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CLASSICAL  December 2008

CLASSICAL December 2008

Subject:

Nyiregyhazi

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 1 Dec 2008 15:11:47 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (84 lines)

Kevin Bazzana.  Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an
Extraordinary Musical Prodigy.  Da Capo Press, 1907.  383 pages.

Ervin Nyiregyhazi (1903-1987--his name is pronounced nyeer-edge-hah-
zee) was a Hungarian American pianist devoted to the music and aesthetics
of Franz Liszt in the most extreme sense.  For him emotional expression
was the supreme goal in performance, without regard to any performance
tradition and even without high regard to adherence to a score.  His
performances tended to be very slow and extremely loud, though he could
exhibit a wide dynamic range, but with some extraordinary tonal effects,
some produced by the way he used the pedals and some by the way he
pressed, rather than struck the keys.  Sometimes his forceful playing
left blood on the keys, though, and early in his career a representative
of the Steinway Company made sure that he would not be entrusted with a
Steinway piano. (Late in life he re-encountered a piano in Hungary with
a key still broken from his playing decades before.) Knabe paid him every
time he used one of their pianos, though.  He impressed many listeners
enormously; others despised his playing.  The critic Harold

Schonberg may have been on both sides of this divide.  Nyiregyhazi was
also a composer of over a thousand works, many quite gloomy in mood,
especially toward the end of his life.  He considered his compositions
great but few have agreed with him.  Nyiregyhazi's memory was prodigious.
At quite a young age he read a new published work at the counter of a
music shop and that evening played it from memory as an encore.  In later
life he was able to perform works from memory without having refreshed
that memory in decades - not always with complete fidelity to be sure.
At an early age he was the subject of an academic study of prodigies.

By many standards his personal life was a disaster.  He was exploited
as a child prodigy by his mother - his father having died when he was
quite young - and she kept him in an infantile state.  Well into adulthood
he was actually unable to tie his own shoes or cut his own food.  He was
forced to perform in short pants until he rebelled at age 16, telling
his mother that if she still insisted on that he would cancel an important
concert and, what is more, if he were not allowed to live on his own he
would renounce his performing career.  He got his way but did not do
well in his career, both because he was not well represented and because
he was not particularly skilled in human relations, and that is an
understatement.  He had high self- regard as a musician but was greatly
lacking in self confidence in other ways.  Bazzana even calls him paranoid.
Most of his life he was quite poor, even destitute, though mostly he did
not seem to mind.  He was attractive to women, however, and no fewer
than ten women married him; some were devoted to him and to some he was
devoted.  It would not be inaccurate to say that he became addicted to
sex of all sorts, had many affairs, frequented prostitutes and massage
parlors etc.  Bazzana will tell you more about this than you may wish
to know.  He also drank prodigiously, partly in order to function socially
or musically.

Nyiregyhazi knew many famous people, from Eugene Ormandy who tormented
him at the conservatory to various Hollywood celebrities.  Schoenberg
was impressed with his playing and recommended him to Otto Klemperer -
who was not similarly impressed.  He had, however, played under Nikisch
with the Berlin Philharmonic when he was six.  After decades of hardly
playing at all, in the late 1970's Nyiregyhazi's fortunes seemed to be
made at last when, thanks to Richard Kapp the Ford Foundation decided
to invest in the preservation of his performances and some recordings
were made by Columbia Masterworks, some of which did rather well for
classical recordings.  Some are currently available.  He also interested
some Japanese musicians involved with the establishment of a new school
of music; they liked Nyiregyhazi's musical aesthetics and brought him
to Japan.  His last wife gave these sponsors greatly detailed advice
concerning his enormous need to have respect paid to him, lest he refuse
to cooperate even with well-wishers.

Every word of Bazzana's title and subtitle is well chosen.  Ervin
Nyiregyhazi was a real piece of work.  But Bazzana, the Canadian
musicologist who previously authored a book about Glenn Gould, takes his
subject very seriously and has produced a biography that is both scholarly
and extremely readable.  He has no thesis to propound about prodigies
and is not one of those biographers whose main aim is to reveal the clay
feet of creative geniuses--though he certainly is not out to conceal
those feet either.  I have the sense that Bazzana admires the artist and
is sympathetic to the person Nyiregyhazi was in spite of his enormous
limitations as a human being.

Copyright 2008 by R. James Tobin

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