Persons related to Chopin Persons related to Chopin

Leopold Godowski

Leopold Godowski

Leopold Godowski

*13 II 1870 Żośle k/ Wilna, †21 XI 1938 Nowy Jork

Leopold Godowski - was born in the family of a Jewish doctor; his father died in 1871. Godowski moved with his mother to the house of Ludwik Passinock, an amateur violinist who gave Leopold his first music lessons. As a boy of 6 Godowski could already play the violin and piano and knew the rules of composition, but he was mostly self-taught. He only began regular studies in 1883 at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin with the famous piano teacher Ernst Rudorff. Unable to obey the rules of organised teaching, he left for America in 1884, but returned to Europe in 1886 with the intention of studying with Liszt in Weimar. After Liszt's death he moved to Paris, where his talent was spotted by Camille Saint-Saëns. Gieseking played in private salons in France and England. His tour of American in 1890 was a failure, so Godowski took up teaching. In 1891 he taught at the New York College of Music, in 1891-3 at the Broad Street Conservatory in Philadelphia, in 1893-1900 at the Conservatoire of Chicago, 1909-14 at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Vienna, where his students included Heinrich Neuhaus and Issay Dobrowen. In 1900 he returned to Europe, where he finally became known after a triumphant concert in Berlin. He settled in Germany, but was forced to move to the US again after the outbreak of World War I. His stage career was cut short by a stroke in 1930. His final years were marked by deteriorating health and the death of his son and wife, the well-known soprano Frieda Saxe. Godowski's daughter Dagmar (1896-1975) was an actress who appeared in several Hollywood movies.

Godowski's complicated life and a series of artistic failures did not allow him to develop a stage career that would match his talent. Contemporary musicians considered Godowski the greatest living pianist. It was widely agreed that on stage, and especially in the recording studio, Godowski showed only a fraction of his true abilities; legends were spread about his fabulous playing at home, for a restricted circle of friends. His tone colour was famous, and he was particularly appreciated for his flexible phrasing, vitality and naturality of playing, and his unparallelled technique, which he achieved through a stubborn exercise of both hands (which were relatively small). Godowski achieved the highest mastery with his left hand, as testified by the level of difficulty of his original works and transcriptions for the left hand alone. He mastered a very wide repertoire, playing not only the majority of standard Romantic and Classical works for piano (including J. S. Bach), but also a large number of lighter salon pieces and transcriptions.

Godowski's extant recordings give but a limited insight into his abilities, although in recent years, thanks to improved sound remastering, they are experiencing a comeback. He recorded for Columbia (1913-6, 1928-30) and Brunswick (1920-6); from the period after 1930, only a few private recordings have survived. Because of the limitations of early recording technology, his discography is dominated by short works, virtuoso miniatures and transcriptions. Particularly noteworthy are: Liszt's Gnomenreigen, La leggierezza and Rigoletto Paraphrase, Beethoven's Sonata in E flat major Op. 81a, Mendelssohn's Rondo capriccioso, Schumann's Carnaval, Debussy's Minstrels and Golliwog's Cakewalk, a famous recording of Grieg's Ballade in G minor Op. 24, a few miniatures and transcriptions by Godowski himself (but none of the Chopin etudes). Many works survive only on piano rolls.

Chopin plays a major role in Godowski's discography. He recorded the Sonata in B flat minor (1930), Ballade in A flat major Op. 47, Berceuse, Polonaise in C sharp minor Op. 26 No.1, A major Op. 40 No. 1 and A flat major Op. 53, Impromptu in C sharp minor Op. 66, Waltz in A flat major Op. 34 No. 1, A flat major Op. 42 and C sharp minor Op. 64 No. 2, five etudes, three preludes, Scherzo in B flat minor and E major (from Godowski's last recording session). A special mention goes to the complete nocturnes, recorded in 1929-30.

In recent years, Godowski has experienced a revival as a composer. He left a large number of piano works (including some with orchestra), the most prominent being the Sonata in E minor (1911), Passacaglia (1926), Triakontameron (1919-20), and especially the Java Suite (1924-5), which includes 12 "tonal journeys for the pianoforte", composed after Godowski's stay in the Far East. For many years, these works were considered unplayable because of their technical difficulties. Godowski was also a prolific composer of transcriptions and paraphrases, including Schubert songs, J. S. Bach's violin sonatas and cello suites, and the Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes of Johann Strauss. His most famous transcription is 53 Studies on Chopin's Etudes (1899-1914), the leading achievement of Godowski's virtuoso texture. In his transcriptions, Godowski adds counterpoints to the Chopin text, presents it retrograde or condensed for one hand only; in four pieces, the transcription consists of a juxtaposition of two or three etudes in both hands. To this day, only a handful of pianists have been able to master the technical demands of these paraphrases.

Godowski also gained some renown as a piano teacher. In his teaching, he put special emphasis on muscle relaxation, which he considered the premise of finger dexterity and technial mastery. He was also a social activist; he planned a world congress of musicians and hoped to establish a musical institute that would advocate the ideals of peace and friendship among nations.

Wojciech Bońkowski

February 2007 

Jeremy Nicholas, Godowsky: The Pianists' Pianist, APR, Wark 1989
Leonard Saxe, The Published Music of Leopold Godowsky, "Music Library Association Notes" XIV (1957) No. 2.
Books with mentions about Godowski: see here
Collections of press reviews and other materials, including quotes from Godowski: see here


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