Leopold Godowsky

« 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 »

Leopold Godowsky was born in the village of Soshly near Vilna (then Russian Poland) on February 13, 1870, and died in New York City on November 21, 1938. He is a renowned virtuoso pianist and composer. He was one of the most highly regarded performers of his time, known for his theories concerning the application of relaxed weight and economy of motion within pianistic technique.

As a pianist, Leopold Godowsky was among the giants of the early twentieth century, one of the “lions of the keyboard’ whose whirlwind technique sent audiences spinning. As a composer, he combined his astonishing virtuosity with an equally extraordinary intellect, creating works of unparalleled difficulty and superior artistic power.Source

He began to compose when he was seven years old. When he first came to New York on October 31, 1884, he had already been before the public as a pianist Wunderkind for five years. He had just run away from the Berlin Hochschule für Musik after spending four months there. His American debut occurred in Boston on December 7, 1884. In 1886, he toured the northeastern United States and Canada. Later that year he returned to Europe, intending to study with Liszt, but Liszt’s death led Godowsky to earn his living playing in the salons of London and Paris. There he became a protégé of Saint-Saëns who wanted to adopt him legally.Source

Godowsky’s artistic development is a unique event in the history of music. This pianist, who ascended to the pinnacle of fame, always emphasized that he was an autodidact. The highest professionalism and faultless mastery possessed by this musician were not the result of effective pedagogical methods. He did not, under the careful attention of experienced teachers, consistently and with determination master the basics of performance technique and the principles of interpretation. Rather, his achievement was wholly his own doing, thanks to his intuition, internal sense of taste and accumulated listener impressions.(…) He became accustomed to the search for his own path by the fact that from early childhood he was not under a pedagogical diktat but rather developed completely independently and had the ability to decide for himself. Source

When Godowsky returned to the United States in 1890, Alexander Lambert, Director of the New York College of Music, added him to the faculty there. On May l, 1891, shortly after reaching the age of twenty-one and the day after he had married a New York girl, Frederica Saxe, Godowsky became a citizen of the United States. In 1894-1895 he commuted to Philadelphia where he was Director of the Piano Department of Gilbert Raynolds Combs’ Broad Street Conservatory of Music. In 1895 Godowsky moved to Chicago where he remained until 1900 as head of the piano department of the Chicago Conservatory of Music. There he developed his pedagogic theories of “weight and relaxation” in piano playing and gained repute as a teacher.Source

At a concert in Berlin on December 6, 1900, Godowsky presented himself to the test of European opinion, and attained such a phenomenal success that he was literally recognized overnight as one of the world’s great pianists and composers for the piano. He thereupon settled in Berlin until 1909, teaching privately and making annual concert tours of Europe and the Near East. For those tours, he composed during the summers such works as the Metamorphoses on Johann Strauss’ Themes, the Renaissance transcriptions, and the Walzermasken.Source

« I don’t like to go to concerts because if they’re good, I’m jealous; if they’re bad, I’m bored. »

Leopold Godowsky

Godowsky’s pianism was never considered empty or showman-like. He was hailed as a “pianist’s pianist” who consistently projected the utmost purity of style and intepretation. Indeed, in his original compositions and, most especially, in his transcriptions and paraphrases, Godowsky avoids the appearance of artifice or sheer bravura. This is particularly remarkable in the case of his transcriptions of Chopin’s études, since Godowsky’s reworkings are thought to be among the most complex pieces ever written for the piano. He took Chopin’s brilliantly idiomatic piano studies and created fifty-three works which, as Godowsky states in his preface to the Schlesinger edition, fully develop the “mechanical, technical, and musical possibilities of piano playing. He reduced several of Chopin’s two-handed études to études for the left hand alone; with other works he performed ingenious tricks, such as switching the original’s treble and bass parts. Godowsky even succeeded with the unimaginable task of combining two pieces into one (for example, he seamlessly unites Chopin’s two studies in G-flat, the so-called ”Butterfly’ and ‘Black Key” études). In all, he stretched the limits of harmony, rhythm, and color. To say that the transcriptions of Schubert lieder and Strauss waltzes are virtuosic is an understatement that neglects the musicianship and exquisite craftsmanship of Godowsky’s art. Evident in these works are Godowsky’s musical sensibility and refined taste.Source

Godowsky wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and, like his transcriptions, his own works show him to be a master of polyphonic keyboard writing. Some of his original compositions may be less imaginative than his transcriptions from a melodic standpoint, but they are as skillfully wrought as his transcriptions.Source In composing, Godowsky was a traditionalist. But he developed tradition to the 11th degree in its application to music for the piano. Completely familiar with all schools and styles he developed his own distinct idiom, including a new counterpoint for piano music. “Bach and Chopin,” said Huneker. Although the intellectual mastery of his compositions has long been recognized, their poetic qualities remain almost unmentioned. And yet in everything he composed Godowsky created beauty in music.Source

From 1909 to 1914 he was Director of the Klaviermeisterschule of the Imperial Royal Academy of Music in Vienna but at the outbreak of World War I he returned to live in the United States. After 1922, Godowsky deliberately devoted himself primarily to composing, although he made concert tours in Europe and other places that interested him, such as Central and South America, the Near and the Far East.Source

Godowsky was a world traveler. He considered “travel not only a way of lifting the creative intellect, but also a philosophical, spiritual enterprise, a way of advancing one’s journey of self-discovery.” Drawing inspiration from his exotic encounters, “it occurred to me,” he writes, “that a musical portrayal of some of the interesting things I had been privileged to see, a tonal description of the impressions and emotions they had awakened, would interest those who are attracted by adventure and picturesqueness and inspired by their poetic reactions.” Source

Godowsky stayed in Java for 4 weeks and gave at least twenty recitals. Despite his heavy performing schedule he eagerly explored local culture, music, and people. And he visited various places and landmarks that would become the basis for the Java Suite. Initially, Godowsky intended to compose “finishing selections for piano recital programs that consist of themes and tunes of different races and parts of the world. My plan is,” he writes, “to make picturesque, characteristic and fanciful works based on folk tunes and dances of exotic countries: Java, Japan, China, India, Turkey and perhaps one Jewish and one Negro piece.” However, the scenic beauty and rich cultural atmosphere of Java soon focused his creative efforts and “the thought gradually matured in me to recreate my roaming experiences in a cycle of musical travelogues—tonal journeys—which I have named collectively “Phonoramas,” beginning with a series of twelve descriptive scenes in Java.” Godowsky published his Java Suite in 1925.  Source

Also during the 1920s he recorded many rolls for the Duo-Art reproducing pianos, the only reproducing piano mechanism which was available in concert grand Steinways. Godowsky also recorded a large number of piano rolls for the American Piano Company. Source

Leopold Godowsky, Albert Einstein, Arnold Schoenberg
Leopold Godowsky, Charles Chaplin
later years and hardships

However, while Godowsky’s career prospered, his personal life slowly started falling apart. His wife Frieda fell seriously ill in 1924 and her health continued deteriorating ever since. In 1928 Godowsky’s son Gordon abandoned his studies and married a vaudeville dancer, causing his father to disown him.Source

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 Godowsky’s financial situation worsened. A string of recordings the pianist began in London in 1928, as well as public concerts, would have remedied the problem; however, both activities were cut short by an unexpected disaster : on 17 June 1930 while Godowsky was in a London studio making a phonograph recording he suffered a stroke just after completing Chopin’s E major Scherzo which left him partially paralysed. He never played the piano again. Until his death, although his colleagues and pupils and myriads of personal friends worshipped him and his genius, he was a broken man and a tragic figure : a concert pianist who could no longer play the piano, a composer for the piano whose works were not widely appreciated. Yet Godowsky believed that after his death his compositions would be heard with growing frequency and that with those hearings would come appreciation and love for them.Source Godowsky died of stomach cancer at the age of 68.


I added an album of pianist Konstantin Scherbakov playing some of Godowsky’s compositions to my February Studio Playlist (that you can listen to here) without knowing who Godowsky was. I really loved his music which prompted me to learn more about the composer, hence the blog post. And after learning more about him, and especially after realizing that he was still not such a wide known composer I thought he definitively deserved attention. I made another Playlist on iTunes featuring his compositions (I might be missing some). If you wish to discover fully the composer, you can listen to my Godowsky Playlist here.

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