Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Josef Hofmann: Sergei Rachmaninoff Prelude in G Minor

In this old clip, Josef Hofmann performs Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor, Op.23, no 5, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, on November 28, 1937. It coincides with the 50th anniversary of his debut. Rachmaninoff completed the work in 1901; it was the first of his ten Opus 23 compositions that were completed, the last two years later in 1903.

Josef Hofmann was born to Kazimierz Hofmann and Matylda Hofmann (nee Pindelska) in Podgorze, Poland on January 20, 1876. His parents were musically inclined; his father a composer, conductor and pianist and his mother a singer of light opera. The young Hofmann, who was instructed by his father until the age of 10, was a child prodigy who began performing at the age of six. When Anton Rubinstein heard him perform at age seven, he declared him "a talent." He started traveling around Europe giving concerts in all the major urban centres, including in Germany, France, Holland, Norway and Denmark.

He was the first professional musician in history to make a recording, which he did when he visited Thomas Edison's laboratories and made several cylinder recordings in 1887. He was not yet 12. He was in America for a three-month tour, for which he (or likely his family) was paid $10,000. It called for 50 recitals, 17 at the famed Metropolitan Opera House. Yet, as Wikipedia writes, it was not without controversy.
[T]he Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children stepped in, citing the boy's fragile health. However, as per the contract that had paid Hofmann $10,000, he was legally obliged to complete the tour. The contract was rendered void by Alfred Corning Clark who donated $50,000 and, in turn, legally forbade Hofmann to perform in public until he turned 18 years old.[2] The final segment of the tour was cancelled and the family returned to Potsdam, outside Berlin. This marked the end of Hofmann's child prodigy years.
In 1892, Anton Rubinstein accepted Hofmann as his only private pupil.  Hofmann traveled by train twice a week to Rubinstein's home, 42 sessions in all. When Hofmann was 18, Rubinstein arranged Hoffman's adult debut in Hamburg's Symphonic Assembly Hall, on March 14, 1894. He played Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, with the composer conducting. That ended the relationship; Rubinstein died later that year in November. 

He moved to the United States during the First World War, and became a citizen in 1926. He had become the first head of the piano department at the inception of the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1924, its director between 1927 and 1938. By then, however, alcoholism had started to take its toll on his playing and perhaps his thinking. Commenting on his decline was Rachmaninoff, who noted: "Hofmann is still sky high ... the greatest pianist alive if he is sober and in form. Otherwise, it is impossible to recognize the Hofmann of old." He gave his last performance at Carnegie Hall in 1946.

Hofmann was also a composer, publishing more than one hundred works, many under the pseudonym, Michel Dvorsky. There's more to Hofmann, who was also an innovator of another kind, an inventor, holding 70 patents, including for parts for the automobile and design mechanisms for the piano. Such a talented man: musician, composer and inventor. Josef Hofmann died of pneumonia in Los Angeles, California, on February 16, 1957. He was 81. He was survived by four children, and his second wife, Betty Short, who had been one of his pupils.

Josef Hofmann [1876-1957]: "Perfect sincerity plus perfect simplicity equals perfect achievement."
Photo Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection (U.S. Library of Congress).
Source:U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

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