‘I only ever felt truly alive and free when passing from darkness to light or on taking flight from a dingy prison cell like a firebird.’
World-renowned Hungarian-born pianist and virtuoso
(5 November 1921., Budapest – 15 January 1994., Longpont-sur-Orge)
We can reminisce in many different ways – but remembering György Cziffra, the pianist who would break out from completely hopeless situations time and again during his life and who finally and deservedly accomplished worldfame is only possible in a single way: as he looked upon himself: a phoenix.
His childhood was everything but easy: the family expelled from France lived in such housing conditions in Budapest that could by no means be called ideal for a child prodigy. Indeed, a child prodigy, as at the age of eight, he was discovered by Ernő Dohnányi and could begin his piano studies at the Liszt Academy.
His promising career was first smashed into pieces by the Second World War, the Russian prison camp, and finally three years of prison and labour camp following a failed emigration attempt in 1950. Cziffra, who was making ends meet by playing in bars, managed to take to the stage again in the mid-1950s thanks to the help of fellow-musicians and friends. He could at release records and even earn a state decoration (the Liszt Prize). Then in September 1956, he was asked to play – basically out of the blue, just in six weeks – the solo piano part in Bartók’s incredibly complicated Piano Concerto No. 2. On 33 October 1956, the virtuoso performance garnered roaring success, and Cziffra played the Rákóczi March five times as an encore. For a moment in time, music history and the history of the revolution got entwined: Hungary’s western border opened by the following day, and György Cziffra – together with his family –emigrated to Paris.
The soaring career of the subsequent years was in sharp contrast with the immense hardships of the previous decades. Cziffra soon became one of the most sought-after pianists of his day. Such orchestras and concert halls were on his waiting list as the Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, the Hollywood Bowl or the Tonhalle. In 1969, he founded his own international music competition in Versailles, got the ruined royal chapel restored in Sensis and turned it into a concert hall, which he named after Ferenc Liszt. The most renowned musicians of the period would line up to play there. At the age of sixty, he suffered another blow: he lost his only son in an accident, who – as a conductor – was also his fellow musician and partner. Cziffra decided not ever to perform alongside an orchestra again.
Cziffra’s legacy is far more than his recordings, his charities or the knowledge he passed on to his students. In Liszt and Dohnányi’s footsteps, he represents a performance tradition that is free from the sterility of sound recordings; still, virtuoso improvisational ease and natural ability to synthesise various styles live on in it, which made the performance of the great masters of the 19th century so singular and lively. His life’s ideal and artistic creed achieved at the cost of great suffering share the same essence at their core: the freedom of man and music.
About Cziffra's life and art
GYÖRGY CZIFFRA (Budapest, 5 November 1921 – Longpont-sur-Orge, 15 January 1994) György Cziffra was born into a family of Gypsy musicians. His father, György Cziffra Snr., played the cimbalom. He started ...
(by János Mácsay) Perhaps more people are aware of the adventurous life of Georges Cziffra than know of his art and recordings. He reached global successes and was marked by the ...
(by Endre Tóth) ‘György Czifra [sic] pianist. *1921, Budapest. Studies at the College of Music. Featured as piano soloist on talkie film.’ These lines appear in A magyar muzsika könyve ...
INTERVIEW WITH TAMÁS VÁSÁRY CZIFFRA EXPERIENCES III (Fidelio, 6 February 2016) / GÁBOR MESTERHÁZI | – How did you come into contact with Georges Cziffra? – During the 1950s, when my ...