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Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick (review)

From: University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 78, Number 1, Winter 2009
pp. 422-423 | 10.1353/utq.0.0543

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Kevin Bazzana is best known for Wondrous Strange, his 2003 biography of Glenn Gould. With Lost Genius he has once again chosen a pianist for biographical treatment. His subject is Ervin Nyíregházi, a man in some ways similar to Gould. Like the celebrated Canadian pianist, Nyíregházi was brilliant but utterly impractical and highly eccentric, if not mentally ill. Throughout his seven-decade career, he was increasingly tormented by stage fright, coming to believe (much as Gould did) that audiences were taking a ‘sadistic delight’ in his anxiety. But there are also notable differences between Gould and Nyíregházi: most strikingly, the former’s enduring fame and the latter’s relative obscurity.

Born in Hungary in 1903, Nyíregházi was marketed as a musical prodigy by his opportunistic parents. At the age of seventeen, he made his American debut in New York, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where he lived for most of his eighty-four years. Constitutionally unable to deal with the demands of a concert pianist’s life, he spent much of his life composing music that was stylistically out of date by modernist standards, and pursuing women. In the words of Bazzana, Nyíregházi ‘sabotaged his personal life and career again and again.’

His marriages – all ten of them – his affairs and his dealings with prostitutes are presented in prurient detail. (In this regard, Bazzana’s narrative is the polar opposite of his chaste portrayal of Gould.) As well, Bazzana chronicles Nyíregházi’s ongoing financial crises, his trips to Europe (to escape romances gone bad), and his growing dependency on alcohol.

Yet remarkably, Nyíregházi enjoyed fifteen minutes of fame in the 1970s when he managed to record a few lps, which were commercially released. These discs proved controversial, to say the least: New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg described Nyíregházi’s playing as ‘a divine madness,’ while others flatly denounced the liberties he took with tempo, dynamics, and the notes on the page. He subsequently played several recitals in Japan, but before long, Nyíregházi was once again forgotten. He died in 1987.

Bazzana is an excellent writer, and the painstaking research that supports this book is a tour-de-force of scholarship. However, I can’t help feeling that the author’s considerable efforts would have been more worthy of a better cause. Although Nyíregházi could evidently be quite charming when he wanted to be (in the eyes of many women and perhaps a few men), he does not come across as at all appealing when the facts of his life are laid bare. Also, unlike Bazzana’s biography of Gould – an account of artistic triumph over daunting inner obstacles – this Nyíregházi biography is a story of failure, despite Bazzana’s efforts to play up his subject’s talents and achievements. There is little that is endearing about this vain, pathetic, tumbledown man.

Neither, it seems to me, is this book particularly ‘important’ in a musicological sense (or any other sense). The strongest case Bazzana makes for the historical value of Lost Genius is his assertion that Nyíregházi ‘was not a mere aberration, but an authentic holdover from a lost musical tradition.’ Perhaps – but it could also be argued that Nyíregházi represented an artistic dead end, and that his personal and artistic excesses were nothing more than a corruption of the ideals of the Romantic era.

I suspect that Bazzana’s attempts to bolster the world’s memory of Ervin Nyíregházi will not amount to much. Perhaps that is for the best.

Colin Eatock  

Colin Eatock, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto

Copyright © 2009 University of Toronto Press Incorporated
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