A couple of months before I was born, a Hungarian-born pianist named Ervin Nyiregyházi came back in from the cold. Born in Hungary in 1903, he was an amazing prodigy. The Hungarian psychologist Géza Révész studied him and wrote a profile of the young Nyiregyházi in a classic study of prodigies which is still in print and still referred to in the psychological literature.
He was praised by musicians on the level of Giacomo Puccini and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg once got the great conductor Otto Klemperer to hear him. In a letter to Klemperer, Schoenberg praises Nyiregyházi as a new Franz Liszt, “assuming that Franz Liszt was even this good”. Klemperer did hear Nyiregyházi, but did not give him an opportunity to perform with his orchestra, as he deplored his frequent derivations from the musical text. Nyiregyházi was more like his idol Franz Liszt than anything. For him, a score was not Holy Writ. Rather, it was a beginning point of his own creativity, which was considerable.
The young Nyiregyházi received acclaim wherever he went. As a child, he played in Buckingham Palace for the Royal Family. Like the young Chopin, he grew up performing in the homes of the wealthy and titled families of Europe. It gave him something of a taste for a life of luxury. Unfortunately, Nyiregyházi had a mother who in addition to being something of the classic horrible stage mother also pampered him to an extent to where he was nearly incapable of caring for himself. Well into his teenage years, she refused to allow him to dress himself or to cut his own food. Nyiregyházi would try to break free of her smothering embrace. However, he remained deeply scarred for life. (His mother would perish in one of the German concentration camps as the Nyiregyházi family was Jewish. Nyiregyházi had come to America by this point. Once, when he was drunk he praised Adolf Hitler as a “good man” for having killed his mother.)
Like many musicians, Nyiregyházi wanted to be a composer. He wrote many, many works in a sort of Lisztian Romantic idiom which was by them deeply unfashionable. I am curious what some of them sound like, such as “It’s Good to Be Soused”, “The Installation of the Telephone”, and “The Refusal of the Dutch Consulate to Grant Me a Visa”.
In the 1920s, Nyiregyházi eventually broke free of his mother’s smothering embrace and came to America. Unfortunately, he had terrible managers who cheated him. He was also not helped later on by his propensity to fool around with anybody who would fool around with him. He married ten times. Three of his wives died before him. The rest of his marriages ended in divorce. He was a terrible womanizer and often did not fully understand how his actions hurt other people.
Tragically, he developed a crippling stage fright and became an alcoholic. Quite how he maintained mostly robust health throughout his life is something of a mystery, given that he was such a severe alcoholic. He once gave a concert wearing a mask so that nobody could see him. For a while, the great Hungarian actor Béla Lugosi, famed for his portrayal of Dracula took Nyiregyházi under his wings.
Eventually, though, Nyiregyházi would end up on skid row, living in cheap hotels in really terrible neighbourhoods. He stopped performing, except when he needed the money. His various wives supported him as best they could. His frequent philandering took a toll on his marriages and he ended up marrying ten times.
It was to raise funds for his ninth wife that Nyiregyházi came out of retirement. She needed funds for a doctor. Nyiregyházi gave a recital in the old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco on a battered old Baldwin. To those who heard him, it was like going back in time to the Romantic era. Nyiregyházi took many liberties, it is true. He was no longer in his prime technically and he left multitudes of wrong notes scattered. However, the sounds which he managed to get from the piano were truly amazing, ranging from that of a whisper to a mighty roar.
The International Piano Archives made recordings and Nyiregyházi gave some more concerts. He even recorded on the Columbia label. Some Japanese music professors and piano aficionados managed to coax him over to Japan where he gave a few successful concerts. In the end, though, Nyiregyházi returned to the obscurity from whence he had briefly arisen. The recordings he made are not those of a great pianist at his prime. By the time he returned to the spotlight, his technique had suffered greatly. However, he does give us something of an idea how the great pianists of the 19th century might have played. Franz Liszt’s technical achievements earned the awe of just about everybody around him, even his critics. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns stated that remembering that sound of Liszt playing was a great comfort to him old age. However, Liszt often tended to take liberties with just about any piece of music he played, something which other great musicians, such as Clara Schumann, did not appreciate. Nyiregyházi, then, seems to belong to the Liszt school.
We also have the testimony of Arnold Schoenberg. Arnold Schoenberg was not a man to suffer fools greatly. Nevertheless, the letter in which he wrote to Klemperer, Schoenberg lavishes praise on this pianist just about unlike any musician he had before encountered. Schoenberg’s own students were sometimes victims of their master’s caustic comments. He did not bestow praise lightly on anyone. However, he seems to be absolutely captivated by Nyiregyházi and his playing.
You can read more about Ervin Nyiregyházi in a book entitled Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy in a biography by the Canadian musicologist and critic Kevin Bazzana. It is well worth reading. Bazzana is also an authority on Glenn Gould. His Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould is well worth reading, too.
Here is some video from around the time of the rediscovery of Ervin Nyiregyházi.