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ClassicsOnline Home » GODOWSKY, L.: Piano Music, Vol. 8 (Scherbakov) - Java Suite / Wine, Women and Song
One of the great virtuoso pianists of his time, Leopold Godowsky also sought to make a name for himself as a composer. In common with other performers he wrote a great deal of music for his own use. Written at a stage in his career when he had decided to devote more time to composition, the 1925 Java Suite offers a series of evocative tone-pictures inspired by the landscape and people of Indonesia, which Godowsky had visited during a concert tour. His earlier imaginative metamorphosis of Strauss’s Wine, Woman and Song reveals another side of his genius.
By David Denton
Born in Poland in 1870, Leopold Godowsky was one of the most
remarkable piano virtuosos of his time, his touring career beginning at the
age of nine, his first composition completed at the age of seven. He was only
fourteen when he took the not inconsiderable journey to the United States, touring
extensively and gaining himself a reputation as a child prodigy. He eventually
returned to Europe, and though there was no formal arrangement, became a pupil
of Saint-Saens both as pianist and composer. The success he had enjoyed in the
States was a temptation he could not resist and aged 20 returned there, married
and became an American citizen. Adored for his outgoing musicianship he continued
to tour, but also spent time teaching the new generation of American pianists.
Europe was still in his blood that he returned there in his middle years, his
life as a pianist ending with a stroke at the age of 60. I do love his big showpiece
paraphrases, the Wine Women and Song a glittering score that requires
that brand of virtuoso who can tinkle around the piano in elaborate ornamentation.
It is a work ready made for Konstantin Scherbakov who is in stunning form. The
extensive travelogue around Java dates from the 1920's, some of the exotic sounds
Godowsky created having the intent of fascinating audiences who had little knowledge
of music in the Far East. In four extensive sections subdivided into movements,
each is a graphic picture of life and scenes of Java, but very much seen through
Western eyes, and particularly with Debussy ever present. Again Scherbakov is
outstanding in bringing clarity to the most complex passages, his dexterity
a prerequisite throughout. Sound quality is very good, and aficionados of decorative
romantic music should not hesitate.
Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)
Piano Music, Volume 8: Java Suite (Phonoramas: Tonal Journeys for the Pianoforte)
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 of Liszt's death from a newspaper, 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 suggestion 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 to his disciple his own compositions. 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 published his Java Suite in New York in 1925 under the title Phonoramas: Tonal Journeys for the Pianoforte, dedicating it to his friend J. Campbell Phillips. In his introduction to the whole work Godowsky explains his admiration for the ancient culture and native music of the Javanese, pointing out that the latter is all in duple or quadruple time, the counterpart of his Walzermasken and Triakontameron, which are all in triple time. He provides ample introductions to each of the pieces, the first of which, Gamelan, nowadays will need no explanation. Godowsky aims to reproduce something of the sonority of the gamelan, on the whole avoiding the chromatic. In Wayang-Purwa: Puppet Shadow Plays versions of Hindu epics are presented by shadow puppets, the Dalang, manipulated with bamboo rods so that their shadows are seen on a white screen. Hari Besaar: The Great Day represents a country fair, attended by people gathering from plantations and villages to enjoy the performances of actors, musicians, dancers and fakirs.
The second part of the suite starts with Chattering Monkeys at the Sacred Lake of Wendit. Godowsky explains in his preface that the lake is a few miles away from the little city of Malang. The chattering monkeys, jumping from tree to tree and snatching bananas from visitors, offer a scene of fun and animation, presented in an Allegro scherzando. Boro Budur in Moonlight depicts the great Buddhist shrine, with its many sculptures of Buddhas, seen in melancholy and eerie moonlight and suggesting the transitory nature of human endeavour. In The Bromo Volcano and the Sand Sea at Daybreak Godowsky tells of crossing the sea of sand to reach the sight of the great volcano, suggesting to him scenes from Dante's Inferno with its rising vapours and dense clouds, feelings of human futility to be dispelled by the rays of the sun rising in triumph.
The third part opens with Three Dances, the first languid and melancholy, the second graceful and the third suggesting poetry and tenderness. The Gardens of Buitenzorg recall the air perfumed by exotic flowers, producing feelings of insatiable longing. Buitenzorg, Godowsky explains, a name meaning Sans Souci, lies forty miles from Batavia and is the country capital where, at this time, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies had his residence. In the Streets of Old Batavia takes the visitor among exotic crowds, to the Chinese quarter and to the Arab settlement and, finally, to the native quarter and all the wild variety of the bazaar.
In the Kraton evokes the enclosures in which the Sultans have their palaces and entourages. Godowsky writes of the capital of the chief Sultan, the Susuhunan, in Solo, the popular name for Surakarta, and the next in importance, the Sultan of Djokja, the popular name of Djokjakarta. The distant sound of the gamelan informs the scene. Near the Kraton of Djokja stand the crumbling remains of the Water Palace with its fountains and cascades. The festivities of former times are now vanished, and The Ruined Water Castle at Djokja suggests yearning for the past and mourning for departed love. Godowsky ends his Phonoramas with A Court Pageant in Solo, depicting what he describes as the pomp, bombast and gorgeousness of a royal procession on a festive occasion. There is again a passing air of melancholy, dispelled by a fugato and the final resumption of the processional march.
In 1912 Godowsky published three compositions based on waltzes by the younger Johann Strauss, describing them as Symphonische Metamorphosen Johann Strauss'scher Themen (Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Johann Strauss). The third of these is a waltz-paraphrase of Wein, Weib und Gesang (Wine, Woman and Song), a splendidly imagined virtuoso transformation of the familiar original material.
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