This Lithuanian pianist of Polish-Jewish origin is counted as one of the greatest self-taught artists in music history. Although Godowsky’s parents did little to encourage his musical ambitions, he was hailed as a wunderkind at the age of nine. Apart from three thoroughly frustrating months at the Berlin Musikhochschule in 1884, Godowsky’s only “studies” were his three years with Camille Saint-Saëns from 1887 to 1890. Despite his ignorance of the classroom, he was appointed to various professorships in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Berlin between 1890 and 1909.

Finally, in 1909, Godowsky took over Ferruccio Busoni’s master class for piano at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Vienna. By this time he had established himself as a world-class concert pianist with extended tours of North America and Europe. He had taken US citizenship in 1891, and on the outbreak of the First World War he settled in the United States and did not resume his international concert schedule till 1918. While recording Chopin’s Nocturnes in 1930 Godowsky suffered a partial paralysis of his right hand, which brought his career as a pianist to an abrupt end and confined his artistic activity to composing.

picture of Godowski
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Though Leopold Godowsky was always admired during his concert career for his consummate musicianship and technical brilliance, he was also celebrated as a “pianist’s pianist,” revealing his mastery even more in private than in the concert hall and reducing pianist colleagues and friends to awed silence with the beauty and virtuosity of his playing. A contemporary recalls: “No musician was more capable of constantly gathering around him creative companions in so many fields of artistic work […].

Godowsky always said that he played best on the platform, stimulated by audiences. Perhaps this was true of his youth. But no public performance, no recording I ever heard, matched the freedom and beauty of Godowsky’s playing in an intimate atmosphere, in the presence of admiring friends and colleagues.” There were negative views as well, though, and some critics found that extreme virtuosity had too strongly imposed itself upon Godowsky’s personal style.