A one-time prodigy from Hungary, who was composing music at age 5, wowing audiences with his percussive piano playing in his teens and being called the second coming of Mozart and Liszt, Ervin Nyiregyhazi, ended his days as a denizen of L.A’s Skid Row. It was here that PKM’s Anthony Mostrom spotted him in the late 1970s not long after he’d been “rediscovered” and his career revived. His lifestyle as a younger man would have put most punk rockers to shame—married ten times, a companion to Gloria Swanson, friends with Bela Lugosi and Harold Lloyd, an itinerant resident of flophouses. The rollercoaster ride of his life is captured here by Anthony Mostrom.
He was a tall, forlorn-looking figure dressed in a rumpled gray raincoat that was shiny with dirt, like a mechanic’s apron. The woman sitting with him, at the Original Pantry restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, ate silently. The man appeared to be in his late 70s, his appearance hinting at homelessness, or something close to it.
The year was 1978, and as my brother and I stole glances at him while we ate our steaks, it was hard to believe that this man, who looked like a down-and-out, ruined aristocrat, had once been hailed as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived, a musician routinely compared to his fellow Hungarian, the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. The man’s name was Ervin Nyiregyhazi.
Earlier that year, NBC News broke the story of the miraculous rediscovery of a “lost genius,” a former child prodigy who in the early 1920s had come to America from Hungary to give a series of “thunderous” piano concerts, making a huge impact on the classical musical world, before abruptly vanishing from sight.
I had just seen that news broadcast so I knew who this distinguished looking gentleman was, with his large head and slicked back silver-gray hair. (The truth is, much of the Pantry’s clientele looked like that in those days, as the last of the suit-and-hat wearing generations was slowly dying off.)
Even in his disheveled state this tall, imposing man had the look of someone important, someone with a story behind him, someone struggling to maintain his dignity despite…what?
Who was Ervin Nyiregyhazi? Before answering that, it’s good to know how to pronounce that exotic last name: Near-ah-cha-zee. And it’s strange to consider too that in the early twentieth century, this cognomen was on the lips of a good number of cultured Americans, even if they spelled it a hundred different ways
But that was before things fell apart in the long life of Nyiregyhazi the onetime child prodigy, who according to some critics during his glory days played the piano “like a percussion instrument,” who chopped, rearranged and edited the classics to suit his own tastes…someone whose pounding, earthquaking piano style was considered “a dangerous tonic” by conservative critics.
As one reviewer complained in 1924, “Ervin Nyiregyhazi plays so hard that the rafters in the auditorium shake.”
His personality was just as extreme and eccentric, and his life history reflected all of this in the course of its odd, depressing, riches-to-rags trajectory.
There are of course many sad stories of brilliant but troubled musicians getting lost and losing their bearings and even their sanity, falling through the proverbial cracks of life. Jazz fans will remember the cautionary story of Henry Grimes, the classically trained bassist who made his name in New York City in the early 1960s, playing with the great avant-garde free-jazz saxophone player Albert Ayler, on such legendary recordings as Bells and Spirits Rejoice.
Sonny Rollins and Henry Grimes, via Creative Commons
Ayler by Sandra Stollman
Grimes would end up spending decades in a series of skid row flophouses in downtown L.A. And like the Hungarian, he would eventually be rediscovered and brought back to life and to concertizing, late in life.
But in the history of classical music, which is of course abundant with flamboyant and eccentric personalities, the story of Erwin Nyiregyhazi stands out for its strange, at times sordid and alcohol-soaked character.
After a brilliant start in his early childhood, when the young prodigy seemed to have the European music world at his feet, a crippling combination of bad luck, bad judgment and maybe a lack of nerve condemned him to decades of poverty and isolation, living on the edge of survival and seemingly oblivious to “the road not taken.”
He was a case study in extremes: at the age of 13 he was the subject of a book, The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy by Geza Revesz. This book records that little Erwin was already composing music at age five and not long after that could sight read the scores of entire symphonies. (“It was just like reading a book,” he recalled later.)
From memory, the boy could play piano pieces that he had once read but never actually heard.
Already a sensation in his native city of Budapest, Erwin at the age of 11 was invited to give the Royal Command Performance for the King and Queen of England, where he played piano works by Beethoven, Mozart, and himself.
According to musicologist Gregor Benko (the man responsible for reviving the aging pianist’s career and recording him in the 1970s), Nyiregyhazi was without question “the most extraordinary prodigy in history after Mozart…they were about equal.” Some European critics even wondered out loud if the boy might be Franz Liszt reincarnated.
Ervin loved his opera singer father, but hated his mother whom he considered bossy, overbearing and simply using him to get ahead in society. “No one liked having her around,” he once said, and later in life scandalously claimed he was glad the Nazis had killed her. (The Nyiregyhazis were Jewish.)
For the rest of his days, he equated performing for an audience with being under his mother’s thumb. This might explain the pronounced flakiness with which he approached pursuing a career at all later in life. He much preferred, in fact, staying in all day composing music, while contentedly sipping bourbon. (One of his compositions was lovingly entitled It’s Nice to Be Soused.)
Ervin may have hated his overbearing mother and the prissy way he was brought up, as a kind of delicate flower whose every whim had to be catered to, but this also left him helpless as a grownup in terms of certain skills…like tying one’s shoes, which he never learned to do.
Despite the resulting personality of a man who never grew up, he was by all accounts “a magnet for women,” though more than a few of them would realize they were seriously put off by his lifestyle (extreme poverty) and his caddish, two-timing womanizing.
But back to the proverbial “birth of tragedy” that is the Nyiregyhazi story:
Once the longhaired sensation began to tour the United States in 1920, his emotionally charged and dramatic piano style thrilled American audiences, though some critics complained that he was too “noisy.”
“(He is) a freakish prodigy, a kind of wild irresponsible talent, that at its best comes near to genius. If young Nyiregyhazi could be trained…and the mad impulses of his gifts curbed and bridled, he might emerge a potent personality. At present he is anything but a performer of musical legitimacy.”
“Now, originality is a great thing, but when the striving for it leads to arbitrary disregard of the obvious intentions of great composers, it is not to be commended.”
Nyiregyhazi’s long string of bad luck began when an ugly, publicized lawsuit between him and his manager soured his name in the New York music world. After this incident, no one would touch him, and for a few harrowing nights he had to sleep on the subway, as he was suddenly without cash or support of any kind, though that didn’t last long.
One of the great tragedies of the Ervin Nyiregyhazi saga is that since his career fell off the rails so quickly, the young man never had a chance to record any 78 rpm records. Thus there are no Nyiregyhazi 78s for us to savor from the 1920s, the ‘30s or the ‘40s: a tremendous loss, considering the breathless earwitness accounts of his performances.
And yet we still have the piano rolls… Give a listen to one of Nyiregyhazi’s piano rolls, recorded around 1920.
After sizing up his prospects in Manhattan, the young artist decided to hop on a real train and head out west. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1922 with a new manager (and a new haircut) for a series of concerts at the old Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium.
But reactions to the young man’s “clangorous” piano style from L.A.’s classical music establishment (such as it was in the 1920s) were mixed, as can be gleaned from his at times humorous notices in the Los Angeles Times, which summed up the new city’s reaction to him this way:
“Ervin Nyiregyhazi, the Hungarian pianist, may be termed a genius by mention of the following facts, which are probably unmatched by any other person alive today: at his present age of 19 he plays more concertos than he is years old…he plays more than sixty of the most difficult of Liszt’s compositions, and…he has appeared in public throughout most of Europe and America since the age of 5.
“Nyiregyhazi has a particular feeling for massive effects, tremendous climaxes which he would not infrequently make continuous if this were possible, and dramatic intensity generally…in some instances it resulted in a fortissimo that was slightly detrimental to the piano…and to the unlearned student his noisy playing is apt to be a dangerous tonic.
“Certainly it is unusual to discover Liszt treating the piano as a percussion instrument…whether Liszt intended that effect for this particular composition or not is another question…”
Nyiregyhazi loved Southern California. In 1928 he moved to Los Angeles, more or less permanently. In many ways it was his undoing.
Naturally, Los Angeles was glad to have him: for a young, upstart city that was a little ragged around the edges, it was a supreme treat and compliment to have the darling of Carnegie Hall and the “crowned heads of Europe” living and performing in, of all places, Hollywood.
But he may have sensed, in between scattered recitals with the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles or occasional gigs in Glendale or Eagle Rock, that he was now a fish out of water. All evidence indicates, however, that at this point he didn’t even care…gradually, slowly, he gave up on a concert career.
Luckily, that legendary Southern California lassitude that affects so many had not yet overtaken Nyiregyhazi completely. In 1928, through his contacts, he took a job with United Artists, orchestrating and arranging film music. He made a few cameo appearances in some minor films with musical storylines (in one of them he can barely be seen, playing the piano) during the early days of the talkies.
But his passivity and justifiable pride seem to have combined into a let-them-come-to-me attitude toward the classical music establishment…though in terms of a career, Los Angeles was not the musical establishment that mattered anyway.
Meanwhile, his bee-like sex life seems to have sustained his zest for living through good times and bad. “I’m addicted to Liszt, oral sex and alcohol…not necessarily in that order,” he once said, for the record.
In 1930, he put together a European tour, giving concerts again in his beloved Hungary and Germany, while duly screwing his way across the continent, recharging his erotic batteries.
Back home in Los Angeles, Nyiregyhazi, who by now should have been one of the biggest stars of classical music, instead settled in and became part of a different constellation of celebrities: that is, Hollywood types.
During the ‘20s and ‘30s, his circle of friends included his onetime girlfriend Gloria Swanson (you remember her from Sunset Boulevard), comedian Harold Lloyd, and his fellow Hungarian, Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi, who always welcomed fellow Hungarians into his Hollywood home, met Nyiregyhazi in 1929 and had him perform there frequently, at parties. The penniless musician (who was now pushing 30) recalled walking to Lugosi’s house in the Hollywood Hills all the way from downtown, because he was too broke to take a cab, a bus or a streetcar to get there.
It was here in 1935 that several eyewitnesses reported seeing, after Nyiregyhai played at Lugosi’s one night, the shocking sight of smeared, dried blood all across the keyboard. (According to one Lugosi biography, Bela had “sat with his eyes closed, his head swaying to the musical madness coming from the concert grand.”)
Gloria Swanson, meanwhile, never mentioned him in her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. (“Four husbands is enough,” she had decided.)
Nyiregyhzi’s own “film career” was potted, short lived and bizarre.
He briefly appears in a 1944 clunker called The Soul of a Monster, but it’s not worth seeing: he plays the piano for a group of people in a living room for three minutes…isn’t that thrilling? The movie is filled with long drawn-out close-ups of worried peoples’ faces and is downright Ed Wood-like in its slowness. The New York Times called it “a preposterously foolish film.”
In another stupid horror movie, The Beast with Five Fingers from 1946, Erwin’s left hand (and nothing else) makes its big-screen debut, as a dead hand playing actor Peter Lorre’s piano…terrifying!
(He himself had a strong taste for gangster movies, “the cheaper the better. I have very low taste in movies,” he said.)
On the subject of Los Angeles as his personal quicksand, biographer Kevin Bazzana in his excellent book, Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy, states that Nyiregyhazi “did not like the city, but there he at least had friends and was able to cope financially.”
The book includes page after page of anecdotes about the maestro’s quirks (Bazzana himself calls the pianist’s life “a surpassingly strange story”), including the bizarrely ironic fact that he was “clumsy with his hands” when it came to simple everyday tasks, like holding a fork.
That, and some serious analysis of his art:
“Heightened expression was Nyiregyhazi’s goal. He played every piece as if it was the most important thing in the world. He lingered and savored and italicized in search of the most profound depths of emotion.
“He was opposed to ‘good taste,’ to that critical cliché ‘admirable restraint,’ which he considered an oxymoron. ‘The more gushing, the better’ was his motto.
“As a performer he was a maximalist, believing…that moderation is fatal and that nothing succeeds like excess.
“He rarely had regular access to a piano, but as he liked to say, ‘a truckdriver does not live with a truck in his room.’”
Personally, I was disappointed not to find in this otherwise great book any lists of the skid row addresses where our “thrifty” pauper-musician lived, in L.A. or San Francisco. Imagine taking a tour of Nyiregyhazi’s flophouse rooms!
What seems to relieve much of the sadness of Nyiregyhazi’s “case” is what you might call its surrounding cloud of almost knockabout humor: not just his own resigned sense of humor about his fate, but the full-on slapstick quality of his behavior…the fact that he was married ten times for example, which barely scratches the surface of his hectic sex life, carrying on affairs with various women at any given moment. This sometimes resulted in, shall we say, problems.
When he had sex with his fifth wife Olga, he said, “I always imagined a prostitute in Amsterdam.”
But there was always a parade of gorgeous dames falling for this handsome…uh, pianist.
One of his most enduring love affairs was carried on with another man’s mistress. In fact, she was already a famous man’s mistress.
She was Helen Richardson, a collector of famous boyfriends and an unabashedly horny young woman whose kinky lustfulness was recorded in the diaries of her most famous beau, the equally “sexy” novelist and crusading champion of the orgasm, Theodore Dreiser.
In 1919, Helen came out to L.A. to be with Dreiser while he worked on his novel, the monumental true-crime inspired An American Tragedy. They lived there for three years, in the treelined suburb of Hancock Park. At some point they both met Nyiregyhazi. The pianist (naturally) fell in love with Helen, resulting in more problems.
Let’s peek inside those sex diaries of Dreiser’s. These are entries written in 1919 and 1920:
Drunkenness in men and clothes buying in women are similar passions. It is a kind of debauch.
The gleam in her eyes. Her beauty in one of her new hats staggers me.
Helen’s moods. Most ugly in character. Her playfulness: she likes to torture the cat.
Hours before the mirror.
Finally to bed and another delicious round. Helen’s body is as graceful and plump and yielding as one of Raphael’s nudes.
Her brutal lust:
“He’s got me down and he’s putting it to me.”
“He’s putting it to me now. He’s putting it to me now.”
“Theo and Helen are between the sheets and no one sees what they are doing. No one, no one. Theo is between Helen’s thighs…Helen’s soft white thighs. Helen is taking it, giving herself to him…her belly…her titties…her thighs…oh, oh…”
So on to orgasm. We are going over to Hollywood for dinner.
Were we today, as disinterested scholars, to make a not too drastic deduction in our minds, we could assume that Helen gasped almost the exact same words, saying the exact same breathy, sweet little nothings to Ervin Nyiregyhazi, while she was being duly pounded by him later on, in the mid-1920s. Of such things are scholar’s dreams made.
(Dreiser and Helen would ultimately stick by each other for the next 25 years…truly a pair of red-hot jazz babies.)
One of the great lingering mysteries in the Nyiregyhazi saga has always been: what about all of those hundreds (maybe thousands?) of never-performed musical compositions he had written all of those years, in all of those dingy flophouse rooms in L.A. and San Francisco? the music he only heard in his head, since he hadn’t owned a piano for over 40 years? Would they turn out to be disappointing junk, after finally someday being unearthed and performed?
In 2004, a small music publisher made the surprising announcement that Kevin Bazzana himself had edited a new book of sheet music titled, Ervin Nyiregyhazi: 36 Selected Works for Solo Piano.
One critic called the newly revealed pieces “a different kind of minimalism. Not the kind that takes three notes and repeats them for several hours, but…reduced, distilled and reduced again, until hardly anything remains, except for the most searing emotion. In these works, Nyiregyhazi created tiny masterpieces.”
It’s often a good thing nowadays when someone pops up online to share a personal memoir or anecdote of a brush with greatness, especially when it’s about a famous person who is or was actually interesting or important.
Here is one, posted by a doctor in Los Angeles:
I was in my first year of surgical residency at Kaiser Sunset Hospital, Los Angeles. Our daily routine was to do work rounds at 6 am. We would get a computer print-out of the daily list of patients on our service, who we would need to see before heading into the operating room for the day’s surgery.
One of the new names…was not easy to pronounce at first glance. On the basis of the spelling, I thought that it might be either Hungarian or possibly even Persian.
Anyway, when I got to his room, I introduced myself, and asked him how he pronounced his name. The response, in delightfully accented English, was “Nee Rah Cha Zee,” to which my reflex response was “Oh, you mean like the pianist?” and to which his immediate, very proud rejoinder was: “I am the pianist!”
So yes, Ervin Nyiregyhazi was a patient of mine, and my fellow surgeons were amazed that I actually knew who this eccentric person was.
Ervin never seemed to really mind his hospital confinement. He said that while he was in bed, he composed music in his mind. This was how he passed the time. I had Ervin sign the Columbia double album. This remains a prized possession.
I distinctly remember being annoyed by Doris (his wife), a spectacularly unattractive woman who wanted me to write a letter excusing her from work so that she could spend as much time as she wanted with her husband at the hospital…
He did seem pleased when I stated that I was fond of his often-percussive approach to the keys, with sustained chords, as opposed to the light, staccato touch of some other pianists.
There’s also this, from a Youtube comments section:
On September 24, 1978, I made my way to the door of his room at the fleabag hotel he resided in in San Francisco, his address having been supplied by one of the folks who were instrumental in his revival. I timidly knocked, and explained that as I had not been able to come to his recent record signing event at Tower Records, if he would mind signing the Desmar disc I had brought with me. He replied, without opening the door, with a lugubrious wail “Oh, people!”…and then dead silence.
I retreated to the downstairs pay phone, and called him (I had also been supplied with his phone number) and apologized for my intrusion, and asked if he would mind sending an autograph to my address in Southern California. He seemed to have trouble with the name of my street, or was trying to put me off, a man of his intelligence certainly would not have trouble spelling it.
Of course, the autograph never arrived.
Later in July 1982 I was enjoying a hamburger in the diner adjacent to the lobby of another hotel he was in, and saw him and his wife as they left to board a bus. That was the extent of my contact with Nyiregyhazi.
Some Youtube commentors have shared memories of the awestruck moment of seeing white-haired Nyiregyhazi, dressed formally in his black suit and tie (and cane), quietly studying a book at the Los Angeles Central Library.
It’s good to remember that those who expect great artists to be nice people are almost always disappointed. Even the old man’s late life champion Gregor Benko felt compelled to call Nyiregyhazi a “rotten bastard” on camera, since the old geezer had turned on him so many times and for so many trivial reasons.
In the classical world, it’s well known that the German composer Richard Wagner was an awful man, a loud Jew-hater who happened to be Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer…and one can’t say, ‘well that wasn’t Wagner’s fault,’ because it was: he actually wrote a book spelling out the reasons for his hatred, and called it Judaism in Music. Yes, it all started with Wagner: the great-artist-but-terrible-person debate that continues on to this day.
Nyiregyhazi was not in Wagner’s league of terribleness of course, not by a long shot, though he did demand that every one of his ten wives should “serve me butter the real way, with a butter knife! A woman who doesn’t give me a butter knife, we get a divorce the next day!”
And in loudly calling himself a genius and an “aristocrat,” Nyiregyhazi was merely saying out loud what many successful artists think of themselves privately, anyway.
Watch an increasingly drunk Nyiregyhazi (“I’m a good-time Charlie, baby…who likes to play the piano to get girls!”) as he tells jokes, boasts about his sexual vigor at 75, and bites the hands that fed him in 1978…
But that’s all gravy now, isn’t it? Who cares? Just listen to Nyiregyhazi’s moving rendition of Franz Liszt’s Evening Bells, recorded that same year for Columbia Records, and decide whether it should matter to us that the guy used to enjoy being “orally serviced” by prostitutes in his skid row apartment in L.A., next to the Greyhound bus station.
Here, as elsewhere, the art transcended the man…but the man transcended himself. As he once put it:
“Whether it is my genius, let us say, or the genius of Beethoven or Liszt or Brahms or Immanuel Kant, it is subject to a power so far above the individual human being that we can’t even grasp it…but we must realize it, that the ultimate cause of genius is far above the result of the genius.”
Nyiregyhazi died quietly in Los Angeles in 1987, after enjoying several years of his well-deserved, late-life renaissance: recording three major LPs for Columbia and the independent Desmar label, and touring Japan in 1980. He even revisited New York.
The musical gods generously decided to rescue the legacy of the great and almost-lost genius, just in the nick of time.
Nyiregyhazi is buried (not far from the Dreisers) at Forest Lawn Glendale in Los Angeles.
There are several excellent websites devoted to Ervin Nyiregyhazi. Here are two: