The award-winning author of Wondrous Strange, the critically acclaimed biography of Glenn Gould, explores the bizarre, untold life of another brilliant and eccentric musician.
The composer Arnold Schoenberg called him an “utterly extraordinary” pianist of “incredible originality and conviction,” yet today he is all but forgotten. Born in Bud …
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.
Winner of the 2005 Nicolas Slonimsky Award for Outstanding Musical Biography, awarded by ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers)
The first major biography of Glenn Gould to stress the critical influence of the Canadian context on his life and art.
Glenn Gould was not, as has previously been suggested, an isolated and self-taug …
When Gould entered the Toronto Conservatory, his schooling – and everything else in his life – already took a back seat to music. As early as January 1943, the Conservatory was in contact with his school to ask for special consideration in accommodating his musical studies. Bert eventually made arrangements with Malvern’s principal and the board of education for the boy to attend school only in the morning and to devote the afternoon to music, either taking lessons or practising at home, and to work with tutors in the evening to catch up on the schoolwork he missed. He maintained this split schedule to the end of high school, and later remembered the “enormous goodwill and generosity of the staff” at Malvern, where, he knew, some regarded him as a nuisance. Though he was often absent in high school, he never dropped out; he was enrolled and studying to the spring of 1951 – that is, to the end of Grade 13, then the final year of high school in Ontario. He did not, however, complete the requirements for formal graduation, because, he later told a friend, he refused to take P.E. In fact, Gould spent more time in high school than most. Though he skipped Grade 3, he did not finish Grade 13 until he was almost nineteen. He took six school years to complete Grades 9 through 13 – which is to say he required two years to finish one of those grades (probably Grade 11, in which year his professional career began).
At the conservatory, his progress was swifter and more exceptional. On June 15, 1945, at the age of twelve, he passed, with the highest marks of any candidate, his examination in piano for the ATCM diploma (Associate, Toronto Conservatory of Music). He passed his written theory exams a year later, and was awarded the Associate diploma, with highest honours, at a ceremony on October 28, 1946. Thus it is not literally correct, as is always reported, that Gould became an Associate at the age of twelve, but we can at least say that the conservatory considered him, at twelve, to have reached professional standing as a pianist – which is impressive enough. On November 29, 1945, in a conservatory recital, he played the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with Guerrero accompanying, and he played the movement again, on May 8, 1946, at one of the conservatory’s Annual Closing Concerts in Massey Hall, this time with the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the principal, Ettore Mazzoleni – his first performance with an orchestra. He “had to keep the conductor waiting while he fumbled with a bothersome button on his doublebreasted coat,” Fulford reported in the 9-D Bugle, but the local critics were mostly impressed. One pronounced him a genius and compared his singing tone to that of de Pachmann; another noted a narrow dynamic range and phrasing that was “a little choppy” – all of which sounds like the pianist we know.
Gould first appeared in a music competition as a five-year-old, on August 30, 1938, at the CNE (he won no prizes); otherwise, his experience in competitions was limited to appearances in the first three annual Kiwanis Music Festivals. Events of this kind, involving thousands of children, had been fixtures on the English-Canadian music scene from the beginning of the twentieth century, and many people perceived them as a healthy force for cultural betterment (they encouraged young people to play “the right kind of music in the right way,” Ernest MacMillan said). The model, once again, was imported. “The music festival is a peculiarly British institution,” Geoffrey Payzant wrote in 1960; “in our time only the British could make a virtue out of music-making in public under the conditions of an athletic contest. Love of competition and the fair-play tradition are components of the image we all have of the typical Briton.” As in the annual Dominion Drama Festival, most of the adjudicators were imported from England, and their condescension was sometimes palpable. (As Payzant wrote, “There is one detestable type of British adjudicator that has become a stock figure in this country” – namely, the colonialist who “arrives with the intention of being a light unto the Gentiles.”) The goal of such events was reinforcement not just of British ideals of music, but of British manners and values. Deportment was a priority. In the 1966 article “We Who Are About to Be Disqualified Salute You!” Gould parodied the “superannuated British academicians” he had encountered at the festivals, with their “aura of charity and good fellowship”: “I say, that’s jolly good, Number 67 – smashing spirit and all that. Have to dock you just a point for getting tangled at the double bars, though. Four times through the old exposition is a bit of a good thing, what?”
From the Hardcover edition.