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ClassicsOnline Home » GODOWSKY, L.: Piano Music, Vol. 11 (Scherbakov) - Symphonic Metamorphosis of the themes from Der Zigeunerbaron / Suite for the Left Hand
Leopold Godowsky, one of the world’s greatest piano virtuosos, wrote a sequence of demanding works for his own instrument that fully reveal his exceptional command of the keyboard. The 1929 Six Pieces for both hands, each dedicated to a celebrated fellow pianist, are full of huge vitality, whilst the Suite for the left hand alone hints at baroque procedure in its movement titles but actually revels in late-romantic richness of expression. The Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes from the Gypsy Baron, only published after Godowsky’s death, is a brilliantly artful concoction.
By John Terauds
By David Denton
Leopold Godowsky (1870–1938)
Piano Music Volume 11
The great Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky was born at Soshly, a village near the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, in 1870, the son of a doctor. The first signs of his exceptional musical ability were clear by the age of three and he wrote his first compositions four years later, in 1879 making his first public appearance as a pianist. There followed a series of concerts in Germany and Poland and a very short period of study with Ernst Rudorff, a pupil of Clara Schumann and of Moscheles, at the Berlin Musikhochschule. Four months at the Hochschule proved enough and in the same year, 1884, Godowsky made his first appearance in the United States in Boston, under the auspices of the Clara Louise Kellogg Concert Company, then touring with that singer and with the singer Emma Thursby. 1885 brought appearances at the New York Casino, in weekly alternation with the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, and the following year he undertook a tour of Canada with the Belgian violinist Ovide Musin, for whom Saint-Saëns had written his Morceau de Concert. In the hope of studying with Liszt, Godowsky returned to Europe but, learning from a newspaper of the latter’s death, he travelled instead to Paris, with the object of studying with Camille Saint-Saëns, distinguished equally as a pianist and a composer. Saint-Saëns was impressed by Godowsky’s playing and suggested that he should adopt him, on condition that he changed his name, a proposal that Godowsky rejected. For the better part of three years, however, their relationship continued, with Sundays spent together, Godowsky playing to Saint-Saëns, before the latter played his own compositions to his disciple. The contact was a valuable one and allowed Godowsky to meet leading figures in contemporary musical life, including Tchaikovsky, whose music he played in that composer’s presence at the Paris chamber-music society, La Trompette. In 1927, six years after the death of Saint-Saëns, Godowsky transcribed for piano his mentor’s La Cygne (The Swan), from The Carnival of the Animals, and on his own deathbed in 1938 had a friend play this to him.
In 1890 Godowsky returned to America, where he joined the staff of the New York College of Music, married, and took out American citizenship. While continuing his career as a performer, he visited Philadelphia in 1894 and 1895, as the head of the piano department at the music school founded by Gilbert Raynold Combs, and from 1895 to 1900 led the piano department of the Chicago Conservatory. A successful concert in Berlin persuaded him to settle there in the latter year, teaching and using the city as his base for concert tours throughout Europe and the Near East. In 1909 he moved to Vienna to direct the piano master-class at the Akademie der Tonkunst.
There were American tours between 1912 and 1914 and with the outbreak of war Godowsky settled again in the United States, giving concerts and clarifying his innovative theories of keyboard technique in a series of editions and publications. At the same time he continued to write music of his own for the piano. He gave his last concert in the United States in 1922, but continued to tour throughout the world, acknowledged as one of the leading virtuosi of his time. His career as a performer was curtailed by a stroke in 1930, depriving him of the ability to play for the last eight years of his life. He was now increasingly led to pin his hopes for a lasting place in the history of music on his compositions and transcriptions for the piano. Such recognition, however, has been slow to come.
Godowsky wrote a series of pieces for the left hand in 1929, issuing these also as for both hands, the form in which they are given here. The gently romantic Meditation, in E flat major, is dedicated to the Ukraine-born Jewish pianist and composer Dimitri Tiomkin, a pupil of Felix Blumenfeld in St Petersburg and of Busoni and Egon Petri in Berlin, who had moved to the United States in 1925. In 1930 he still seemed destined for a career as a pianist, but a broken arm caused him to turn, instead, to Hollywood, where he won a reputation as one of the leading film composers of the time.
The turbulent Impromptu, in E flat minor, is dedicated to Josef Lhévinne, a Russian-Jewish pianist, who, after the war years during which he was stranded in Germany, moved to New York in 1919. There he enjoyed a significant reputation both as a pianist and, particularly, as a teacher, working at The Juilliard School.
Capriccio (Patetico), published in 1931 and in C sharp minor, reflects varying moods. It is dedicated to the Australian-born pianist Ernest Hutcheson, who had studied in Leipzig, taught in Berlin, and, in 1914 moved to New York, where he taught at The Juilliard School.
Intermezzo, in E major, was also published in 1931. It is dedicated to Alexander Siloti, who had studied in his native Russia with Zverev, Nikolay Rubinstein and Liszt, taught his cousin Rachmaninov and was associated with Tchaikovsky. Like so many others, Siloti left Russia in 1918 and in 1921 settled in New York.
Godowsky dedicated the B minor Elegy, published in 1931, to the Austrian pianist Gottfried Galston, who had been a pupil of Leschetizky in Vienna and an assistant to Busoni in Berlin. Galston settled in America in the 1920s and was based at St Louis, Missouri, until his death in 1950.
The last of the six pieces, the D minor Etude Macabre, a dramatic and energetic moto perpetuo, was published in 1930 and dedicated to the Swiss pianist, composer, teacher and climber Emile-Robert Blanchet.
Märchen (Fairy Tale) was published in London in 1888, with a dedication to the sisters Louise and Jeanne Drouste de Fortis. The sisters, of French descent but born in London, appeared as pianists in childhood, winning for themselves a considerable reputation, enhanced by concert tours. They later both had training as singers, to be applauded in their appearances in the title-rôles of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. The piece suggests a fairy-tale narrative, its sinister opening serving as framework for passages in other moods.
The demanding Suite for the left hand alone, with movements in D major and D minor, was published in 1930 with a dedication to the French pianist and teacher Isidor Philipp, friend and interpreter of Debussy. The titles of the eight movements suggest a baroque suite, but the pieces are in Godowsky’s characteric late-romantic style. Nevertheless, after the introductory pair of dances, the Gavotte has the expected air of delicacy and the slow Sarabande brings a feeling of nostalgia. The mood changes for a Bourrée, with its calmer trio section, leading to the dotted rhythms of a Sicilienne. A winsome Menuet and Trio is followed by the expected lively final Gigue.
Godowsky’s Prelude and Fugue for the left hand alone was published in 1930, with a dedication to the American pianist Arthur Loesser, who, for much of his career, was associated with the Cleveland Institute. The elaborate Prelude is followed by an intricate Fugue on the notes B-A-C-H (B flat – A – C – B natural), a favourite motif.
Godowsky dedicated his Moto Perpetuo to his uncle Léon Sachse, publishing it first in France in 1889, and subsequently revising it as Toccata, Op 13. It is an effective exploration of the form.
The younger Johann Strauss’s operetta Der Zigeunerbaropn (The Gypsy Baron) was first staged in Vienna in 1885. It proved second in popularity, among Strauss operettas, only to Die Fledermaus. The plot concerns the hero Sándor Barinkay, who returns to Hungary to claim his father’s estates, but is at first unsuccessful, obstructed by the illiterate Zsupán. He falls in love with the gypsy girl Sáffi and marries her in a gypsy ceremony that proves unconvincing to the authorities. His fortunes are finally restored after his triumphant return from an Austrian campaign in Spain. Much of the action revolves around the treasure, to be claimed by Barinkay. The Schatz-Walzer (Treasure Waltzes) themes, presented in Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphoses for the left hand alone, edited by David Saperton and published in 1941, three years after Godowsky’s death, present a number of familiar themes, largely recalled by Strauss himself in his own Op 418 orchestral medley. The themes range from Ha, seht, es winkt, es blinkt (Ah, see, it beckons, it gleams) that starts the Schatz Trio of Sáffi, Barinkay and Czipra, continuing with the waltz-song for Arsena, Zsupán’s daughter, So voll Fröhlichkeit/gibt es weit und breit (So there is happiness far and wide) and Barinkay’s Nun will ich des Lebens mich freu’n (Now I will enjoy life), the whole blended together with an art that conceals art.
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