Leopold Godowsky (February 13, 1870 – November 21, 1938) was a famed Polish-American pianist, composer, and teacher. He has been described as "a pianist for pianists".
Leopold Godowsky was born to Jewish parents in Żośle, near Wilno, 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 Liszt in 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 Rubinstein wrote, "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 Henselt had later done, 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 Hofmann told 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."
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 Combs College of Music in Philadelphia, and again in 1895 to the Chicago Conservatory, where he headed the piano department. Jan Smeterlin, Issay Dobrowen and Heinrich Neuhaus were 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 I drove 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.
He recorded many rolls for the Duo-Art reproducing pianos in the 1920s, 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.
Godowsky was also a close friend of Albert Einstein. There are various humorous anecdotes about his relationship with Einstein. 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 on 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 Kodachrome photo transparency film, 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 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 is the 53 Studies on Chopin's Études, in which he varies the already challenging original études by: introducing countermelodies; transferring the technically difficult passages from the right hand to the left; transcribing the entire étude for left hand solo; or interweaving two études, 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 six pianists have ventured to record some of these Studies: Boris Berezovsky, Carlo Grante, Marc-André Hamelin, Ian Hobson, Francesco Libetta and Geoffrey Douglas Madge. Hamelin recorded the entire set, being commonly considered the most technically competent. Libetta has performed the complete études in concert (the only pianist to do so from memory) and made a video recording of the set (live in Milan, March 2006).
A similar work in this vein is the "Contrapuntal Paraphrase on C.M. Weber's Invitation to the Dance", for two pianos, with an optional part for a third piano.
Godowsky also transcribed for the piano two sonatas and one partita for solo violin, and three suites for solo cello by 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 some works of Godowsky that have become more well-known of recent times. The Passacaglia is based on a theme from Franz Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony and has acquired a reputation for extreme difficulty. (Vladimir Horowitz famously gave up on it, stating that it would require not two but six 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 Stanhope and Konstantin Scherbakov, among others.
His compositions are said to have influenced Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev.