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Leopold Godowsky (1870 - 1938)

Leopold Godowsky was born in 1870 in Sozly, Lithuania, the only child of of Matthew, a physician, and Anna Godowsky . After his father died in a cholera epidemic, Anna moved with young Leopold to Wilno to stay with her friends Louis and Minna Passinock. It was here that Leopold encountered his first musical education. Louis owned a piano shop and was an amateur violinist, and Leopold quickly mastered the violin but soon showed more passion for the piano.

At the age of five, Leopold composed his first piano piece and at nine he made his first public appearance in Wilno. Soon after, Leopold was accepted into the Königliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, having played for a panel consisting of Moritz Moskowski, Joseph Joachim, and Woldemar Bargiel. He studied under Ernst Rudorff; however, this only lasted three months and was to remain Leopold's only formal musical instruction. From there on he would be an autodidact.

In 1884 and 1885, Leopold toured North America as a concert pianist, playing in weekly alternations with the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, and performing with violinist Ovide Musin. He then found his way back to Europe, hoping to study with Liszt. But upon learning that Liszt had died just a few days before, he moved on to Paris to play for Saint-Saëns, who was much impressed by Leopold's playing and agreed to instruct him under the condition that Leopold must change his last name to Saint-Saëns - an offer which Leopold politely declined. He nevertheless made Paris his home for some years, where he played for Tchaikovsky and befriended Massenet and Fauré.

In 1891, Leopold moved to the United States and was one of the first to play in the newly opened Carnegie Hall in New York City. He married Frieda Saxe and on the next day became a US citizen. In addition to performing, he established a pedagogical career, holding various teaching positions around the Northeastern and Midwestern part of the US, such as heading the piano department at the Chicago Conservatory from 1893-1900.

For better or worse, Godowsky's fame today mainly rests on his larger-than-life transcriptions of other composers's works, from Bach and Rameau to Chopin and Albeniz. Yet, his original compositions deserve to be wider known, like the monumental Sonata Op.11, the cycles Triakontameron and Walzermasken, the descriptive and colourful Java Suite (written after a tour of Java in 1923), and the massive Passacaglia on a theme from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony - a work of which Horowitz complained that "a pianist needs six hands to play it".

His most famous legacy to the art of pianism is the daunting set of 53 elaborations of all of Chopin's Etudes, works so difficult that only the greatest of virtuosos like Marc-André Hamelin and Boris Berezowsky dare to play and record all of them. In these transcriptions, Godowsky improves the polyphonic voicing and creates countermelodies, transcribes entire etudes for the left hand alone and in some cases combines two etudes in one so that each hand plays a separate etude simultaneously.

Leopold Godowsky died of stomach cancer in New York on the twenty-first of November 1938. He is today regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all times, and his music held in the highest esteem because it represents the pinnacle of piano virtuosity without a sacrifice in musicality.


-- Julius Grocholski (more on the author...)


Recordings
Java Suite 
3 Pieces Op. 15 
Renaissance 
Transcriptions 
Triakontameron