The Story of a Forgotten
By Kevin Bazzana
McClelland & Stewart,
383 pages, $36.99
Erwin Nyiregyhàzi (1903-1987) is the Velikovsky of classical music. If he is right, all the rest of us are completely wrong. And yet it is clear that he was in his own way a unique genius, and he was hailed as such from early childhood on by many of the world's musical elite.
But a greater diversity of opinions than those that have percolated around Nyiregyhàzi (NYEAR-edge-hawzee) is unimaginable. Composers at opposite ends of the musical spectrum described him with nearly apotheotic praise: Lehar declared him a genius when he was 7, while Schoenberg, 25 years later, called him "the person most replete with genius I have ever heard." Gregor Benko, president of the International Piano Library, places him "in the same category as Beethoven and Chopin and Liszt . . . the most extraordinary prodigy in history after Mozart and Saint-Saëns and Josef Hoffmann."
Yet Vladimir Ashkenazy described him as an "amateur," and a "joke." Earl Wild termed his notoriety "the biggest piece of baloney," while Abbey Simon said, "He sounds as if he hadn't practised for 50 years."
Nyiregyhàzi's opinion of himself was unashamedly congruent with that of the first group, but he considered himself above all a composer and even a philosopher. He had no inhibition about calling a piece he wrote "one of the greatest musical works of history"; confronted with remarks about the profusion of errors saturating his performances, he said, "Other pianists play the right notes the wrong way. I play the wrong notes the right way."
If this all sounds like a megalomaniac over-endowed with self-confidence, that would be a completely mistaken inference. He was painfully shy, racked with doubts and worries, and so filled with stage fright that he could not play without first imbibing copious quantities of alcohol. He abhorred hearing comments about himself that were slightly less than worshipful, and he took offence if other artists were even mentioned, let alone praised.
In his splendidly researched biography, award-winning B.C. music scholar Kevin Bazzana shows how Nyiregyhàzi's super-dominating mother prevented him from developing normally; already in childhood, Erwin hated her bitterly for controlling every aspect of his life, musical, social and sexual. She succeeded in propelling him into a stunning, meteoric career, but it was doomed to collapse quite rapidly.
He amazed audiences in his native Budapest when he was 7; by the time he was 13, a famous Hungarian psychologist, Géza Révész, had published a book on him, after studying him for four years; and at 17, he played a series of triumphant concerts in New York which should have established him permanently as a towering musical figure.
Up to this point, the comparison with Glenn Gould is unavoidable; both had a transcendent talent that blossomed early, both attracted a fanatical, devout following, and both were generally considered to be outrageously individualistic and iconoclastic in their interpretations and outlandishly eccentric in their personalities.
But Gould remained at the apex of the musical world until his untimely death, while Nyiregyhàzi plunged not only into obscurity, but into poverty, homelessness and despair. He was married 10 times and cavorted with innumerable other women, often prostitutes, and with the odd man as well. The salacious details are perhaps over-generously provided in the book, but it is clear that sex and alcohol were important factors in his downfall. He was suspicious of everyone, could hardly ever relax and interact naturally in a social setting, and managed to turn some of his most ardent supporters into enemies. Women tended to fall in love with his music, and some of them tried valiantly, and at great personal sacrifice, to help revive his career.
His uncompromising stance in choosing repertoire did not help. He was obsessed from an early age with Liszt, not just the famous bravura pieces, but the long, slow and lugubriously spiritual late works. He also liked to include his own piano versions of orchestral, choral and operatic works, such as Liszt's Faust Symphony. He favoured extraordinarily slow tempos in many works, and avoided most of the well-known music featured by other pianists and loved by audiences.
Nyiregyhàzi was paranoid about being compared with, and maintained a disdainful contempt for, his fellow artists, saying for example of Horowitz that he was "not too much impressed." He had poor and often dishonest management, and felt humiliated to play in the small cities and second-rate venues into which he was booked. But hunger and the need for money drove him to play in clubs, private houses and anywhere he had a chance of making even $100. On the other hand, he loved to play for workers, jail inmates and other unsophisticated people, who also showed him great appreciation.
His story is fascinating, bizarre and well told. He hobnobbed with numerous celebrities, such as Theodore Dreiser (and promptly had an affair with Dreiser's long-time mistress), Ayn Rand and Gloria Swanson. He wrote reams of compositions, sometimes five or six on the same day, with remarkable titles such as The Refusal of the Dutch Consulate to Give me a Visa, or, Prayer of Gratitude for Meeting Doris (his last wife, who meticulously documented and promoted his compositions). His music is mostly very gloomy, and hopelessly outdated in style; he made no secret of his disdain for contemporary music.
Nyiregyhàzi broke through to celebrity status once again when he was in his 70s, when he was rediscovered and touted as a reincarnation of Liszt. Countless newspaper and magazine articles were devoted to him, Columbia Masterworks recorded him, and the International Piano Library arranged a series of recording sessions, hampered by endless bickering and great reluctance on his part.
It is not easy to judge his artistry, because the surviving recordings are mostly from his final years. Some are from live concerts in private homes, on inferior pianos so scandalously out of tune that most performers would have refused to play. These performances could not pass a Royal Conservatory examination. They have fistfuls of wrong notes -- indeed, hardly a measure passes without errors -- and they display not the slightest respect for the text, adding octaves, changing harmonies, repeating some sections, omitting others, changing tempos erratically. Almost every chord is "Paderewskied," i.e., the hands are not even remotely together. Apparently, no retakes were made; he played once and declared himself satisfied.
And yet . . . there is indisputably something there, an enormous musical conviction and a searing communicative spirit, so if you can manage to observe the forest and ignore the rotten and splintered trees, you cannot help being drawn into the music, where there is a continuity of line, an inspired melodic shaping and an overwhelming characterization of sonorities that evokes vibrant images.
Most of his life he had no piano and very limited access to a keyboard. He did not practise before these concerts and recording sessions, and played whatever he felt like playing on the spur of the moment, including huge orchestral works, all by memory. Whether most of the deviations from the composers' scores were deliberate or the result of decades of memory deterioration is impossible to determine. Some critics have made much of the massiveness and strength of his playing, but I think this reflects mainly his constant addition of octaves to low notes and his exorbitant pedalling.
He must have had a splendid technique at one time, for he could hardly have made such a huge initial success if his playing had already been riddled with errors. By the time of the recordings, he had obviously lost interest in the mechanics of piano playing. Nyiregyhàzi's playing is akin to conceptual art, in which the idea behind it eclipses the poor or non-existent craftsmanship of its realization.
A medium is one who makes people see and hear what isn't there. Inversely, Nyiregyhàzi must have imagined that, through the power of his personality, he could make the egregious defects in his playing disappear. Obviously this worked for some listeners. In any event, Bazzana has fashioned a fascinating and highly readable yarn which could lead to a posthumous resurrection of interest in Nyiregyhàzi's remarkable artistry.
Anton Kuerti is a Canadian pianist, teacher and composer. He made his professional debut at the age of 11, playing the Grieg Concerto with the Boston Pops Orchestra.