York Times’ chief music critic, Harold Schonberg, reminding him of a rave review he gave to Marik’s Liszt in 1958. Schonberg  tossed it all without a listen,  into a pile dropped off at the shop for credit. The letter explained Marik’s circumstances, surmounting hardships and her health to continue making music at her highest level. It had been mailed to the Times eight years earlier. Was it too late? An address listed the postage-stamp sized Independence, California. More Liszt, Couperin on the piano awaited, and here is her way with Ravel’s Minuet, summoning his soundworld and language:

Ravel Minuet

One had to hunt down an area code first, before the Internet, and then call the local telephone company. An operator gave one listing for “Marik”.

She answered. “Yes, I still play, I teach.” . . .  “Yes, I had lessons with Bartók. . . for about six months.” I miraculously arranged a free flight the next week to Los Angeles. On a Greyhound bus, gliding through the grid of Captain Beefheart’s native Mojave, the melancholy stretches of endless rails tempting with open freight cars, reddish rock formations flashing by that seemed in the heat like mirages of sloping South indian temples, passing foothills of the distant snowcapped Sierra Nevadas, reaching a bench on Independence’s one and only street, arriving after eight hours. Before flying we had spoken a few times by phone. An answering machine cassette found in a box of tapes captured a message:


A radiant blonde, her hair snugly tied up, stopped her pickup truck and we headed to fetch Miss Marik at the grocers, as it was her 77th birthday and she was planning a chicken paprikas for dinner, having ordered the right spices from a Hungarian market in New York. During the next four days,  Bartók and others emerged in her playing. She began teaching me. At seven each evening, it was her time to play Solitary, and she would suggest,  “Must you stay? Won’t you go now?”

(to be continued.)

Her first CD recording may be found here.

Recapturing an elusive Johannes Brahms


Caught by a paparazzo.

Brahms has been hard to get lately. Habitually played as a security blanket for too many years, it is often a struggle to endure his music. Worshipped and revered, his art is treated oh-so-gently: never taken too fast, never too loud, always within snug barriers. And it is pervasive enough to suggest that he himself was in some ways responsible for this sanctimonious situation, as nearly everyone adoring him pays devoted homage to his music in this way. Something seems quite wrong. He is latched onto in the way denizens in museums and galleries pose before the objects of art as if they were mirrors, feigning to be culturally astute when it is a mere façade. The celebrants suffer for something they cannot really grasp but require it somehow to assuage their self images. Continue reading…