Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Vladimir Horowitz: Last Of The Romantics

Great Artists

Vladimir Horowitz, 82, plays Scriabin Etude Op. 8 No. 12 in D# minor at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory. The Russian-born pianist had left Russia in 1925. This was his triumphant return after an absence of 60 years. At the same performance, Horowitz played an encore, Schumann's Traumerei (Dreaming), a piece of music that had much resonance for the audience in attendance.

Your mind must control, but you must have heart . . . . Give your feeling free.
Vladimir Horowitz

I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake you hear it. If you want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will never make one mistake. Never be afraid to dare.
Vladimir Horowitz

Everyone goes to the forest; some go for a walk to be inspired, and others go to cut down the trees.
Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz [1903-1989]: “It’s better to make your own mistakes than to copy someone else.
Source: US Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Div.

Vladimir Horowitz, ranked among the greatest pianists of the 20th century, is best known for his performances of the Romantic piano repertoire, evoking a personal interpretation and expression of a piece of music. In his prime, Horowitz was unequaled for speed, dynamic range and power, having been known to break piano strings while pounding on the keyboard with thunderous virtuosity.

As Times Michael Walsh said in a 1986 article: At his peak, Horowitz had it all, heightened and amplified by a daredevil recklessness that infused every performance with an exhilarating, unabashed theatricality.

Such was what made Horowitz a popular classical pianist, but also one that achieved critical acclaim. For example, Horowitz's first recording of the Franz Liszt Sonata in 1932 is considered the gold standard of that piece, even after almost 80 years have elapsed and more than 100 pianists have done similar but not equal recordings of it.

There are a couple of interesting facts about Horowitz: 1) he was known to wear bow-ties, which he began collecting in the 1950s. At the time of his death, his collection was said to number nearly six hundred; 2) he would take a two-mile walk after a light breakfast; and 3) he preferred playing on Sunday afternoons, thinking the audience would be more restful and attentive.

Many other pieces have come to be associated with Horowitz, such as Alexander Scriabin's Étude in D-sharp minor, Frédéric Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, and his recordings of the Sergei Rachmaninoff Piano  Concerto No. 3. He was also adept at quieter works, such as Robert Schumann's Kinderszenen, Domenico Scarlatti sonatas, and several sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn.

Although he was adept at piano theatrics, his body rarely moved, and his face showed signs of intense concentration. It was as if he were the instrument to convey the music, which he did with such eloquence and skill. Horowitz's hand position was unusual in that the palm was often below the level of the key surface. He frequently played chords with straight fingers, and the little finger of his right hand was often curled up until it needed to play a note. As music critic Harold C. Schonberg said: “It was like a strike of a cobra.”

A Prodigy From Russia

Vladimir Samoylovich Horowitz was born to Samuil Horowitz and Sophia Bodik in Kiev, Ukraine, on October 1, 1903. He was the youngest of four children. Horowitz received piano instruction at an early age, initially from his mother at age three, who was herself a competent pianist.  But as is common with all musical prodigies, he needed further professional instruction, which he started to receive in 1912 at the Kiev Conservatory. 

At the Conservatory, Horowitz received instruction from Vladimir Puchalsky, Sergei Tarnowsky, and Felix Blumenfeld. He performed the S. Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor at his graduation in 1920. His first solo recital followed, on May 30, 1920, at age 16:
His family had lost everything in the Revolution, so young Vladimir had to earn a living. Although an unknown, after a few performances news of Horowitz spread and his concerts were well attended. During this period he also performed with violinist Nathan Milstein; they played to packed houses in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) in 1923 and during the following concert season Horowitz gave twenty recitals of ten programmes.
Horowitz had plans to leave Russia, and strike his fortune elsewhere. In December 1925, the 22-year-old Horowitz crossed the border into the West, ostensibly to study with Artur Schnabel. But he had already decided to leave the Soviet Union, seeking to strike his fortunes elsewhere. “Stuffing approximately five thousand dollars worth of Russian rubles into a shoe, he crossed the border as a Soviet guard wished him good fortune in the West,” said Encyclopedia.com. (It would be another 60 years before he would return.)

On December 18, 1925, Horowitz made his first appearance outside his home country, in Berlin

Horowitz, (circa 1910s–1920s: undated photo): “When I am on the stage, I’m a king. No one can
interfere with me because I have something to do, and it has to be the best which is within me.”
Source: US Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Div.

Welcome to America

His first American concert was at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall on January 12, 1928.  He played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 b-flat minor, op. 23, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham who was also making his debut in the United States. In 1932, he performed for the first time with conductor Arturo Toscanini at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic.

Horowitz moved to the U.S. in 1939, and became an American citizen in 1944. He resided in New York City, Previous to that, Vladimir Horowitz and Wanda Giorgina Toscanini married in a civil ceremony on December 21, 1933. She was the daughter of the famed Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

Their different religious backgrounds—Wanda was Catholic, Horowitz Jewish—was not an apparent issue, as neither were observant. As she knew no Russian and he knew very little Italian, their primary language of communication was French. They had one child, Sonia Toscanini Horowitz, who was born October 2, 1934 and died on January 10,1975, aged 40, from an apparent drug overdose.

The marriage was punctuated with periods of conflict and separation,which would greatly affect Horowitz and home life. Horowitz would often stop performing publicly, citing nervous exhaustion. This occurred in 1936 to 1938, 1953 to 1965, 1969 to 1974, and 1983 to 1985.

For example, as indicative of his temperament and how he handled the strain and rigors of constantly performing, Horowitz said to Newsweek’s Hubert Saal, after his first retirement from the concert stage: “I couldn’t take the traveling, five days a week, all those trains, all those towns, no sleep, bad food."

He used the time to recuperate and spend with family. Yet, he always returned to the public with a fresh vigor. During the Second World War, for example, when Horowitz became an American citizen, he gave many concerts for the American war effort. Out of these patriotic endeavors became one of his most popular compositions, a flamboyant arrangement of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

In 1953 he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his American debut by once again performing Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, Encyclopedia.com said:
Great publicity surrounded the event, and critics generally agreed that Horowitz had matured from mere virtuoso into a provocative artist, one capable of stirring contemplation as well as exhilaration. But after the anniversary performance he once again withdrew from public performance, claiming increasingly problematic health—notably stomach distress and general exhaustion.
Horowitz ended his twelve-year absence from the concert stage in May, 1965, with a recital at Carnegie Hall, where he played Schumann’s Fantasy and various works by Scriabin and Chopin. The performance earned great acclaim, and the subsequent recording of that concert was successful.

Return to Russia

One of the most moving performances was Vladimir Horowitz's return to Russia, a country that he had not set foot on in 60 years. On Sunday, April 20, 1986, Vladimir Horowitz, aged 82, held a concert in Moscow. This was his triumphant return after an absence of 60 years. There were less than 400 seats offered to the public, compared to 1,400 reserved for the Soviet VIP.

His reasons for coming to Russia were two-fold. Horowitz pointed out: to see Russia once more before his death, and to act as an ambassador to peace. [Horowitz would die a few years later.]

On the day of the recital, people stood outside the concert hall in the rain even though they couldn't hear anything. Hundreds of students broke through security to watch the concert from the balcony, and guards couldn't manage to remove them.

To say the event was emotional is an understatement of the greatest order. I remember seeing the performance on television, and yes, there were tears in my eyes; why not? As Horowitz said, "You must give your heart," a sign of humanity. Here are some additional notes about this concert:
In the new atmosphere of communication and understanding between the USSR and the USA, these concerts were seen as events of some political, as well as musical, significance. The Moscow concert, which was internationally televised, was released on a compact disc entitled Horowitz in Moscow, which reigned at the top of Billboard's Classical music charts for over a year.

Tickets for the concert were largely reserved for the Soviet elite and few music students were allowed to attend. This resulted in a number of Russian music students crashing the concert, which is audible near the end of the second track. The concert was also released on VHS, and eventually on DVD. 
His final recital took place in Hamburg, Germany on June 21, 1987. He continued recording until his death. All of Horowitz's recordings have been issued on compact disc, some several times. After Horowitz’s death, several CDs were issued containing previously unreleased material. These included selections from several Carnegie Hall recitals recorded privately for Horowitz from 1945–1951

Horowitz garnered numerous honors during his lifetime, including 25 Grammy Awards; the Gran Prix des Discophiles (1966); the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1972); the Wolf Foundation Prize for Music (1982); the French Legion of Honor (1985); the Italian Order of Merit (1985); and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom (1986)

Horowitz's place in history is sealed. “I am a nineteenth-century romantic,” he said to Newsweek’s Saal in 1978. “I am the last.” Vladimir Horowitz died of a heart attack on November 5, 1989, in New York City. He was 86. He is buried in the Toscanini family tomb in Cimitero Monumentale, Milan, Italy.


  1. Despite his romantic style, Horowitz was a specialist in the sonatas of Scarlatti, whose music is unambiguously classical.
    Horowitz is often cited as the author of the following statement: "There are three types of pianists; Jewish pianists, homosexual pianists, and bad pianists." Someone once told me that Horowitz used to hang out in a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City, called Julius.

  2. Thank you for your comments.

    I have seen his statement regarding the various types of pianists. In addition, there were many references to Horowitz being gay, including one by Arthur Rubinstein: "Everyone knew and accepted him as a homosexual." Even so, since Horowitz himself never confirmed it, I chose to keep it out. It's only hearsay.


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