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.From the Hardcover edition.
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“Bazzana [displays] considerable psychological understanding, not to mention the fine prose style already obvious from his Glenn Gould biography….Few works of Canadian non-fiction are as well written as this one.”
— George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun
“Splendidly researched….Nyiregyházi’s story is fascinating, bizarre, and well told….Bazzana has fashioned a highly readable yarn.”
— Anton Kuerti, Globe and Mail
“Bazzana, who wrote the best biography of Gould yet to appear, has again produced a superb book — fascinating, elegantly written, thoroughly researched, and meticulously documented.”
“When Nyiregyházi was on he was extraordinary, and off-stage his life provided more than enough colour to make Lost Genius
genuinely entertaining -- as well as a cautionary tale for prodigies of any genre.”
— Georgia Straight
Praise for Wondrous Strange
“A study worthy of its subject — expertly paced, admiring yet sensible, touched with wit and intensely readable.” — Michael Dirda, Washington Post
“It wasn’t until Kevin Bazzana began 20 years of research that Gould found. . . his true biographer.”
— William Littler, GramophoneFrom the Hardcover edition.
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