OBITUARY: LÁSZLÓ HELTAY (1930-2019)

The music world was saddened to learn of the death of László Heltay who died in Budapest on 17 December 2019, just three weeks short of his 90th birthday.

A Hungarian refugee who came to England in 1957, he founded the Brighton Festival Chorus in 1967, which then, as now, rehearsed on the University of Sussex campus, achieving instant national acclaim with their first performance: Sir William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, conducted by the composer on 11 May 1968. This launched Brighton Festival Chorus as an important part of the music scene in Britain and, under László’s directorship, one of the most successful choirs in the country. He remained as Musical Director for 27 years and has been described as:

“One of the finest and most inspiring choral trainers in the world….Through his efforts the whole British choral tradition has been given a new look and a new set of standards to aim for.”

From 1968 until the mid-1980s László was Director of Music at the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts) at the University of Sussex, where he conducted the first ever concert at the Centre in December 1969, and also trained the University Choir and Orchestra. In 1995 the University conferred on him an Honorary Doctor of Music (DMus).

László conducted the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra on ten occasions, most recently on 31 October 1992 when BFC performed the Verdi Requiem with the orchestra in the Herbert Menges Memorial Concert, marking the 20th anniversary of our own founder’s death.

His final visit to Brighton was in 2006 to conduct BFC in the 40th Brighton Festival in Brighton Dome but alas he slipped awkwardly on the stage during the dress rehearsal and broke his hip.

László is buried in Farkasréti Cemetery in Budapest, the prestigious resting place of many eminent Hungarian artists, authors and musicians, among them Zoltán Kodály, with whom he studied and whose work he championed.

Brighton Festival Chorus had planned to perform Pange Lingua by Zoltán Kodály in their spring concert on Sat 21 March in honour of their late founder. Sadly that concert has been postponed although the aim is to reschedule it in the autumn.

On the BFC website you can view a video of members of the choir’s memories of László: bfc.org.uk/news.htm

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