Born in 1903, the Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyíregyházi conformed in many ways to the standard image of a child prodigy. He was the subject of a 1916 book entitled The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy and has now found, in Kevin Bazzana, a conventional biographer.

Nyíregyházi (pronounced, we are told, “nyeer-edge-hah-zee”) died in 1987 in Los Angeles. Between his Budapest beginnings and his end in America lies one of the strangest trajectories in modern musical history. As a child in Hungary he studied with Ernst von Dohnányi, won the praise of visiting celebrities such as Puccini and Franz Lehár, and was dragged around Europe and England by his mother (the dominant parent). Aristocratic patrons fawned over him, inducing the erroneous belief that he was one of them, a delusion that persisted through an adult life spent largely in skidrow apartments.

At the age of twelve, while...


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