Leopold Godowsky, as both pianist and composer, ranks among the great geniuses in the annals of piano playing. He was born in the small town of Sozly, near Vilna (now Vilnius), at the confluence of the Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian borders, on February 13, 1870. There is little evidence that he underwent any kind of extensive formal musical education. Godowsky gave his first public performance at the age of 9. While in his teens he spent a brief period in Paris during which Camille Saint-Saëns offered him limited musical advice. Godowsky’s official American debut took place in 1890. His sensational Berlin debut in 1900 established his reputation as a formidable pianist in a wide repertoire, and as a composer of exceptional resource and imagination. Throughout his life, Godowsky would perform all over the world—from the major centers of Europe and the US to more exotic locales such as Java, Cuba, Japan and South America.
Nicknamed "The Brahma of the Keyboard" by Leon Saxe, Godowsky also held various prestigious teaching positions in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, later becoming director of the piano school of the Imperial Academy of Music in Vienna. With the outbreak of World War I, Godowsky moved permanently to the United States with his wife and four children, eventually settling in New York.
In the midst of his performing and teaching activity, Godowsky continued to compose a series of remarkable piano works in which he exploited the polyphonic resources of the instrument to an unprecedented degree. (Another major focus of his creativity was an expansion of the capabilities of the left hand.) Most notable among his output are the Studies on Chopin’s Etudes (54 altogether were published), as well as the four Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Johann Strauss. His original piano compositions include the 24 Walzermasken, the 30 pieces in the collection titled Triakontameron, the Java Suite (the only completed portion of an ambitious project he called “Phonoramas,” intended to evoke the full range of world music), a large collection of Miniatures for four hands, and the Passacaglia in B Minor, based on the opening measures of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
Although most of Godowsky’s works went out of print after his death, the vast majority are now readily available in a handsome multi-volume reprint edition published by Carl Fischer of New York. This project coincided with a revival of interest in Godowsky’s compositions among pianists, and the current CD catalogues offer many acclaimed performances of most of his works.
Godowsky’s own 78rpm disc recordings, made for American Columbia, Brunswick, and English Columbia between 1913 and 1930, have been reissued in three volumes on the Marston label (seven CDs altogether) with extensive documentation. Marston’s transfer work supersedes several previous incomplete reissues of these recordings.
At a 1930 recording session in London, Godowsky suffered a stroke which effectively ended his public career as pianist. The final phase of Godowsky’s life was marked by disillusionment, owing to further personal tragedies. He died in New York on November 21, 1938.
At present there is only one published study of Godowsky’s life and career: Godowsky: The Pianists’ Pianist by Jeremy Nicholas (Appian Publications, 1989).
SERIES I - CORRESPONDENCE
SERIES II - BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
SERIES III - PERFORMANCE
SERIES IV - COMPOSITIONS
SERIES V - WRITINGS
SERIES VI - MISCELLANEOUS SUBJECT FILES