David Helfgott

From Academic Kids

David Helfgott (born May 19, 1947) is an Australian pianist born in Melbourne to Polish-Jewish parents whose life inspired Australian director Scott Hicks' Oscar-winning film Shine. As well as his playing he is known for the unusual illness affecting, primarily, his speech. His interests outside the piano include cats, chess, philosophy, tennis, swimming and being fit in general.

Helfgott became known as a child prodigy when his father started teaching him the piano when he was six. For two years, he did not seem to know a note. Then he played Frédéric Chopin's Polonaise in A ("military"). When he was ten years old he studied under Frank Ardnt, a Perth piano teacher, and won several local competitions, sometimes alone, sometimes with his elder sister Margaret Helfgott.

When David was fourteen, the Australian musical community, led by Perth journalist James Penberthy and including writer Katharine Susannah Prichard, raised money for him to go to America. However, his father refused, on the grounds that David was not ready for independent living, and may have been showing signs of mental illness like his aunt Hannah. When he was nineteen, in 1966, he won a bursary to study at the Royal College of Music for three years, and he studied under Cyril Smith, who was the author of Four Hands.

During his time in London he began showing more definitive manifestations of mental illness. His doctor in Australia, Chris Reynolds, whom he met some twenty years later, has said that he suffers from an acute anxiety neurosis. At the end of his time in London in 1970, he returned to Perth. At this time he married a woman named Clara who was a Hungarian Jew, and made friends with Cliff Harris. He was also in several ABC concerts. His marriage eventually split up and he was institutionalised in Graylands, a Perth mental hospital.

In 1984, after performing some years at Perth wine bar Riccardo's, he met Gillian Murray, who was an astrologer. Some months later they married. He made many proposals to her. He continued to have a successful playing career throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in Australia and Europe. In 1994 he played in Russia. His world tour in 1997 was met with poor reviews.

Helfgott generally prefers to perform Romantic music, mostly of Modest Mussorgsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. A Helfgott concert is typically a bravura performance with lots of hugging and kissing. However, some of his recordings, especially that of Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto, have been criticized as lifeless and barely competent.

David Helfgott now lives in the Happy Valley in New South Wales with his second wife, Gillian Helfgott. He continues to perform concerts at his home 'Heaven'. His manager is Austin Prichard-Levy.

In December 1999, David Helfgott was the opener for the "Geniuses, Savants and Prodigies" conference of Allan Snyder's Centre for the Mind.


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