"What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"
Ervin's mother wanted him to be a concert pianist but Ervin wanted to be a good-time Charlie.
Or so says Ervin.
And that just might be the key to one of the most unlikely nonconcert concert careers that ever spiced the footnotes of musical history.
Ervin Nyiregyhazi is an engaging, dapper, 75-year-old Hungarian-born piano virtuoso. He was a child prodigy (he played his first concert at 6), the subject of a psychological study which compared him to the boy Mozart, a musical genius described by musical critics in the '20s as the reincarnation of Franz Liszt.
In 1926 a funny thing happened. Nyiregyhazi's concert career ended. In 1928, the celebrated master, age 25, slipped out of the public eye and into what recent reports have called "a life of obscurity and abject poverty."
Nearly a half century later, in 1973, Nyiregyhazi gave a modest recital - his first in years - at a church in San Francisco when he was visiting. An admirer with a cassette made a tape of the recital, which he then turned over to the National Piano Archives (NPA). The NPA took the Hungarian recluse under its wing. In January of this year, under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation, Nyiregyhazi made a series of tapes in San Francisco, and next month Columbia Records will release three Nyiregyhazi albums.
"Musical history is being made in San Francisco," said The San Francisco Examiner.
"Nyiregyhazi's playing is a kind of madness, but a divine madness," wrote the New York Times.
"We have the same feeling an archeologist would have discovering a living pharaoh," said the president of the NPA.
Even with the critical stir, the Ford Foundation grant and the soon-to-be-released records, Ervin Nyiregyhazi is - which is characteristic - unperturbed. He is still not rich. "The piano tuner makes more than the artist," he says. He lives in a rundown of San Francisco, a style he much prefers, and has for years, to wasting money on "non-necessities." He still lives in relative obscurity, which he prefers to "spending time with illiterates." He doesn't own a piano - "I hate to practice." He still loves gangster movies - "The worse the better - for a classical pianist. I have very low taste in movies." And he is still a Don Juan, making no secret that he's on the watch for a 10th wife. "I believe in the institution of marriage," he says.
"I am still," says the artist, "a goodtime Charlie."
If there's any miracle about what has been called "the miraculous resurfacing of the anomalous whiz kid, it is that Ervin Nyiregyhazi - pronounced Near -edge-ozzie - survived it all.
The secret: "I lived as Franz Liszt composes."
Translation: I'm just and wild and crazy guy.
As a boy, Nyiregyhazi wanted to play operatic music - Puccini, Verdi. His father, an opera singer, sang arias around the house which the boy started picking out on a toy piano at age 3. "Otello! The real thing!"
But the mother had one thing in mind: She wanted him to play piano literature, Bach, Brahms, "things that went against my innermost nature."
The boy didn't want to practice the piano - "I didn't need to practice. I could play something through twice and know it by heart." But the mother glued him to the piano bench. "She had no cognizance of my individuality."
The boy wanted to become a chess master - "I could play chess blindfolded - but his mother threw away the chess board and locked up his chess books. "I would tell her I was going out to play sports and then I would sneak in somewhere to play chess."
His father, who favored both chess and Verdi, died when Nyiregyhazi was 11, leaving him with a mother who insisted, among other embarrassments that he wear schoolboy shorts instead of long pants - even when he was a teen-ager.
"She saw the shorts as a commercial commodity," Nyiregyhazi says. "She wanted me to be a boy who never looked at girls, even though I loved girls from the time I was 7. The first time I wrote pants, in 1918, she broke an umbrella over my head, and said, 'Now we can't get any more concert engagements!"
"I am 75 years old, and she would still want me to wear shorts. My mother took a very materialistic view of me, which is no way to treat a human being."
So, in 1920, at the age of 17, Nyiregyhazi made the big break. He was on tour in Oslo, Norway. The concert was over. Nyiregyhazi was in the dressing room (by this time he was wearing a tuxedo). His mother stepped out of the room. His manager came in and handed the concert fee to the youth ("The first time I ever received money directly"). Nyiregyhazi pocketed the money, ran out of the concert hall, and high-tailed it to the nearest train station, leaving his mother behind.
He stayed for a while with friends in Norway, then made his way to New York (where his mother had arranged a concert contract). He couldn't speak a word of English and the police were suspiclous of him "because in those days I had very long hair and looked like a girl."
Nyiregyhazi taught himself English through the works of Oscar Wilde, "who became a god to me - like Lizst - a champion in the cause of individualism, which agrees with me 100 percent." And his American concerts caused all sorts of critical hoopla. Ervin Nyiregyhazi was not only the reincarnation of Lizst, but - "God bless me, I'm an iconoclast!" - a cause celebre, whose rows with managers read like Burton-and Taylor go-arounds.
"Managers," Nyiregyhazi says, "dictate how to play what is commerically advantageous to them rather than emotionally acceptable to me."
Nyiregyhazi married the first of his nine wives, he says, a woman 11 years his senior, in 1923. He made friends with Theodore Dreiser, "one of the greatest writers in the world," about whomhe wrote several unpblished essays. He played more concerts in New York in Europe, and then one day his concert career ended.
"Playing concerts," he explains, "goes against my innermost instinct."
(Though Nyiregyhazi is quick to warm up to company, he is shy, and he doesn't like playing for strangers. When a photographer recently asked if he would pose at the grand piano in an old Presbyterian church, Nyiregyhazi said yes - but that he wouldn't touch the keyboard. Nyiregyhazi sat down at the grand, and minutes after the photographer started shooting, the empty church hall was drowned in multi-octave waves of Bizet's Carmen, the old man reeling at the bench, his eyes closed, his head lifted skyward).
Since he played no concerts Nyiregyhazi made no money. "But I didn't want to do anything else." Spending what little money he had on things that mattered, like food, a New York Times, and postage for love letters to various inamoratas ("I was obnoxious in the pursuits'), Nyiregyhazi was occasionally reduced to sleeping in the Time Square subway station. "But not for long - they had no pillos there."
He divorced his first wife, and as a result of difficulties with the divorce, spent months in law libraries teaching himself the law. "My specialty is divorce law. I am the only known lawyer who make a Mexican divorce recognized in New York and California."
He never pursued the law formally. "That would have meant going through school with lawyers. I would never study with a lawyer. And I would have led to study parts of the law that didn't interest me."
Nyiregyhazi contented himself with practising law as a mental exercise only, and with doing out legal advice to friends with messy marriages.
Besides meeting Dreiser, Nyiregyhazi's fondest memory, he says, is having made the acquaintance of various "distinguished gangsters" in speakeasies during the Prohibition. "I'm sorry to say that I never met Al Capone or Dillinger. But I met some of their henchmen." The gangster, he says, would hear about his musical talent, invite him to their sumptuous homes, offer him drinks ("I didn't really drink in those days, but I never refused when a gangster offered") and weep while he played Chopin for them. "The more sentimental the better. These were very dangerous men crying tears. I think Chopin reminded them of their mothers."
The gangster called Nyiregyhazi "Herr Professor" - and for them, he says, he would never play Lizst, "too dramatic."
Around 1928 Nyiregyhazi lit out for Los Angeles (where he lived until he moved to San Francisco four months ago). There he married again, and continued to bury himself in Wilde, Dostoyevsky, and Dreiser, writing essays about the authors and his spiritual father, Lizst - 3,000 pages of essays, none of which were published, but all of which were later stolen he says.
In Los Angeles he became friendly with Bela Lugosi and Gloria Swanson, among others. He played scattered piano jobs in movie theaters and studios, but his real Hollywood claim to fame, he says, is that his slender hands appeared in a movie based on the life of Chopin. "The artist who played the part of Chopin did'nt have hands that looked like Chopin's," Nyiregyhazi explains.
The Los Angeles years, "the years of obscurity," Nyiregyhazi sums up by saying he was married most of the time, so he stayed at home most of the time. That is, he adds, unless he had a quarrel with his wife, "Then I would go back to Europe, he says, he would fall in love with his wife all over again, and in two or three days would leave for home. Once at home, he would then regret having spent the money to travel so far over a mere tiff. "That cost a lot of money for a poor man. I should have gone next door - to Pasadena or Beverly Hills instead of Barcelona or Vienna.
"That king of thing might sound eccentric to some people - but when I have a few dollars in my pocket I feel like a millionaire."
Nyiregyhazi insist that his marrying nine times doesn't mean that he's flippant. Quite the contrary. "The fact that I married that many times proved that I do believe in marriage."
One of his wives, he says, acquired 26 cats, when she knew that Nyiregyhazi hated animals. "And I only got to divorce her once. "Another opened a massage parlor, which the pianist didn't find out until he, as an unwitting customer, appeared at the parlor door. Three of his wives died, including the last, with whom, he says, he was very much in love and whose serious illness was the reason for his playing the 1973 San Francisco recital that brought about his "rediscovery."
Nyiregyhazi says that the upcoming Columbia recording will be the last until he marries happily again. He doubts that he will. If he does find a 10th wife, he says, it would be a foregone conclusion that she loved music, "particularly the type of music that I manifest." The second requirement, he says, is that the lady be sexually daring. "I don't want a novice or someone who's timid," Nyiregyhazi says, "I would say, "This is a box fugue - give me Verdi!"