David Helfgott

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David Helfgott

Born (1947-05-19) 19 May 1947 (age 74)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  • Clara Papp
  • Gillian Murray

David Helfgott OAM (born 19 May 1947) is an Australian concert pianist whose life inspired the Academy Award-winning film Shine, in which he was portrayed by actors Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz.


Early life[edit]

Helfgott was born in Melbourne to Polish Jewish parents Rachel (née Granek) and Elias Peter Helfgott.[1] He won the state final of the ABC Instrumental and Vocal Competition.[2]

London studies and mental illness[edit]

The awards he won at the Royal College of Music included the Dannreuther Prize for Best Concerto Performance, for his performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, and the Marmaduke Barton Prize.[2]

During his time in London, he began showing more definite manifestations of schizoaffective disorder.[3] He returned to Perth in 1970. The following year he married Clare Papp who had four children.[4] He worked as a rehearsal pianist for the Western Australian Opera Company.[4]

In 1983, his brother Les Helfgott found him working at a Perth wine bar called Riccardo's.[4] The co-owner of the bar was a doctor, Chris Reynolds, who also introduced him to future wife Gillian.[5][6][7]


Helfgott was the subject of the 1996 film Shine, which dealt with the pianist's formative years and struggle with mental illness. Helfgott was portrayed by actors Geoffrey Rush (adult), Noah Taylor (teenager) and Alex Rafalowicz (child).[8] His brother Les has described the portrayal of their father in both Shine and in Gillian Helfgott's biography as "all outright lies". David Helfgott's first wife Clare Papp has also said that Peter Helfgott was "quite badly maligned" in the film.[9]

In a letter to the editor of Limelight, published in the September 2013 edition, Margaret and Les Helfgott refer to certain claims made in an article in the August 2013 edition[10] and state that "there was no estrangement from members of Helfgott's family following his return to Australia. On the contrary, he moved straight back into the family home, and was cared for by our family. Dad was not 'overbearing', and his main objection to David's going abroad was his concern for his son's welfare."[10]

Current musical career[edit]

Helfgott generally prefers to perform Romantic music, mostly Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Rimsky-Korsakov. However, his recordings and performances, especially that of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, have been criticized as "pallid, erratic and incoherent."[11] Of the two commercial recordings released by RCA, the American journal Fanfare Magazine was critical not only of Helfgott himself, but also of his producers, who were "marketing Helfgott's pain."[12] The British magazine Gramophone was similarly scathing about the exploitative nature of their issue, which, the magazine said, falsely marketed Helfgott as an "unsung genius".[13][14]

On stage, Helfgott is known for his unusual platform manner. In 1997, critic Anthony Tommasini noted that Helfgott "stares into the hall and renders a nonstop commentary of grunts, groans and mutterings".[11] Of a 1997 Helfgott recital in New Zealand, critic Denis Dutton wrote, "If, as Goethe claimed, architecture is frozen music, David Helfgott is the musician who finally proves the converse: that music can also be melted architecture — a structureless rubble of notes."[15]

Helfgott tours Australia annually and plays a small number of recitals in other countries.[2]

Helfgott's 2015 European tour was the subject of a documentary, Hello, I Am David![16]

Personal life[edit]

Helfgott and his second wife, Gillian, live in The Promised Land, a valley near Bellingen in New South Wales.[2]

Helfgott was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in the 2021 Australia Day Honours.[17]


  1. ^ "Helfgott, David - Dictionary definition of Helfgott, David | Encyclopedia.com: Free online dictionary". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 7 July 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d "Tours". David Helfgott. Retrieved 7 July 2017.
  3. ^ Courney, Kevin (18 August 2012). "Then and now David Helfgott, pianist". The Irish Times. Retrieved 11 April 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Who, 24 March 1997
  5. ^ Milliken, Robert (19 January 1997). "A whole conference of shrinks couldn't explain him. He's a mystery". The Independent. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  6. ^ "About Dr. Chris". A Medical Doctor's Guide to Wheatgrass Healing. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  7. ^ "David Helfgott Biography". davidhelfgott.com. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  8. ^ "Shine (1996)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 7 July 2017.
  9. ^ Jinman, Richard (10 May 1997). "Sound and Fury". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 37.
  10. ^ a b Illario Colli, Limelight, August 2013. Rise and shine with David Helfgott. Retrieved 2 April 2018
  11. ^ a b Tommasini, Anthony (6 March 1997). "For Audience at a Recital, the Shine Is Undiminished". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 July 2017.
  12. ^ Fanfare, Vol. 23, No. 3 (1999), review by Peter J. Rabinowitz
  13. ^ Gramophone, March 1997, review by Bruce Morrison
  14. ^ Gramophone, September 1997, review by Philip Kennicott
  15. ^ "Denis Dutton on David Helfgott". Denisdutton.com. Retrieved 7 July 2017.
  16. ^ Tan, Becky. "Hello, I Am David - Eine Reise mit David Helfgott". KinoCritics.com. Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  17. ^ Hurley, David (26 January 2021). "Australia Day 2021 Honours List" (PDF). Governor-General of Australia. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved 25 January 2021.


External links[edit]