The Secret Lost Forgotten Rituals of the Ruins of Nyiregyhazi

Phil Ford

Of all the commentary on l’affaire Hatto, I like Jonathan’s the best — he managed to restrain himself from striking the old There’s a Lesson Here For Us All pose that seems to be an ineradicable part of the news. TV news especially makes me want to claw my own eyes out, because it’s always instructing me in just how outraged and offended I ought to feel. Somehow, one is never instructed to feel outraged and offended by the institutionalization and mass orchestration of outrage and offence. This would not be in anyone’s interest, I suppose.

So, the New York Times gave up the better part of its editorial page to some guy bloviating about the Hatto story, straining to find a moral and finally coming up with this: “the greatest lesson for us all ought to be, however, that there are more fine young pianists out there than most of us realize.” That’s it? Actually, there is a moral here: some stories don’t have morals. Or they they do only insofar as we kind of have to make them up in order to justify writing a story whose real point is to say, whoa, look at that. We like spectacle, but feel a bit guilty about it. It’s just really interesting that the husband of a good but undistinguished pianist fabricated an entire career, an entire legend for her. Just as generations of boys thrilled to adventure stories of the Lost City of This and the Forgotten Rites of That, we love a story that opens a crack in dull reality and offers a glimpse of an entire alternate history: the original “greatest pianist you never heard” Hatto narrative was satisfying for that reason. When it all went kablooey, it was even more interesting, because the curtain drew back and you could see the clanking machinery of the spectacle (thus making a spectacle of the spectacle, which is even better), luxuriate in the nifty details of the crime, and speculate on the obscure psychological motivations of the criminal. And really, who would want anything more? Ah, but we’re civilized people; we need to find a Lesson In All This.

Actually, I find that I have done something in this line myself.

Speaking of which, Kevin Bazzana’s new Nyiregihazi biography has just been released in Canada; I got a note this morning saying that my pre-order copy has shipped. I am just so stoked about this. Bazzana’s book is titled Lost Genius; Nyiregyhazi’s story has the same savor as the Hatto story originally did. Here was a pianist with a thunderous, impossible-to-duplicate sound and a completely original style of interpretation who, in the 1920s and 1930s, was hailed as one of the great pianists of the world. He then disappeared for decades, living in subways and flophouses and marrying ten women and writing thousands of compositions that no-one ever saw and every now and then emerging from total obscurity, a bum playing Liszt like someone stepped directly out of the 19th century, an emissary of a lost musical civilization mysteriously preserved in the slums of L.A. What a story! And, in this case, it’s true. (Well, I think it is: I’ll have to wait until I read Bazzana’s book to be sure.) Nyiregyhazi was one of my obsessions when I was in high school, partly for the reasons I’ve described, and partly because his actual playing, in a Liszt album he recorded for Columbia after he was rediscovered, gave me a kind of feeling of intense sweet melancholy that no pianist’s playing ever quite matched. And by the time I had discovered him he had sunk back into obscurity, never to emerge again. Nyiregyhazi gave everybody just a tantalizing glimpse of that lost musical civilization; aside from some piano rolls, there is basically no recording of him in his prime, and the few recordings he made in the 1970s and 1980s show a once-awesome technique lying in ruins. I’ve always wondered what he must have sounded like as a young virtuoso. Well, actually, there is something. This:

This is a clip from a silly movie called The Lost Zeppelin. That’s Nyiregyhazi playing Liszt’s Liebestraum and Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12 in the background. And it totally sounds like him: the same kind of ad lib doublings, mad rubato, staggered voicing, and glacial tempi you can hear in the 1970s recordings. What you don’t hear is him deploying the whoop-ass, as on this is excerpt from Nyiregihazi’s album of opera paraphrases. Here he’s playing his version of the first-act brindisi from Verdi’s Otello. Sloppy, yet crunchy.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to The Secret Lost Forgotten Rituals of the Ruins of Nyiregyhazi

  1. Kip W says:

    I’ve got Nyiregyhazi on my iPod, so my ears flicked at the mention of opera transcriptions. I found the web page where they are hosted — what a mess! Lots of tantalizing-sounding records, but just try and find the contents. Some give listings, others assume that if it’s a record fulla music, you’ll want to buy it, just because.
    A Canadian fellow named Terry Smythe has scanned thousands of piano rolls to midi format, including some by Nyiregyhazi. There’s lots of swell stuff there, worth checking out.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Kip, the album from which I excepted Nyiregyhazi’s version of “Beve con me” is called “Nyiregyhazi at the Opera,” on Vai records. Here is the Amazon page for it:

  3. Kip W says:

    Thanks, Phil! For some reason, the Amazon musical clips are pulling a mime act on me. The clip you posted sounded pretty good. *Groan*, so many things I want to buy.
    (Which reminds me obliquely that I found an online place with sheet music downloads for what seem to be reasonable prices, including some Cziffra and especially Horowitz’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” transcription. I need to send off for Chiu’s “Kije” transcriptions, too. He has them typeset now.)

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