On his wish Liszt

The path to becoming a specialist composer began in Mount Gambier, where a piano accordion first caught the attention of Fr Chris Horvat SJ.

Don’t ask Fr Chris Horvat how much his Sonola piano accordion weighs. He doesn’t know. Not that he cares. Not that it impedes him in any way. Not that he needs to know.

He smiles when I ask him. “I don’t know,” he fesses up. Then he breaks into laughter. Maybe because it’s such an inconsequential question. Maybe because playing a piano accordion was such an important part of his early life that it just doesn’t matter. Musicians don’t weigh each instrument they play. They just pick them up and let the music flow instinctively.

Did anyone ask Sir Isaac Newton the precise weight of the apple that famously fell on his head? Did anyone ask William Caxton what the first printing press weighed? Did anyone stop Alexander Graham Bell in his tracks and ask him what the telephone weighed? What truly mattered in each case was the chain of events that followed.

So I quell the impulse to reach for my nifty hand-held digital luggage scale, and instead I settle in to listen to the recital.

Fr Chris Horvat SJ. Photo: David McMahon.

A few hours earlier, on a warm South Australian early-autumn day, Fr Chris was taking some time out at Athelstone to listen to the crescendo of birdsong as several avian species arrived at the bird bath in the beautiful garden a short distance from his room. Would I care to listen, he asked, to his ‘Athelstone Fantasy’?

So now I am his audience of one, sitting in his room as he reaches down, picks up the piano accordion and settles comfortably into his chair.

This is his third piano accordion, a top-of-the-range Italian-made instrument marking his journey of musical affinity, discovery and progression since his childhood. “I first saw a piano accordion being played,” he says, “by someone in Mount Gambier at a mannequin parade. My parents took me there when I was a young child, but I don’t really know why we were there. Maybe it was something that interested my mother. Anyway, it was a very colourful event and the piano accordion was a big part of that experience for me.

“I thought it looked and sounded great. So I said, ‘I’d like one of those’. Eventually, my parents were able to buy me one, after saving up for it, of course. It wasn’t a full-sized one, which would have been too much for me as a child. You don’t start on a 120-bass instrument, so I started on an 84-bass and that was big enough. Just getting used to the weight of it and operating the bellows is quite something.”

Fr Chris Horvat playing Athelstone Fantasy on the piano accordion. Photo: David McMahon.

What genre of music inspired him as a child?

“Hungarian gypsy music above all. Because of its rhythm, its passion and its colour. And classical music, piano music especially, and concertos. I loved Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and anything that had a Hungarian tinge to it. It was the sheer excitement of those compositions that resonated with me.”

When did he first start composing his own music?

“Probably when I was in Year 7 or 8 at school at Norwood. That would have been about 1964 or 1965, more likely 1965. I moved to the newly opened Athelstone campus for Year 10.”

Did his teachers at the time encourage him in his pursuit?

There is a long, reflective pause. “They probably didn’t know anything about it. Except for my accordion teacher. My lessons were on Saturday mornings, so I was grateful the school didn’t make me play sport then.” Now he’s laughing again.

And what feedback did he get from his accordion teacher?

“I don’t recall any, but that was a long time ago. I don’t know how many of my compositions I played to him. He probably wouldn’t have known about most of them, though I must have played him Csardas No. 5, since I won an Eisteddfod competition performing it and I wouldn’t have performed it without playing it to him first and getting his approval. In any case I didn’t finish everything that I started composing. And then I destroyed my first few compositions because in later years they seemed weak, especially after I’d composed a few more and started getting better at it.”

His first piano accordion was red and his second was white. Yes, he says he has some old black and white photographs of himself playing the white one.

Would he mind showing them to me?

He pauses. “I’ll see if I can find them,” he says.

Chris Horvat

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Jack Otto (left) and Chris Horvat (right) in Sydney, 1971.

When did he get the Sonola?

“My father bought it for me in 1971. It was brand new, imported from Italy. I was in Melbourne at the time, doing my noviceship, so he brought it from Adelaide to Melbourne to give it to me, with the permission of my superiors, and took my old one back home for one of my sisters. The ‘new’ one is now over half a century old!”

What inspired his ‘Athelstone Fantasy’, named after the place where it was composed?

“I suppose hearing the musical score for Kenneth Branagh’s film, ‘Hamlet’, which I saw in a cinema recently in a restored print. I was very struck by Patrick Doyle’s musical score. The rhythm during the closing credits really stayed with me. However, it was only something to set me in motion, nothing more than that.”

What does he see in his mind’s eye when he plays? Surely he’s thinking of things apart from just the sheet music?

“I do see the bellows as being the equivalent of lungs and diaphragm. They are the lungs of the instrument, the breathing, providing air for the sound. I sense that, but mostly I’m just trying to live in the moment, express the music and not anticipate what’s coming up next. Not too much anyway!

“This is my most recent composition and probably my last one. It’s now difficult for me to focus on the tip of my pencil when I’m writing music because of diminished sight in my right eye. The other factor is that composing is very time-consuming. The starting date for this piece was 10 October 2021 and I didn’t complete it until 21 December 2021. I would go for up to a week without working to it, since I have other commitments. This is my largest piece and I probably can’t do anything better. It ends on a long middle C, so it’ll be a good note to go out on!”

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

Fr Chris will perform his Athelstone Fantasy in a fundraising concert organised by the Manresa Circle of Friends to support refugees. The concert will be held in the Chapel of the Holy Name at Saint Ignatius’ College Athelstone campus at 2:30pm on Sunday 7 May 2023.

Feature photo: Fr Chris Horvat’s sheet music of Athelstone Fantasy. Photo: David McMahon.