November 5, 1921|
|Died||January 15, 1994
Senlis, Oise, France
György Cziffra (in Hungarian form Cziffra György, Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈt͡sifrɒ ˈɟørɟ], also known as Georges Cziffra; 5 November 1921 – 15 January 1994), was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer. He is considered to be one of the greatest pianists of all time. Among his teachers were István Thomán, who was a favourite pupil of Franz Liszt.
He became a French citizen in 1968. Cziffra is known for his recordings of works of Liszt, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, and also for his technically demanding arrangements of several orchestral works for the piano – among them, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee and Johann Strauss II's The Blue Danube.
Cziffra was born to a poor family in Budapest in 1921. In his memoirs Cziffra describes his father as "a cabaret artist". His parents had lived in Paris before World War I, when they were expelled as enemy aliens.
His earliest training in piano came from watching his sister practice. She had decided she was going to learn the piano after finding a job which allowed her to save the required amount of money for buying an upright piano. Georges, who was weak as a child, often watched his sister practice, and mimicked her. He learnt without sheet music, instead repeating and improvising tunes sung by his parents. Later he earned money as a child improvising on popular music at a local circus.
In 1930 Cziffra began to study at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with Ernő Dohnányi, and until 1941, when he was conscripted into the Hungarian Army, gave numerous concerts in Hungary, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
Hungary was allied with the Axis during the Second World War. Cziffra had just married his wife Soleilka, who was pregnant when he entered military training. His unit was sent to the Russian front. He was captured by Russian partisans and held as a prisoner of war. After the war he earned a living playing in Budapest bars and clubs.
After attempting to escape communist Hungary in 1950 he was again imprisoned and subject to hard labour in the period 1950–1953. In 1956 Cziffra escaped with his wife and son to Vienna, where his recital was warmly received. His successful Paris debut the following year preceded his London debut at the Royal Festival Hall playing Liszt's first piano concerto and Hungarian Fantasy which was also well received. His career continued with concerts throughout Europe and debuts at the Ravinia Festival (Grieg and Liszt concertos with Carl Schuricht) and Carnegie Hall, New York with Thomas Schippers.
Cziffra always performed with a large leather wristband, to support the ligaments of his wrist which were stretched while being tortured in prison, and also as a memento of his years in labour.
In Cannons and Flowers, his autobiography, which has been described as "a hallucinatory journey through privation, acclaim, hostility and personal tragedy", Cziffra recounts his life story up until 1977. In 1966, he founded the Festival de la Chaise-Dieu in the Auvergne, and three years later he inaugurated the piano competition named after him at Versailles. In 1968 he took French citizenship and adopted the first name 'Georges'. In 1977 he founded the Cziffra Foundation, sited in the Saint Frambourg chapel in Senlis, Oise, which he bought and restored, with the aim of helping young musicians at the outset of their careers.
Cziffra's son, György Cziffra Jr., was a professional conductor and participated in several concerts and recordings with his father. However, his promising career was cut short by his death in an apartment fire in 1981. Cziffra never again performed or recorded with an orchestra, and some critics have commented that the severe emotional blow affected his playing quality.
List of compositions
- Fantaisie roumaine, improvisation in gypsy style (1957)
- Improvisations on themes from Gioachino Rossini's William Tell (1956)
- Ouverture Solennelle
- Pastorale pour Gerbert
- Réminiscences de Johann Strauss (1956)
Arrangements and transcriptions
- Aram Khachaturian: Sabre Dance
- Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 19
- Franz von Vecsey: Valse triste
- Gioachino Rossini: La Danza
- Johann Strauss II: The Blue Danube, Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka
- Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (two versions), 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19, 21
- Manuel de Falla: Ritual Fire Dance
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee
- Cziffra, György, tr. John Hornsby (2006). Cannons and Flowers, on MusicWeb International web site, accessed 8 September 2016.
- Morrison, Bryce (n.d.). "Cziffra, György [Georges]" in Oxford Music Online, accessed 6 September 2016. (subscription required).
- Summers, Jonathan (n.d.). "Gyorgy Cziffra", from A-Z of Pianists, Naxos Records web-site, accessed 6 September 2016.
- New York Times, Obituaries, Published: January 18, 1994.