PARIS, February 13, 2012 –In part one of this overview of Leopold Godowsky’s life, we learned how the composer survived childhood as a prodigy, became the protégé of Camille Saint-Saëns in Paris, conquered Chicago’s musical establishment, and had begun to compose the works that would ultimately make his reputation: his fifty-three “Chopin Studies” for solo piano. We pick up the narrative below.
Fame and Fortune
After his 1894 move to Chicago and the subsequent string of musical successes he scored in that city, Leopold Godowsky began thinking of making a return to Europe, with a focus on the musical centers of Berlin and Vienna. After a few more seasons consolidating his fame in America, he made his Berlin debut in 1900. The audience, including many well-known pianists and fickle music critics, embraced him wholeheartedly. Godowsky was immediately offered further concerts on excellent terms and a publishing contract for his Chopin studies. His success was so overwhelming that he decided to settle in Berlin.
It was abundantly clear that Godowsky’s Berlin debut, the greatest professional challenge he had faced to date, had launched him to international stardom. He was soon considered to be one of the finest musicians alive.
For the next 14 years, Godowsky enjoyed the rare success of a musician at the peak of his art. He knew and befriended everyone: Mahler, Gershwin, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Paderewski… the list goes on and on. As a consequence of such friendships, for the rest of his life his home became an open salon for the most prominent musicians of the age.
In 1909 Godowsky was appointed Director of Piano at the Vienna Conservatory - a position that was both highly lucrative and highly flexible, which suited him perfectly. His class of elite students included Henrich Neuhaus, who was to become the most famous Russian teacher of the twentieth century (Neuhaus’s students, in turn, included pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels).
Now a musical super-star, he found that ambitious young pianists were beating a path to his door for lessons and advice. One of these was his young compatriot Artur Rubinstein, to whom he offered a teaching job at the conservatory and a seat at his dinner table. Valuing his freedom above all else, Rubinstein turned down the teaching offer. But he continued to be a frequent guest at the Godowsky table where he discussed music with Leopold and flirted with Godowsky’s daughter Dagmar.
War and a new American beginning
At the height of Godowsky’s success and financial security in 1914, war broke out. He lost his possessions and his teaching position in Vienna almost overnight. Once again, Godowsky set sail for America, where he would make his home for the remaining 24 years of his life. He moved his permanent salon to New York, where many of the great artists of the day were regular visitors, including Stravinsky, Gershwin, Hofmann, Caruso, Heifetz, Casals, and Charlie Chaplin.
It was during this period that the last of his Chopin studies was published. In future years he would devote his time to original compositions, notably the enormous Triakontameron and the Java Suite for solo piano and the Twelve Impressions for his close friend, violinist Fritz Kreisler. He also produced various concert arrangements of standard repertoire that were popular among his colleagues.
But Godowsky spent most of the 1920s touring the world, taking in every continent except Africa. Reading his itineraries, especially considering the discomfort of transcontinental travel at the time, is enough to make one seasick. It must have been exhausting, but it was also a glamorous lifestyle that gave him access to the cultural elite of the age. In the spring of each year he would tour Europe. During regular stops in Paris he would meet with Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Gide, Matisse, and Ravel, among others.
In the spring of 1929 Godowsky was based in Paris and experienced a brief period of compositional grace. His correspondence from this period is ebullient, coinciding with an outpouring of 17 inspired new compositions for the left hand alone.
Unfortunately, disaster was waiting around the corner. In the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, Godowsky lost everything once again and never recovered financially or psychologically. Seven months later he had a stroke during a recording session in London. It paralyzed his right hand and effectively ended his career. In December 1932 his son Gordon committed suicide. His wife died a year later.
Godowsky did his best to keep busy, editing his previous works and those of other composers. But the damage to his psyche had been done. He died in November 1938.
Although Godowsky was fascinated by technology and was an early proponent of piano rolls and recordings, neither scientific advance helped further his posthumous reputation. In fact, he would probably be better known and more respected today had he abstained from recording altogether. With a handful of notable exceptions, his playing on various recordings was stilted and academic. From his correspondence we know that he found recording to be “the most nerve-wracking thing in the world.”
His was one of the first generation of musicians to be judged by the recordings they left behind. Ironically, by recording his artistry for posterity he seems to have handicapped his reputation considerably. After all, it is because of their recordings that we consider Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, and Rubinstein to be giants of the keyboard. Godowsky’s peers, however, agreed that he was at his best when playing for friends at home.
Complicating matters further, Godowsky’s most worthwhile compositions look so intimidating on the page that few pianists attempt to learn them. I once showed the score of one of the studies to a very capable pianist. When I mentioned that it was by Godowsky, he said, “That’s by Godowsky? That doesn’t look so difficult.” I then told him that the piece was for the left hand alone, and his eyes popped out. As a result of reactions like these, the works have yet to become a part of the mainstream repertoire.
Now that the works of 20th-century tonal composers are making a comeback, perhaps we are approaching a time when Godowsky’s music will experience a renaissance. Time will tell.
The author, American pianist Ivan Ilić, has recorded his second CD for the French label Paraty, entitled “Godowsky: 22 Chopin Studies.”
Following Godowsky’s death in 1938, his compositions were largely ignored until the year 2000, when super-virtuoso pianists such as Marc-André Hamelin and Boris Berezovsky began to record and perform his works in concert.
Ivan Ilić is the latest pianist to rise to the formidable challenge. His album focuses on the 22 Studies for the left hand alone, considered among the most difficult pieces ever written for the instrument.
Note: For information regarding Leopold Godowsky the author would like to acknowledge his debt to the book Godowsky, The Pianist’s Pianist, an outstanding account of the composer’s life and career by Jeremy Nicholas.
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