The generation of Hungarian composers who came after that of Dohnányi, Kodály and Bartók included many gifted musicians whose careers were disrupted or uprooted by the political upheavals before the Second World War and Hungary’s position behind the Iron Curtain after it. Many fled to Britain or the USA, there to make new careers. Tibor Serly, however, had settled in New York, where he lived for most of his life, while still a child. He was born in 1901 in Losonc, which at that time was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary but is now Lucvenec in south-central Slovakia. Having spent his teens in the USA he returned to Hungary to study in Budapest with Kodály (composition), Leó Weiner (orchestration) and Jeno Hubay (violin) from 1922 to 1924, but he also greatly admired Bartók and as a result became his assistant at various times. They first met in Hungary in 1925, and two years later Serly acted as Bartók’s translator on his first visit to America. The friendship deepened during Serly’s subsequent visits to Europe.
A friend of some leading figures of the modernist movement, including the poets Louis Zukovsky and Ezra Pound, Serly played viola in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner from 1926 to 1927. He was then a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski from 1928 to 1935; Stokowski appointed him Assistant Conductor in 1933. As a violist once again, Serly became a member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra for its debut season of 1937–8, but then left to concentrate on teaching and composing. He taught at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and other institutions, and was also active as a conductor and theorist. (He eventually developed what he called an ‘enharmonicist’ musical language based on his observations of the practice of many twentieth-century composers who had been influenced by folklore—not only Bartók but also Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams and others.) He died in a traffic accident while visiting London in 1978.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010