Obituaries

Stephen Erdely, 95; MIT teacher known for musical duets

1/3/1977 -- Cambridge, MA: MIT Professor Stephen Erdely. (Joseph Dennehy/Globe Staff)

GLOBE STAFF FILE/1977

Dr. Erdely taught at MIT from 1973 to 1991 and had been chair of the music department.

As part of a performing duo many Boston concertgoers treasured, Stephen Erdely played violin with a sound that seemingly harkened to his youth in Hungary, during the gathering storms of conflict leading up to World War II.

Globe reviewer Richard Buell wrote that during a 1979 concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Erdely had “a tone that, at its starkest, can remind you of a straight, taut unsheathed wire” – one that “doesn’t whisper sweet nothings.”

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Accompanied by his wife, pianist Beatrice Erdely, Dr. Erdely delighted audiences with duets through the years, and critics such as Buell applauded her as well. Reviewing the couple’s 1979 recital, Buell praised the “honey-toned” compatible contrast she provided.

Reviewing the duo in 1981, Globe critic Richard Dyer wrote of Dr. Erdely that “it is useless to speak of the usual qualities of ‘collaboration’ in describing his work with his wife, for the two of them played with one impulse.”

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Dr. Erdely, who taught at MIT from 1973 to 1991, and had previously performed with the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor George Szell, died Feb. 25 in Concord. He was 95, had lived in Concord since the 1970s, and was suffering from congestive heart failure and other ailments.

In lengthy oral history interviews for MIT that were conducted in 1999, Dr. Erdely divided his career into four phases – before and after World War II, his years with the Cleveland Orchestra, and a final stage in MIT’s music department, which he chaired for several years.

Though he pursued ethnomusicology – the study of music from different cultures – during graduate work in the United States, his studies in a sense dated to his childhood in Hungary, where composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly helped build the foundation for the academic field.

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“The fate of ethnic music is frankly questionable,” Dr. Erdely told the Globe in 1977, during the closing days of Festival Bostonian, a salute to ethnic groups.

“The pressures of acculturation in America are enormous, and there are political and cultural reasons why the traditions are dying out abroad as well,” he added. “But while the ethnic tradition exists, it provides a unique historical treasure.”

His doctoral dissertation was published in the mid-1960s as the book “Methods and Principles of Hungarian Ethnomusicology,” which drew on extensive research. In the oral history, he estimated that in the early 1960s, he traveled around with a tape recorder recording musicians from 66 ethnic communities in the Cleveland area.

More than a dozen years later, during the Boston festival, Dr. Erdely was effusive about the wide range of music heritages that mingled in Greater Boston.

“It is a fantastic excitement to know that we can find people right here in Boston who carry musical information that goes back to prehistoric times,” he told the Globe in 1977.

In East Boston, for example, he found a community that traced its heritage to the Pontus region of Greece. “They play a three-stringed fiddle, without a neck, holding the instrument against their knees, not the shoulder — just like what we see in medieval drawings from Western Europe,” Dr. Erdely said. “It is absolutely virtuoso what those people can play on those fiddles.”

Music, he believed, is more than just an art form and often manages to persevere during political upheavals that wreak havoc with books and paintings. “Folk music is really the most important part of Hungary’s history. Everything has survived,” he said in 1977 of his native land. “So many of our literary and political documents were destroyed in the wars and revolutions, but the music stayed with the people.”

Born in 1921, Stephen Lajos Erdely was the son of Jeno Erdelyi and the former Vilma Lengyel, and grew up in Szeged, Hungary. His father was a physician, his mother a music critic.

In the MIT oral history, Dr. Erdely said his mother was “quite a celebrated journalist” in Hungary, having penned articles in the 1920s that praised Bartok and Kodaly when those musicians “were still fighting for recognition.”

“I probably inherited my musical inclinations from my mother,” said Dr. Erdely. As for his physician father, Dr. Erdely joked that when it came to music, he “could only handle the radio and nothing else.”

Dr. Erdely was a student at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music while also studying for a law degree at Franz Josef University. After World War II ended, he participated in the international music competition in Geneva and was awarded a special diploma that he kept framed on a wall of his home decades later. He also performed in Munich’s musica viva concerts.

Immigrating to the United States in 1949, Dr. Erdely at first unpacked crates in a hat factory for $34 a week – “Not so very good for the hands,” he told the Globe in 1977 – until he could establish residency and become a member of the musicians’ union. While performing as concertmaster with a summer orchestra in upstate New York, he met Beatrice Epstein, whom he married.

“Her life was entirely in music: practicing, performing, and teaching,” he told the Globe when she died in 2012. “She was completely devoted to the piano.”

He performed with the New Orleans Symphony and landed a position with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1951. Dr. Erdely remained with the orchestra until 1966, while simultaneously studying for and receiving a doctorate in musicology and ethnomusicology from what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. After leaving the orchestra, he taught at a university in Toledo, Ohio, until being hired by MIT.

Dr. Erdely “had a self-discipline that was second to none,” said Sheryl Cohen of Barrington, R.I., a friend to him and his late wife for decades. “And he had a wonderful sense of humor. He would twinkle when he told his stories.”

A service has been held for Dr. Erdely, who leaves no immediate survivors.

He and his wife “were an incredibly devoted couple,” Cohen said.

As a musical duo, “it was very interesting,” she added. “I think they enhanced each other tremendously. I think they brought different things to the performance that helped them both grow as artists. They were both consummate artists to begin with, but their union helped them become greater than they could have been as individual artists, and as people.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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