A hundred years after his birth on November 5, 1921, György (Georges or George) Cziffra is is considered by some to be one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. Born in poverty, captured by the Russians and held as a prisoner during World War II, and sent to prison in the 1950’s for trying to escape from then-communist Hungary, he got out in 1956 and became a French citizen in 1968.
Hungary honors him today for a legacy of not just his recordings, but also charitable work and educational activities. The Hungarian Mint says he represents a creative artistic tradition combining elegant improvisation and the ability to synthesize different musical styles, enlivening and embodying the works of the 19th century’s great performers. The essence of Cziffra’s attitude towards life and his musical creed was the same: individual and musical freedom. His memory in Hungary is preserved by the annual Cziffra Festival. For his centennial, a series of high profile international events was held with performances by top musicians at some of the world’s most important concert halls.
A 7,500 forint silver coin, along with a 2,000 forint copper-nickel version are being issued to mark the anniversary. The coins have the same design. The front depicts György Cziffra performing in the Saint Frambourg chapel in the French city of Senlis, in the Franz Liszt Auditorium of the Cziffra Foundation established there by the pianist. The back features a stylized portrait of Cziffra. To the right of the portrait is the legend “CZIFFRA”, “GYÖRGY” and the dates of his birth and death “1921-1994.” The coin was designed by the sculptor Mihály Fritz.
The silver coin is 30 mm in diameter and weighs 12.5 grams. It is struck in .925 fine silver in proof quality. The mintage is limited to 4,000 pieces.
As a child prodigy, György Cziffra studied at the Franz Liszt Academy from the age of eight, under the tuition of Leó Weiner, György Ferenczy and Imre Keéri-Szántó. His promising career was interrupted first by World War II and Russian imprisonment and then by three years of hard labor following an unsuccessful emigration attempt in 1950. After working as a bar pianist, with the help of friends and colleagues, Cziffra was able to begin performing and recording again in the mid-1950s and received the Franz Liszt Award. On October 22, 1956, he gave an outstanding performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Erkel Színház, in a moment that linked musical history to the Hungarian revolution. After the borders opened the next day, Cziffra and his family emigrated to Paris.
His meteoric success in the years thereafter stood in sharp contrast to his previous tribulations: Cziffra quickly became one of the period’s most sought-after pianists, wooed by orchestras and concert halls such as Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and the Tonhalle. In 1969 he founded an international
competition in Versailles, and renovated and remodeled the royal chapel in Senlis, France, into a concert hall, which he named after Franz Liszt. There he performed with the greatest musicians of his time for many years.
He became a master of Romantic piano music (Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff). His improvisational skills made him one of the world’s greatest pianists. His amazing career, talent and character stand as an example, along with his work to promote young musicians.