Ervin Nyíregyházi – from Hungarian child prodigy to California drifter

We remember Ervin Nyíregyházi, the Hungarian-American pianist and composer. Considered a “lost genius” as he is one of the lesser known or forgotten Hungarian immigrants in North America.

Ervin Nyíregyházi was born in 1903 in Budapest. Ervin tried to sing before he was one year old, sang tunes before he was two and was able to play almost every song he heard by the time he reached age three. The child prodigy was observed by psychologist Géza Révész from the age six to twelve. Révész published a study about the young boy. For a short time Nyíregyházi’s teacher was Ernő Dohnányi (Ernst von Dohnanyi), and at fifteen when gave a Liszt concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. A Carnegie Hall debut took place in 1920; he was called “a 17-year-old Paderewski.”

14-year-old Nyíregyházi was already a star in Budapest.

His mother acted as his manager. Mária dressed him and cut his hair to resemble to Ferenc (Franz) Liszt.

The brilliant musical start was followed with a traumatic fallout with his mother. Nyíregyházi moved to the United States, he had little formal musical education and a difficult personality. Ervin frequently abused booking agents, sued his concert manager and started to drink. Numerous woman (and men) entered into his life, often prostitutes. Altogether he had ten marriages.

His Carnegie Hall debut

In 1928 Nyíregyházi moved to Los Angeles and in 1940 he became a naturalized US citizen. Occasional work from film studios provided a meager income and he also got smaller roles in B movies. Ervin loved to improvise and composed hundreds of piano and orchestral scores. In LA he befriended Hungarian-American film-star Béla Lugosi and was a regular at Lugosi’s legendary Hollywood parties. Nyíregyházi with many other Hungarian-American artists supported Lugosi’s anti-Horthy efforts.

Later Nyíregyházi totally disappeared. He lived as a penniless drifter in slums like San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. In 1972 a group of piano lovers rediscovered him. Nyíregyházi started to give public concerts and made some recordings, but the pianist remained “uncompromising” when it came to his artistic ideals; he refused offers to play or change his lifestyle.

Cover of one of his US recording

By 1980 the spark was gone and his art was forgotten except in Japan where he had some loyal followers. Nyíregyházi died in Los Angeles of cancer, in 1987.

While his life reads like a bad soap opera Nyíregyházi was an influential musician. Arnold Schoenberg wrote in a letter to Otto Klemperer that Nyíregyházi was “something utterly extraordinary,” a pianist of “incredible originality and conviction” with an “astonishing” and “unparalleled” technique and “power of expression I have never heard before.” “The sound he gets out of the piano is unprecedented,” Schoenberg wrote. “I have never heard such a pianist before.”

Nyíregyházi blamed his misfortunes on his larger than life mother. He broke with her in 1920 when he was 17 on tour in Oslo, Norway. Ervin wanted to be chess player but his mother banned chess; she made him wear shorts and have long hair so he looked like a girl. He also hinted that his mother, Mária Borsodi molested him sexually. In 1944 Mária perished in the Hungarian Holocaust and Ervin in a drunken stuper praised Hitler as a “good man” for having killed his mother.

Kevin Bazzana, a Canadian writer, wrote a well-researched biography and Dr. Dóra Szabó (Rózsáné) a professor at the Debrecen Ferenc Kölcsey Hungarian Reformed Teacher’s College (Kölcsey Ferenc Református Tanítóképző Főiskola) has researched his life and published about him in Hungarian.

Watch here Ervin Nyíregyházi’s documentary made by Canadian Television (CTV) in 1978. (Click here.)

György Lázár

7 Comments

  1. No doubt he was a musical talent.
    Did his overbearing mother’s personality influence him to a lost path? Who could tell.

    But just think, how many talents are lost in this world by lack of opportunities, wars, poverty, and even by abortions.

  2. Dear Author,

    There should be no acute accent over “i ” in his name. The correct spelling is Nyiregyházi. It is different from Nyíregyháza.

    We recently release the CD album entitled “Nyiregyházi Live
    Vol 1: The Century Club of California, 1972” featuring his first comeback recital in 1972 (note: Kevin Bazzana). Please find your local Amazon in the UK or EU.

    Tomo Sawado
    Sonetto Classics

  3. one other person would be Imre Hack. He taught at julliard. One of his claims to fame would be a prodigy – David Bryan – the keyboardist for Bon Jovi…

  4. György Lázár says:

    Dear Tomo Sawado,

    Thanks for your note!

    You are right about the accent. My mistake. There is a town in Hungary, Szabolcs-Szatmár county called Nyíregyháza.. and those who are from that area use the surname Nyíregyházi… Apparently Ervin and his father, Ignácz spelled it Nyiregyházi.

  5. Curious George says:

    Sad life.. may he Rest In Peace.

  6. Had never heard of him. A sad story, with familiar elements. Something diabolic, and pathetic. Terrible piano-playing, but with a hint of greatness that might have been, and a persistent expressive power (in a hyper-pianistic/operatic idiom that I don’t particularly like): is it just pathology or is he expressing the inherent pathology of music, art: when he talks about the “source” of his capacity? One thinks of Ezra Pound, Bobby Fischer, van Gogh…

  7. Bendeguz79 your talent is being lost as well. Maybe you could try another carrier than being a Fidesz troll.

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