LOST GENIUS: THE CURIOUS AND TRAGIC STORY OF AN EXTRAORDINARY MUSICAL PRODIGY, by Kevin Bazzana, Carroll and Graf, 383 pages, $28.

This is the strange story of Ervin Nyiregyhazi, born in Budapest in 1905, who became a piano prodigy, composing at 3, performing at 6 and was the subject of a book about a prodigy at the age of 13. Predictably, he had domineering parents who recognized his talent early and pushed him shamelessly.

Early on he demonstrated a rather notable, egotistical flaw: he often tampered with the scores of even the most canonical works, trying to make them fit his own temperament and ideas. Some called him "freakish" after watching him play, while others accused him of "ruthlessly and savagely assaulting the keyboard."

In his teens, the young man gave well-received concerts both in Europe and America. His style was considered idiosyncratic, romantic and astounding to many critics. But the author believes his adult career was badly handled, leading to his being destitute by 1925 when he was barely 20 years old.

Often, he was found sleeping on the subway or on a park bench.

Three years later he relocated to Los Angeles where he spent most of his time composing. Terribly eccentric and psychologically still a child, he considered the ordinary demands of daily life, such as dressing himself, to be burdensome. Soon he was drinking heavily and growing into a self-destructive personality. He had such an inordinate interest in sex that he married 10 times and had countless affairs.

Yet celebrities were fascinated by him. He became friends with such famed but diverse artists as Theodore Dreiser, Bela Lugosi and Gloria Swanson. In 1972, he was rediscovered and enjoyed a brief period of renaissance, although he was by this time especially sensitive to criticism.

In 1978, he denied that he had modified his style.

"They condemned me for excess and sought a more temperate approach. Then they heard for themselves what they had wanted to hear and praised themselves for hearing it. But I played no differently."

Gradually, he slipped back into obscurity and died in 1987.

The author, a music historian, believes his subject to be "a genuine lost genius," someone "spectacularly gifted." Bazzana writes that "he was simply unfit psychologically for a conventional musical career." The author notes that he was praised by Puccini and many other musical greats.

Bazzana therefore concludes that he "left little of himself behind, creating an immense, lasting rift between his talent and his reputation." Apparently, he always believed in his own talent and blamed his failures on misplaced expectations. He asserted that only his "prestige" suffered, not his "inner worth."

Whatever his contribution to history, his is, at least, a cautionary tale about the dangers of great talent and according to Bazzana, "the fragility of the gifted child" and "the fate of idealism in a materialistic world."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com