Acclaimed composer, teacher turns 90

Dr Thomas Rajna.

It has been a long and melodious journey for Claremont resident Dr Thomas Rajna who will be celebrating his 90th birthday tomorrow, Friday December 21.

At the heart of everything has been his passion for music.

Dr Rajna has had an illustrious musical career, which has spanned three countries.

He has left a legacy at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music, which honoured him in a concert at the Baxter Concert Hall in August (“Rajna honoured in concert,” Southern Suburbs Tatler, August 9).

This was followed by acclaimed Russian violinist Farida Bacharova performing Dr Rajna’s work in October when the SA College of Music presented its final Symphony of the year (“Symphony concert,” Southern Suburbs Tatler, October 18).

Dr Rajna performed his orchestral piece Video Games with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra at the Cape Town City Hall on November 1.

Over the years he has shared his music on numerous stages.

“It is something that you never get use to, you walk out on the stage, and there is a hour and a half of music, there is nothing like it,” he said.

Well into his retirement, Dr Rajna is still playing the piano and composing music.

He was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1928 and was inspired by music from a young age. Dr Rajna said he had a wonderful piano teacher in Budapest by the name of Lilly Simon.

“I wanted to know music, I began to listen, I was very intrigued to fall in love with certain pieces of music,” said Dr Rajna.

His passion for music led him to be educated in the Hungarian State High School for Music Students in Budapest where he finished in 1947 and he also completed a Liszt Prize at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music.

He then moved to London in September that year. Going to London was an opportunity for Dr Rajna to expand his repertoire. He would go on to further his musical education at the Royal College of Music in London in 1951.

Even though he become an educator when he was a professor at the Guildhall School of Music as well as a lecturer at the University of Surrey, it’s his time in the United Kingdom where he would develop his composition work further as a freelance musician. Before becoming an educator he would appear at the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall where he would perform under conductors like Carlo Maria Giulini, Colin Davis and John Pritchard, also becoming a frequent broadcaster at the BBC.

Dr Rajna specialised in 19th and 20th century repertoire. He recorded the piano parts of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka with the New Philharmonia under Erich Leinsdorf and Bartok’s Music for Strings, Celeste and Percussion with Sir George Solti and the London Symphony Orchestra.

He has built a reputation as a musician, composer and educator over the years which led to him being headhunted by the late Lamar Crowson, who was the head of the SA College of Music at UCT at the time.

Mr Rajna’s wife, Ann said they came to South Africa in 1970 with their old car, the piano and their two sons, David and Daniel.

Dr Rajna joined the UCT Faculty of Music in 1971 which he enjoyed as he had been an experienced teacher in England. “I took to it like duck to water,” said Dr Rajna.

He received his Doctorate in Music at UCT in 1985. He retired as an Associate Professor at UCT in 1993 though the music he composed before and after his retirement continues to have a strong legacy in South Africa.

His work includes two operas called, Amarantha, which premiered in 2000 and was produced by the Cape Town Opera, and the Valley Song, between which was based on a play by Athol Fugard.

Dr Rajna also has his own recording label, Amarantha Records which has produced performances by fellow Hungarian Ernst von Dohnányi and a selection of his own compositions.

Dr Rajna also has two daughters, Jessica and Trilby, two grandchildren, Finn, 11, and Felix who is five weeks old. His son David passed away in 1996. When Dr Rajna is not composing new music, he enjoys playing chess, swimming and reading.