Leopold Godowsky (Leopold Godowski) (
February 13, 1870– November 21, 1938), was a famed Polish-American pianist, composer, and teacher. He has sometimes been described as the "Pianist of Pianists".
Godowsky was born to
Jewishparents in Sozły, near Vilna, in what was then Russian territory but is now part of Lithuania. He considered himself of Polish heritage. He became a naturalised American. He is therefore now considered to be "Polish-American."
As a child, he received some lessons in basic piano playing and music theory; at age fourteen, he entered the Königliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where he studied under
Ernst Rudorff, but left after three months. Otherwise, he was self-taught.
His career as a concert pianist, which eventually took him to every inhabited continent except
Australia, began at age ten. In 1886, after a tour of North America, he returned to Europe, intending to study with Franz Lisztin Weimar. Upon learning of Liszt's death shortly after his return, he traveled instead to Paris, where he was befriended by the composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns, who enabled him to make the acquaintance of many leading French musicians. Saint-Saëns even proposed to adopt Godowsky if he would take his surname, an offer which Godowsky declined, much to the older man's displeasure.
Godowsky's technique was such that
Arthur Rubinsteinwrote, "It would take me 500 years to get a mechanism like Godowsky's." However, like Adolf von Henselt, Godowsky was a virtuoso technician plagued by stage fright. Though he didn't avoid the concert platform altogether, as did Henselt, it was acknowledged that Godowsky's best work was not in public or in the recording studio, but at home. After leaving Godowsky's home one night, Josef Hofmanntold Abram Chasins, "Never forget what you heard tonight; never lose the memory of that sound. There is nothing like it in the world. It is tragic that the world has never heard Popsy as only he can play." [ Harold C. Schonberg, "The Great Pianists," p. 338.]
Godowsky's pedagogical activity began in 1890 at the
New York College of Music. While in New York, he married Frieda Saxe and the next day became an American citizen. In 1894 he moved to the Broad Street Conservatoryin Philadelphia, and again in 1895 to the Chicago Conservatory, where he headed the piano department. Jan Smeterlin, Issay Dobrowenand Heinrich Neuhausare among Godowsky's prominent students.
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. The outbreak of
World War Idrove him back to New York, where his home was frequented by many distinguished performers and celebrities of that day. Sergei Rachmaninoff, a particular friend, dedicated his "Polka de W. R." to him.
Godowsky also recorded a large number of Ampico piano rolls.
Godowsky was also a close friend of
Albert Einstein. Some anecdotes about this as well as humorous anecdotes on his life can be found at [http://www.godowsky.com/Biography/bio.html] . In 1902, he was initiated as an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music, at the Combs College of Music in Philadelphia.
After the war, Godowsky resumed touring, but a stroke he suffered
June 17, 1930, during a recording session in London, put an end to his public performances, and made it impossible for him to recoup the considerable financial loss he had suffered in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The only surviving recording from that historic session, unfortunately in very poor sound, is a rendition of the Scherzo No. 4, Op. 54 by Chopin, which can be found in a 3-CD set devoted to Godowsky issued by Marston Records.
Family and final years
The suicide of his younger son in 1932 and the death of his wife in 1933, combined with his despair over the deteriorating political situation in Europe (his plans for a "World Synod of Music and Musicians" and an "International Master Institute of Music" came to nothing), cast an even deeper shadow over his last years, and he stopped composing. He died of stomach cancer in New York on
November 21, 1938.
He was survived by his son
Leopold Godowsky, Jr., the co-inventor (with Leopold Mannes) of color photography, as well as a violinist. Leopold Jr. married George Gershwin's younger sister, Frances, thus continuing the musical line.
He was also survived by his daughter, the actress
Dagmar Godowsky(1896-1975), who during the 1920s appeared as a co-lead in various Hollywood silent movies, including with Rudolph Valentino. She was a notorious vamp, a popular socialite, and wrote a humorous autobiography "First Person Plural" (New York 1958).
As a composer, Godowsky has been best known for his paraphrases of piano pieces by other composers, which he enhanced with ingenious contrapuntal devices and rich chromatic harmonies. His most famous work in this genre are the 53
Studies on Chopin's Etudes, in which he varies the already challenging originals by: introducing countermelodies; transferring the technically difficult passages from the right hand to the left; transcribing the entire etudefor left hand solo; or interweaving two etudes, with the left hand playing one and the right hand the other (as impossible as this seems). These are so taxing, even for virtuosi, that only three pianists have ventured to record the entire set: Geoffrey Douglas Madge, Carlo Granteand Marc-André Hamelin. Italian pianist Francesco Libetta has performed the complete études in concert and is to make a video recording of the set.
Godowsky also transcribed for the piano two sonatas and one partita for solo
violin, and three suites for solo celloby Johann Sebastian Bach, while highly embellishing them by the addition of complementary voices in contrapuntal manner. These have been recorded by Carlo Grante and Konstantin Scherbakov.
The Piano Sonata in E minor, the Passacaglia, and "
Triakontameron" are amongst other works of Godowsky that have become more well-known of recent times. The Passacagliais based on a theme from Franz Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" and has acquired a reputation for extreme difficulty. ( Vladimir Horowitzfamously gave up on it, stating that it would require not 2 but 6 hands to perform. However, Horowitz was not a fan of Godowsky's work in general, and the reality is that there are more technically challenging works in the concert repertoire.) The Passacaglia has been recorded by Carlo Grante, Marc-André Hamelin(twice), Rian de Waal, Ian Hobson, Antti Siirala, David Stanhopeand Konstantin Scherbakov, among others.
* [http://www.godowsky.com/enter.html Official Godowsky page]
* [http://www.leopoldgodowsky.com/ Leopold Godowsky] , site created by Jonathan Edward Mann
* [http://www.esm.rochester.edu/sibley/specialc/findaids/display.php?id=84 Leopold Godowsky Collection - Manuscripts] at the
Eastman School of Music
* Kunst der Fuge: [http://kunstderfuge.com/classical/g.htm#Godowsky Leopold Godowsky - MIDI files]
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