Josef Hofmann

Józef Kazimierz Hofmann (born January 20, 1876 in Kraków, Austria-Hungary; died February 16, 1957 in Los Angeles), was a Polish-American virtuoso pianist and composer. Many connoisseurs consider him one of the greatest pianists of all time.[1] He was a child prodigy who played a long series of sensationally received concerts throughout Europe and Scandinavia at the age of ten, culminating with a series of concerts in America in late 1887 and early 1888 at which he became a media celebrity. Following controversy over alleged child exploitation, Alfred Corning Clark donated $50,000 for Hofmann to retire from the stage until the age of 18[2]. Clarke's donation made possible studies with the famous teacher and composer Moritz Moszkowski and Russian virtuoso and composer Anton Rubinstein. Hofmann became Rubinstein's only private pupil and later, his leading disciple. Hofmann was also a gifted inventor who invented mechanisms for the piano and automobiles, with numerous patents to his credit. Rubinstein arranged Hofmann's debut as a mature pianist, which took place in Hamburg, Germany on March 14, 1894. Hofmann played Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor with the composer on the podium. After this concert, Hofmann reentered the life of a touring virtuoso. Especially popular in Russia, he gave 21 consecutive concerts in St. Petersburg, not repeating a single piece. In all, he played 255 different works during that marathon[3] Once Hofmann had learned a piece of music, it was apparently in his mind and fingers for good. This was fortunate for Hofmann, for he reportedly never practiced. In the diary his wife kept during his 1909 tour, she mentions his raising his eyebrows when he saw Brahms' Handel Variations on a program—a piece he had not played or even looked at for two and a half years. He played the work at the concert without a thought or hesitation[4]. Hofmann, reportedly, also had the ability to hear a composition just once and play it back flawlessly without seeing the printed note. Again, this was fortunate—Hofmann was a poor sight reader. Rosina Lhevinne, wife of pianist Josef Lhevinne and a virtuoso pianist in her own right, claimed Hofmann heard her husband play Franz Liszt's Lorelei, a piece Hofmann had supposedly never studied or heard. Hofmann played it as an encore at his concert that evening[5]. The difficulty of a piece apparently did not affect Hofmann's ability to absorb it. Maurice Aronson, who served as pianist Leopold Godowsky's assistant, told of Hofmann "learning" Godowsky's Fledermaus transcription. Godowsky and Hofmann met in Berlin in 1900, becoming life-long friends. Hofmann would visit Godowsky's studio and sit open-mouthed while Godowsky was working out Fledermaus. Hofmann's father finally ran into Godowsky and asked, "What have you done to Josef? He sits home all day and plays Strauss waltzes." A week or so later, Hofmann visited Godowsky and played the entire transcription, note for note. Hofmann had never seen the music; in fact, Godowsky had not yet written it down. Harold C. Schonberg, in his book The Great Pianists, adds "that Godowsky's Fledermaus is one of the most fantastic, resourceful and complicated stunts ever written for the piano[6]." Hofmann made the United States his base during World War I. He became a citizen and was appointed the first head of the piano department at the Curtis Institute of Music when it was created in 1924. He became the institute's director in 1927, a position he kept until 1938[7]. Hofmann's pupils included Jeanne Behrend, Abram Chasins, Shura Cherkassky, William Harms, Harry Kaufman, Nadia Reisenberg, Ruth Slenczynska and several other of the most talented young students of the day. While not a pupil, Jorge Bolet benefited from Hofmann's interest. Hofmann made a few commercial recordings beginning in 1903 through the 1930s. He also made some of the earliest recordings of classical music for Thomas Edison. These have been lost, but some cylinders he made in Russia a few years later have recently been discovered. He made two series of reproducing piano rolls and reaped a huge income from their issue -in 1913 23 pieces for Welte-Mignon, but never trusted rolls as accurate representations of his playing. This distrust also extended to acoustical recordings, in part because Hofmann noted that he never played any piece the same way twice. Recordings of broadcasts of a number of Hofmann's live performances have survived, and all of these recordings have been published on compact discs under the auspices of Gregor Benko and audio restorer Ward Marston. Hofmann's playing began to decline during the 1940s, mostly due to alcoholism. He recorded a Bell Telephone sound film in 1945 and gave his last concert in 1946. A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Josef Hofmann's debut, November 28, 1937He had very small (but exceptionally strong) hands, and like several other famous pianists, found the situation more of a nuisance than a handicap. Steinway eventually built him a custom keyboard with slightly narrower keys. It is said that once, following a concert, a woman asked Hofmann how he could possibly play so well with such small hands, and he reportedly answered: "Madam, what makes you think that I play with my hands?"[8] Sergei Rachmaninoff considered Hofmann his superior as a pianist and dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 3 to him. Hofmann never played it. According to his first wife, he did not care for the piece, which he considered lacking in form (ref. "The Amazing Marriage of Josef Hofmann and Marie Eustis"). Hofmann possessed extraordinary technical skill, poetry, color, and imagination. Volcanic interpretations of pieces like Chopin's Fourth Ballade (performed in the "Historic Casimir Hall Recital" of 1938) show just how much Hofmann's playing had in common with Rubinstein, and how different his interpretations are from those of any modern pianists. Hofmann's invention of pneumatic shock absorbers for cars and planes earned him a fortune in the early twentieth century. His other inventions included medical devices, a furnace that burned crude oil, a device to record dynamics in reproducing piano rolls that he perfected just as the roll companies went bust, and a house that revolved with the sun. He spent his last years working on improvements in piano recording.[citation needed] Read more on User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.