David Helfgott was born in Melbourne to Polish-Jewish parents. He became known as a child prodigy after his father started teaching him the piano when he was five. When he was ten years old he studied under Frank Arndt, a Perth piano teacher, and won several local competitions—sometimes alone and sometimes with his elder sister Margaret.
At the age of fourteen while studying at Mount Lawley Senior High School, people such as Perth composer James Penberthy and writer Katharine Susannah Prichard raised money to enable him to go to the United States to study music. However, his father denied him permission on the grounds that he was not ready for independence (and presumably also given early indications of mental illness). From age 17 he studied with Alice Carrard, a former student of Béla Bartók and István Thomán. He won the state final of the ABC Instrumental and Vocal Competition six times.
At the age of nineteen, Helfgott won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied under the pianist Cyril Smith for three years. The awards he won at the RCM included the Dannreuther Prize for Best Concerto Performance for his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and the Marmaduke Barton Prize.
During his time in London he began showing more definite manifestations of schizoaffective disorder. He returned to Perth in 1970. The following year he married Clare Papp, an older woman with four children. He worked as a rehearsal pianist for the Western Australian Opera Company and also took part in several ABC concerts. After his brief marriage broke down he was institutionalised in “Graylands”, a Perth mental hospital. Over the next ten years, he underwent psychiatric treatment which included psychotropic medication and electroconvulsive therapy.
In 1983 his brother Les Helfgott found him work at a Perth wine bar called Riccardo’s. In 1984, at Riccardo’s, Helfgott met Gillian Murray, an astrologer. They married later that year.
Helfgott was the subject of the 1996 film Shine, which portrayed the pianist’s formative years and struggle with mental illness. Helfgott was played by actors Geoffrey Rush (adult), Noah Taylor (teenager) and Alex Rafalowicz (child). The film received strong criticism from Helfgott’s sister for a range of alleged inaccuracies, particularly for the portrayal of his father as a tyrannical despot.
Helfgott and his second wife, Gillian, live in a valley near Bellingen in New South Wales.
When not at the piano his other interests include reading, watching television, listening to music (preferably all at the same time), cats, chess, philosophy, swimming and keeping fit.
David Helfgott is an extraordinary artist who is continuing to receive worldwide recognition for his remarkable technical and interpretative genius. His success comes as no surprise to David’s legion of devoted admirers who have long regarded his recitals as transcending mere music-making and are an affirmation of the tenacity of the human spirit and imagination.