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Tale of a fallen child star
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Pianist prodigy ruined by his personal demons
Apr 14, 2007 04:30 AM


Gary Coleman. Danny Bonaduce. Judy Garland. They hit the peaks of stardom as children, only to tumble into demon-addled adulthoods.

Tragic sequels to early stardom aren't confined to film- and TV-land. Music has its own pantheon of fallen child-gods.

Every once in a while, a story comes along that begs to be told to a wider public.

Kevin Bazzana, the British Columbia writer and musicologist who wrote Wondrous Strange, the critically loved biography of oddball-genius pianist Glenn Gould, has found another square-peg genius to profile – one much less known.

In Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick (McClelland & Stewart), Bazzana pieces together the long, tortured life of Ervin Nyiregyhazi. Born in the bustling, cosmopolitan Budapest of 1903, he showed remarkable musical talents that had listeners hailing him as a 20th-century Mozart.

At age 3, he wrote his first composition, inspired by the tale of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. At 8, he played at Buckingham Palace for members of the royal family, including the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII).

A Hungarian psychologist studied the boy from 1910 to 1914, producing a book-length study of the prodigy in 1916.

His star in Europe continued to rise through adolescence, but the glory would not last. By the end of World War II, Nyiregyhazi was living in Los Angeles, destitute and forgotten.

If there is one reason why we should not forget him, it is in his playing. He may be the only recorded pianist who approached music in true 19th-century Romantic spirit. We would call it self-indulgence today.

To hear Nyiregyhazi play is to be struck by how styles change, even in the conservative world of classical music.

Like so many prominent Central European careers, Nyiregyhazi's was derailed by the war. But the real blame lies with personal demons. His stage-struck mother coddled him and kept him in children's clothes well into teenagehood. Nyiregyhazi grew up emotionally stunted, sexually repressed and unable to cope with daily life.

He didn't know how to tie his shoelaces or use a knife. But he could read a complex score once and walk out on a stage and perform it from memory.

The pianist finally got up the nerve to run away from his mother, whom he replaced by bedding and proposing to nearly every woman he met. He went through 10 wives by the time he died in 1987. He drank heavily. He bit every helpful hand.

There were always helping hands. In Hollywood, Gloria Swanson organized a fundraising concert for him. Bela Lugosi's door was always open.

Nyiregyhazi was even engaged to make a set of new recordings for CBS in 1978. Two LPs were released, but after initial excitement and a series of live concerts organized by fans in Japan, Nyiregyhazi was soon again relegated to the shadows.

The tragic pianist's last wife, Doris, obsessively recorded her husband's recollections. Those tapes and personal papers were what Bazzana used to bring Nyiregyhazi back to life.

It took 10 years to write the book, which Bazzana had intended as one chapter in a collection about unusual pianists.

"The way he played was not an abomination by late 19th-century standards," says the author about Nyiregyhazi's wild fluctuations in tempo and improvisations.

"His business was to offer his perspective of the piece at hand. It's a very 19th-century approach."

The author thinks this link to an older time, before the advent of recording technology, is reason enough to keep the Nyiregyhazi flame burning.

In the end, there was so much to tell. "I had a problem keeping the length of the book down," confesses Bazzana. There isn't a superfluous word in the 368-page text. "All the nooks and crannies of his life were interesting."

There is a coincidence between Nyiregyhazi and Glenn Gould: Neither needed to practise at the piano for hours at a time. Yet both could wow their audiences – in different ways.

Bazzana says he is drawn to pianists and conductors. "They are one-man shows," he says. "Their interpretation creates the whole performance."

The author is also fascinated with the "individual creative mind of one person at work on another person – the tension between these two creative minds is what I find most interesting."

In Nyiregyhazi's case, there was the added tension of the performer's personal demons. It's the perfect recipe for drama.


To hear Ervin Nyiregyhazi' perform a solo version of the "Adagio sostenuto" second movement of Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, visit