[For some background on Franz Liszt, see this first post in the series on Legendary Liszt Performers].
Of all the great pianists history has produced, none has suffered so grievously as György Cziffra. It is common to say that creative people suffer for their art. Beethoven, certainly, was obliged to spend most of his adult life confronting his deafness. Cziffra, however, endured physical and mental suffering, including torture, that would have destroyed most people. He survived this torment to go on to develop a brilliant career as a concert pianist. How was that possible?
Born in 1921 in Budapest, Hungary, Cziffra’s family was quite poor. His father was a musician who didn’t make a very good living at it, but there was a piano in the house. Cziffra was drawn to the instrument at a very early age, and without receiving any training, he began picking out tunes on the piano and creating his own accompaniments. For a brief while, around age seven he performed at a local circus, and as his talents were beginning to be appreciated, his parents obtained for him a position at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest as a student of the famous composer Ernst Dohnanyi. Cziffra was age nine when he began his studies.
Cziffra spent eleven happy years at the Academy, perfecting his technical and interpretive skills, and naturally developing an affinity for Franz Liszt’s music. Much of what we know from this early period comes from his autobiography, Cannons and Flowers. In his late teens, he began a performing career in Hungary, and then toured in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. He met his wife Soleilka during this period, and all was going swimmingly for the new family, when the Second World War intervened. As a Hungarian citizen, Cziffra was subject to military service, and in 1941 he was conscripted and sent off to the Russian front (Hungary was aligned with the Axis Powers), where he was captured by a Russian paramilitary force, which kept him as a prisoner throughout the war. This was in one way fortunate; there was no telling what fate would have awaited Cziffra had the Russian army captured him. Still, the conditions were cruel, food was limited, and he was forced to pick up a rifle and fight for the Soviet Union. Cziffra took to alcohol, as did many soldiers at the time. He was released when the Soviets won the war on the eastern front, and Cziffra made his way back to Hungary, where he took care of his wife and son by playing in bars and clubs, and throwing in classical music as well, especially that of Liszt, a national hero.