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Ex-Musical Child Prodigy Nyiregyhazi Is Dead at 84

April 17, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Ervin Nyiregyhazi, a child prodigy whose tempestuous private life and dedication to an out-of-favor Romantic school of music overshadowed the brilliant concert career that once lay before him, has died in obscurity in Los Angeles.

His death Monday amid the modest surroundings that had accompanied the last six decades of his life was reported in the Thursday editions of the New York Times but went unnoticed by the major wire services which once had promulgated his playing as that of a Mozart incarnate.

The Hungarian-born Nyiregyhazi (pronounced NEAR-ah-ja-zee) was 84 and had been out of the public eye for years when he reappeared unannounced several years ago in San Francisco at a small concert to help defray the medical expenses of his ninth wife. As he sat down to play the "Legends of St. Francis of Assisi" and other scores by Franz Liszt, music he hadn't laid eyes on for almost 50 years, a record executive turned on a tape recorder. The release of a subsequent recording excited the critics and stirred a few Romanticists but failed to generate many sales.

Out of it did come a Ford Foundation grant of nearly $40,000 which enabled Nyiregyhazi to subsist for his remaining years but not in the manner of his youth when he was praised throughout Europe and America for his photographic and tactile memory and his mastery of the Romanticists, particularly Liszt.

Born with an unexplained ability to play piano, his parents began giving him lessons at age 4, the same year he began to compose. At 5 he was performing his own compositions and word of his genius began to spread throughout Europe. He also became the subject of a study by Dr. Geza Revesz, director of Amsterdam's Psychological Laboratory, who ultimately published "The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy," a work still in print.

Young Ervin was sent to study with Frederick Lamond, a pupil of Liszt himself, and then to composer Ernst von Dohnanyi. He also was performing for Europe's crowned heads and quarreling with his mother, who took over her son's career after the death of his father.

Short Pants, Long Hair

She insisted he continue to perform in short pants and long hair, even at age 16, while he refused to practice and threatened to never play again. A year later--after triumphs in Berlin and Oslo--he moved away from his mother and to America where he made his debut at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 18, 1920.

He was called "a 17-year-old Paderewski" who "can thunder, whisper and woo the keys." Critic Olin Downes said the boy displayed "as beautiful a singing tone, as noble and poetic a concept . . . as any pianist this writer ever heard."

But five years later, his life lay in ruins, a combination of a revolt of the modernists against the traditional romantics and a vicious lawsuit over money Nyiregyhazi brought against his manager. That action made him a pariah in a concert world managed by men who feared and then blacklisted this young upstart.

He soon was penniless and slept often on the subway. He married for the first time, to an older woman who took charge of his career but then attacked him with a knife. He fled to Los Angeles at the suggestion of an old friend, writer Theodore Dreiser, and went to work at United Artists where he was used to sight-read scripts for the studio orchestra. He played infrequently, if at all, but in 1935, while at the piano at a friend's home, was heard by Arnold Schoenberg, father of the 12-tone composition.

Offended the Maestro

Schoenberg wrote to conductor Otto Klemperer, comparing Nyiregyhazi to Liszt himself and adding that "what he plays is expression. . . . " But when Nyiregyhazi played for the great German maestro, then conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he transposed some Chopin to suit himself and Klemperer was offended.

"I never heard from him again," Nyiregyhazi said in a 1978 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Nyiregyhazi returned to studio work in Hollywood, played with WPA orchestras for $90 a month during the remainder of the Depression and became a "film star." His hands were photographed playing piano in "Song of Love" and "Song to Remember" although Arthur Rubenstein and Jose Iturbi, respectively, were the off-screen pianists for those films.

He performed sporadically but married often (a total of 10 times). During the 1940s, the yellowing clippings of his divorces and remarriages far outnumber the reviews of his work.

He was old, alone and forgotten until that 1973 day at Old First Church in San Francisco and a final, brief moment in the limelight. As far as is known he never played in public again but did continue his composing. He once estimated he had 12,000 pages of manuscripts in bank vaults in downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco and was asked if he had taken any measures to preserve them.

"I have been rejected all my life as a pianist," was his response. "Why should I also ask to be rejected as a composer?"

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