Lost his son, could never move on: an astonishing and tragic life

On 5 November, it will have been one hundred years since world-renowned Hungarian piano virtuoso György Cziffra was born, and twenty seven years since he passed away. The György Cziffra Memorial Year, launched in February under the artistic direction of János Balázs, Kossuth Prize-winning pianist, features more than 100 concerts in 15 countries and 40 cities, showcasing the world’s most prominent orchestras and artists. Besides the music programmes, exhibitions, conferences, competitions and courses are being organised to preserve the legacy of the world-famous pianist. Highlights will also include a gala concert by pianist János Balázs and the French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate György Cziffra’s birthday, including the premiere of a piece by Péter Eötvös.

“My past and my biography somewhat exclude the vision of the cherubic musician who, hovering above his century, descends serenely and unperturbedly among other people, only to charm them.”

This is how the pianist, whose biography is published under the title Cannon and Flowers, describes himself as a man who set out from shocking poverty to conquer the world’s music stages. He was born in a shanty town of wooden shacks in a neighbourhood of the Angyalfold called Tripolis. The family returned here from abroad, first without the cimbalom player gypsy musician father, who had been taken to an internment camp during the First World War, and only later was he able to return to his family, already living in Budapest.

Growing up in conditions almost reminiscent of Attila József, the ailing little boy watched from his bed as his sister practised on the piano she had bought with her income from washing up, and he himself began to try out finger exercises. His father had great difficulty in finding work, he remembered:

“In the accompaniment of an old, thin violinist, whose clothes were not only baggy but also rather tattered, he embellished the evenings of the guests of a bar in the suburbs of Pest, enriching the vine available there with the sound of the piano.”

When the child Cziffra himself sat down at the piano, it soon became clear that he was a true prodigy with “elastic fingers”, as he is portrayed in the 2016 film, The Virtuoso, directed by Attila Kékesi, in which the young artist is played with great authenticity by János Balázs.

Thanks to the agility of his mother, Ernő Dohnányi took him to the Academy of Music at the age of 8, when the special talents department that exists today did not yet operate. He gave a concert at the age of thirteen, and the surviving old recording of him playing an impromptu by Schubert in a sailor’s blouse is impressive.

He married early, to an Egyptian-born woman.  He himself renamed his wife from Zulejka to Soleilka in French, saying that the name, evoking the sun, sounded more soft and feminine.  History has not spared him either, having escaped from Soviet captivity several times. He began his musical career in bars due to the wartime conditions and the problems of making a living, and became a well-known nightlife performer in Pest. In the bars called Arizona and Kedves, he was admired not only by amateur but also by professional musicians.

Pianist-conductor Tamás Vásáry recalls how, when first heard him play but had not yet seen him, he thought two pianist were sitting behind the instrument. He impressed everyone with his brilliant style of playing and many were confused as to why he was playing at night. After his failed attempt to emigrate in 1950, had a tough few years ahead of him. After his capture, he was sent to a forced labour camp in Recsk for three years. He could not spare his hands, years of working in inhuman conditions had left their mark on his ‘working tool’, and even many years after his release he could not get rid of the wrist braces he had to wear to play. 

After his release, the nightlife was back, and with the help of György Ferenczy he was able to return to the Academy of Music, where he continued his studies and auditions. Encouraged by his supporters and his wife, he changed his lifestyle and concentrated all his energies on his musical career. Returning home from nights of music-making, he allowed himself only a few hours sleep and practised for long hours every day. But even so, it was no easy task for him, he remained an outsider in the domestic music scene, someone who came from the world of popular music, a prejudice that his dazzling talent could not dispel.

On 22 October 1956, he played Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Erkel Theatre, and his performance is credited with contributing to the revolutionary upheavals. His passion and energy radiated to the audience and captivated them. Sensing a negative reception at home, and encouraged by his wife, they took advantage of the temporary opening of the borders and set off for Austria, where they stayed for a short time in a camp. Here he was surprised to find that his fame had already preceded him, his records were available and in great demand in record shops, he was known and welcomed by the musicians of the day, and his reputation rapidly grew.

He was advised to settle in France because French audiences were more receptive to his playing style. His improvisational skills have impressed concert hall audiences in every country, and his playing has been compared to that of Franz Liszt. He is mentioned alongside the greatest pianists of the 20th century, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter. His repertoire mainly included works by Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Brahms and Rachmaninoff, as well as his own arrangements in the style of Liszt. His talent and virtuosity were recognised by Kodály. It is said that, however well he did in France, however elegant his surroundings, he always remained his identity, occupying only two rooms of his chateau-like house with his wife and son, with whom he had strong musical ties, not just family ties. The son, who eventually chose to become a conductor, and the concerts and musical reflection he shared with him accompanied their journey.

His son was preparing for a film role in which he was to play his father, went on a diet, his body was weakened and collapsed by the fireplace in his apartment and died in the fire.  György Cziffra never recovered from his son’s death, and from then on he did not perform with an orchestra or record.  Two weeks after his son’s death, he summoned all his strength to perform for the Hungarian audience at the first Budapest Spring Festival. He has always been passionate about supporting and promoting talent, and his foundation has helped not only musicians but also artists. In Senlis, where he lived in France, he bought the chapel of Saint-Frambourg, which had previously served as a car repair shop, and gave young artists the opportunity to give concerts and exhibitions. Another special feature of this place is that Joan Miró made its glass windows. A self-confessed phoenix, whose ideal and artistic creed was freedom of man and music, died in a clinic near Paris at the age of 72.

János Balázs, Liszt and Kossuth Prize-winning pianist and founding artistic director of the György Cziffra Memorial Year, heard the piano virtuoso play at the age of six and as a result decided to study classical music. Speaking about the concert on 5 November, he said that the birthday concert would be the most special event of the series and the one that would attract the most international attention to Budapest. Cziffra’s romantic musical thinking can be called “Hungaricum”, since he followed Liszt in becoming the main interpreter of his works, adding that his legacy, which is with us, should be passed on as an artistic credo not only to future generations of musicians but also to the public as a musical experience.

János Balázs. (c) László Emmer

This is the intention around which the whole commemorative year is built, with the concert on 5 November being the main event. The Müpa Budapest and Csaba Káel personally played a major role in inviting János Balázs to reflect on the programme years ago, and his idea was that it should reflect both the past and the future, and that György Cziffra was of Hungarian origin but achieved his greatest successes in France.

The French line will be represented by the French Radio Symphony Orchestra, with whom György Cziffra played extensively, while his tragedy-struck son conducted them on several occasions. György Cziffra has performed Ferenc Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy many times, but before that it was a rarely played piece, and he brought it back into the public consciousness with his virtuoso playing. This evening, the work will be heard as the overture to the concert.

Péter Eötvös’s unique piano concerto Psodia by Cziffra, written at the request of János Balázs and dedicated to him, is a foretaste of the future. The master is connected to György Cziffra in several ways. For example, his mother was one of those who, in the 1950s, tried to help György Cziffra, who was imprisoned and called up to build the Miskolc University of Heavy Industry. The play on words in the title is no mere coincidence, as the rhapsody encompasses György Cziffra’s life, and so this piece also displays incredible spiritual depth and power.

According to János Balázs, the work has a special atmosphere, and a further peculiarity is that the orchestral part includes the cimbalom, performed by Miklós Lukács. His work with Péter Eötvös is characterised by love and devotion, giving his instructions to the pianist first hand.

After its premiere, the concerto will go on an international tour, with premieres in France, Geneva and Norway, and audiences in many other countries around the world. János Balázs hopes that in the future many pianists will play this masterpiece in memory of György Cziffra. He concluded by saying that the survival of a legacy, a tradition and the name of a great performer for posterity is only possible if so many people can stand behind him and so many want to pass on what he left them.

You can get your tickets here!

Article: Anna Rácz

Translation: Nóra Fehér