He learned piano by watching an older sister's lessons. By the age of five, he was improvising requests from the audience at a circus. At ten, he was sent to the conservatory in Budapest. He was able to stay there only briefly, taking lessons from György Ferenczi and composition with Ernst von Dohnányi
, supporting himself playing in nightclubs. He began to establish a recital career in Hungary, Holland, and Sweden. He married Zuleika shortly before he was drafted into the Hungarian army in 1941. After the war, he was imprisoned for a year in 1946.
Returning to his wife and small son, and with his mother and surviving sisters dependent on him, he worked for hours each day to recover his piano technique, making a living on tips from playing jazz in bars and cabarets each night. After the Communists gained full power in Hungary, Cziffra was imprisoned again, for political reasons, which meant that his captors also took his wife and son, György Cziffra, Jr., The boy nearly died from the inhumane conditions in which he was held. Cziffra's Communist captors tortured him; knowing he was a pianist, they beat his hands and made him carry heavy pieces of stone. When he was released, the ligaments were so loose that he could not transmit the power of his arms through his wrists. After six months of exhaustive work, he recovered his top form. His records on the Hungarian label Qualiton
and the Czechoslovak Supraphon
label began to circulate in Western Europe, propelling him to legendary status.
When Russian troops poured into Hungary, the refugees fleeing ahead of them included the Cziffra family. After ten days on foot, they reached Vienna. He debuted there at the Brahmssaal on November 17, 1956, with outstanding success. Debuts elsewhere in Europe followed. After one recital in London, The Daily Telegraph said the audience "witnessed feats of piano playing probably never to be equalled, certainly never surpassed in their lifetime." Cziffra gained international stardom not without critical disfavor, adhering to a nineteenth century approach to music that allowed for taking "liberties" with the texts.
Cziffra settled in France with his family and took citizenship there. He undertook three major projects. One was the establishment of a piano competition in his name. The second was the purchase of the Royal Chapel of St. Frambourg near Senlis, which he made a non-sectarian shrine to spirituality and the arts, now known as the Foundation Cziffra. He also restored the organ at the Abbey of La Chaise Dieu and started a summer festival there, at the suggestion of his son, who became a conductor. It is known as the Salle Cziffra.
György Jr. tragically died in an accident in 1981, shortly after making his first commercial recordings. Cziffra refused to perform with an orchestra thereafter. He retired from recording in 1986 and left the stage in 1988. In the same year, France named him a cultural ambassador to a newly liberalized Hungary. He was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1990s, but died of a heart attack. He is buried in the cemetery of Senlis near the remains of his son, and his wife continues to direct the Foundation Cziffra.