The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy.
By Kevin Bazzana.
Illustrated. 383 pp. Carroll & Graf Publishers. $28.
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: October 28, 2007
Not long after World War II, a small-time impresario in Los Angeles named Irwin Parnes heard what he thought was a great pianist at a cocktail party of Hungarians. He gave the performer his address. The pianist, he learned, was in his 40s and living in a flophouse. He had once been famous, a child prodigy, but now he was down and out. Parnes had a brainstorm. The pianist (this was Hollywood, remember) should wear a hangman’s hood and give a recital as Mr. X. Rumors would be spread about the mystery man: he was a world famous musician, a prisoner from San Quentin, an escaped mental patient.
Photograph From “Irwin Parnes Takes the Bull by the Borns”
Nyiregyhazi in a black hood at his “Mr. X” concert, May 1946. Irwin Parnes is at right.
He was, in fact, Ervin Nyiregyhazi. Once called “a new Liszt” and feted by royalty in Europe, now he was a temperamental, stage-frightened, oft-divorced alcoholic, given to aristocratic airs. Several listeners in the audience at Wilshire Ebell Theater recognized the masked man when, nervous and embarrassed, he edged onto the stage. He made a thunderous racket at the keyboard. Those who had heard him years earlier recognized the sound. One critic called the event “ludicrous.” Nyiregyhazi pocketed $75 and soon dropped back into obscurity.
In the 1970s, when he got a chance at another comeback, this time as a neglected Romantic, a throwback during an era of supposed automaton pianists, the methods of his rescuers and recording angels were perhaps less cynical, but the results were no less short-lived. His playing was a mess. His story became a parable for the fickleness of art and life. Kevin Bazzana, the author of an excellent, perceptive biography of another eccentric pianist, Glenn Gould, in this latest book fleshes out the details of Nyiregyhazi’s rise and fall, and rise and fall again. He calls him “one of the greatest and most individual pianists of the 20th century” and “one of the most singular characters, with one of the most bizarre stories, in the history of music.”
Well, not quite. He was born in 1903 in Budapest to a philandering, passive father who died fairly young, and to an appalling stage mother eager to exploit his talent. Narcissistic, smothering, she was “endlessly critical” of him. He was allowed neither to dress himself nor to cut his own food; and into his teens, milking what remained of his marketability as a prodigy, she forced him to wear short pants and long hair. He recalled years later that she even used to “massage” his penis. Bazzana writes: “Determined never to be ruled, as his mother had ruled him, he sabotaged his personal life and career again and again.”
Nyiregyhazi had composed by 3 and performed at Buckingham Palace and for other royals when he was 8, by which time he commanded a vast and complex repertory and could sight-read full symphonic scores with ease. A diffident, shuffling stick figure on stage, at the keyboard he had a penchant for lugubrious tempos, affecting profundity and a crashing, bombastic virtuosity. He seemed to like to beat the heck out of the piano. One critic called him a “mad dog.” His hero was Liszt, whose lofty independence “in the face of criticism,” Bazzana writes, justified for Nyiregyhazi his own fatalism and paranoia. (I don’t quite grasp this, considering that Liszt, during his lifetime, was lionized.)
By his early teens, Nyiregyhazi was a celebrity. At Ellis Island, photographers waited on the dock to catch him when he disembarked. When he sued his American manager, whose finagling effectively stalled his career, the case made headlines. Even a haircut was enough to get Nyiregyhazi into the papers. He is a reminder, among other things, of the time when classical musicians still occupied a place, along with other celebrities, in mainstream culture.
He had moved to America in 1920, at 17, and half a century later would identify that moment, early though it was, as “the beginning of the end.” It was. By the mid-1920s he was nearly forgotten in Europe, where a slew of other pianists took his place in the public eye. In the United States he plummeted swiftly from wowing sold-out crowds at Carnegie Hall to sleeping on the Times Square subway shuttle — that is, when he could afford the fare.
What happened? Musical careers, like all careers in the arts, depend on a mix of perseverance, patience, good luck and talent. Talent isn’t enough. Nyiregyhazi had ruinous managers. Stunted, petulant and naïve, he was unfit to manage himself, but unfortunately for him, he tried.
And a child prodigy becomes just another musician — held, if anything, to a higher standard by skeptics of hype. Prideful and lost, he became a passing phenomenon, like so many stars, reduced to cadging charitable fees at parties thrown by mobsters and by sympathetic fellow Hungarians. By the time he quit New York for Los Angeles in 1928, hoping, like millions of others, to improve his luck in the West, he had $6 and a reputation for lechery that nearly trumped his musical one.
Did I mention that Nyiregyhazi was, or so it seems, a sexaholic? Bazzana leans heavily on his sex life to spice up the book and tells us more than we might ever want to know about a revolving door of marriages and affairs. “He was shy, crushingly insecure about women, poor and with limited prospects, not extravagantly endowed physically (he described his penis as ‘refined’), yet women were always drawn to him,” Bazzana reports.
Nyiregyhazi fooled around with nearly anyone who would fool around with him: men and women, his own wives and others’, and Theodore Dreiser’s mistress, which, among other things, cost him the invaluable patronage of a well-connected friend. For whatever reason, his refined penis fortunately produced no children. He was passive, easily manipulated, extremely needy, clearly oblivious to the damage he caused others — and persistent. As a septuagenarian, having come into a little money thanks to the fad of his passing revival, he chose to stay in a hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district because, he explained, it was on the same side of the street as the whores. Writers in the ’70s, during his rediscovery, called him the Franz Liszt of the Tenderloin. Bazzana says nothing about a connection, if there was any, to the Haight-Ashbury scene then at its drug-and-sex peak. No doubt Nyiregyhazi missed it, but he would seem a natural to have turned up on Ken Kesey’s bus.
Somewhere along the way, he became an alcoholic and developed crippling stage fright, and to make ends meet he took bit parts playing the piano in B movies like “The Soul of a Monster” and “The Beast With Five Fingers.” In “A Song to Remember,” about Chopin, he was the hand double. Another pianist, José Iturbi, was hired to record the soundtrack; the movie was so popular that Iturbi’s later Chopin recording sold a million copies — typical of Nyiregyhazi’s bad luck.
Bela Lugosi, another tortured, moody, drunken Hungarian, as well as a heroin sinkhole, turns up in the book. There’s a touching moment when Lugosi arranges a concert at a church in Los Angeles and sells tickets himself at the door: 30 cents for admission, 90 cents if you wanted goulash. The event cleared Nyiregyhazi all of $60.
His rediscovery during the ’70s happened when some piano buffs in San Francisco tracked him down through the phone book. They organized a recital. Word spread. A recording was made. Early reviews were ecstatic, as they often are when the story behind the music is colorful. There followed television documentaries and profiles in The New York Times and elsewhere. Nyiregyhazi was hailed as a throwback to Rachmaninoff and the other great Romantics, an overlooked star in a dying constellation, an antidote to the cookie-cutter playing of a new generation. Like the cliché of the child prodigy, the drama of his rediscovery conformed to a pattern, which required scorn from critics turned off by the ballyhoo and who rightly noticed Nyiregyhazi’s ham-fistedness, exaggerations and pretentions. “They play the right notes the wrong way,” he responded. “I play the wrong notes the right way.”
Bazzana, as might be expected, defends his man. He attributes liberties Nyiregyhazi took with the music to a true Romantic sensibility. “Nyiregyhazi in his 70s was not a great pianist but the ruin of a great pianist — a ruin in the prosaic sense, something that time and fortune have left damaged and incomplete, but a ruin in the elevated sense, too.”
That’s a nice turn of phrase, but one might also say that he represented the desire for — not the reality of — a free, expressive, creative style of playing, a collective wish to stem the tide of time and return to an era when classical music mattered more. He was less interesting as a musician than as a symbol of musical ideals. Newly remastered recordings of great pianists of the past have increasingly demonstrated what Romantic playing sounded like a century ago, and it is not what the fragile and aged Nyiregyhazi mustered. Superseded again, he dropped back down the memory chute.
“Lost Genius,” attempting to revive him, in the end feels padded. It drags, unlike Bazzana’s Glenn Gould book. Nyiregyhazi was not Gould, musically or psychologically or historically, and much of his life, it turns out, was spent doing not much at all, just scraping by.
The last years were not pretty. Suffice it to say, Nyiregyhazi — who found solace composing morose and old-fashioned music about his daily travails and observations with titles like “The Installation of the Telephone,” “The Mailman Makes His Weary Rounds,” “The Refusal of the Dutch Consulate to Grant Me a Visa” and “Phantasmagoria of Pat Nixon” — at least spared the world a composition about his colon.
Was he a failure? He was praised to the skies by Puccini and Schoenberg. There are worse legacies. “I always preferred music as a way of life, not as a profession,” Nyiregyhazi once said. That may be his greatest lesson to posterity, the best response he had to the limits of his talent and what the fates dealt him, and an endearing credo, which mitigates somewhat his pathos. “He was the classic Wildean hero,” Bazzana writes, “lying in the gutter but looking at the stars.”