Ervin Nyiregyházi (January 19, 1903, Budapest – April 13, 1987, Los Angeles) was a Hungarian-born American pianist and composer. After several years on the concert stage in the 1920s, he descended into relative obscurity before briefly reemerging in the 1970s. His highly distinctive playing style, which has been seen by some as a link to the kind of Romantic pianism associated with Franz Liszt, divided critical opinion.
Childhood and early career
From ages six to twelve, Nyiregyházi was observed by the psychologist Géza Révész and was the subject of an article and a book, published in 1911 and 1916, respectively. Nyíregyházi's father, Ignácz, was a singer in the Royal Opera Chorus in Budapest; he was also very encouraging and caring but died when Ervin was twelve. Before Ignácz's death, he reported several extraordinary things about his son: that Ervin had tried to sing before he was one year old; that he reproduced tunes correctly before he was two; he began to compose at the age of two; and that he played almost every song he heard correctly on a mouth-organ by the time he reached age three; by the age of seven Ervin could identify any note or chord that was played for him. He was known for his musicality just as much as his technique. On tests of general intelligence, Ervin scored a few years above average, meaning he was prodigy, not a savant. Ervin's mother, Mária, was a stage mother who tried (unsuccessfully) to dissuade him from studying opera and symphonic music and pushed her son to study the standard piano repertoire so he could concertize and make money for their family. (In later years, the pianist would claim that his mother sexually molested him.) Ervin eventually broke with his mother, and later expressed pleasure that she had perished in a Nazi concentration camp.
Nyíregyházi's musical studies took place with Ernő Dohnányi and Frederic Lamond. At the age of fifteen, Nyiregyházi played Liszt's Piano Concerto in A major, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Arthur Nikisch. His Carnegie Hall debut in 1920 was impressive but controversial. Richard Aldrich of the New York Times noted Nyíregyházi's "brilliant technical equipment, great strength of arm and fingers, remarkable dexterity, a fine feeling for piano tone" but was critical of his "often erratic and misleading" conceptions of "some of the most familiar compositions for the piano". H. T. Finck of the Evening Post praised Nyíregyházi's "originality", while criticizing his "arbitrary disregard of the obvious intentions of great composers." In a 1935 letter to Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg wrote the following about him:
"...a pianist who appears to be something really quite extraordinary. I had to overcome great resistance in order to go at all, for the description I'd heard from Dr. Hoffmann and from Maurice Zam had made me very skeptical. But I must say that I have never heard such a pianist before...First, he does not play at all in the style you and I strive for. And just as I did not judge him on that basis, I imagine that when you hear him, you too will be compelled to ignore all matters of principle, and probably will end up doing just as I did. For your principles would not be the proper standard to apply. What he plays is expression in the older sense of the word, nothing else; but such power of expression I have never heard before. You will disagree with his tempis as much as I did. You will also note that he often seems to give primacy to sharp contrasts at the expense of form, the latter appearing to get lost. I say appearing to; for then, in its own way, his music surprisingly regains its form, makes sense, establishes its own boundaries. The sound he brings out of the piano is unheard of, or at least I have never heard anything like it. He himself seems not to know how he produces these novel and quite incredible sounds - although he appears to be a man of intelligence and not just some flaccid dreamer. And such fullness of tone, achieved without ever becoming rough, I have never before encountered. For me, and probably for you too, it's really too much fullness, but as a whole it displays incredible novelty and persuasiveness. And above all he's only [sc. 33 years] old, so he's still got several stages of development before him, from which one may expect great things, given his point of departure... it is amazing what he plays and how he plays it. One never senses that it is difficult, that it is technique - no, it is simply a power of the will, capable of soaring over all imaginable difficulties in the realization of an idea. - You see, I'm waxing almost poetic.
Descent into obscurity and reemergence
In 1925, Nyiregyházi sued his concert manager, R. E. Johnston, alleging that he was being treated as an inferior artist by accompanying singers and instrumentalists. He lost the suit, and thereafter had difficulty finding concert work. In addition, Nyiregyházi - who feared comparison with other pianists - was reluctant to play the standard repertoire and favored performing his own transcriptions of orchestral and operatic works. By the time Schoenberg's letter was written, Nyíregyházi's career seemed to be effectively finished.
Nyiregyházi was married ten times. His first wife allegedly attacked him with a knife, leading to a messy publicized divorce. Although born into comfortable circumstances (his mother insisted that the servants tie his shoes and feed him by hand so as to relieve him of mundane concerns) he nonetheless spent the better part of his life in poverty, at times reduced to sleeping in subways.
In 1928, Nyiregyházi moved to Los Angeles and worked for a film studio, initially playing piano reductions of film scores, and later as a hand double. Nyíregyházi's hands are shown playing piano in A Song to Remember, Song of Love, and The Beast with Five Fingers among others. He became friends with Béla Lugosi, and Gloria Swanson, among others. But his inability to manage his affairs led not only to financial crises, but also to unusual career decisions. In the 1930s, he played piano as part of a Works Progress Administration project. But the most unusual appearance was likely a 1946 recital where he was billed as "Mr. X" and played while wearing a black silk hood. Several listeners were able to identify Nyiregyházi by his distinctive sonority. Although he continued to play occasionally, he did not own a piano for roughly forty years.
A concert at the Old First Church in San Francisco in 1973 (to raise funds for an operation for his ninth wife) led to a two-year stipend and two professional recordings for Desmar and Columbia records, under the auspices of Gregor Benko and the Ford Foundation, which briefly brought him back into public view. An all-Liszt double album won Stereo Review's 1978 Record of the Year award.
Critical reaction to the recordings was sharply divided, with some claiming to hear an authentic 19th Century pianist (Harold C. Schonberg wrote that "some critics wonder if Franz Liszt had been reincarnated"). Others denounced Nyiregyhazi's "incredibly slipshod" technique, "ridiculously amateurish" fortissimo playing  "glacial tempos and total dissociation from contemporary performance styles. But Romantic revivalists were enthralled." In 1978, he was offered return concerts at Carnegie Hall, but he declined. Recitals in Japan in 1980 and 1982 constituted his last public appearances.
Nyiregyházi was also a prolific composer, writing in a Romantic style reminiscent of Liszt. Nyiregyházi was often moved to compose by outside events, and his compositions included titles such as Goetz Versus the Punks, It’s Nice to be Soused, Shotgun Wedding, and Vanishing Hope. Only a few of his compositions have ever been published or performed.
Death and burial
A few of Nyiregyházi's recordings, including some live performances, have been issued on CD on the VAI and Music and Arts labels.
- Nyiregyhazi Plays Liszt (Desmar/International Piano Archives IPA 111, Telefunken 6.42626, 1977)
- Nyiregyhazi: All Liszt Program (Columbia M2-34598, 1978)
- Nyiregyhazi: Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Bortkiewicz, Blanchet (Columbia M-35125, 1979)
- Ervin Nyiregyhazi was the first child prodigy musician to be seriously studied, and the book by the psychologist Géza Révész referred to above resulted in him being among the best-documented prodigies in history.
- In 2007, a biography by Kevin Bazzana, entitled Lost Genius, was published by McClelland and Stewart of Canada.
- His name is sometimes spelled "Erwin" (the German spelling of his given name). The name is presumably derived from the Hungarian city of Nyíregyháza.
- Géza Révész, "Über die hervorragenden akustischen Eigenschaften und musikalischen Fähigkeiten des siebenjährigen Komponisten Erwin Nyiregyházy", in Bericht über den IV. Kongress für Experimentelle Psychologie, edited by Friedrich Schumann, 224–25 ([Germany]: Barth, 1911); Géza Révész, Erwin Nyiregyházy: Psychologische Analyse eines musikalisch hervorragenden Kindes (Leipzig: Verlag von Veit, 1916), English translation, as The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.; New York, Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., 1925), reprinted (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970; New York: Blom, 1971; London: Routledge, 1999 [ISBN 0415209706]), [Whitefish, MT]: Kessinger Publishing, 2007 [ISBN 1432588583]).
- Kevin Bazanna, Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart; New York: Carroll & Graf; Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2007): 20. ISBN 0-7710-1121-0 (McClelland & Stewart, cloth) 0771011008 (McClelland & Stewart, pbk) ISBN 0-7867-2088-3 (Carrol & Graf); ISBN 0-306-81748-9 (Da Capo Press, pbk).
- Bazanna (2007): 67.
- Bazanna, (2007): page 70
- Richard Schickel and Michael Walsh, Carnegie Hall: The First One Hundred Years (New York: Abrams, 1987): 86. ISBN 0-8109-0773-9.
- Richard Aldrich, "Music: Mr. Nyredghazi's [sic] Recital", New York Times (October 19, 1920).
- Bazanna (2007): page 85.
- Bazanna (2007): 9–11.
- Bazanna (2007): 205.
- Bazanna (2007): 205–206.
- Harold C. Schonberg, "After 50 Years (and 9 Wives), Erwin Nyiregyhazi Is Back at the Piano", New York Times (February 13, 1978).
- The Gramophone, Volume 85, Issue 1, p. 34
- Harold C. Schonberg, "The Case of The Vanishing Pianist", New York Times (March 5, 1978).
- Bazanna, (2007) page 278, quoting Dean Elder in Clavier magazine
- John Rockwell, "Erwin Nyiregyhazi Dies at 84; Pianist Regained Fame in 70's", New York Times (April 16, 1987).
- Bazanna (2007): 228, 231, 232, 329