György Cziffra

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Serge Tziganov: György Cziffra

György (Georges) Cziffra [ ˈʦifrɒ ] (born November 5, 1921 in Budapest , † January 15, 1994 in Senlis , Département Oise ) was a Hungarian - French pianist .


Cziffra's father, a Rom , had played a cymbal through Paris in the 1910s . During the First World War , the Third French Republic expelled the nationals of the states that fought against France. Since Cziffra's father was a Hungarian citizen, he was interned . György's mother and two sisters had to leave for Budapest with 5 kg of luggage. For years the three lived in a stilt house on the moor. When the father was released and came to Budapest, György Cziffra was born into the poorest of circumstances. A sister saved money for piano lessons . By listening to her rehearsal from bed due to illness, Cziffra found his instrument. Recognizing the talent, the sister refrained from starting her own piano career. Engaged by a traveling circus at the age of five , he shone with improvisations on motifs that the audience suggested to him through shouts. This unusual experience over just a few weeks also shaped Cziffra's special interpretation of piano playing.

At the age of nine he was admitted - the youngest ever - to the Franz Liszt Music Academy in his hometown Budapest. Among other things, he studied there with Ernst von Dohnányi . At the age of 16 he undertook his first concert tours through Hungary , the Netherlands and Scandinavia .

Second World War

In 1942 he was drafted as a Hungarian soldier during World War II and deployed to the Ukraine on the Eastern Front. At that time, his wife Soleilka (daughter of the then Egyptian ambassador in Budapest), with whom he had been married since 1941, was just pregnant. In the winter of 1943 he was asked to play the piano at a casino evening for German officers . Deeply impressed, a general and knight's cross bearer offered him to come to Berlin and be introduced to Richard Strauss ; Mainly out of concern for his Egyptian (born in Rome) wife and in view of his “non-Aryan” Gypsy heritage, he did not want to accept the offer. After he had made the two guards "indulgent" with the brandy they were given, he drove off with the waiting train - as a train driver, alone. Arrested by Russian partisans while he was sleeping , he was deported to a gulag . Escaped after two years, he was recaptured by the Wehrmacht and sent to the German Western Front as a tank commander .


Only demobilized in 1946 , that is, released from military service and returned, did he - like his father in Paris earlier - play in cafes and cabarets . A failed attempt to escape from Stalinist Hungary was punished with forced labor from 1950 to 1953 in the prison of Sopronkőhida . In 1955 he won the Franz Liszt Music Academy Prize in Budapest . After he had performed Béla Bartók's 2nd piano concerto with great success , shortly before the Hungarian uprising , in 1956, he escaped to Vienna with his wife and son . The New Yorker's sensational debut in the Brahms Hall of the Wiener Musikverein was well worth a music review. For a pianist, his international career began very late. He often played with a leather bandage above his right wrist, which was due to an injury in the Soviet labor camp .


Soon after his Vienna debut, Cziffra gave a piano recital in Paris. After his life so far, France seemed to him like a “bath in holy water”. In order to make young pianists known to the general public, he let them play the encores in his place . In 1966 he founded a music festival in the abandoned La Chaise-Dieu Abbey . When he wanted to set up a foundation to better promote young talent, he asked André Malraux for advice. He was enthusiastic, but advised against Paris and suggested Senlis (Oise) as the cradle of France. In 1973, Cziffra bought the ruins of the Saint-Frambourg collegiate church , the Capetian chapel from the 10th century. With his wife and initially from his own resources, he arranged for her to be rebuilt. Torn between (financially necessary) concerts and the construction site, Cziffra worked, according to his own admission, “like a galley slave”. The situation eased a little when Cziffras Foundation was granted non-profit status in 1975 . “Miraculously” the Cziffras were given two matching church windows - with images of Elisabeth of Thuringia = Elisabeth of Hungary and Franz von Sales , the patron saint of the chapel. And Liszt had conducted the second performance of his legend of St. Elisabeth in this royal chapel. It became the Franz Liszt Auditorium for Young Artists. Charles de Gaulle personally gave Cziffra 1968 the French citizenship . In 1969 Cziffra founded an "alternative" piano competition in Versailles , later named after him .

In addition to Liszt , Chopin and Schumann , Cziffra often played Beethoven , Bartók , Ravel , Rachmaninov , Balakirev , Grieg , Rameau and Couperin . His son, György Cziffra the Younger (1942–1981), also became a pianist, but switched to conducting and accompanied his father to concerts and sound recordings . According to the forensic scientist who established the cause of his death, the son, who had an alcohol problem, fell drunk into an open fireplace. Father Cziffra hardly performed any more and never played with an orchestra again .

Effect on other artists

Cziffra's constant search for maximum expression was highly praised. Many musicians (including Alfred Cortot ; Cyprien Katsaris ; Gabriela Montero ) found a source of inspiration here. Alfred Cortot expressed his admiration in a letter to Cziffra.

Dear friend,
listening to the radio yesterday afternoon, I heard your magnificent version of the "Carnival of Venice" [this is probably Robert Schumann's "Faschingsschwank from
Vienna "op. 26] and I cannot resist expressing to you my very sincerest admiration. Even though my personal conception is slightly different from yours, in certain details
of expression, your interpretation was inspired, worthy of Schumann's original intention, both hidden and openly revealed, and was consistently moving and picturesque.
Bravo, dear friend, and thank you for the joy you have brought me on the highest levels of inspired interpretation.
Very Sincerely Yours,
Alfred Cortot.


In order to realize Cziffra's desire to "open a new door to the world of music," he wrote as a result of his improvisations , paraphrases and transcriptions

Liszt - Hungarian Rhapsody No. 19 D minor -for piano-
Rossini - La danza in G major -Transcription for piano-
Rossini - Paraphrase on the overture by Guillaume Tell
Rimski-Korsakow - Flight of the Bumblebee -Transcription for piano
Strauss - Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka A major paraphrase for piano
Strauss - On the beautiful blue Danube D flat major -paraphrase for piano-
Chatschaturjan - La Danse du sabre -Transcription for piano-
de Falla - Danse rituelle du feu in A minor -for piano-
Vecsey - Valse triste in C sharp minor arrangement for piano
Brahms - Hungarian Dances No. 5 (1957), 1-6, 8-9, 10, 12-13, 16-17, 19, 21. -for piano
Cziffra - La Fantaisie roumaine in A major - for piano
Cziffra - Overture Solonnelle in C major -for piano-
Cziffra - Pastorale pour Gerbert in B flat major -for piano-

Of Cziffra's autobiography Ágyúk és virágok (1983) - Cannons and Flowers - only the first half (until 1977) was published in English translation in 1996.


  • Elizabeth Loparits: Hungarian gypsy style in the Lisztian spirit: Georges Cziffra's two transcriptions of Brahms' Fifth hungarian dance . Greensboro, NC: University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2008
  • Adolph Kurt Böhm : Music and Humanity . Morisken Verlag, Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-944596-08-2 (Böhm documents his friendship with Cziffra in several places in words and pictures, especially in the chapter "György Cziffra", pp. 145–158)

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ The New York Times. Published January 18, 1994 .
  2. a b c Cannons and Flowers
  3. ^ All or nothing (Canons and Flowers)
  4. Pilgrimage to Saint-Frambourg (Canons and Flowers)
  5. ^ The New Criterion - November 2007, New York chronicle .