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ClassicsOnline Home » Easy-Listening Piano Classics: Godowsky
Easy-Listening Piano Classics
‘I love the piano and those who love the piano. The piano as a medium for expression is a whole world by itself. No other instrument can fill or replace its own say in the world of emotion, sentiment, poetry, imagery and fancy.’ These words, written in 1931 by Leopold Godowsky (1870–1938) could stand as the virtuoso pianist and composer’s artistic credo. Some basic lessons, and a mere three months of study in Berlin aside, he was largely self-taught, yet made his first public appearance aged nine and began touring as a piano wunderkind. As a concert pianist, he would perform in every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Liszt’s death in 1886 scotched Godowsky’s plan to study with the legendary virtuoso, who in his own youth had been inspired by Paganini. He traveled instead to Paris, where he befriended Camille Saint-Saëns. The French composer and pianist introduced him to many leading French musicians, and even proposed to adopt Godowsky if he would take his surname, though Godowsky declined the offer. In 1890 Godowsky began teaching at the New York College of Music. While there, he married Frieda Saxe and became an American citizen. In 1894 he moved to the Broad Street Conservatory in Philadelphia, and in 1895 to the Chicago Conservatory, where he headed the piano department. A successful European concert tour in 1900 landed him once again in Berlin, where he divided his time between performing and teaching. From 1909 to 1914 he taught master classes at the Vienna Academy of Music. When World War I broke out, he returned to New York, maintaining friendships with many distinguished performers and celebrities; Sergei Rachmaninov dedicated his Polka de W.R. to him. Godowsky was also a close friend of Albert Einstein.
Godowsky resumed touring after the Great War, but suffered a stroke while making a recording in London on 17 June 1930. His latter years were marked by family tragedy and his death in 1938, of stomach cancer, was mourned as ‘A calamitous loss’. Despite his formidable reputation, Godowsky remained modest, writing that ‘A few know the begin to live.’
A New York Times obituary expresses the regard in which he was held:
Leopold Godowsky was a unique figure among all his contemporaries: a phenonemal pianist and musician of the most exceptional attributes... He sought new worlds to conquer and set to developing the modern idioms of the piano in ways which had a strong effect upon the development of present day technic and upon composition for the instrument. This alone would entitle him to the fame rather unjustly denied him as a pianist. When he played, his style was too perfect, too sensitive, perhaps too cool and unostentatious in its values, to win the approval of the crowd. He could play everything when he was at the zenith of his powers with a finish and apparent ease attainable by few, and with an understanding and abhorrence of exaggeration which did not favour him in the concert world. By other great pianists, such as Hofmann and Rachmaninoff, Godowsky was profoundly esteemed. He was a man of wholly exceptional mentality; widely read; at home and at ease with men who were leaders in other fields than his own; a traveller in many lands; a restless and curious inquirer in more than one realm of discovery. His service to music was great and enduring, proportionate to his industry, knowledge and modesty in his course.
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Easy-Listening Piano Classics: Godowsky