Vladimir Horowitz

American pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1904-1989) was among the last performers in the 19th-century grand-virtuoso tradition. While his phenomenal technique sometimes overwhelmed the music, the power and energy of his playing were unsurpassed.

During his lifetime, Vladimir Horowitz was recognized as the greatest piano virtuoso of the 20th century. Michael Walsh noted in an 1986 report "At his peak Horowitz had it all, heightened and amplified by a daredevil recklessness that infused every performance with an exhilarating, unabashed theatricality. … [He was] this most extraordinary of artists." Vladimir Horowitz's birth occurred in 1904 in Russia. He began to study piano with his mother at around age three. Within a few years he was seriously studying the instrument and by his late teens had already composed several songs. Other members of the family were also musical, especially Horowitz's sister, Regina, who also became a concert pianist, and an uncle who had studied composition with Scriabin and who arranged for Horowitz's concerts before the pianist left Russia.

Although Horowitz revealed talent at an early age, he was not considered a prodigy. He enrolled in the Kiev Conservatory in 1912, first studying with his mother's teacher, Vladimir Puchalsky, then Sergei Tarnowsky in 1915, and, finally, Felix Blumenfeld, a student of Anton Rubinstein, in 1919. Horowitz credited the last mentioned for his flat-fingered technique which resulted in a semi-staccato attack and produced a brilliant tone. Blumenfeld was to be Horowitz's last teacher, although he would have occasional lessons with Cartot in France. Throughout his conservatory years Horowitz usually practiced less than four hours a day, and this rather inefficiently, at least from a technical standpoint, preferring to play through operatic literature rather than work at the progressive lessons and exercises familiar to most pianists. From the beginning his intention had been to pursue a dual career as composer-pianist in the tradition of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. The Bolshevik takeover of Kiev in 1920, however, put an end to this plan, forcing him to concentrate on concerts as an efficient means to deriving an income. In the 1920's Horowitz gave 100 performances and earned a reputation as an explosive pianist capable of breaking piano strings with his thundering style.

During this period Horowitz met the famous German pianist Arthur Schnabel, who advised him to leave Russia, and shortly thereafter, in 1923, he found the means to do so through Alexander Merovich, his first manager. Horowitz's first European tour, as arranged by Merovich, included performances in Berlin and Paris; neither city accepted him without reservation. The rising anti-Semitism in Germany discouraged a Jewish musician who, moreover, did not play German music and who played in a romantic, high-flown style unacceptable to the German ideals of precision and strict adherence to the score. The French were as unreceptive to Horowitz's programming as the Germans, again preferring to hear music of their own composers.

Horowitz's New York debut took place on January 12, 1928, at Carnegie Hall, with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the New York Philharmonic in the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. Although the passion and agility of Horowitz's playing amazed critics, the performance as a whole suffered from irreconcilable differences in interpretation and tempo between conductor and soloist.

A meeting with Rachmaninoff a few days before his New York debut marked the beginning of a friendship that would continue until Rachmaninoff's death in 1943. Equally important was his introduction to Toscanini in April 1932. In addition to the many fruitful collaborations that would take place between the two, Horowitz became further acquainted with Toscanini's daughter, whom he married in 1933.

The sensational qualities of Horowitz's playing soon established him at the forefront of the American concert scene. He found it increasingly difficult, however, to mediate between the public's and his manager's demands for brilliant showpieces and the more solid musicality of those around him, especially his father-in-law and mentor, Toscanini. This, along with the daily grind of a hectic concert schedule, a nervous constitution, and other personal problems, necessitated three extended absences from the stage and, partially, from recording. These occurred during the years 1936-1939, 1953-1965, and 1969-1973. Horowitz also became less interested in performing outside the United States, where he acquired citizenship in 1945. Between the years 1939 and 1986 he made only one tour of Europe, playing three London concerts in October 1951 and two recitals in Paris the following month. In 1986 he began a tour with a return to the Soviet Union—his first visit since leaving there 60 years before—for performances in Moscow and Leningrad in April. He then continued on to Hamburg, Berlin, and London.

Horowitz was undoubtedly one of the great pianists of the era and was compared to Franz Liszt in his total command of the instrument. He was most comfortable with Romantic works, especially Liszt and Rachmaninoff, and admitted a dislike for modern music that exploits the percussive, rather than lyrical, capabilities of the piano. Of the composers who can be admitted stylistically to the 20th century, Horowitz played only Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Prokofiev, and Barber. Acknowledging his affinity for their music, Prokofiev requested that Horowitz give the American premiers of his sonatas 6-8 (the War Sonatas), and Barber wrote the fourth movement fugue to his Sonata, Op. 26 at the pianist's request for "something very flashy, but with content." In later years Horowitz tended away from these early moderns.

Among his many recordings, several deserve mention. Liszt's Sonata in B Minor, recorded in 1932 for RCA, shows Horowitz at the peak of his powers, especially in the clarity, evenness, and speed of his scale passages and octaves. A collaboration with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a 1940 recording of Brahms' second piano concerto for RCA demonstrated the benefit of Horowitz's yielding control to the more solid formal instincts of the conductor. This recording also received praise for the comparatively life-like quality of the sound. Many consider Horowitz to be the foremost interpreter of Rachmaninoff, and especially of his third piano concerto. The first of Horowitz's three renditions of the work, a 1930 recording with Albert Coates and the London Symphony, is perhaps the preferred. Outside his usual repertory, Horowitz championed the works of two pre-Romantic composers, Muzio Clementi and Domenico Scarlatti, on two albums for RCA and Columbia, respectively.

Horowitz limited his teaching to only a few of the most talented prospects and later acknowledged only Byron Janis, Ronald Turini, and Gary Graffman as having studied with him. While Janis was typical in describing the difficulty of working with the strong personality of Horowitz, he ascribed his regard for pedaling according to varying acoustical situations to Horowitz's teaching. In 1995 and 1996, The Private Collection I & II were released based upon the private tapes owned by Horowitz.

Horowitz died of a heart attack on November 5, 1989 in New York City. "At his best, " wrote Joah von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune, "Horowitz had a thunderous sonority and demonic daring that literally nobody in the world could match."

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Further Reading on Vladimir Horowitz

The most complete account of Horowitz's life is Glen Plaskin's Horowitz (1983). Thoroughly researched, meticulously documented, eminently readable, and impartial, it is a model of biographical writing. An abridged version of Chapter 10, describing Horowitz's introduction to the Toscanini family, appears in Musical America (March 1983). Shorter biographies are included in Harold Schonberg's The Great Pianists (1963) and in Wilson Lyle's A Dictionary of Pianists (1985). The May 5, 1986, issue of Time contains biographical material plus a description of his April 1986 return to Russia. The June 8, 1997 Jerusalem Post also had a fine feature on him, "The Fairy Tale Life of Vladimir Horowitz."