Heralded among music giants as “Buddha of the Piano” and “The Pianists’ Pianist” was probably the most astonishing instance of a self-taught performer and creator in the history of art. He was born in Vilna, Russian Poland (now the capitol of Lithuania) on February 13, 1870. In his own words, he described his childhood and piano education:
“With me music was as natural and necessary as breathing. I can not remember my first contact with music. I was far too young. My family was not composed of professional musicians, although they loved music. When I was a child my father, a physician, while attending a family during a terrible scourge of cholera, was stricken in the home of his patient and expired. This left my mother destitute. I was given into the care of an uncle who was very musical. He had been a pupil of Wieniawski and played the violin exceedingly well. I started on his piano to penetrate the fascinating mysteries of the ivory and ebony keys, when I was three years old. I have no recollection how I learned the notes. It all seemed perfectly natural and obvious to me, as though I had always known how to play them. No one remembers how one learned to feed oneself. Playing the piano was like that to me. At the age of five I composed a minuet. The middle section was a perfect canon. This is noteworthy because up to that time I had never heard a canon. I used this canon in another composition twenty-three years later.”
“I would be very glad could I have stated with truth that I was a pupil of [Franz] Liszt or any other great man, but I was not. I have not had three months lessons in my life. I have been told I was playing the piano before I was two. I think, however, an imaginative family perpetrated this story. I cannot vouch for the truth one way or the other. I have had some extraordinary experience, and this may have happened. I do not remember whether anybody taught me the value and meaning of notes and the use of the fingers of the keyboard, or whether I acquired my knowledge in an autodidactic way, but I do remember that I had no help from my fifth year on.”
In 1884, the young maestro studied for several months at the Royal High School of Music in Berlin. His career as a concert pianist, which eventually would take him to every continent except Australia and Antarctica, began at age nine. In 1886 after a North American tour, he went to Paris, where he befriended Camille Saint Saens and many leading French musicians. In 1890, he returned to America and was one of the first pianists to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. In 1891, Maestro Godowsky married his childhood sweetheart Frieda Saxe and became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1892, he became head piano teacher of the Combs Conservatory of Music in Philadelphia; and in 1894 he was chosen to direct the piano department of the Chicago Conservatory. In 1900, he settled in Berlin and in 1909, he became Director of the “Klavier-Meisterschule” of the Imperial Royal Academy of Music of Vienna (a position previously held by Ferruccio Busoni and Emil Sauer) and was made Imperial Royal Professor.
As early as 1892, Maestro Godowsky taught weight, relaxation, and economy of motion as the foundation stones of technique of interpretation and mechanism in piano playing. He was the first great concert pianist to consciously adopt and then teach the principle of weight release, rather than muscular impetus, as the most efficient method of playing. It was during the 1890s that the maestro began to make arrangements of other composers' music. His set of 54 transcriptions, reworking 26 of the 27 Chopin etudes, was produced between 1893 and 1914 and formed the basis of his reputation as an important composer for the piano.
After World War I, Maestro Godowsky resumed touring, but suffered a stroke on June 17, 1930 during a recording session in London which 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 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 late years, and he stopped composing. He died of stomach cancer at 7 a.m. on Monday, November 21, 1938. He was 68. He was buried in Temple Israel Cemetery, with Frieda and Gordon. An editorial in the New York Times (in addition to his obituary) illustrates the regard in which he was held at the time of his death.
“Leopold Godowsky was a unique figure among all his contemporaries: a phenomenal pianist and musician of the most exceptional attributes... He sought new worlds to conquer and set to developing the modem 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.”
The Etude Music Magazine, January 1913, January 1928, and June 1936
Retrospect, Godowsky's fragment of autobiography
* A special dedication to the late pianist Leopold Godowsky III (1938-2011), beloved grandson of the great Maestro Leopold Godowsky, practitioner of the Godowsky Method and sponsor of the former godowsky.com site. We are honored to carry forth your mission to protect the legacy of your grandfather. May you rest in peace.
** Our deepest gratitude to Ms. Erica Kane and Mr. Donald Manildi of The International Piano Archives at Maryland for all your support.
When greatness of genius transcends time: