Balint Vazsonyi, a columnist for The Washington Times who survived Nazi conquest and escaped communist rule in his native Hungary to become an outspoken advocate of American liberty, died of cancer yesterday at his home. He was 66.
Mr. Vazsonyi was also an international concert pianist and the director of the Virginia-based Center for the American Founding (CAF).
“By the time I got my citizenship in 1964, I was grateful and immensely proud to be told by the judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that I would not be a Hungarian-American, nor any other hyphenated American,” Mr. Vazsonyi wrote in “America’s 30 Years War,” his 1998 book. “While no one suggested then, or has since, that I disown or forget my upbringing, I was now simply and officially, American.”
“Balint Vazsonyi was a remarkable individual who courageously and uncomplainingly faced a fate he knew was close at hand,” said Mary Lou Forbes, editor of The Times’ commentary pages. “It never diminished his zeal for defining and illuminating some of the more perplexing issues of our time, always with a profound appreciation of American heritage and promise.”
After years of touring as a pianist and teaching at Indiana University, Mr. Vazsonyi turned his attention to politics in the 1990s, becoming the director of the CAF and expressing his philosophy in books, articles, speeches and appearances on television and radio.
“Balint Vazsonyi was a remarkably gifted performing artist and an extraordinary intellect,” said Dan McDonald, president of the Potomac Foundation, which published Mr. Vazsonyi’s 1995 book, “The Battle for America’s Soul” and sponsored the CAF. “He loved America deeply. For us at Potomac, Balint was a joy and we are grateful for the years we had with him.”
“He was an extraordinary talent, with an equally extraordinary life story,” Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, said yesterday. “His music was inspiring and so was his commitment to freedom. I enjoyed visits at Indiana University with Balint and his remarkable circle of friends.”
Born March 7, 1936, in Budapest, Mr. Vazsonyi was only 7 when Adolf Hitler’s army occupied Hungary. At age 12 he made his concert debut at the Great Hall of Budapest’s Liszt Academy of Music in 1948 the same year the Soviet-backed Communist Party took over Hungary’s government.
A year later, Mr. Vazsonyi remarked to a fellow piano student, “A true artist cannot be a communist.” That comment, Mr. Vazsonyi recalled in a 1998 interview, resulted in his disciplinary trial conducted by “a panel of politically correct students,” and he was forbidden to travel outside of Hungary.
Hungary revolted against Soviet rule in October 1956. Mr. Vazsonyi escaped, arriving in the United States in 1959. He became a U.S. citizen in 1964, studying in Florida with pianist and composer Erno Dohnanyi, a Hungarian emigre who had helped arrange Mr. Vazsonyi’s immigration to the United States. Mr. Vazsonyi later wrote a biography of Mr. Dohnanyi.
Mr. Vazsonyi became a professor of music at Indiana and also taught master classes in piano at Harvard, Yale and the New England Conservatory of Music.
As a concert pianist, Mr. Vazsonyi’s feats were the stuff of legend. In 1977, he performed in a single weekend all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in the order they were composed. He was also a recording artist, whose recording of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” has been included in several classical compilations.
“Balint was truly a great man,” said Tom Mastroianni, professor emeritus of music at Catholic University and president of the American Liszt Society. “He was not only an outstanding world figure as a concert pianist and teacher, but a truly great intellect.”
At the Hungarian Embassy in Washington in 1998, Mr. Vazsonyi performed on a Steinway piano purchased with $30,000 he had raised for the embassy. He was presented the Officers’ Cross of the Order of the Republic of Hungary in 2001.
“His death is a loss to universal Hungarian culture and Hungarians everywhere,” Andras Simonyi, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, said yesterday.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Vazsonyi produced and hosted a four-part television series, “Klassix-13” called “a classical music version of MTV” by the New York Times that explored the lives and works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert. The series, directed by Mr. Vazsonyi’s son, Nicholas, was broadcast in 15 countries.
Mr. Vazsonyi’s career turned toward politics after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
When a U.S.-led alliance went to war against Iraq in 1991, anti-war protests on the campus in Bloomington, Ind., prompted the professor to become an activist. He formed a group called the Stand Up for America Alliance “to combat the work of these professional anarchists who were inciting the students,” as he later said.
Local Republicans drafted him to run for mayor of Bloomington. He lost the election, but his activism in Indiana brought him to the attention of the Potomac Foundation, and the think tank named Mr. Vazsonyi a senior fellow in 1993.
Influenced by the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, Mr. Vazsonyi developed a political philosophy built on what he saw as the essential principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Anglo-American legal tradition.
He distilled these ideals as the “Four Points of the Compass”: the rule of law, individual rights, the guarantee of property and a common American identity.
“For 30 years, we have acquiesced in a steady erosion of America’s founding principles,” Mr. Vazsonyi said in a 1997 Heritage Foundation lecture. “We submit that all future policy and legislative initiatives be tested against the four points of the compass.”
Mr. Vazsonyi formed the CAF in 1996, the same year he began a regular column for The Times. In July 2001, he began national syndication through Scripps Howard News Service.
In February 2000, Mr. Vazsonyi and his wife, Barbara, began a “Re-Elect America” bus tour that visited 23 states and became the subject of a TV documentary, “Talking With America.”
Even after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2001, Mr. Vazsonyi remained active, writing his column and making public appearances. As recently as Oct. 22 last year, he gave a lecture at the Heritage Foundation about the significance of the Anglo-American alliance in the war on terrorism.
He was embraced by American conservatives, but Mr. Vazsonyi disdained the “conservative” label.
“There is nothing conservative about the principles of the American founding,” he said. “It was then and it remains now the most forward-looking political philosophy ever devised.”
Mr. Vazsonyi is survived by his wife and son. Arrangements for a memorial service are expected to be announced today.