Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick

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9780771011214: Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick
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The award-winning author of Wondrous Strange, the critically acclaimed biography of Glenn Gould, explores the bizarre, untold life of another brilliant and eccentric musician.

The composer Arnold Schoenberg called him an “utterly extraordinary” pianist of “incredible originality and conviction,” yet today he is all but forgotten. Born in Budapest in 1903, Ervin Nyiregyházi (nyeer-edge-hah-zee) was a remarkable prodigy: at eight he performed at Buckingham Palace, and when he was thirteen a psychologist published a book about him. In his teens, his idiosyncratic, intensely Romantic playing electrified audiences and astounded critics in Europe and America. But his adult career quickly foundered, and he was reduced to penury.

In 1928, he settled in Los Angeles, and eventually he withdrew from public life, preferring to spend his time quietly composing. Psychologically, he remained a child, and found the ordinary demands of daily life onerous — he struggled even to dress himself. He drank heavily, was insatiable sexually (he married ten times), and described himself as “a fortissimo bastard,” yet such was his talent and charisma that he numbered among his friends and champions celebrities such as Jack Dempsey, Theodore Dreiser, Bela Lugosi, and Gloria Swanson. Rediscovered in the 1970s, he enjoyed a brief, sensational, and controversial renaissance before slipping back into obscurity. He died in 1987.

Lost Genius, the product of ten years’ research, is the first biography of Nyiregyházi, whose story is among the most fascinating — and bizarre — in twentieth-century music.
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About the Author:

Kevin Bazzana holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work (1997) and Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (2003), which won the Toronto Book Award and an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award and has been published in six languages. He lives in Brentwood Bay, B.C.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The historian John Lukacs has written of the “national character fault” of the Hungarians, “excoriated often by great Magyar thinkers and writers: the brilliance of short-run effort at the expense of prudence and foresight. Their word for it is ‘straw-fire nature,’ since straw burns brilliantly but rapidly, leaving only a heap of black ashes.” In Nyiregyházi’s case, the straw burned brilliantly but rapidly twice, at the beginning and end of his life. As a prodigy, he enjoyed a sometimes sensational international career and was admitted into the highest artistic and social circles, first in his native Budapest, later in other European capitals, finally in America. (This, in fact, is the second book to have been written about him. The first, by the psychologist Géza Révész, was published in 1916, when Nyiregyházi was thirteen.) But not long after he entered adulthood, his career foundered; by the mid-1920s, he was broke, living where he could, and subsisting on musical odd jobs. For almost half a century, he only rarely re-emerged into the spotlight and invariably slipped back into obscurity. (He composed all the while, however, producing hundreds of works in a defiantly old-fashioned idiom.) As the decades drifted by, his life became increasingly messy and restless, because of his childlike psychology, because of the vicissitudes of a life of poverty, because a sheltered upbringing had left him ill-equipped to cope with either a domestic or a professional life, because he developed ruinous appetites for alcohol and sex — though he often wore his dissolution as a badge of honour, evidence of his refusal to compromise art to commerce. In 1972, at the age of sixty-nine, he was rediscovered by chance in California, and he was later, for several years, the subject of noisy international celebrity (and controversy). But by the time he died, in 1987, he had been forgotten — again. He still is.

In some ways, the straw fires that bound his life were as damaging to his reputation as the half-century of obscurity in between. His childhood career is most often cited as a cautionary tale: he has become the classic case of the failed prodigy, crushed by the pressure of great expectations and unable, in adulthood, to fulfill his promise as an artist. And his renaissance in his seventies, while it fostered some genuine appreciation of his gifts and yielded a body of work that gives posterity a taste of his art, bore the unmistakable stamp of a fad. Remembered, if at all, as a failed prodigy or aged novelty, he has left many people wondering (like Klemperer) whether he could really have been “sincere.”

As a man, moreover, he could be both attractive and repellent, and was always difficult. He once called himself “a fortissimo bastard,” and he did indeed, for good and ill, live his life fortissimo. Hypersensitive, he experienced every emotion in Technicolor. “I am master of my passions to some extent,” he wrote to a former lover in 1929, “and yet I am torn by desires, aspirations, conflicts, memories, all playing the melody of life on the strings of my heart.” This was a man for whom sentimentality and bombast were never dirty words, in life or art, and the turmoil in his life was a by-product of a tumultuous personality. He resisted all categories, rejected conventional notions of morality and sexuality, good taste and responsibility, and was a morass of contradictions. “Sometimes he’s a celestial saint, and sometimes he’s a wonderful old grandfather, and sometimes he’s a rotten bastard,” one acquaintance said; another called him “a dictionary of adjectives.” He had a great capacity for adoration and devotion, yet he invariably exhausted and injured those closest to him. He was an idealistic philosopher who championed the loftiest spiritual goals, yet he demanded the satisfaction of his basest urges. He lived most of his life in poverty and anonymity, yet he always thought of himself as an aristocrat by virtue of his genius, his talent, his soul. He was convinced of his greatness as a pianist and composer, yet he was so insecure that he could be felled by a mere breath of criticism or some slight assault on his dignity. For every person who found him pitiable and cruel, another found him generous and noble. On the back of a chequebook that is among his papers, he scrawled, “I am a rotten S[on] of a b[itch] pianist, but God does speak throu[gh] me.”

It is hardly surprising that posterity has not known what to do with this man and his art, and so has done (mostly) nothing. Admittedly, Nyiregyházi left only frustrating glimpses of his art in its prime, and a case for him can be made only by teasing often shy evidence out from a tangle of obscure sources. What emerges is one of the greatest and most individual pianists of the twentieth century, and something less lofty but no less interesting, too: one of the most singular characters, with one of the most bizarre stories, in the history of music.
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