Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 14, 2007


The Curious and Tragic Story of An Extraordinary Musical Prodigy

By Kevin Bazzana

Carroll & Graf. 383 pp. $28

A few years back, Kevin Bazzana brought out Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. Brilliant, controversial and eccentric, Gould was a biographer's dream: The great pianist would hum audibly on his recordings and nearly always adopted unconventional -- some would say wrongheaded -- interpretations, often playing highly ordered baroque music as soulfully as if it were by Chopin or Liszt. Severely hypochondriacal, Gould was deathly afraid of germs, didn't like to be touched or to shake hands and often wore heavy overcoats in the heat of summer. After only a few years of public performance, the young virtuoso suddenly announced that he would no longer give concerts but would restrict all his music-making to the recording studio. And that's just what he did. Even now, professional musicologists still chuff about Gould's various liberties and idiosyncrasies, yet he moves many listeners in ways that no other pianist does: His gravely meditative 1981 performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations is as much a spiritual experience as an aesthetic one.

Wondrous Strange was everything a biography should be: In the words of one critic (me), the book was "expertly paced, admiring yet sensible, touched with wit and intensely readable." Every word of that sentence can be applied to Lost Genius, Bazzana's new book about yet another unorthodox musical genius, Ervin Nyiregyhazi (1903-1987). But this is a musician you've probably never heard of, let alone heard play.

Ervin Nyiregyhazi -- pronounced, we are told, " air-veen nyeer-edge-hah-zee" -- was born in Budapest of Jewish ancestry. He took to the piano at an age when most of us are still figuring out how to blow a whistle or beat two sticks together. "By age six, his large repertoire included Haydn and Mozart sonatas, Beethoven's Path¿tique, Schumann's Kinderszenen and Papillons, Grieg's Lyric Pieces, and short pieces by Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt." The young Nyiregyhazi was also a passionate reader, and he devoured "Dante, Dostoevsky, Goethe, Heine, Schiller, Shakespeare, Shelley, the ancient Greeks," as well as Hungarian authors. He possessed perfect pitch, could memorize a piece just by playing it through a few times, and even in his 80s claimed to know at least 3,000 compositions by heart. From childhood till his death, he also composed piano music in the way that many of us might keep a journal -- as a record of his life, emotions and ideas.

Nyiregyhazi gave his first public concert when he was just 6; by the age of 10, he had been proclaimed another Mozart and was the subject of a book-length study by a psychologist specializing in child prodigies. Those who listened to the wunderkind during his wonder years included Franz Lehar, Giacomo Puccini, Engelbert Humperdinck, Richard Strauss, Bela Bartok, the Prince of Wales and most of the Hungarian nobility. At the age of 12 the still precocious Nyiregyhazi fell under the spell of Liszt. As a result, says Bazzana, "he developed a taste for serious, heavy, brooding music, and his piano style now became more Lisztian: he came to love deep sonorities and slow tempos, and began to plumb new depths of expression."

During his adolescence, Nyiregyhazi toured Europe, winning particular acclaim in Berlin and Oslo. He also let his hair grow long, emulating the tonsorial style of his hero Liszt, to whom he was now being regularly compared for his power and ferocity at the keyboard. The young Hungarian was clearly on his way to becoming one of the world's classical superstars, like those other pianists also born in 1903: Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin and Vladimir Horowitz. But by 1920 Nyiregyhazi felt increasingly oppressed by his managerial mother, and so seized an opportunity to escape from her domineering ways by taking ship for America.

Here, however, the musician was mismanaged, being sent out into the hinterlands to dazzle audiences in Dayton, Ohio, Spartanburg, S.C., and Paterson, N.J., among others. But he also played in New York for visiting eminences like pianist and diplomat Ignacy Jan Paderewski and even traveled to Los Angeles, where his concert earned rapturous reviews and he met the silent-film comedian Harold Lloyd and talked philosophy with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet even while Nyiregyhazi continued to perform in various cities, large and small, and even to make music rolls for player pianos, his career had obviously stalled. But then his agent left more than a little to be desired. Here is Bazzana's pen portrait of R.E. Johnston:

"A former travelling salesman, Johnston was not a person to inspire confidence. As Arthur Rubinstein described him, 'He was broad-shouldered and had the face of an alcoholic: big teary eyes, a large nose of indeterminate color, clean-shaven, with a shock of blond and gray hair. He must have been in his sixties.' He had a wooden leg, which he was not shy about removing for shock or comic effect, was missing fingers, sported a toupee with a will of its own, and, according to the pianist Andr¿ Benoist, had a 'screechy soprano voice' and 'wore very obviously artificial teeth that rattled when he spoke.' "

Imagine the contrast between the shrewd, coarse American and the elegant, refined European! Eventually, the two clashed, there was a lawsuit, the recitals dried up, and the new Liszt's career began to founder, then sink. Nyiregyhazi was soon playing at private parties for gangsters and at receptions in churches. Before long, he was also sleeping in flophouses or on park benches. Worse yet, the young man recognized that, poor and shy though he was, he was nonetheless electrically attractive to women. Moreover, he discovered that he liked sex as much as he liked playing the piano.

Bazzana's account of Nyiregyhazi's sexual life is one of the more than 16 pleasures of this book. After leaving New York for Los Angeles, Nyiregyhazi captured the attentions of movie stars like Gloria Swanson, enjoyed an affair with the mistress of novelist Theodore Dreiser and partied regularly at the home of his countryman, the actor Bela Lugosi. But these erotic outlets weren't enough: Nyiregyhazi also frequented streetwalkers, call girls, massage parlors and porn movies. Yet no matter how degraded his company or his actions, the pianist maintained his cultivated sense of self-worth. He always wore a suit and tie, even if it was the same suit and tie day after day. Besides, how can you fault a man who believes deeply in marriage -- and even more deeply in divorce? For Nyiregyhazi wasn't just a prodigy as a pianist. Over the course of his life he actually managed to marry 10 times. Most of his wives were deeply devoted to him, even though -- or because? -- he could be utterly helpless away from the keyboard, being unable to button his own shirt or cook an egg.

The middle chapters of Lost Genius describe Nyiregyhazi's days as a musical roustabout in Los Angeles. His is the hand at the piano in the horror movie "The Beast with Five Fingers." He once gave a sold-out concert as the mysterious Mr. X, clad in a black mask. Like others before and since, Nyiregyhazi somehow managed to get along on the margins of Hollywood, yet, unlike most others, he never complained or felt that he had been shortchanged by the gods. He earned enough to pay for sexual favors and bottles of vodka, and his current wife usually brought home some money from her job, however menial. Besides, he was still composing his own music and this would become his crucial legacy to the world. Or so he hoped.

However, in the early 1970s, after decades of public neglect and disdain, Nyiregyhazi was unexpectedly "rediscovered." Three records were soon made -- the best known being "Nyiregyhazi Plays Liszt" -- and esteemed critics like Harold Schonberg of the New York Times and Richard Freed of Stereo Review were bowled over. Bazzana rightly stresses that the septuagenarian prodigy was by then only the ruin of a once great pianist, yet still a living link to a flamboyantly romantic performance practice that had largely disappeared. Nyiregyhazi despised objectivity, accuracy -- the whole tradition, most notably represented by Toscanini, of exact fidelity to the score. "The performer's first duty, he said, was not to the composer but to his own life and personality, his own thoughts and feelings." Thus Nyiregyhazi justified the freedom, subjectivity and loudness of his recordings.

Alas, there weren't to be many. While the man himself could be charming over cocktails, he was never easy to work with. Disagreements, quarrels, accusations soon erupted between the elderly genius and the people funding and making him famous. Eventually, Nyiregyhazi was dropped by almost all his supporters and sponsors; his moment had come and gone again, except for a small but happy coda: Japanese fans invited him to their country, where he was applauded as a revelation and revered as a musical sensei. But by then his life was virtually over, and on April 8, 1987, he died from colon cancer.

Even if your interest in classical music is elementary or -- shame on you -- merely perfunctory, Lost Genius offers much more than the elegance of the Vienna Philharmonic and the fun of the Boston Pops. Kevin Bazzana has resurrected Ervin Nyiregyhazi, not only as a strange musical might-have-been but also as a man who resolutely led his own stylishly dissolute life -- and who did it with steely hauteur. Nyiregyhazi clearly belongs in that select pantheon of eccentric skid-row dandies, in the company of Baron Corvo, Julian MacLaren-Ross and Quentin Crisp. Though there will undoubtedly be some bigger biographies published this fall, it is hard to imagine a more delicious one than Lost Genius. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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