Prelude and The Raft
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
All or Nothing
ALL OR NOTHING
How could my character have remained unaffected by such
an upheaval in my existence? I was like an animal at bay, its instincts
deeply perturbed and living in fear of its life. My reactions were a
disconcerting mixture of contradictions. I was at once tender and brutal,
considerate and boorish, dreamy yet cold-hearted, the beloved child
and the black sheep of musicians, a fervent advocate of brotherhood
among men and a retiring misanthrope, an aggressive libertarian bowing
to authority, a strict moralist staggering into seedy bars, affectionate
and unsociable, a sensitive soul under the influence of his bear-like
moods. The piano was, of course, the main cause of this personality
split. No longer was it a lost love, a threatened ideal: I had given
it up as a bad job and drawn the necessary conclusions. I had become
more modest. The piano existed on a lower plane as a means of earning
a living. Fate continued to dog me. Try as I might to consider the problem
from all sides and put it in perspective, even taking up my nightly
activities again was out of the question: after just a few hours, the
joints of my fingers and wrists swelled.
While in prison, I had been accorded the privilege of
transporting blocks of stone. My muscles, stretched to the limit and
hardened, could no longer withstand hours of daily practice. Not even
my will-power was what it had been. In order that my fingers, swollen
by work of a very different nature, could gradually grow used to the
piano again, I was obliged to continue wearing wristbands to hold my
joints in place and lessen the pain. I was to wear these accessories
for quite a time to come.
After leaving prison, my hands needed four months’
physiotherapy before I could go into Budapest to start looking for work
all over again. After about ten days, I managed to find a fairly stable
job and relieved my wife of her stevedore’s duties at the factory
for the second time. Like a well-trained beast of burden, I was soon
back in harness and my hands ran up and down all sorts of keyboards
in restaurants, taverns and bars. One evening, two men came in for a
drink in the bar where I had just gone on duty. Their concentration,
touched with disbelief, increased as they listened to my multiform fancies
which, in their apparent complexity, must have contrasted strangely
with the doleful indifference with which I trotted them out. They gradually
drew closer to the piano and observed my playing as if wanting to be
sure there were only ten fingers producing such an avalanche of notes.
At the time, I thought they were drinking pals of the more distinguished
variety or music lovers in search of strong emotions. As soon as I had
finished, they congratulated me warmly.
These were no ordinary night birds in the swarming fauna
of the city. One was a piano professor at the Liszt Academy [This was
György Ferenczy]; his friend held a high position at the Ministry
for Cultural Affairs.
"We’ve been following you around for some
while," said the professor, "because we’re most intrigued
by your past record and even more by your playing. You seem to be the
chosen one who can draw Ulysses’ bow according to the rules, leaving
other would-be pianists to attempt to stretch it." He went on,
looking a trifle sceptical, "Your playing is amazing. More than
any other musician, you deserve to be playing in the best concerts.
You’re on the right path so I’ve decided to help you straight
away. Go and see my friend here at his office at the Ministry as soon
as possible. You won’t regret it."
A few days later, I took his advice. What could such
high-ups have of importance to say to an obscure bar pianist just out
of prison and – supreme affront – without a card stamped
by the party Cultural Department, our benevolent Father?
The visiting card of the cultural attaché led
to even more magical happenings. As soon as I entered the Ministry,
I was treated like a guest of honour. In the ancient building, a proud,
mummified reminder of the Baroque style, liveried ushers went silently
before me, addressing me as ‘comrade’ in the third person,
with deferential zeal. One gets used to it. We first went through a
maze of lofty corridors and splendidly decorated rooms – ceilings
with grimy frescoes from which hung magnificent crystal chandeliers
whose iridescent light was reflected by the intricately decorated doors
set in walls inlaid with exotic wood. The whole place was an immense
piece of marquetry made up of an ingenious variety of mosaics. It was
like visiting a museum of the Ancien Régime. Everything had remained
in place: paintings by the great masters and carpets from the Orient.
Its crowning glory was the office of my new protector, a huge ceremonial
room full of ghosts of the past. I was shown into this great hall, redolent
of the former greatness of the aristocracy.
Still under the antique charm of these reminders of
the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I greeted the group of stern-looking young
men, who seemed to be expecting me, with a feeble, "Good morning,
sirs…I mean, comrades." They at once made it clear that ‘comrade’
was a civilian honour which had to be merited and was not awarded to
any outsider. "Yes, indeed, Mr Cziffra," said the top official
I had already met, with a charming smile, "times have changed.
We have asked you to come as a result of all the letters we’ve
been getting about you for some time now from people from all levels
of society who are regulars of the nightclubs where you play. I must
say it is the first time I’ve ever seen public opinion –
your public – expressing its feelings so strongly. I realized
while listening to you the other evening that your talent could even
transform a mass of people who had come with the sole object of drinking
into a truly disciplined audience."
Suddenly, he started groping for his words: "As
you know, no newly installed…regime is free from errors…I
mean…" "That it so happens I’m the error in question,"
I said gently to encourage him to come to the point. But he was already
continuing, pretending not to have heard: "What I mean is we wish
to efface the wrongs done to you by…restoring the rights and privileges
due to your outstanding talent. That is to say that from now on we would
ask you to drop your present activities because we’d like you
to have three months in which to prepare for the first series of recitals
and then concerts, which will be commissioned by the State through us.
You will, of course, receive a salary. If the first part of your career
goes as we wish, everything leads us to believe that the government
will one day, encouraged by your success in democratic countries, accord
you its trust by delegating you to play…officially…in the
great cities of the West as one of the brightest jewels in the crown
of our nation’s artistic and musical life, rendered free and independent
How gallantly he summed up my life. The ‘everything
leads us to believe’ was simply sublime. And yet hadn’t
I been waiting to hear those very words for years?
At last my life of ups and downs, with every peak plunging
me into yet another blind valley, was over. After countless hesitations,
I was going to be able to break with the ghetto laws of pleasure spots
whether frequented by rich or poor, exclusive clubs, dives to which
one is gradually lured by the promise of a cushy job. Without realizing
it, one sinks so low as to lose any scruples about being mediocre.
Somehow or other, throughout this period of my life,
nearly everything I did or neglected to do, my hesitations as much as
irreparable acts, seemed to be imposed on me by some inescapable fatality.
My existence was, for reasons beyond my control, presided over by the
patron saint of beggars rather than Saint Cecilia. Much time was lost,
to be sure, but I do not feel on looking back that I wasted any. I prefer
to leave my friends and critics to decide whether some magic spell was
the cause of my tribulations or whether I had undergone a trial by fire.
Whatever the answer, I felt at last that life was beginning all over
again, even if my artistic resurrection was still some way off. The
members of the commission seemed moved to see me living like a muezzin
condemned to silence behind the bars of a moucharabiel, my body afire,
my mind in hibernation. They did not question me about my past, with
the tacit implication that I had been a helpless victim. Being the plaything
of destiny and nearly thirty years of having to teach myself had confirmed
me in my Manichean fatalism. On the way to the Ministry, I had thought
of the proverb ‘Once bitten twice shy’. As I left, I remembered
the Islamic saying ‘God can see a black ant on a black stone’.
This was the first time I had been treated as a persona grata with a
slight chance of finding my niche in Paradise, aided by my ten fingers.
Even if it was only a seat in the gallery, it was one of the nicest
gifts life had given me since I left ‘Angel Court’.
In celebration of my redeployment, I decided once and
for all to give up the ‘flashy’ playing which had got me
out of many a tight spot. The toughest was yet to come. After sparring
for nearly twenty-five years with every possible type of music, I had
three months to make a fresh start, which was not long. Naturally, other
such experiences had put me on my guard and endowed me with a mastery
of my instrument which led quite a few dogmatic critics to consider
it impossible to see the wood of my interpretations for the trees. My
undertaking was doubly difficult. Not only did I have to reconvert,
discipline and readapt everything I had learnt entirely for classical
music – and all in ninety days – but I had to convince our
friends the aesthetes and other intellectual ‘gurus’, disguised
as knowledgeable critics, for whom respect for the score was more important
than bringing a work to life, that my interpretations were valid. Personally,
with very few exceptions, I have never come across a critic able to
do other than condemn as a means of showing off his piranha-like erudition
– unless the prey is too big for him, in which case he is quick
to acclaim the victor. These carrion beetles of the mind, and they are
legion, are easily recognized by their boundless pride and pathetic
I have nothing against criticism as such – indeed,
it is indispensable. Far from being marginal, it could, and should,
be for the public good, on two conditions: firstly, there should be
only professional critics, that is to say performing artists who know
what they are talking about, and secondly, whatever the judgement, it
should be constructive both as regards the work and the performance.
Ideally, one would like to see the return of the buccaneering
spirit which, to my mind, gave the artistic movements of the Romantic
period their impetus. In those blissful times, accounts of the first
concerts given in Paris by an unknown young musician by the name of
Frédéric Chopin were not signed by some dilettante ‘monsieur
Croche’ but by Franz Liszt. When a very discouraged Ravel was
sent back the manuscript of his First Quartet heavily cut by a certain
Dubois, about whom the only thing great was his opinion of himself,
Debussy at once despatched a note: "In the name of the gods of
music and in mine, do not alter a note!" Such exceptional people,
and many others, did not just withdraw into a comfortable cocoon and
it is to them that Western music owes much of its cultural heritage.
Above all, they were potential professionals capable not only of understanding
but, in the case of musicians, playing or even conducting the works
of their peers. They knew exactly what they were talking about and wrote
well-informed criticism to guide public taste. In our troubled times,
I trust that some day in the not so distant future, artists will work
together to enlighten audiences saturated with nonsense.
Anyway, it is well known that each species of animal
has its parasite: the crocodile never swallows the little bird which
flutters in its half-open jaws; the fiercest shark tolerates the minute
remora. Any form of artistic creation has its second-rate conscientious
objectors operating on a part time basis. It is in the order of things.
As Diderot wrote: "Rhetoric is to eloquence what theory is to practice
or poetics to poetry."
This golden rule applies to all types of artistic expression,
just as it does to any coherent interpretation. The figures and flowers
of rhetoric governing the particular form, content, style and syntax
of each composer were precisely what I had to disinter from my memory
after so many years. My fingers had to be retrained until they adapted
automatically to Chopin’s rubato, which is not always ideally
suited to Schumann. Debussy’s piano works must be played as if
the fingers are barely touching the keys. The same goes for Ravel, except
that the sound must always be crystalline whereas his moods require
a subtle mixture of both as well as requiring a pinch of gold dust and
a touch of slightly fin-de-siècle perfume to add to the charm
of a music as refined as it is volatile. One must know too that the
controlled or feverish energy of most great Romantic composers has nothing
to do wild the wild pulse underlying the benign exterior of certain
of Liszt’s works. It is a power which has to be carefully controlled.
There are just as many traps to avoid and taboos to respect in Bach,
Mozart, Beethoven and Bartók if one’s playing is not to
run the risk of sounding monotonous and lacking in substance, relegated
from the rank of the language of the Gods to that of music therapy,
with its emotional power limited to putting the audience in a good mood
as they commune in the boredom distilled by a false idol.
All these thoughts filled my mind as I left the Ministry
of Cultural Affairs, hurrying home to ell everyone the great news. When
it came down to it, my wandering beggar’s existence, during which
I had had to put up with misunderstandings and jibes as I was chased
from pillar to post, had taught me the basics of the supremely complex
profession of being an artist: how to maintain one’s distance
and separate mind from feeling. And how to reason using formal logic
while being capable of reasoning in a more flexible manner? My new idea
was to superpose the two forms of thought, according to the principle
that harmonious reasoning is like a straight line decorated with spirals,
rather like the inside of the barrel of a cannon. Not so long before,
when I had been cleaning the one on my tank, Schumann’s celebrated
saying had come to mind. After hearing Liszt’s playing, he defined
the ideal interpreter as being like ‘cannons beneath a bed of
flowers’[This was in fact said about Chopin's 'Polonaises']. This
was perhaps the most difficult challenge I had ever had to meet: to
convey through my playing, with so little time to go, a radical transformation
of myself, becoming once more what I should never have ceased to be.
Pianistically speaking, I was probably at the height of my powers but
as a human being I was physically and morally exhausted.
It was for this reason that despite my job I had felt
like proclaiming to the people on the board as they speechified and
pontificated on my account, blithely crossing out any past ‘errors’
to keep me in their debt for life, the equivalent of the profession
of faith painted by the demonstrators of May 468 on the pedestal of
Richelieu’s statue in front of the Sorbonne: "Que la crasse
des masses lasses masse sur vos faces des potasses!" (‘May
the filth of the weary masses cover your sonofabitch faces!’).
Luckily for my family, being the type who never finds a retort at the
right moment, I said nothing. At that time one did not attempt to be
witty in those circles and such truths were not to be spoken out loud,
even with the ‘-asse’ rhyme.
It was no use deluding myself or hoping that time would
be on my side. Having made an appointment with myself in extreme old
age, when minor faults are caricatured and great virtues become sublime,
the hour of truth could not be delayed any longer. I was in a tight
corner: new rivals, surprised by my unusual technique, stared at my
hands with a look of concupiscence, as the priests say. I had to show
them in record time that I could do more than merely upset the hierarchy
of values in music halls. In trying not to lose sight of the fact that
the aims of music can and must be more than just a synthesis of certain
skills, I had returned to the study of ‘this world of sights and
dreams upon which passion feeds’ – as Michelet so nicely
put it. In this domain, where music has a certain evocative power, reality
is transcended and emits rays of which the public is aware. In order
to become the master of such power without which, as far as I am concerned,
the interpreter can be dispensed with, I had to search within myself
for some indefinable tremor to show I still had a boy’s sensitivity.
Only this, channelled by solid common sense, would gain me access to
and enable me to transmit emotions with all the atavistic force of self-love,
a passion of which all others are but derivatives. The undertaking was
as difficult as the quest for the Holy Grail. Music is a demanding mistress
and becoming her servant is like taking orders.
I had a vague feeling that this first chance to redeem
myself might also be my last, for Destiny offers the opportunity to
everyone at some time or another, whether he be an optimist or a pessimist.
All those who try to live life to the full and who, by force of circumstance,
know what it means to be catapulted from the crest of a wave to the
trough realize that in order to achieve one’s ambitions it is
better to side with the optimists, for whom a calamity is an opportunity,
as opposed to the pessimists, who suffer from its backlash. This sort
of blind assumption is not a solution but it helps.
Again, like the sea surging into cavities, music, my
Promised Land, came to my rescue on life’s swell, full of reefs
and breakers on which I had been putting my life at stake. This lucky
combination of circumstances would permit me to chance my all, for I
was to set about achieving my childhood dream with a man’s experience,
awakening in my audience an intense receptiveness and physical and mental
exaltation which we call, for want of a better term, emotion. Certainly,
I must have been naïve to attempt in three months to climb even
a few of the rungs of a Jacob’s ladder of such dimensions. But
those were the rules of the game. From the mass of problems already
evoked, I had ninety days in which to extract the essence, that is to
say an alchemist’s instinct and knowledge, which alone can miraculously
transform a coded message into a living language. To do this I needed
clear, precise information.
Far from helping me in my task, the ambiguity of some
of my guides perturbed me considerably. Bach probably considered the
meaning of his works so evident that he left no indications of nuance
or even tempo. Chopin was far more painstaking: his least intention
is made clear in his manuscripts, though he still told his pupils and
admirers, including at least one supreme virtuoso, that the essence
of emotion is to be found ‘behind the notes’. Stravinsky,
another master of strong emotions, who put an end to Impressionism with
The Rite of Spring, said not so long ago that music by definition cannot
and should not express anything. I had to rid myself of these contradictory
opinions and restore to each of these giants his own particular aesthetics.
According to the experts, the only monument built by human hand visible
from the moon is the Great Wall of China. The comparison may seem exaggerated,
nevertheless after two months of non-stop work my aims were of the same
order as they had been in the past. I will not go any further into those
days and nights of constant practice. Even Dante, the great expert on
Hell, forgot to sing of the souls of doubting interpreters languishing
in the Purgatory of a Witches’ Sabbath, longing to hear beautiful
music again. Incertitude leads to a lack of self-confidence, as I know
all too well. I tried to rid myself of the disease but the more I struggled
to put my ideas in order, the less sure of myself I became. My fingers
were activated by the spirits of Nostradamus and Pythagorus, but if
clairvoyance and logic do not work together harmoniously, how can the
subconscious select and co-ordinate the various creative stages? Deprived
of this artistic seismograph, my conceptions and interpretations were
afflicted by doubt, and nothing is sadder than an artist seeking to
do too much or too little. To conclude, during this short period I discovered
I was unable to follow the sacrosanct rules of harmonious interpretation
until I sometimes wondered whether my hands might not be better employed
punching railway tickets. I had doubts about the limpidity of my feelings
as much as about my manner of communicating them.
How I envied my peers who, under highly qualified teachers,
had acquired such assurance! They were way ahead of me but then hadn’t
I had an exceptionally early training in improvisation? Indeed, I had
quite simply come up against an obstacle which may bring out the talents
in some whereas others come to grief on it: stage fright. A priori it
is absurd: what is there to fear from an audience which has taken the
trouble to come along and has paid good money to be enraptured? It is
certain that for an artist with something to say, unveiling every tremor
of his sensitivity to what he may hope will be a large audience is both
a blessing and an agonizing situation. That is unless he is swept along,
not to say transfigured, by the power of his vision, glowing with passion
until he embodies it. Stage fright is a sign of self-doubt and of technical
or spiritual deficiencies. It has nothing to do with the nervous tension
caused by a sense of responsibility and a desire not to disappoint.
For artists in the grip of this age-old fear, the simple act of going
onstage is an undoubted feat of courage. Therein lies the paradox of
the interpreter’s role as well as his fragility. Any attempt,
however brief, to suspend time for an expectant audience is in itself
a challenge. If he is paralysed by stage fright, how can he convey all
the light and shade of his soul? At this stage, devotion is not enough.
Besides a rock-solid technique, the artist must surpass himself to obtain
the extra concentration needed to inspire connoisseurs and uneducated
alike, and this is something few players can do. All this is a form
of suffering. In the world of music, the means of moving others at will
are virtually unlimited.
It is one thing to be in possession of an affidavit
from the Muses and quite another to be their poet. It has always been
my desire to belong to the chosen few more concerned by the brightness
of the flame they bear than by the astonishment it provokes. Am I on
the right track? Only the future will tell. There is nothing of the
dreamer about me. In every society, the status quo of a musician is
akin to a politician’s. If some of them have not sold their souls
it is because nobody wanted to buy them. I should like to have followed
the path of enlightenment in a different manner. Alas, my whole life
up until that moment had been placed under the sign of ‘If you
want peace, prepare for war.’
In 1954, I was no longer the brilliant pupil. I slaved
away fanatically at my upright. My daily task consisted of searching,
finding, rejecting, starting again from zero – not to speak of
catching up with my colleagues – which meant recovering a lot
of ground. Only much later did I have the idea of scraping together
enough money to see if it was possible to follow in the footsteps of
Liszt, Abbé Liszt, scolded and mitred by the gods, so aggressively
and deplorably mauled by later generations of prize fighters set on
breaking records rather than seeking true understanding. According to
the rulers of the great country which so wanted to protect mine, five-year
plans and healthiness were the key to success. There was still so far
My sudden disappearance from the night life of the city
was much talked about. A number of distinguished philistines were waiting
foe me in their artistic circles, assuring me of their ‘assiduous
benevolence’, inwardly removing the last three syllables from
the adjective. It was only now that I realized how great my shortcomings
I decided to get advice on how to prevent all the assiduous
practice sounding too obvious – to no avail. The teachers I saw
did not really understand my questions. As for me, I failed to understand
the cultural jargon they used as a form of miracle tonic, smacking more
of Romantic languor than practical advice. Our conversations took on
epic proportions: when I came away, my mind was as confused as a marshalling
yard. Here’s an example:
Q: How should one go about finding a definite message
in X’s works?
A: By analysing his contradictions on a structural level.
Q: I see. But how do I actually achieve this?
A: Find yourself a niche.
Q: Of course. And how about conveying it to the audience?
A: Obvious. You just have to structure your emotions.
Anyone can see that for himself.
There have always been music teachers who enjoy chatting
in this way. Nowadays, every advocate of the leisure civilisation, from
plumber to computer engineer, manipulates this sort of language with
ease and I still cannot understand it. True aristocrats have become
a rarity. The local upper-crust proliferates and divides art up among
itself. Laughter is said to be the domination of a feeling of revolt.
I was so bold as to laugh in the austere faces of my advisers and cast
aside the loneliness felt by the long-distance runner, his head full
of tunes. I went back to working on my own and read widely. Since I
had not followed the primrose path, I was by turns showered with flattery
and reviled. I remain convinced that as regards art, the difference
between the noble and the villain is neither a question of ethnics or
even ethics. So how was one to attain the heights?
Because I looked tough and spoke my mind, my talent
–third-rate according to some – was gone through with a
toothcomb by the custodians of truth until it really did seem as if
it was lacking in substance. And to think I had nearly been born in
France, the eternal crossroads of the arts, where even the cannons are
a source of wit. Wasn’t it Louis XIV who had had engraved on his:
‘The final argument of kings’?
I had decided to work on my hands. I began by moderating,
refining and perfecting the essential relationship in my playing between
intuition and technique: a long, deliberate disordering of all the senses
– the two-edged weapon the Parnassians wisely put aside, while
Rimbaud used it for Le Bateau Ivre [The Drunken Boat]. For musicians,
such work is as reckless as defusing a bomb, for in tampering with what
may be called my desire to communicate I risked devitalizing and even
destroying the relationship between cause and effect which subjects
power, discovery, rhythm and dazzling colours to inspiration. This prevented
me confusing the repression of anything subversive with unbridled, destructive
energy. The discovery led me from the well-worn paths whilst opening
up new horizons.
It wasn’t until then that I realized just how
much of an outsider I was. If I wasn’t to miss the boat, I would
have to work on my own from now on. Going to a teacher would have been
hypocritical. I knew my technique inside out. At the heart of the matter
lay the problem of integrating my own particular sensibility and technical
mastery. Doubtless any teacher or famous player would have been delighted
to meet a kindred spirit, like the ‘master’ who knows his
teaching will live on in the spiritual son he had given up looking for.
Despite the faithfulness of my imitation, I would never have had the
heart to tell him that it was more a desire for accuracy than conviction
which permitted me to fit into the mould of his thought and so become
his alter ego, rather like a mirror of which the silvering is worn so
that it reconstitutes an images rather than reflects it.
What is music? By definition it is the art of combining
sounds in accordance with certain rules. One advantage of this axiom
is that beyond its platitude lies a basic truth. It omits the invisible
cause which leads to sacrifice, adoration and the need for a sixth sense,
the subconscious, which transmits inspiration. If religion is absent,
any philosophy of music becomes arid atheism close to nihilism. The
millennium has already arrived for those artists who know the way; only
those who have gone astray think the world is adrift. The paradox is
that fundamentally there is no such thing as subject matter or objective
facts in music, which is why musicians are tightrope walkers daydreaming
in a sleeping world.
They have a special place in society. Why? Because even
if they live in the heart of a community in which there is a place for
everything, they are supposed to possess some form of esoteric intuition,
the only thing on this earth which has no fixed market value. This faculty
is the inalienable sceptre of every great artist. The heart of an instrumentalist
– not he who has been called but he who has been chosen –
must beat in time to the composer’s and the listener’s.
To eliminate any gratuitous effects, or even coasting on automatic pilot,
any musician tries to make use of the power of mind over matter.
The miracle is like a magnificent hi-fi system which
performs only on a human scale. The composer is the source, the audience
a highly sensitive speaker membrane and the artist amplifies the whole
magnetic field. Music draws its substance and powers of communication
from all these before fusing into unending sound whose radiance ennobles
and reveals the hidden meaning of every note. When all is said and done,
as regards music, the desire to be Caesar or nothing is far less dangerous
than might be thought. The choice of euphony as a source of pleasure
or emotion ensures that any artist is bound to become one or the other.
The hardest thing is trying not to make the wrong choice: if you please
but fail to move you will end up at ‘The Danaids’ Barrel’
and, for my part, I had no wish to return there.
By dint of analysis, I rediscovered my childhood instincts.
I had understood early on that transforming musical speech into the
language of emotion and initiation was an important step.
The fateful day of my first State Command Performance
was approaching and I still could not get used to the idea that from
then on I would be a fully fledged professional. My newly-won freedom
still seemed like a dream and what use was I going to make of it? I
was torn between the dreadful desire and incertitude of a paralytic
who has been told, "Arise and walk." And of course, just when
I most needed all my aesthetic sense, I realized that these ill-exploited
gifts were being reabsorbed and were gradually disintegrating. Did that
mean the death sentence for my budding career? This obsessive self-awareness
left me no respite. Obviously, I went on working away and put all I
could into making my fingers as nimble as possible – and there
was no lack of enthusiasm.
In despair, I went for long country walks, comparing
the elegant shapes of the fauna and flora all round me with the coarse,
dull manner in which I attempted to interpret them at the piano. I tried
to console myself, wondering whether any artist could really imitate
such harmony and perfection. Delicacy of feeling is a gift of nature
and not something acquired through skill. It was then that I became
fully aware of the tremendous importance of what was at stake and of
what honour demanded of me. Going beyond the conventions of musical
expression is not in itself a crime. It is even one of the great privileges
of art to be able to transform ugliness into beauty. Yet a sense of
style is necessary to achieve it, and not just any style but one which,
as I fully realized, was the result of a particular sensitivity to language.
Though it cannot be acquired, it can be developed. It was this that
I dreamed of down by the river as having the beauty and rhythm of a
poem in a language precise enough to go straight to the heart like a
stiletto. The only way to attain this, unfortunately, is by endless
toil. Flaubert knew all about that. Much later, I had the opportunity
of asking Malraux the great question, "How would you define Art?"
Without hesitation, he replied, "The means by which form becomes
This came as a revelation. I was only half convinced
by his definition, splendid though it was. He was quite right –
and so was I. Style is something one senses and it must show no signs
of having been studied. For him as much as for me it was a Golden Rule
which, once known, makes everything else plain sailing. However, the
only blessing I had at that time was an excessive, incoherent, over-decorative
style which was a reflection of my own character.
Back home, I desperately took up the combat again. I
was making progress: in my interpretations as they were then, about
one third of the emotions were aesthetically plausible. The other two
thirds were nebulous and over-refined. I had to face the truth: my vice
was there before me, glaringly evident. I had too little time to rid
myself of it while attending to what was most urgent. I hollowed it
out like an elder twig, as children do to make blowpipes, decorating
it with the motifs and mouldings of the nouveaux riches. No-one was
less taken in than I was.
In renouncing my intensive search for natural harmony,
I abandoned substance and shadow. There was no doubt that ten years
of being under sentence of death, interspersed with unhoped-for reprieves,
had covered my discernment with a thick cataract putting the subtleties
of harmony quite beyond my grasp.
* * * * * * * * * *
The first concerts after my release from prison were
so dull as to verge on the incompetent. It was paradoxical that they
should be so mediocre: my technique was equal to that of all my colleagues
put together, but this considerable advantage only multiplied the drawbacks.
Whereas some players distilled boredom for want of self-assurance and
imagination, I sinned in the opposite direction. Shored up as I was
by excessive technical facility, I poured out boredom by the bucketful.
Try as I might, my interpretations lacked clarity, restraint and concision.
Fortunately, the transcriptions and paraphrases I played
as encores at the end of each recital compensated for the rest and shook
my audiences out of their apathy. These intense moments were like the
ecstasy of love. My defective aesthetic sense, capable of feigning an
emotion but not of dissimulating it, vibrated in unison with my feelings
and set the keyboard ablaze, leaving everyone flabbergasted by such
incandescence. One critic went so far as to say that this was the mastery
not of a pianist but of the pianist of one’s dreams. The gift
I took for granted seemed as strange to my colleagues as an illuminated
version of the Koran suspended in mid-air and helped me to forget that
certain boors still found my excellent grapes too sour.
I still think with gratitude of the continuing, spontaneous
devotion of my audiences at that time. They knew all about me and my
dreadful past, to the extent that I felt the warmth of their support
even on stage. The halls where I played were full to the rafters and
my concerts ended in triumph. Yet every time I returned to my dressing
room I felt demoralized when I thought of all the flaws and all the
ground I still had to cover to catch up, more certain than ever that
no artist worthy of the name mistakes a vision of the truth for revelation.
The support of thousands of people was like an immense movement of sympathy.
Their confidence was like a loan which helped me in my battle with myself,
a battle of which I was still unworthy of the trophies. The ovations
and near-consecrations gradually restored some of my self-confidence,
though I never forgot the Ancient Roman custom of having a slave repeat
to an acclaimed conqueror: "Remember you’re only a man!"
Onstage, temerity was second nature to me, as with so
many shy people, and being with a crowd was beneficial in that it redoubled
my enthusiasm for practice. I observed myself with quiet confidence,
paying attention to detail until it became an obsession. What exactly
was needed to turn my keyboard, smooth as an Alpine lake, into a dazzling
mirror which could ignite a religion which was beyond the bounds of
mere theology or theosophy: discipline, a law, a yoke, an enduring promise?
Nothing less than perseverance and the certitude faith brings. The assurance
of being right is a prodigious source of strength to which others incline.
With time, both muscles and desire lose their strength: only faith in
the future is eternal and unchanging, for it is the key to equilibrium
and the actions controlled by it. All depends on faith, even one’s
conception, whether sectarian or eclectic, of the mysterious, occult
forces of the universe. For me it is fundamental to art, for constant
pleasure only undermines our happiness. This unique power is as fragile
as a baby’s skull and only ossifies, except in the case of outstanding
people, very gradually. Its power in the field of music is infinite
and alone can smooth out the turbulence caused by uncertain or imperfect
aesthetic feelings. In my own music making, it was a form of existentialism
leading in an exaggerated manner to what I believed to be a well-conceived
anti-conformism which drew attention to my intentions and deformed them,
making my style seem diffuse, slack and listless.
Without faith, any form of creation seems incomplete
and rootless for it has no guarantee in the reasons of the heart which
are unknown to reason [An allusion to the celebrated 'pensée
of Pascal. "Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait
piont"]. It is the umbilical cord linking the musician to music
and the bell-ringer to his church, the key to the pouring forth of his
dreams in daily life, transforming him into the privileged receptacle
of eternal life, if only for an instant. Luckily, a few atoms of this
vital force still remained deep down inside me to re-awaken my consciousness,
which had been set on making me forget the sacred nature of my mission.
The interpreter’s role in society is like a keeper’s, watching
over people’s emotions to prevent them from being worn away by
a soul-destroying everyday existence.
I was at last getting to the heart of the matter. My
virtuosity no longer prevented people seeing the wood for the trees.
It was indispensable to a new awareness of the timeless rules governing
Since my official reconversion I had been slaving away
eight to ten, hours a day but it was only the first step towards my
salvation. I was asked to give other concerts and then made some recordings,
now that it was possible to attain a high technical standard. Yet strange
to say most of them were never issued in Hungary.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was 1956. There was some question in high places
of sending me to the USSR shortly and, at the end of the year, they
might even let me go to Paris. There were so many ‘ifs’
that it was most unlikely and, as far as I was concerned, I had become
resigned to the situation long ago. Before that, I had to undergo my
trial by fire, figuratively speaking.
As part of the festivities celebrating the anniversary
of the Great October Revolution (which workers and intellectuals had
been forced to celebrate for the past eleven years) a highly talented
colleague of mine was asked to learn by heart Bartók’s
Second Piano Concerto, considered unplayable at the time. Although he
had six months to learn it in, he dropped out three months before the
day of reckoning, fearing a memory lapse. In desperation, a great Chinese
pianist (in those happy times our two countries were on friendly terms)
was appealed to. He was reputed to have learnt all Mao’s thoughts
in a fortnight, not to speak of understanding them. After six weeks
he too turned the proposition down. And that was how the astounding
piece fell to me – even today it remains one of the most complex
contemporary piano works. I did not accept gladly, but I was given to
understand that engagements in Moscow, London and, above all, Paris
depended to a great extent on my performance.
I got down to the task and it almost drove me mad. But
I also realized that if I managed to play this impossibly difficult
work within the imposed time limit I would have convinced myself I was
truly ready for an international career.
The great day arrived and the concert was a triumph
of some portent. The audience was a cross section of a people weary
of the excesses of a regime whose victorious army had, after eleven
years, still not returned home. Despite its stupefying complexity, the
music is perfectly structured and this enabled me to surpass myself
so that it seemed like molten lead to the audience. Some two thousand
people, normally so disciplined, rushed from the hall singing the National
Anthem and ripping down anything bearing emblems other than the national
flag as they ran along the nearby streets and avenues. There was an
uprising and the government (responsible for an even worse police state
than the one it had copied) fled to a new refuge. The frontier half
opened. While people rushed into the breach in their tens of thousands,
the revolt was rapidly put down and a new regime did its best to gloss
it over as a mere passing error.[By way of homage to the thousands killed
by the Soviet forces, Cziffra never played the Bartók concerto
Time was running out: the breaches in the demarcation
line were being closed. This time I chose exile of my own accord. I
was quite ready to assume my status as a free man and artist.
Some ten days after our flight I was giving my first
recital in the Austrian capital and was applauded by audience and critics
alike for a masterly performance. It came as a surprise when we arrived
in Vienna to discover that I was far from unknown to musicians and music
lovers. The reason was simple enough: we lived not far from the Conservatory
where I went each day to put the final touches to a programme which
was more or less improvised. To my great surprise, on going past the
glittering window displays of the richly-stocked record shops –
the effect was the same when I first strolled along the Champs-Elysées
– I saw those records of mine which I had thought sunk without
trace on display.
Soon after the first concert in Vienna, I gave a recital
in Paris. In comparison with my experience up till then, life in my
second fatherland, France, was to be like a bath of holy water.
My story should end here if I had not gone on the warpath,
or rather on a pilgrimage, to save a chapel and transform it into a
temple of the arts.