Where does talent come from?
Published: June 30, 2011
A musical boy’s beginnings.
“Living myself into the music” was how I learned to play piano. My first piano teacher was my mother. She had started me out when I was four, but I didn’t take well to instruction; she later told me that I insisted that I knew better about everything. At five I was more willing to listen, and soon acquired quite a repertoire. I never looked at the score; indeed, I didn’t learn how to read a score until years later—and even then, not very readily. I just listened to Mother play a piece, and then I would play it myself. This wasn’t learning the score or mimicking my mother. Rather, it was absorbing the music through my whole being.
Once I began to play a piece by a great composer, I would spontaneously continue it—to me it seemed the music couldn’t have been otherwise than the way it was. I was not playing the score, not touching keys in the order prescribed by the composer. I was in another world, where everything had to be the way it was, and where everything made sense. This was what (in Hungarian) Mother and I called bele élni magamat a zenébe—“living myself into the music.”
One day my father showed up with a new phonograph, featuring a light pickup arm and a fine chrome needle. It didn’t scratch as much as the one we’d had before, and I would spend hours listening to records. Although we had a fairly large collection, my parents knew that for me, getting a new record was always a great joy. On every Christmas and birthday, and even on my name day (the day in which the saint I was named after is celebrated in church), my collection would grow, sometimes by leaps and bounds.
On my tenth birthday, Father came home with Wilhelm Backhaus’s recording of Beethoven’s famous sonata known as the Appassionata. (This is the Piano Sonata no. 23 in F Minor, considered one of Beethoven’s most tempestuous works for the piano. It was composed the year Beethoven came to grips with his deafness and reflects the turbulent emotions he experienced during this period.) I wanted very much to play it, but Mother said it wasn’t appropriate for me; rather, it was a piece for grown-ups. I didn’t agree with her at all. I told her that now that I’d turned ten, I had two numbers to my age. I would have two numbers until I passed ninety-nine. All the great pianists had two numbers, I was almost sure. Therefore, I could play whatever they were playing. I was very impressed with my venerable age.
My mother didn’t comment on my reasoning, but in the end, she agreed to teach me the Appassionata. I learned the majestic first movement in a few days, and it carried me into a land full of unknown wonders, far beyond where the other pieces had “taken” me. I loved to play the piece—and I played and played it. Mother listened, and decided to get a second opinion.
She took me to Professor Arnold Székely, a renowned professor at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, who, in his late seventies, was in retirement but was always ready to offer an opinion. He agreed to listen to me. The professor lived on the upper floor of a stately old building overlooking the Danube on the Pest side of the city.
We climbed the marble staircase and were greeted by the professor’s housekeeper, an elderly woman wearing a crisp white apron. She said that the professor was expecting us and told us to go right in. The room we entered was large and sunny, with a breathtaking view of the historic buildings across the river, on the Buda side of the city. There was no time to take it all in, though, for the professor got right to the point.
“Welcome. And what will you be playing?”
Mother answered for me, as I felt a bit embarrassed.
“We have worked on several Mozart sonatas, and even Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto—all pieces with beautiful, simple melodies,” she said. “Ervin likes them all, but then he heard Wilhelm Backhaus play the Appassionata on his new recording, and he fell in love with it. I told him that it’s not for him—he must grow up to really understand it—but he doesn’t want to listen. He learned the first movement by heart and is practicing it every day, just as soon as he sits down at the piano.”
Professor Székely raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything—he just pointed to his pianos. He had two beautiful grands side by side. Just looking at them was like gazing into the most amazing toy store I’d ever seen. I briefly tried both and then chose the Blüthner, which had a wonderful, mellow sound. Playing it didn’t feel like playing an instrument; it felt like playing with a friend. I began the first movement, and soon forgot about Professor Székely, Mother, and everything else around me. I was in the wonder world of the Appassionata.
When I finished, Mother looked inquiringly at Székely. The venerable professor stood, threw up his hands, and declared: “Egyszerüen zseni!” (“Simply genius!”). My mother nodded. Nothing more was said, and we went home.
The saying stuck. It stuck not just with Mother and me, but also became a family legend. Whenever I would contemplate undertaking something that on first sight seemed implausible—if not downright impossible—I would say (but only to myself): Perhaps it’s simply genius! And then I would try.
Ervin Laszlo, Ph.D. is the author or editor of more than 80 books, of which the latest are Science and the Akashic Field, The Chaos Point, and Quantum Shift in the Global Brain.