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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Living by rules -- it's madness

Ervin Nyiregyhazi and Moondog, oddly linked geniuses, took similar dark paths.

January 27, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

DURING the 1970s, I often spent time in the music room of the L.A. Central Library. One other regular was an elegant, if seedy, older gentleman, always dressed in the same threadbare suit and tie and loath to remove his jacket, even in the summer. He was, I later learned, a famed Hungarian pianist who had fallen on hard times and lived in flophouses downtown.

I'm pretty sure I also saw Bobby Fischer once or twice on the library lawn, where derelicts then gathered, studying a portable chess board. He too, word had it, lived for a period in flophouses downtown.

Did Ervin Nyiregyhazi ever notice Fischer? It's possible. The pianist, who, in his youth in Budapest was called the second Liszt, would have recognized the grandmaster; Nyiregyhazi (pronounced NEAR-edge-hah-zee) was passionate about chess and a fan of Fischer.

The two, it dawned on me as I read obituaries of Fischer this month, had much in common. Fischer is widely held to have been the greatest genius the world of chess has ever known. Arnold Schoenberg said of Nyiregyhazi, who's the subject of a new biography, that he was "the person most replete with genius I have ever heard." Both geniuses became impossible social misfits who self-destructed after spectacular careers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 31, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Musician's life: A Critic's Notebook in Sunday's Arts & Music section said that the late pianist and composer Ervin Nyiregyhazi probably had an affair with the wife of conductor Artur Rodzinski. He did not. Also, a photo caption accompanying the article identified Nyiregyhazi as Romanian. He was Hungarian.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 03, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Musician's life: A Critic's Notebook last Sunday said that the late pianist and composer Ervin Nyiregyhazi probably had an affair with the wife of conductor Artur Rodzinski. He did not. Also, a photo caption accompanying the article identified Nyiregyhazi as Romanian. He was Hungarian.

As it happens, a biography has recently been published of yet another remarkable nut case: Moondog, a composer and performer who became a noted street person in New York in the 1950s and '60s. I had already been thinking about the surprising similarities between Nyiregyhazi and Moondog, who died, respectively, in 1987 and 1999, when the news came of Fischer's death in Iceland. The initial coincidence that the first biographies of these two inexplicable musical eccentrics would come out about the same time struck me as more than a little curious. But now the links to Fischer seem uncanny -- and possibly revelatory.

The two composers' careers took parallel paths, but they came from radically different worlds. Louis Hardin, who was born in 1916 and who called himself Moondog, was the son of a Midwestern preacher who regularly ran afoul of the church. At 16, the shy, despondent Louis, never recognized as remarkable, was blinded when he found a detonator cap that had been left behind by a construction crew and it exploded. Blindness triggered his mania for music and his fierce independence.

Born in 1903 in Budapest, Nyiregyhazi, on the other hand, was by age 6 recognized for having the most perfect pitch ever measured, along with a superhuman memory and a prodigious piano technique. As a long-haired boy in short pants, he was paraded about by ambitious parents like the young Mozart and performed for royalty. He was gifted at chess as well and could beat some of the best in Budapest blindfolded. In 1910, a Hungarian psychologist began a four-year study of the boy, who became the subject of the first book on the nature of child prodigies.

Hardin attended the Iowa School for the Blind and studied music at the Southern College of Music in Arkansas. Nyiregyhazi's first piano teacher had been a pupil of Liszt. The student impressed Richard Strauss, Puccini, Goldmark, Lehar and Reger. He played Buckingham Palace and entertained Bismarck and Einstein.

At 15, Nyiregyhazi was forced by his mother to still perform in short pants and keep his hair long, preposterously milking his value as a prodigy, until he finally rebelled. Hardin, in exactly the reverse fashion, would eventually grow unfashionably long hair and design his own preposterous clothes. Nyiregyhazi was pampered as a child and could barely button his shirt. Moondog was so fiercely independent that he insisted, though blind, on sewing his own clothes. Nyiregyhazi was a natty tidiness freak; Moondog was a hopeless slob whose trademark became the Viking helmet that he took off, most of his life, for no one.

Yet the personalities of Hardin and Nyiregyhazi are described in nearly identical terms in Robert Scotto's "Moondog: The Viking of Sixth Avenue" and Kevin Bazzana's "Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy." Bazzana -- whose book is quite a page turner (Scotto's prose is more labored) -- writes of Nyiregyhazi that he was introverted, shy, neurotic, deeply melancholic, paranoid, bitter, angry, resentful, defiant, quick to hurt. His sense of entitlement was extraordinary. One critic called him "a mad dog." The same or similar terms turn up in the Moondog biography.

Hardin and Nyiregyhazi both rebelled against censorious mothers (the former's cold and distant, the latter's a stage mother from hell), broke off from their families and fled to New York the first chance they got. And before long, both wound up on the street.

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