The pianist Andor Földes (1913-1992) was one of the great child ‘prodigies’ of the early twentieth century, making his public debut performing a Mozart concerto with the Budapest Philharmonic in 1921 when he was just 8 years old, and entering the Liszt Academy (where he studied with the great Ernst von Dohnányi and Béla Bartók) before he was even a teenager.
Földes went on to enjoy a hugely successful concert and recording career, as well as writing several books, including the seminal Keys to the Keyboard (1950, sadly no longer in print, but an exceptionally wise and notably humane book).
A Warning from a Prodigy
Contributing to an interesting discussion on social media, I recently included this quote from Földes’ book, and thought it worth also sharing here. Addressing the subject of the child prodigy, Földes writes,
“I heartily agree with the words of the great Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who, in an interview some years ago, stated bluntly that nothing a musical child produces before the age of eighteen really counts. What matters is a person’s work between the ages of eighteen and seventy-five.
Everybody knows about prodigies – the writer of this book happened to be one; but the great majority of people are inclined to forget that for every prodigy who has made good, there are a thousand others who for one reason or another have not fulfilled the promise shown in their early youth.
They are the less fortunate ones, whose careers may have been ruined by a premature start in public playing, or because of the inevitable conflict between the growing pains of adolescence and the growing responsibilities of the budding artiste; the ones who have never made the grade, to the everlasting chagrin of their parents.”
That Földes was himself a child prodigy, thrust into the limelight from so young an age, adds resonance to his viewpoint. And though he proved to be that one in a thousand who later found success as a mature performer, he also of course witnessed those many others whom he describes as “less fortunate”.
The Unfortunate Ervin Nyiregyházy
One such was no doubt his slightly older compatriot Ervin Nyiregyházi, whose career has been chronicled by Kevin Bazzana in the book Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy.
As a young child Nyiregyházi won acclaim for his piano playing and early compositions, giving his first public performance at the age of 6, playing at Buckingham Palace at the age of 8, and appearing as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic at the tender age of 12.
By then, we are told, “he had developed a taste for caviar and an unshakable sense of his own importance”.
But Bazzana goes on to chart Nyiregyházi’s tragic decline. Mismanaged and exploited, by the age of 25 he had all but disappeared from the public eye. He became a heavy drinker, married ten times, and was reduced to such penury that he became homeless, sleeping on the subway.
Bazzana sympathetically notes,
“Unusual gifts generally take a psychological toll on artists, even those who develop as adults. In prodigies, that toll is compounded because the gifts manifest themselves during the most impressionable, formative years, mixed with the normal stresses of growing up; and, in Nyiregyházi’s case, the added pressure of stage parents.”
A Pause for Reflection
Questions about ‘child prodigies’ lead inevitably to a consideration of how special talent develops, and the best ways for parents, teachers and the wider community to responsibly nurture young players. These are questions which I think we must consider with delicate care and emotional intelligence, especially when it comes to calibrating our expectations of our own children and those we may teach.
True prodigies are rare indeed, but there seems to be no shortage of parents and teachers who are eager to showcase the talents of children by publishing and promoting their videos online. It is wonderful to celebrate the success of young players and great that the internet has made this so easy. Many do so for the very best of reasons.
But I believe we need to exercise a little caution. There is growing recognition that the constant focus on extrinsic validation that comes from living out our lives under a social media spotlight could be driving an unfolding epidemic in mental health problems. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate our priorities, and the decisions we make by proxy regarding the privacy of childhood.
Our easy access to social platforms has essentially made the experience of Ervin Nyiregyházi universally available. There is no telling what videos will go “viral”, when or why, potentially beaming the piano playing of a gifted child onto electronic devices the world over. The only thing missing would seem to be the caviar. Are we not playing with fire?
Concluding his discussion of the issue, Földes suggested back in 1950:
“This warning about the dangers of starting too early should be heeded by the parents of most aspiring young musicians. Parents must have enough foresight not to gamble away their child’s musical future for the sake of a questionable immediate success.”
Regardless of the bigger human imperatives, Földes’ experienced voice offers a very sensible rationale for being circumspect in our approach to launching young talents onto any global platform too soon.