Vladimir Horowitz

(1 October 1903 - 5 November 1989)

Vladimir Horowitz was a Ukrainian virtuosi pianist and composer. Perhaps the most high-profile musical emigré from the Soviet Union to the United States, he is known as one of the finest interpreters of the Romantic era and of 20th century Russian composers.

Horowitz was born in Kiev, Ukraine, into a comfortable and cultured household. His mother began teaching him piano along with his older sister Regina, but it was Vladimir who quickly began to demonstrate a prodigious talent. Enrolled at the Kiev Conservatory from the age of nine, Horowitz studied piano with numerous luminaries including Vladimir Puchalsky, Sergei Tarnowsky and Felix Blumenfeld. For his 1919 graduation concert, he performed Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 3 in D minor, a work which for many is still synonymous with the name Horowitz, as he has continued to perform it throughout his career and became the first pianist to record it in 1930.

The year after he graduated, Horowitz had already begun a busy concert career, playing over 100 concerts throughout Russia. Many times he was paid in food or clothing for his performances, as the impoverished Russian populace could afford little else. His own family’s wealth had also declined following the Revolution, and it soon became clear to Horowitz that he would have to leave Russia to achieve his musical goals, not to mention his personal freedom.

I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake you hear it.

As soon as it arose, Horowitz seized the opportunity to flee the Soviet Union. Disillusioned by the communist regime, he would not return for nearly seven decades. In 1926 Horowitz arrived in Berlin, where his first few concerts were enthusiastically received. Soon after, he had also performed his debuts in Paris, London and New York. His concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall is particularly memorable for his performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concert No. 1 in B-flat minor, in which Horowitz overrode the tempo of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and began to play at his own blistering tempo, thundering over the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and leaving them several measures behind by the end of the piece. Although the critics lambasted this stubbornness, the audience loved it and ensured Horowitz place at the top of contemporary pianists from that time forward.

The early 1930s witnessed a series of musical and personal milestones for Horowitz. In 1931 he was invited by American President Herbert Hoover to play a recital at the White House. Two years after that, Horowitz married the Italian Wanda Toscanini, whose father, the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini, Horowitz would regularly collaborate with. Their only child, Sonia Toscanini Horowitz, was born the following year. Although their marriage was a long and apparently intellectually stimulating one, with Wanda a frequent critic of Horowitz’s playing, it was not without its trials. Chief among these was Horowitz’s personal struggle with his homosexuality, for which he underwent psychological treatment.

Horowitz’s homosexuality was not the only perceived struggle he faced. He was plagued by nearly constant feelings of depression and insecurity about his playing, which would at times become so strong that he would quit the concert stage for years at a time. From 1936, the year of his first “retirement” until his death, Horowitz refused to perform for more than twenty years in total, including a long stint between 1953 and 1965. This constant doubt led him to undergo electroshock therapy later in life, as well as heavy medication, which was so strong that it noticeably impacted his playing as well as his personal life. Later in life Horowitz was able to finally achieve a balance, going off his medication and regaining most of his early on-stage charisma.

At his finest moments, there was no doubt where the true genius of Horowitz lay. In his own words, “I am a nineteenth-century romantic. I am the last.” As a pianist, he is widely considered the greatest interpreter of Liszt and Rachmaninov in particular. He would also regularly play works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Schumann. He was a proponent of Prokofiev, and introduced American audiences to many works by the great Russian composer, including his Piano Sonatas 6, 7 and 8. Although he is less well known for playing Baroque and Classical music, Horowitz did intensively study and occasionally perform works by Mozart, Clementi and Scarlatti, however, his playing was more suited towards the Romantic aesthetic.

I am a nineteenth-century romantic. I am the last.

Despite his long periods of retirement from the stage, Horowitz continued to record throughout most of his career. The first of these were in 1928, shortly after arriving in the United States, for the label RCA Victor. Notable recordings include his 1930 rendition of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 3, with Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, Liszt's Sonata in B Minor (1932) and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (1941), conducted by his step-father, Arturo Toscanini. These recordings show Horowitz at some of his finest moments; free of doubt and hesitation. His tone in particular had an uncanny ability to shine through the orchestra, and it would never become harsh even when Horowitz played his characteristic fortissimo octave runs.

One of the defining moments of his career came in 1986, when Horowitz returned to the Soviet Union to play his first concerts since 1920. These performances became highly publicized as one of the defining moments in the relations between the late Soviet Union and the United States, and also showed a new, more mature side of Horowitz, whose playing had only improved with age, losing none of its passion and technical brilliance. The Moscow recital from this tour was recorded and televised, and became the subject of a documentary on Horowitz, one of several to be released directly prior to and in the decades following the artist’s death.

Perfection itself is imperfection.

His career revitalized, the last few years of Horowitz’s life were some of the most prolific of his life, and he appeared to have come to terms with many of his struggles. He signed on with the record label Sony, and made his last recording for them in November of 1989, four days before he died of a heart attack. He left behind over 60 years of recorded works and a legacy as possible the greatest pianist of the 20th century.

Header image courtesy of Quotesgram.com
Other images courtesy of Biography.com and public domain

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