To underscore his grim determination, Geza Zichy, a young Hungarian
count wrote his private tutor a letter that was not to be opened for a year.
The teen instructed, “if exactly one year from today I am unable to do
with one hand what other people can do with two, put a bullet through my
Doubtless the tutor would have refused his young pupil. But his death
wish, serious or not, is quoted in the The Journal of Hand
“It is noteworthy that Zichy went on to become a renowned pianist
and composer of his time with more than 200 works to his name, which include
Fantasie über Motive aus R. Wagner’s Tannhäuser
(1883), Polonaise in A Major (Transcription of
Chopin’s Op. 40 No. 1), and Piano Concerto in E flat Major
(1900),” wrote Ignat Drozdov, BS, Mark Kidd, PhD and Irvin Modlin,
MD, PhD in their article “Evolution of One-Handed Piano
Zichy became a student of the famous Hungarian pianist and composer
Franz Liszt and once performed a special benefit concert with him. Zichy
astounded audiences throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire, including a famous
critic in Vienna, who was notorious for dishing out less than rave reviews.
“The most astounding thing we have heard in the way of piano
playing in recent times has been accomplished by a one-armed man – Count
Geza Zichy,” the authors quoted the critic.
Another critic called Zichy “the greatest marvel of modern times on
the piano. Zichy has attained a perfection astonishing with five fingers. He is
able to imitate the play of ten.”
Love of the piano
Born in 1849 into one of Hungary’s oldest noble families, Zichy
loved the piano. The lad was also fond of shooting game.
He was on a hunting trip when he lost his limb and nearly his life. He
was attempting to draw his rifle from a horse-drawn cart when the animal
lunged. The rifle fired, the bullet mangling his right arm. Doctors removed the
limb “at the level of the shoulder,” Drozdov, Kidd and Modlin wrote.
Zichy taught himself to play with his left hand, which astonished Liszt
under whom he studied piano for 5 years. Zichy also overcame his disability to
become a lawyer and poet.
Liszt marveled at Zichy. Zichy loved his teacher. In his book,
Franz Liszt: The Final Years, 1861-1886, Alan Walker told about
the time in 1876 that Liszt fell from a carriage, seriously bruising his chest
Zichy expressed concern for his teacher. Liszt ”joked that he would
be ashamed to complain in the presence of Zichy who had only one arm.”
Zichy’s musical accomplishments did not go unappreciated. From 1875
to 1918 he was president of the National Conservatory in Budapest. From 1890 to
1894 he was also intendent at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in the city.
Because he was wealthy, Zichy gave to charity the money he earned as a
musician and composer. In his autobiography Aus Meinen Leben,
Zichy recalled the time he teamed up with Liszt to perform an 1879 concert in
Klausenburg, Hungary, to raise money for the people of the earthquake-ravaged
Hungarian city of Szegedin.
The November 1913, issue of The Etude magazine quoted from
Zichy’s book: “Liszt came to my room and said, ‘Grieving does
nothing at a time like this. We must help at once. We must give a concert for
the sufferers. Come to the piano.’
“We sat at the keyboard and played an arrangement of the
Rakoczy March, which I had made for three hands. Then we arranged
the entire program. In a few hours the concert was placarded upon all the
street corners, and before night the entire house was sold out.”
Because Liszt had not been in Klausenburg for 33 years, the performance
turned out to be more like a public festival, Zichy recalled: “The stage
was turned into a flower garden. When Liszt entered, the entire audience arose
after the manner in which a king is greeted.
Deeply absorbed, Liszt sat at the keyboard, threw back his head, glanced
dreamily upwards, and played as though profoundly impressed with the
transitoriness of all things, played as no mother’s son had ever heard a
man play before. In the end, his hands fell upon the soul of the instrument, as
a mighty sea dashes upon the rocks of the shore. He sang of human courage and
independence, of battle and victory, of exultation and transfiguration.”
Zichy concluded: “Only a very few understood what he was playing,
but all comprehended to the depths of their hearts the significance of his
emotion. At the end of the concert, we played the Rakoczy March
for three hands. I had difficulty in playing the bass loud enough with one hand
to balance his ten mighty fingers. The enthusiasm was elemental. Students
jumped upon the platform and carried the old master away upon their
World War I
Though he could not fight in World War I, Zichy offered his services to
the Austro-Hungarian empire, Imperial Germany’s principal ally. In May
1915, Zichy gave an acclaimed performance in Berlin, Germany’s capital, to
an audience composed entirely of men disabled from their battle wounds.
“His vision was to uplift the spirits of those who had had limb
amputations and to demonstrate that physical injury was no impediment to the
flourishing of the creative soul,” Drozdov, Kidd and Modlin wrote.
Germany and Austria-Hungary surrendered to the Allies in 1918.
Afterwards, Austria and Hungary became separate nations, and the rest of the
empire was broken into independent countries, too. Zichy remained in Budapest,
where he died in 1924 at 74 years old.
For more information:
Walker A. Franz Liszt: The Final Years, 1861-1886.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.