Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story
of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy.
Carroll & Graf, 383 pages, $28
Born in 1903, the Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyíregyházi conformed in many ways to the standard image of a child prodigy. He was the subject of a 1916 book entitled The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy and has now found, in Kevin Bazzana, a conventional biographer.
Nyíregyházi (pronounced, we are told, nyeer-edge-hah-zee) died in 1987 in Los Angeles. Between his Budapest beginnings and his end in America lies one of the strangest trajectories in modern musical history. As a child in Hungary he studied with Ernst von Dohnányi, won the praise of visiting celebrities such as Puccini and Franz Lehár, and was dragged around Europe and England by his mother (the dominant parent). Aristocratic patrons fawned over him, inducing the erroneous belief that he was one of them, a delusion that persisted through an adult life spent largely in skidrow apartments.
At the age of twelve, while performing in Berlin, he underwent a conversion to the music of his countryman Franz Liszt. Though of course aware of Liszt, he had been brought up in a musical environment that gave primacy to absolute music, meaning the largely non-programmatic compositions of Beethoven, Brahms, and other German masters. The extra-musical subject matter of Liszts music, with its gestures towards the Swiss Alps, medieval legends, and great works of literature, was to him like discovering a new world. This led to a convoluted state of affairs in which his worship of Liszt, Hungarys greatest composer, put him at odds with his mother, who wanted him to stick to the approved repertoire. His biographer writes, He saw Liszt as a hero figureproud, independent, self-sufficient, indifferent to acclaim and defiant in the face of criticism. He perhaps also saw a psychological surrogate for his lost father; the timing of his conversion is certainly suggestive (he discovered Liszt a year after his father died).
Largely to escape his mother he came to America in 1920, where, as a result of advance publicity, photographers and a booking agent met him at Ellis Island. A week later he played Carnegie Hall, and reviews were mixed, all critics conceding his technical wizardry yet some expressing doubt about his taste and maturity. Audiences were another matter, and his performances generated a cult-like following on both sides of the Atlantic. The sensation had less to do with his technical prowess than with the quality of his sound, which by all accounts was curiously massive rather than simply loud. Like his idol Liszt he tinkered with composers scores to secure certain effects. He was addicted to extremely slow tempos, his general approach being that of someone who cared more about mass than drive. In spite of all this, he played Carnegie Hall a few more times and seemed headed for a successful career, but he quarreled with his handlers, grew increasingly fond of drink and sex, and drifted into a kind of limbo from which he would fitfully emerge to amaze new audiences. This pattern continued throughout most of his life, and Lost Genius would be another tedious book about a crazy person were it not for the way its author uses Nyíregyházi to illustrate some interesting truths about music in general.
Possibly because his mother made playing for other people so unpleasant, Nyíregyházi was neurotic about giving concerts and defensive about the piano itself, claiming, for example, I am not a pianist, and It is not the piano that makes the sound it is I who make the sound. Perhaps it was the pianos status as the ultimate bourgeois instrument that most galled him. In any case, it was not drinking and fornication that did him in but rather the belief, perhaps originating with his conversion to Liszt, that in life as well as art, emotion or expression was all that mattered. This view is not always accompanied by talent, yet in his case no less a musician than Arnold Schoenberg was convinced he was a genius. Unlike his near-exact contemporaries Artur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau, Nyíregyházi was less concerned with reaching audiences than with safeguarding his own authenticity: something like this idea must lie behind his comment, I want that my dirty Alcoholic heart should shit itself out on the piano (italics his own).
He spent years touring the American hinterland, made up part of a love triangle with Theodore Dreiser and one of Dreisers wives, and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he was taken up by Hollywood and appeared in a few films, mostly at the keyboard (he was close to his fellow Hungarian Bela Lugosi). He always thought of himself as primarily a composer, and according to Bazzana his pieces, only a few of which have been published, number in the thousands, taking their inspiration from virtually everything including his financial difficulties, his search for the perfect massage parlor, and Walter Mondale. Around 1930, when he was supposedly washed up, he gave the recital at a private home in L.A. where Arnold Schoenberg (who had actually been dragged there by a friend) heard him and subsequently wrote to the great conductor Otto Klemperer, The sound he gets out of the piano is unprecedented . He is 33 years old, and so still has more stages of development before him, from which, given the foundation, the greatest things are to be expected. Other great musicians such as the pianist Garrick Ohlsson seem to have shared this view, though at every phase of his career there were also formidable detractors such as the pianist and Liszt specialist Earl Wild, who found Nyíregyházis renaissance in the 1970s a piece of baloney.
If he was not all that Puccini, Dohnányi, and Schoenberg thought he was, this does not affect the merits of Kevin Bazzanas book, which delights in the strangeness of its subject without making any wild claims for or against him. The externals of his life suggest a jazz or even rock musician, yet he had a mandarin disdain of pop culture and voted Republican in the 1950s because he thought Eisenhower had a nice smile and was friendly. The magic of his playing, if that is the word, only doubtfully survives on the handful of recordings and video clips available. What stands out more clearly is the doctrinaire idea that emotion alone can supply the foundation to which Schoenberg alludes in his letter. It is a bleak idea, yet one that acquires a crazy nobility if pushed far enough.
Peter Schwendener has written for The American Scholar and other publications
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