Etelka Freund (1879 - 1977)


Hear Etelka Freund play Brahms’s Intermezzo in A flat, op. 76, no. 3  Intermezzo in A flat, op. 76, no.3  from Arbiter CD 160

Etelka Freund’s son Nicholas Milroy (r. on his return to Budapest in the early 1980s after over 40 years’  absence from his native Hungary. photo in the home of and by Janos Sebestyén.)


Milroy devoted much time to assisting a translation of the family’s correspondence and writings. With Allan Evans he appeared on WNCN radio in 1983 to share recordings played by his mother. The program was hosted by David Dubal who went out of his way to offer such important and neglected artistry on his program.  The program may be heard here:


Fannie Davies, a great interpreter close to Brahms and Clara Schumann’s pupil once met Etelka Freund and hailed her as a member of music’s inner circle, whose artistry made her invaluable as a genuine source. Until now only a small part of Freund’s pianism was documented; her two rare long-play discs command astronomical prices. A Brahms disc erroneously states that Freund was a Clara Schumann pupil. Far more significant was her association with Brahms himself, to be discussed later. One record dealer attributed the Schumann Fantasy by a “V. Frieda” to Freund: this is false. Less interesting is her disc of twelve Chopin Waltzes as her repertoire cites but one Valse, the A flat, op. 42.

One must begin with Etelka’s brother Robert Freund (1852-1936), whose studies began with Moscheles, a contemporary of Beethoven and Mendelssohn’s friend. Freund wrote: “Although he was old and his playing very affected, it still showed traces of former greatness. He insisted on correct accentuation and phrasing. Even though his accents were exaggerated, I realized years later how right he was to concentrate on it. His absolutely perfect finger technique was displayed in a feat which he loved to perform. He played the first study of his Op. 70 with a Thaler on the back of his hand without the coin moving at all.” Freund worked with Schumann’s friend Wenzel for two summers, who may have provided an introduction to Brahms. In 1869 Freund was accepted by Tausig in Berlin. As descriptions of Tausig are rare, Freund’s account is of great importance:

“Tausig was not unknown to me, for I had heard him earlier in Pest and later in Leipzig, always in utter amazement. His first appearance in the Gewandhaus in the 1866/67 season with the Beethoven E flat Concerto and Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy caused a sensation not experienced since the time of Liszt. Absolute faultlessness paired with grandiose delivery and demonic fire in the execution of virtuosic works such as the Don Juan Fantasy and Chopin’s Polonaises in A flat [op. 53] and F# minor [op.44] held the public as well as the musicians in a state of thrall. What he lacked was poetry, enthusiasm; in short, just what his master Liszt and his great rival Rubinstein possessed to the highest degree. Therefore smaller pieces of Chopin and Schumann passed without making any impression, while everything grandiose and majestic was expressed to the fullest in his playing. Still, it is odd that such a great and talented artist completely lacked a vein of sentiment.

“As a teacher he was uncommonly conscientious and severe; we all trembled before him. Tausig played in the lessons almost everything that we brought; the fast passages in fastest tempo and with the maximum perfection conceivable. One after another he thundered through the Chopin Etudes op.10 mercilessly, without having missed or half-struck a note. The Sonnambula Fantasy, for instance, which he had not seen since Weimar – that means for at least ten years- he just shook out of his sleeve, and with what virtuosic finish! I really believe that those who have heard Tausig play only in public never got to know the full greatness of this incomparable virtuoso.”

When Freund was in Budapest in 1870, Liszt arrived in December for a stay of several months:

“After having stood in vain several times below [Liszt’s] window (he stayed in the old parish house – now gone), I finally mustered enough courage, entered the house where I ran into his servant in the stairwell, and was promptly received. I requested permission to play something for him and in reply to his question as to what I would play, I said ‘the B minor Sonata’- a piece rather unknown at the time. He didn’t even seem remotely to think of his own sonata for he asked me again ‘What Sonata?’ He listened to the first part without comment. Only in the D major Grandioso section did he urge me on. Before the Andante he interrupted me and asked whether I would be willing to play the Sonata next Sunday in his residence at a matinËe. I left, overjoyed, and saw the world lying at my feet. From then on I had permission to visit him every Tuesday and Friday afternoon.

“I always had the good fortune to see him alone. In the salons Liszt gave the impression of a sophisticated, perhaps even somewhat affected man of the world; in small company or when alone with him however, you felt the total impact of the greatness of his imposing, venerable, incredibly ingenious personality. The gentle calm and the sublime clarity of his judgement, the universality of his mind, the simplicity and innate nobility of his comportment were incomparable.”

Freund immersed himself in Liszt’s piano works, symphonic poems, oratorios: “everything fell prey to my fervor.” Once he and Liszt played through the entire Faust Symphony in the composer’s arrangement for two pianos. “When we finished, he embraced me and said ‘I see, you understand it.'” Liszt arranged for the publication of Freund’s own transcription of Liszt’s Der Nachtliche Zug (from the two scenes from Faust, the other being the Mephisto Valse no. 1).

Freund accepted a position in Zurich, where he established himself as the eminent concert pianist and teacher. His presence attracted many prominent artists to visit the quiet city. In 1881 during a trip to Budapest, Freund met with Brahms, who was there for an eight day stay. Freund writes:

“[Brahms] gave the first performance of his second piano concerto there, conducted his second symphony and appeared also one evening with the Ruhoff-Kraucsevics Quartet. I called for him daily at 2 p.m. at the Cafe Hungaria, and once, when I was late, he appeared immediately at my door after two. We went on walks, ate dinner together, and wandered up and down the Danube until near midnight. I was of course completely taken with the piano concerto (then still unpublished), especially its last movement, and even though I didn’t say much, Brahms knew exactly how I felt. For hours we walked side by side without uttering a word. At times, however, he became talkative and reminisced, mostly of his younger years.” After Brahms’ death Freund received the manuscript of the concerto as a gift.

For Brahms’ sixtieth birthday, Freund, Widmann and Hegar brought the composer to Sicily, Rome, Naples, Genoa and Venice. Freund’s unpublished memoirs and letters detail their trip and his friendships with Nietzsche, Grieg, Rodin, D’Albert, Busoni, Joachim, Richard Strauss and Gottfried Keller. One hopes that an enlightened publisher will print the material. Freund retired from teaching in Zurich in 1914 and returned to Budapest to live with his younger sister Etelka and her family.

Etelka Freund (1879-1977) was influenced by her brother’s outstanding pianism, his recollections of composers and performers he knew and by his judgement, which Bela Bartok sought for his composing. As a child, Etelka’s fingers were so thin and weak that they had to be held up when she started lessons. This developed into a vice-like grip which she retained into her 98th year. From age 11 to 15 she studied in Budapest with Stefan Thoman, a Liszt pupil who later taught Bartok. At 16 Freund went to Vienna where she was immediately accepted by Leschetizky. Perhaps on Brahms’ advice she instead chose to work with Ignaz Br¸ll and took theory lessons from Eusebius Mandyczewski. Under Brahms’ colleague she completed four years of study in one. During her year in Vienna she called on Brahms each week on Wednesdays at lunchtime. When a guest once asked if Freund played, Brahms answered “to the enjoyment of everyone!” Her insightful performances of Brahms stem from her musicality and the composer’s coaching. Brahms also insisted that the exclusive Gesellschaft f¸r Musikfreunde elect her as a regular member, their youngest ever, although she was still a student. After Vienna, Freund joined her brother in Zurich for a year of lessons. He suggested she work with Busoni and in 1898, Busoni admitted her to his masterclasses in Weimar and Berlin.

A letter sent by Busoni’s wife Gerda Dimitri Mitropoulos states that Busoni considered her his best pupil. When Busoni’s pupil Emile Bosquet won the prestigious Rubinstein prize, Busoni opined that his victory was due to a policy barring women contestants. Two letters from Busoni to Robert Freund show his conscientiousness in guiding a young artist:

Weimar, 6 August 1900

“Etel played for the first time recently before a sizable group, and I had the opportunity to gain a true perspective of the effect of her performance. I wish to state right off that, although I am more and more moved as the gifts that nature lavished on her become apparent, I missed some things in her playing which are indispensable for her success with the larger public.

“Without wishing to enter into details, I venture to state that Etelka’s performance shows what might seem an indifference, engendered by bashfulness coupled with proud reserve, giving the impression of perhaps just the opposite of her true inner state. To the extent that this shortcoming is rooted in technical reasons, I think (thanks to Etelka’s lightning-like comprehension of my directions) that this point could be helped by subsequent measure. However, if traits of her character play into it, we will have to wait and see how life will work these out and make them collaborators in her art. Her technical and musical mastery of the piano has compelled me however once again to admiration: she played the Brahms Paganini Variations as I ( to use some sort of standard) could not have at her age.

“I would be pleased and interested to know to what extent you, esteemed friend, agree with or differ with these comments of mine, so that I may form a guideline for my further conduct as Etelka’s advisor.” Busoni again wrote to Freund on her progress:

Weimar, 12 September 1900

“In a few days our study period in Weimar will come to a close, and as I believe, with good results for all. Perhaps most so for Etel who, it seems to me, has made a decisive step forward in this period. The ‘¦ peu prËs’ has disappeared, and last Sunday for the first time she held and moved a small but very discerning public. I believe that the most critical moment has passed and that the path before her is smooth; she needs only to practice steadily. I am happy to be able to report to you these results with good conscience. A sudden interruption and return to the home atmosphere does not seem to me the thing to do now. Regressions can hardly be feared, but should not be excluded with certainty. Therefore, I have urged that Etel come to Berlin for a while and am happy to understand that you consented to my wishes. At least I want to complete the preparation of her Berlin programs.”

Freund’s debut took place in 1901 with Busoni conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, with Beethoven’s C minor Concerto, the Brahms D minor Concerto and Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole (in Busoni’s version for piano and orchestra). Her success soon led to European tours.

Freund introduced Busoni to her lifelong friend Bartok, whose music astonished Busoni. Her interpretation of Bartok’s early works is significant as she was in close contact with Bartok at the time of their creation. Bartok left his op.6 Bagatelles with her the day he completed a final draft. On his return hours later, Freund played the set from memory. Her familiarity with these remote early works, the Bagatelle, Sketch, and a still unpublished Elegy from op.8 documents a style Bartok would set aside as he collected folk music. Freund and Gisella Selden-Goth took composition lessons from Bartok, the only two musicians he ever taught. Freund’s playing of his music is of great interest in the way it resembles and differs from the composer’s own recordings.

In 1910 Freund married an electrical engineer who was also an inventor. She dropped concertizing and raised two sons. When her husband was forcibly retired in 1936, Freund began performing again in Holland, London and Hungary to great acclaim. The family’s longstanding desire to emigrate was not fulfilled until 1946 when they joined their eldest son in the United States (their younger son was killed by the Nazis). Freund brought with her the cover page to the manuscript of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, which her late friend Bartok had sneaked out of Hungary without an identifying cover page at her request in 1940, concealing it from the Gestapo among his works. Freund made her U.S. debut at Washington’s National Gallery in 1947. Despite her success, music managers were unwilling to engage a sixty-eight year old pianist. She gave few concerts afterwards, despite her remaining in top form into her eighty-eighth year. Several radio programs were recorded by her son Nicholas Milroy: on one, an over-eager announcer intrudes on her conclusion of Liszt’s Impromptu. All the performances heard here were live or recorded without editing. Although unhappy with the instrument’s heavy action, Freund’s Brahms performances (the Sonata and smaller works) are definitve. Note the elegant way her left hand anticipates the right, a style of Clara Schumann’s pupils (Davies, Friedberg, De Lara). A lush use of pedal is heard throughout, especially in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, possibly influenced by Busoni.

Freund’s art was developed by her brother, Brahms, Busoni and Bartok. Her innate musicality is unique, characterized by a lightning-fast reflexes and superior command of all musical elements. While she and her brother have been omitted from Grove’s Dictionary, her performances will remain forever as monumental achievements which provide insight into the music through her links with the composers themselves.

© Allan Evans, 1996