Helfgott became known to international audiences as the troubled Australian pianist depicted in Australian director Scott Hicks’ 1996 film Shine. A child prodigy, Helfgott eventually suffered a mental breakdown after his overbearing father forbade him to accept an invitation from Isaac Stern to study music in the United States. After more than a decade in and out of mental institutions, during which he underwent electroshock therapy and was forbidden to play the piano due to his delicate health, Helfgott gradually recovered, first playing piano in a wine bar in his native Perth, then returning to concert halls in Australia with the help of his wife, Gillian. Following the success of the much-acclaimed Shine, Helfgott released a highly popular CD recording of his rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3, and in 1997 embarked on a world wide concert tour to sold-out audiences.
David Helfgott was born in 1947 in Perth, Australia, two hours northwest of Sydney. The second of five children born to Elias Peter and Rachel (Granek) Helfgott, he was a delicate child who early on exhibited signs of agitation. Many commentators of the film Shin. argue that the seeds of the son’s later illness were first evident in the father. Elias, who was generally known by his middle name, Peter, was the son of a Hassidic rabbi born in 1903 in the Jewish settlement of Kamyk, near Czestochowa, Poland. Raised in a region then under Jewish occupation, Peter grew to despise his father and his religion, even going so far as to try to cut off his beard. In Love You to Bits and Pieces, Gillian Helfgott’s memoir of Helfgott’s life, Helfgott recounts wistfully: “He chased his father around the table with scissors, because my father wasn’t scared of his father, you see. He stood up for himself in the world.” The elder Helfgott ran away from home when he was 14 and eventually learned that both of his parents had died in the Holocaust. In 1944 he married the then 24-year-old Rachel Granek, a Jewish girl from Czestochowa whom he had met while working with her father Mordecai and brother Morry.
Perhaps it was the loss of his family and the associated guilt he felt for his treatment of that family that led the elder Helfgott to alternately cherish and abuse his son as his love gradually gave way to a deeper envy throughout his life. The early 1950s were financially dark times for the Helfgott family. In 1953, the year David started grade school, he began to develop frequent bladder control problems that may, even at the age of five years, have been related to stress in the family home.
Peter Helfgott, a failed violinist for whom music was a great passion, prompted his son to develop his talent from an early age. David’s childhood years were often
Born in 1947, in Perth, Australia; son of Elias Peter and Rachel (maiden name, Granek) Helfgott; married his first wife, Clara, 1971 (divorced, 1974); married Gillian (an astrologer), August 26, 1984; late 1980s, became naturalized citizen of Tasmania. Education: studied at Royal College of Music in London, c. 1962.
First performance at a country festival, 1955; was offered an invitation from Professor Isaac Stern to study music in the United States, c. 1961; eventually left to study at the Royal College of Music in London, c. 1962; last major exhibition before his breakdown, 1964; returned to playing in wine bars, then concert halls in Australia, 1980s; released CDS Shine: The Soundtrack, David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in D, and David Helfgott Plays Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, 1996; released David Helfgott Plays Liszt. and undertook world concert tour, 1997.
Awards: Marmaduke Barton Prize, Hopkinson Silver Medal, 1969.
spent learning the difficult works of Russian composer and pianist Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886), as well as preparing for or performing in piano competitions. Starting at the age of nine with a performance at a country festival, Helfgott received his first major approbation from his father when he failed to win. The elder Helfgott expected his son to win and was personally wounded when he failed. Wilmoth commented of Scott’s treatment of this period of Helfgott’s life in Shine. “Living vicariously through his brilliant son, Peter Helfgott became his son’s tutor, mentor and, as the filmgraphically and controversially shows, tormentor.”
In 1958, the Helfgotts financial situation improved and the family was able to settle into a comfortable house in Highgate, Australia. By the late 1950s the hardships of the elder Helfgott’s began to affect his health and nerves, and he began to experience frequent heart attacks. As a teenage prodigy during this period, Helfgott studied under a local teacher, Frank Arndt, and continued to compete in increasingly prominent piano competitions. The same year, at the age of 14, Helfgott was offered and invitation from Professor Isaac Stern to study music in the United States. Perhaps because he saw it as threatening his own and the family’s stability, or because it meant his son would leave the family home, Peter Helfgott forbade David from going. Acting against his father’s wishes, the younger Helfgott eventually left to study at the Royal College of Music in London. Peter Helfgott disowned his son, exacerbating his son’s emotional problems and precipitating what would eventually becomefull-fledged break downs that David later described as “fog” and a state of “being damaged.”
Helfgott’s talent was gradually refined by his experience in London, and he took part in numerous exhibitions and competitions that in 1969 led to him being awarded the Marmaduke Barton Prize and Hopkinson Silver Medal from Queen Elizabeth at the Royal College of Music. Around this time, David’s tortured attempts to master Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3, in combination with his still unresolved feelings regarding his break with his father, contributed to a major breakdown. Although Helfgott’s mental condition was diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder by his psychiatrist following the breakdown, Helfgott’s overall condition has eluded clear diagnosis; as of 1997, he was unable to perform on consecutive days, and he expresses himself in a rapid-fire, often un intelligible fashion that often gives the impression that his speech can’t keep up with his thoughts. Yet Kyle Pruett noted in the New York Times. “As a psychiatrist, I try to fit him into the analytic flow charts and diagnose him into comprehensibility. But he doesn’t fit anywhere…. The blunted emotions of schizoaffective illness are completely belied by the relentless passion, the vitality, even the humor of his piano playing.”
In 1971, Helfgott was discharged from his first stay at Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth. In July, he married his first wife, Clara, immediately feeling it was a mistake. A mature divorcee with four children, Clara had asked him to marry her and was suspected by family members to be after Helfgott’s money (benefactors had set up a trust in his name); soon after, she sold David’s piano. Helfgott remarked in Love You to Bits and Pieces. “It was a marriage made in hell and consecrated by and presided over by the devil.”
Helfgott divorced Clara in 1974. On December 29, 1975, Helfgott’s father died. Contrary to Hicks’ treatment of this event in Shine, in which Helfgott finds emotional release and comes to a peace of sorts with his past, Peter’s death had little visible effect on Helfgott, who was readmitted to a mental hospital in March of 1976. Helfgott spent time in and out of hospitals during the 1970s but eventually began playing piano again at a wine bar in Perth, where he gradually attracted a substantial following. In 1983, Helfgott met Gillian, an astrologer fifteen years his senior, when the two were introduced by Chris Reynolds, the owner of Riccardo’s restaurant in Perth who had hired Helfgott to play there.
On August 26, 1984, Helfgott married Gillian, adopting her daughter Sue and son Scott from Gillian’s prior marriage. Although still on medication, Helfgott gradually returned to the piano circuit. In the late 1980s, he became a naturalized citizen of the Australian state of Tasmania.
Scott Hicks, an Australian documentary film maker living in Adelaide, made Helfgott’s acquaintance in 1986 after reading an article about Helfgott and going to see him play an informal concert. Hicks told Bernard Weinraub in the New York Times. “I had never seen anything quite like this extraordinary personality playing this extraordinary music.” Ten years later, Shin. debuted in Australia and was first shown to American audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1996.
Shortly afterward, the film was released by Fine Line Cinema and opened in theaters worldwide and became an immediate popular and critical success for its inspirational treatment of Helfgott’s battle against mental illness and for Australian actor Geoffrey Rush’s sympathetic portrayal of Helfgott. As of March 1997, the film was playing at 1, 050 theaters, had taken in $27.6 million, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor, and best director. Rush won a Golden Globe for best actor. Helfgott reportedly liked the film better than Ben Hur, according to his wife, “and when it was finished, David clapped and asked them to put it on again.”
Hicks’ portrayal of Peter Helfgott in Shineha. attracted some controversy, particularly for the scene in which Helfgott rebels against him and he beats his son into submission. Although Hicks told Fox Butterfield of the New York Timesiha. “everything in the film” was based on factual research, he acknowledged that Helfgott’s older sister, Margaret, who now lives in Israel, objected to his portrait of her father. Despite Margaret’s comment to Scott that “Dad was a Saint” and never hit David, Helfgott is quoted by Beverley Eley in her biography The Book ofDavid’ as verifying at least one incident in which “Daddy gave me a backhander” while in the bath “and I wrestled with him around the house.” Helfgott told Wilmoth: “I had plenty of bad times with the dad. And many good times too. Most of the time was fine.” Asked whether he blamed his father for his breakdown, Helfgott commented: “I was told never to apportion blame… but when I was in London I always blamed father and Margaret for my condition. I thought it was their fault.”
The soundtrackto Shine, which made use of recordings of Helfgott’s work, was released in 1996 and became Number 2 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Chart. Helfgott’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, released by RCA Victor, becamethe No. 1-selling classical CD despite a wave of negative reviews (Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times called Helfgott’s playing “pallid, erratic, and incoherent”). Hicks responded to critical views of Helfgott’s CD as clumsy and inexpressive, asserting to Butterfield: “We’ve put Rachmaninoff to the top of the charts. I don’t think he is rolling in his grave. The man lived and died in Beverly Hills.”
In 1997 Helfgott began a world concert tour that included Germany, Denmark, and six sell-out concerts in New Zealand. He began his American 18-performance, 10-city concert tour at Symphony Hall in Boston March 4, again to sold-out audiences. Most critics agreed with the assessment of Butterfield, who felt that audiences seemed “more attracted by the movie and Mr. Helfgott’s inspirational life story than by his music, which has been panned by critics.” Some argued that the concerts were less a celebration of Helfgott’s return to mental health than a freak show that threatened Helfgott’s’s fragile health. Tommasini commented that Helfgott was “seemingly touchingly connected to his listeners,” yet described his sound as “weak and thin” and “blankly unemotional.” Despite the negative reception, the tour represented “the culmination of a lifelong dream,” as reported by Gillian via Butterfield. Gillian countered against prevailing criticism: “I think there are probably people who are coming to see a man who has fought his way through the wilderness. But if they come for that reason, I think they leave deeply touched.”
Helfgott reportedly remained in good spirits throughout his tour, which for him represented the realization of a lifelong dream. Sitting next to his wife Gillian in an interview with Wilmoth, he commented: “It’s been pretty good [the publicity]. I feel very privileged, because I reckon you’re the luckiest man in the world, David, because you’ve got a film made out of you and a biography and an autobiography. That’s good isn’t it darling? And I’m very grateful and thankful until the end of eternity. You’ve got to enjoy the here and the now.”
Shine: The Soundtrack, Phillips, 1996.
David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in D, RCA/Victor, 1996.
David Helfgott Plays Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, ARP, 1996.
David Helfgott Plays Liszt, Rhapsody/ARP, 1997.
Eley, Beverly, The Book of David, HarperCollins, 1997.
Helfgott, Gillian, with Alissa Tanskaya, Love You to Bits and Pieces: Life with David Helfgott, Penguin Books (Australia), 1996.
Adelaide Advertiser, May 28, 1986.
New York, December 2, 1996.
New York Times, November 17, 1996; November 20, 1996 (late ed.); January 21, 1997; March 5, 1997; March 6, 1997.
Newsweek, November 25, 1996.
Rolling Stone, December 12, 1996.
Time, November 25, 1996.