Lost Genius

Jonathan Bellman

Some time ago, Phil blogged here in expectation of my friend Kevin Bazzana’s book Lost Geniusabout Ervin Nyiregyházi, a bona fide child prodigy who never quite figured out how to live on planet earth, even though he lived to 84.  I finally got my hands on the book, and to my weird sensibility it’s a page-turner.  It is true that there is much of a too-much-information nature (Nyiregyházi’s failings, sexual proclivities, etc.) but to those of us who know his recordings it is a fascinating story.  He has been called “Liszt incarnate” (Harold Schonberg) but the picture is more complex than that: he really could produce volcanic effects that no one else could, he really did take tempi that ranged from personal to incoherent, he really did take liberties that ranged from daring to insane, and he really did think in music, as one might expect of a bone fide prodigy.  Some of his writing (in English, I mean) seems like overheated raving, but it makes sense if conceived as a musical passage—repeated sounds driving to a climax, etc.  (To a former lover:  “The elements!  Elements!  Elements! Fate!  Fate!  Fate!”)  He wrote compositions on many aspects of real life, such as “Bernard Goetz vs. the Punks”  or “The Failure of the Dutch Consulate to Grant Me a Visa” (Kevin told me about that one).  His compositions—which were legion—seem to be almost involuntary in some ways: obsessive, reliant on low registers and late-Lisztian chromatics, but seeming weirdly non-progressive or -developmental.  It is as if he composed as other people take notes: rendering his experiences and emotional states in tones, as if that was a necessary mental process.


Some regarded him as a pianist of colossal importance, and some thought him a self-centered crank or even incompetent.  We talk about the demise of “personal” styles, but for the most part we can’t really abide them; we complain about note-perfect playing but in reality we demand it.  Let’s try again:


To listen to a Nyiregyházi performance is to hear a not only inaccuracy (he didn’t practice regularly, and by the time he resurfaced in the 1970s his technique was basically a ruin) and tempi that might be considered capricious, or even incoherent.  This recording offers several apt examples.  So: a joke, a lunatic?  Rather, a real window into nineteenth-century pianistic style: only What They Did to a certain extent, but more important is the because-I-want-it-this-way stance.  There is an individual personality of titanic power in his performances, however bizarre his personality may have been, his playing had the Ring of Truth, the sense of sheer conviction and individuality for which the best nineteenth-century pianists were celebrated.   We find idiomatic Hungarian-Gypsy playing, dark Hungarian grandeur and brooding, and a full orchestral palette of dynamics and timbres.


Worth studying for a wide variety of reasons, his playing commands full attention, a rare, rare reaction today.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to Lost Genius

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    I remember reading a letter of Clara Schumann in which she told of having heard Brahms give the first performance (I think at someone’s house) of the C minor Piano Trio, Op. 101. She was impressed by the piece but confided in the letter that Brahms’ piano technique, once much admired, was now “all bang, scrabble, and thump.” I think we shouldn’t go overboard with the idea that pre-recording standards were so very different from our own with respect to wrong notes, shmeary pedaling etc.

  2. Kevin Bazzana is a great writer. I didn’t read yet this book, but his book on Glenn Gould, titled, Wondrous Strange, is a master piece.
    Pace, rootlesscosmo, I think that scholars such as Robert Philips had convincingly shown that Pre-recording performances were very different. He also explains why.

  3. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Performing Music in the Age of Recording is a great book and very much worth reading. Coincidentally, I met Jonathan at a symposium where both he and Philip were presenting.
    Jonathan, I am afraid I have tagged you in the meme of seven. See my blog.

  4. David Cavlovic says:

    Of course, you can hear Ervin Nyiregyházi, and see his HUGE paws in a number of Hollywood flicks. I just saw them last week during a screening of The Enchanted Cottage on TMC.
    According to Béla Lugosi’s biographer, Nyiregyházi, Lugosi and Peter Lorre were close friends (the Hungarian connection, of course). Apparently, Lugosi claimed Nyiregyházi would play until his fingers bled. Kinda apropos, I guess.

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