(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 (Almanac of Hungarian music) edited by Dr. Imre Molnár and published in 1936. It is not given to many to have an entry in a lexicon at the tender age of 15, albeit just a brief mention. No-one can doubt that the story of the young Georges Cziffra is almost fairy-tale in its quality: he fought his way out of penury using just his remarkable talent that was first noticed by his cimbalom-playing father. In his autobiography Cannons & Flowers, he describes the dire poverty that surrounded him in Angyalföld. ‘No account was taken of the number of children or of their state of health: each family was allotted just one room. Apart from “enjoying the rights” to the open space roundabout, the estate dwellers had no advantages, unless the constant supply of nauseous air from the nearby marshes counted. […] It would be incongruous to speak of comfort in such a context. The word no more existed in our vocabulary than it did in the brilliant mind of the property dealer responsible for the wooden slum.’ Not long after his sister Jolán, who until then had worked doing washing up, was taken on as an assistant cashier, she hired a piano and (together with her younger brother) began to play. Through dedication and long practice the boy’s talent quickly became apparent, and he then went on to earn his keep by improvising on popular themes at the local circus. He soon determined that he wanted to play piano more seriously than this, though, and at the age of nine he applied to the Liszt Academy where he was taken on by Ernő Dohnányi, going on to perfect his skills under the guidance of Leó Weiner, György Ferenczy and Imre Keéri-Szántó among others. Film of the young Gyuri Cziffra dressed in a sailor’s costume has survived from 1934, in which he is playing Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat major, Opus 90, and from early in the same year there is a review from the pen of legendary critic István Péterfi in Magyar Hírlap, who in an article titled Appearance of extraordinary musical talent at a student examination writes: ‘However, the barely 12-year-old, chubby kid Georges Cziffra took to the stage for the first time, who with his performance caused a sensation even in our musical life already awash in talent. This boy is truly exceptionally gifted. The way he played two movements of the F major concerto by Mozart was so much more than the production of a wunderkind. We received genuine, pure music resonant with warm feelings from this brilliant young artist.’ His international career got underway soon thereafter since throughout the 1930s he gave countless successful performances in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and, of course, Hungary.