Leopold Godowsky, pianist and composer, reborn in the 21st century

At the turn of the 20th century, the musical landscape was transformed by an outstanding generation of pianist-composers. Among these, Leopold Godowsky was one of the most brilliant.

PARIS, January 18, 2011–At the turn of the 20th century, the musical landscape was transformed by an outstanding generation of pianist-composers. Among these, Leopold Godowsky was one of the most brilliant. It was a golden age for the piano: concert platforms were graced by the likes of Rubinstein, Paderewski, Hofmann, Leschetizky, Friedman, Horowitz, Rachmaninoff, and Busoni.

Leopold Godowsky ( February 13, 1870 - November 21, 1938) was unique among these giants in that he garnered unanimous praise among his peers, who nicknamed him ‘the Buddha of the piano’. Artur Rubinstein once said that “it would take him 500 years” to acquire Godowsky’s technique.

Numbering over 400, his compositions reflect a profound understanding of the piano’s possibilities, unmatched even by Rachmaninoff. The Russian composer once wrote that “Godowsky is the only musician of this age who has given a real, lasting contribution to the development of the piano”. Godowsky produced a treasure of compositions and transcriptions - while pursuing a busy life of teaching and performing - despite periodic setbacks and disasters that might have curtailed the output of a lesser man. 

Godowsky was born near present-day Vilnius in February 1870. The area was part of the Russian Empire at the time, and most of its inhabitants were either Jewish or Polish; Godowsky was both. His father, a doctor, died 18 months after Leopold’s birth while treating cholera victims. Shortly afterwards, Leopold and his mother moved in with Louis and Minna Passinock, friends of the family who had no children of their own. Louis Passinock ran a second-hand piano store. 

A Child Prodigy 

The early years of Godowsky’s life greatly influenced the artist to come. From the age of three, he studied the violin with Louis Passinock and taught himself the piano, in addition to rudimentary theory lessons from Minna Passinock. He was absorbed with music to an astonishing degree, and seems to have laid the groundwork for his formidable technique well before he could read or write. He also played chamber music with Louis Passinock on a daily basis, becoming a cultivated and well-rounded musician at an age when most musicians are taking their first lessons.

As is often the case with child prodigies, his precocious talent led others to exploit him: ‘Uncle Louis’ booked concert tours for him when he was only nine years old. But his gift also attracted attention from several wealthy, altruistic patrons who would offer him access to the best music schools in Europe. Through two such sponsors, he was offered scholarships to the Petrograd Conservatory and the Berlin Hochschule. Passinock prevented him from accepting the Petrograd offer, however, and Godowsky left Berlin after four months at age 13 when he realized that he played better than his professor.

Leopold Godowsky.

Leopold Godowsky.

In 1884 he sailed to America and began to perform regularly in the same venues as well established pianists twice his age. A new wealthy patron, an American named Leon Saxe, took an interest in Godowsky and encouraged him to work on his credentials. The two set off for Weimar so the young man could study with Franz Liszt, but during their journey Liszt passed away. Undaunted, Godowsky and Saxe set their sights on Paris instead, the home of the second most famous composer and virtuoso of the day, Camille Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns’s Protégé 

Saint-Saëns took an immediate liking to the boy, and the two met every Sunday for five years to play for one another and discuss music. It was not a conventional student-mentor relationship, however. Saint-Saëns, who had also been an exceptionally gifted prodigy, treated Godowsky as an equal. With the distinguished French composer’s support, Godowsky was introduced to the most important musicians in Paris and made successful debuts in Paris and London. At one point Saint-Saëns offered to adopt him, but Godowsky refused, not wanting to change his name. It is titillating to imagine how his performance career and compositional style would have developed had he accepted the offer and settled permanently in Paris.

It was not to be: Godowsky’s American patron Saxe died in 1890, and without financial support he returned to America. Soon after his return, Godowsky married Saxe’s daughter Frieda and the young couple lived in New York City. While his concert career developed slowly but surely, Godowsky gave piano lessons in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago to make ends meet. It was during this period that he began to compose his awe-inspiring Studies on Chopin’s Etudes.

Chicago and Chopin 

During a teaching trip to Chicago in 1893, Godowsky visited the World’s Fair. He was so enamored of the scientific wonders on display that he encouraged his brother-in-law to spend his honeymoon there. The newlyweds traveled to the fair from New York but were killed in a horrific train crash, greatly upsetting the composer; he must have felt partly responsible. As a way of keeping his mind off the accident, he compulsively practiced the most difficult Chopin études, trying to rework his fingerings.

He came up with an ingenious new fingering which he tried to apply to the left-hand. To his surprise the left-hand version was even more natural and effective. Godowsky discovered that the left hand had just as much potential for virtuosity as the right, perhaps even more. A workaholic, he somehow found the time in between his concertizing, teaching, and growing family duties to publish 53 studies over the next 20 years, of which 22 were for the left hand alone, effectively inventing a new style of composition.

Although only 23 when he began work on his studies, Godowsky was already a sympathetic and popular teacher (his students nicknamed him ‘Mr. God’). In 1894 he was offered a prestigious full-time position in Chicago, so he and his wife moved to the American Midwest. In a short time he conquered the hearts and minds of the city’s leading musical figures, including Theodore Thomas, the founder of the recently formed Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A hugely successful series of recitals and concerto appearances followed in Chicago in 1897.


This article is part one of a two-part series that considers the life of composer Leopold Godowsky. 

The author, American pianist Ivan Ilić, recorded his second CD for the French label Paraty, entitled “22 Chopin Studies” by Leopold Godowsky. The recording was released in France today, January 18th 2012.

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 I am highly indebted to the book ‘Godowsky, The Pianist’s Pianist’, a superb account of the composer’s life and career by Jeremy Nicholas

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