Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)
"Thesuperman of piano playing", "a pianist for pianists", "thegreatest technician of all time", "the ultimate phenomenon" -those are some of the epithets applied to Leopold Godowsky. Regrettably hisconcern with perfection and his innate shyness inhibited his publicperformances and his recordings, and the transcendental magnificence of hisplaying was revealed fully only to those who were fortunate enough to hear himin the privacy of his own studio. Godowsky was a giant of the Golden Age, incompany with Rachmaninov, Lhevinne, Rosenthal, Friedman and Moiseiwitsch. Noless a figure than the great Hofmann proclaimed it a tragedy that the publicnever heard Godowsky play as only he could. He was indeed one of the mostremarkable pianists who ever lived.
Amazingly,Godowsky was in large part self-taught. Born in Soshly, near Vilnius inpresent-day Lithuania on 13th February 1870, he began to study the violin atthe age of three, but before long his true aptitude for the piano becameapparent. There is a story that at the age of four, without any piano lessons,he played correctly a selection from Martha which he had heard only once -played by the regimental band a full year before! His musical training in Vilniuswas scant and sporadic. Even so, by the age of seven he was composing his ownpieces, and remarkably he used many of his early musical ideas again in hismature compositions. When nine years old he made his public début, and thatrecital led eventually to a tour through Poland and Germany. In Königsberg,Godowsky attracted the attention of a wealthy banker named Feinburg, throughwhose generosity he entered the Berlin Hochschule für Musik at the age ofthirteen for two years' study. Among his teachers were the composer WoldemarBargiel (1828-1897), who was Clara Schumann's half-brother, and thepianist-composer Ernst Rudorff (1840-1916), who was a friend of Brahms.
LeavingBerlin, he made his American début in Boston on 7th December 1884 and embarkedin 1886 on a tour of Canada with the Belgian violinist Ovide Musin. Thefollowing three years were spent mostly in Paris, where Godowsky became knownas a protégé of Saint-Saëns and played in society salons, and in London, wherehe played a command performance for the royal family. The next decade found himback in America, associated with important music schools in New York,Philadelphia and Chicago. He took American citizenship and married Frieda Saxein 1891. (Their son, incidentally, was the co-inventor of the Kodachrome colourprocess.)
Amomentous occasion in Godowsky's life was the recital in Berlin on 6th December1900, when he became overnight one of the world's greatest pianists. Alreadyknown by reputation to the German capital's pianistic circles, Godowsky wasnevertheless a new name to the public and the critics. He faced the concertwith trepidation, fearing popular success and critical defeat or vice versa,not to mention an antisemitic press and professional jealousies. After playingthe Brahms B flat concerto to his "absolute satisfaction," heproceeded to conquer the audience, in which all of Berlin's musical luminarieswere in attendance, with seven of his own Chopin paraphrases and hisarrangement of Weber's Invitation to the Dance. The pianists de Pachmann,Weiss, Hambourg and Foerster, according to Godowsky's account, "wentmad" along with the rest of the audience, and Godowsky lost count of thecurtain calls after the paraphrases. The success was greater than any he hadever witnessed; not even Paderewski had generated such enthusiasm. The rest ofthe concert consisted of a similarly inspired performance of the Tchaikovsky Bflat minor concerto and two encores. The critics were unanimous in theirpraise. "Nobody ever got such notices," Godowsky recalled, addingthat no musician present could ever remember a more sensational success.
SuddenlyBerlin had two keyboard giants - Godowsky and Busoni - and they busiedthemselves each one trying to outdo the other. Godowsky remained in Berlin, teachingthere, until 1909, when he accepted a professorship in advanced studies at theAkademie der Tonkunst in Vienna. At the outbreak of World War I he setliedpermanently in America. During a recording session of Chopin's Nocturnes inLondon in 1930, Godowsky suffered a stroke that cost him the use of his rightarm and abruptly ended his concert career. He continued to compose until hisdeath in New York on 21st November 1938.
Everythingthat Godowsky achieved as a technician and an interpretative artist wasembodied in his own compositions and transcriptions. He made a firm distinctionbetween virtuosity (the mechanics of piano playing that "any fool canlearn") and technique (which he defined as everything that makes forartistry - fingering, phrasing, pedalling, dynamics, agogics, time and rhythm).
He described his style of composition as a personal one with involved innervoices, complex counterpoint and polyrhythms and novel sonorities. As much ashe was fascinated by technical matters, he placed greater importance on emotion("the prime requisite of art"), which nevertheless needs the guidanceof knowledge and intelligence. He claimed never to have written a note that hedid not feel and described his music as self-revelation through sound.
Itused to be said that Godowsky composed for a future generation of pianists,since his works - both the original ones and the transcriptions - were of suchdifficulty that only he could play them. Even today the Fitty - Three Studieson Chopin's Etudes must be regarded as among the most difficult pieces everwritten for the piano. They are fantastic elaborations that far exceed thedemands that even Liszt had made of his players. Several, including the"Revolutionary" étude, are recast tor the left hand alone. One,retitled "Badinage", combines simultaneously the "BlackKey" étude in the left hand and the "Butterfly" étude in theright! Anticipating cries of heresy in his treatment of Chopin, Godowskydefended in a foreword to the published edition his intention to expand thepiano's polyphonic, polyrhythmic, polydynamic and coloristic possibilities.
Certainly he achieved a transcendental quality that exalts the instrument in amanner unsurpassed since Liszt.
Theother transcriptions include the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Johann Strauss'sWaltzes (which are of legendary difficulty but modest compared to the Chopinstudies), paraphrases on Weber's Invitation to the Dance and Perpetuum mobile,arrangements of three each of Bach's solo suites for violin and cello, a set ofa dozen Schubert songs, and Renaissance - two sets of twenty-four dance piecesby Rameau, Corelli, Lully and Dandrieu.
AmongGodowsky's original compositions are an exhaustively contrapuntal,five-movement Sonata in E Minor, several concert études and anumber of smallerpieces. Best known of the original works is Triakontameron, a suite of thirtytone pictures whence comes the graceful, nostalgic "Alt Wien". Aconcert tour of Asia provided the inspiration for the Java Suite, twelve sketchesthat echo the exotic Indonesian gamelan music. The Suite for the Left HandAlone, Six Waltz Poems and Prelude and