Bela Peter Urbanowsky Urban)

1912 - 1988

Bela Urbanowsky, an accomplished violinist who had studied in Europe, was an important person in Seventh-day Adventist music in the 1930s and 1940s. In the nine years he taught violin and conducted the orchestra at Atlantic Union College, from 1937 to 1946, he thrilled the campus with his artistry and virtuoso playing. His musical ability, coupled with a fluency in five languages, made him a favorite personality at AUC and in the region.

A naturalized citizen of the United States, Urbanowsky had been born in Budapest, Hungary, on January 22, 1912, the son of Peter and Theresa Back Urban, Hungarian natives. The family came to the U.S. when he was two and a half years old, and in the next fifteen years, he received his education in public schools. He had started study on the violin at age eight and by the time he was seventeen had shown such promise that he traveled to Brussels, Belgium, to study with Eugene Ysaye, arguably one of the greatest violinists of the time.

Ysaye was also well known for his conducting and to some extent for his compositions. He had toured as a soloist in America eight times and from 1918 to 1922 was conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He is regarded as the pioneer of 20th century violin playing and was regarded by many of the noted violinists of his era as the most outstanding performer of his time.

Although Ysaye was 70 and in ill health, having just lost a foot due to complications from diabetes, following an audition, he accepted Urbanowsky as a student.  Because of the teacher's declining health and his death two years after the lessons started, most of Urbanowsky's lessons in his four years of study in Belgium were with Ysaye's son, Gabriel.

In his first year in Brussels, Urbanowsky played in a competition and in a unanimous decision by the judges received a medal for exceptional merit. He was also given a signed diploma for his study by Ysaye. After one of his appearances at the Conservatory of Brussels, Le Soir, a leading paper of the city, observed, "His easy technique is clothed in the disposition of a musical temperament of the first degree." Another paper, L' Express, stated, "To him the spirit, the fancy, the color, the movement, and the technique are uppermost."

In the short time he worked directly with Eugene Ysaye, the teacher introduced Urbanowsky to George Enesco, noted French composer, and had his student play a sonata Ysaye had written and dedicated to Enesco. At the conclusion of the performance, Enesco rose to his feet and, turning to Urbanowsky, impressed by both the sonata and playing, said "If you come to Paris, you must come to see me, and we shall play together."

In 1935 Urbanowsky spent some time playing and concertizing with quartets and orchestras in France. The French government awarded him a silver medal for his work in promoting good music. Shortly after this, he met and married Jenny Juliette Adeline Gilles, a native of Brussels and they married in Paris, France, on October 1, 1936. She was a Seventh-day Adventist, and he adopted her church as his own. At about this time he started using Urbanowsky as his professional name.

They traveled to the U.S. in late 1936, his arrival at Atlantic Union College in January 1937 being heralded on the front page of the school paper with a detailed story of his professional accomplishments and study. He was an immediate sensation and his performances on campus and in the region were detailed in the school paper.

Virginia Mae Rittenhouse, later Fagal, a talented violinist who had delayed enrolling at AUC until 1936 so she could study with him, immediately began lessons with him as he arrived on campus and completed a violin diploma under him. She became a member of the AUC string quartet that included Bela and worked as his assistant in the string program. It was an experience she recalled with enthusiasm in later years.

While at AUC, Bela and his wife had divorced. He was inducted into the U.S. Army on March 28, 1942, and stationed in Miami, Florida. He then married Virginia Gaskell, a talented pianist who had served as his accompanist at AUC, and they would make over a thousand appearances until his discharge in November 1945. He also served as concertmaster of a special Air Force orchestra that toured in South America and as concertmaster of the Miami Symphony Orchestra. In 1946, the he and virginia were invited to return to the campus for what was described in advance publicity as the "outstanding concert of the season." 

They then taught at the Hartt College of Music, now Hartt School of Music, at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He gave a recital at Town Hall in New York City in which he played a Ravel violin sonata, a debut that was favorably received by the critics. Encouraged by this affirmation, Urbanowsky and his wife scheduled a recital at Carnegie Hall that featured mostly traditional works. The critics panned this performance, dismissing him as "a gypsy violinist," a reference to his Hungarian roots. Totally devastated by this experience, he shortened his name to Urban.

Urban became an influential member of the American String Association, serving in 1952 as chair of a committee to organize a national string competition. Because of disagreements over several aspects of the competition, however, it was never realized.

Urban was a sought-after violin soloist, featured with numerous orchestras and at various events. In 1949, he was soloist in a concert given in Central Park in New York City at the famed Naumburg Bandshell. In 1951 he was a guest soloist with the National Orchestral Association, a training orchestra for young musicians located in NYC. The Hartt String Quartet, in which he was the principal violinist, performed often and was featured in the first Frederick Delius Music Festival in Florida in 1961, when the composer's house, which had just been moved to the Jacksonville University campus, was dedicated.

He would later teach at a university in Florida. During that time, he and his second wife, Virginia, divorced in June 1963. She returned to Connecticut, where she died in 2001. He remarried and was residing in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the time of his death on September 4, 1988, at age 76.

In later years, one of his former colleagues at HCM observed that Urban, because of his age and experience, was regarded as a teacher not only of the students but of his fellow faculty as well.

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Sources: Letter from Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse (She worked with him at AUC), August 1999, and interviews with Dan Shultz, September 7 and October 21, 2007; “"Bela Urbanowsky Professor of Music Arrives from Belgium,”" The AUC Lancastrian, 4 March 1937, 1; “Violin Teacher in a Concert,” Lancastrian, 17 November 1939; Signed printed program of concert with the Gospelaires male quartet, 19 May 1947 at the King Street United Church, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada (provided by Dwight Rhodes, a member of the male quartet); Naumbergconcerts.org; Multiple online resources.