“Hofmann had this extraordinary technique. By technique, I don’t mean just that he hit the right notes or played very fast—which he could do—what it was, was the most extraordinary range of tone color in the history of the piano; I mean, I know of no other pianist who had that extraordinary control of tone color. So that, for example, there are recordings like Brahms’ arrangement of the Gavotte from Gluck’s Alceste where there are three levels of sound, and absolutely impeccable! You would think he was playing with three hands, or that there were three different pianists playing…” —Charles Welles Rosen
OR MORE than eighty years, Vladimir Horowitz practiced playing the piano—a minimum of three hours daily. Josef Hofmann, on the other hand, basically stopped practicing at the age of 23. Horowitz was an excellent virtuoso and played certain pieces inimitably; but even he never came close to Hofmann’s level. Once, when Horowitz was in the famous Steinway basement, a manager pointed to Hofmann’s piano. Horowitz begged: “Please, may I just touch it?” Anton Rubinstein was considered the greatest pianist after Franz Liszt. (Carl Tausig would have been in the running, but he died from typhoid at age 29.) Rubinstein detested child prodigies, but made an exception because the young Hofmann’s abilities were beyond anything that could be imagined. Hofmann studied hard under Rubinstein, bringing him a new piece each lesson. This intense study, along with concert experiences Hofmann gained touring the world beginning at age five (until Alfred Corning Clark stepped in) meant Hofmann would later have to practice very little. According to his first wife, Marie Eustis, when Hofmann really needed to do serious work he’d go to his desk, stuffing cotton into his ears (and even his nose), to pour over the score away from the piano. That was his “practice.” Other masters—Gieseking, for example—were known to practice away from the piano as well. Moritz Moszkowski also taught the young Hofmann for a bit, but soon exclaimed: “I can teach him nothing; this boy, somehow, already knows everything.”
Before I go any further, listen to an excerpt (2 minutes) from this 1980 interview, where David Dubal asks Abram Chasins about Hofmann. 1
Chasins is not exaggerating about Hofmann; and neither was Rachmaninov. Hofmann was undoubtedly the king of pianists. For decades, I’ve avoided writing anything about Hofmann; there’s simply too much to say. One could relate countless anecdotes, such as when Hofmann would sit at a piano across from Josef Lhévinne (seated at a different piano) and play Chopin for hours, Lhévinne repeating each piece and commenting. One could speak of his unsurpassed musical memory, such as the historic series twenty-one (21) concerts in St. Petersburg, during which Hofmann played 255 different works from memory! One could delve into the “famous” stories about his uncanny abilities, such as the story told by Rosina Lhévinne about memorizing Liszt’s Lorelei after hearing it twice, and playing it in a concert that evening flawlessly. Moreover, one could talk about his fascinating personal history and very serious work as an inventor. (Hofmann had 62 patents to his name, and his inventions included windshield wipers and pneumatic shock absorbers; indeed, he often pointed out that the proceeds from all the concerts he ever played did not equal one monthly royalty check from his inventions.)
But what I wish to dwell on today is what made Hofmann the greatest pianist of all time; and it has to do with his “goal.” You see, Hofmann’s goal was to make the absolute best musical statement, no matter what. So he analyzed each piece and decided upon articulation, tempo, and so forth always according to what will make the greatest possible musical statement. If that meant using a completely different approach to Chopin’s Berceuse (op. 57) or Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata (op. 53) or Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso (op. 14) or Gluck’s Orfeo Melody (Sgambati) or Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu (op. 66)—so be it. Hofmann, unlike other pianists (with the possible exception of Glenn Gould) understood musical density. He understood how many melodies the ear can discern at once. And most importantly of all, he understood that the piano usually sounds best without the pedal. Needless to say, when the pedal really was required, Hofmann knew how to use it better than anyone—but the point is, the piano often sounds better without it. That’s why Harold C. Schonberg (correctly) said every other pianist sounds “thick” compared to Hofmann. And the funny thing is, I am not the first person to discover this: Olga Samaroff, a famous pianist, wrote an article 100 years ago describing precisely what I am describing about Hofmann. And yet, even after all these years, almost nobody has learned this simple “trick” about piano playing. And, of course, it’s not as easy as simply eliminating the pedal. One must understand the mechanics of sound, the mechanics of piano articulation, musical density, and “finger pedalling” in the Left Hand. Once you get used to Hofmann’s sound, you never want to hear any other pianist.
Consider this excerpt from Hofmann—when he was aged 62—taken from a live recording of Chopin’s E-Minor Concerto:
Did you notice the marvelous way Hofmann approaches passagework? Here are two more examples, to whet your appetite:
Earlier I spoke of the “purity” of Hofmann’s sound. An good example would be this excerpt from the same Concerto which Abe Chasins mentions in that 1980 excerpt with Dubal. Once you get this sound in your head, I’m sorry: nothing else satisfies. No other pianist has this clarity and rhythmic understanding:
Everyone who heard Hofmann in his prime—let’s say, 1915—spoke of the incredible evenness of his passagework and trills. You can (perhaps) get an idea by listening to this, although recording technology was extremely primitive in 1922:
Hofmann made very few “official” recordings, but when he was in his sixties, we were able to get some glimpses of his playing. Sometimes it was a radio performance that survived. Sometimes it was a recording found in his wife’s possession, which she had preserved after Hofmann died. Sometimes it was a little pocket recording device Hofmann used in his house in Los Angeles. Sometimes it was a microphone which someone hid underneath the piano during one of his live performances. Sometimes it was the so-called “test-pressings” which Hofmann made—and he would often stop right in the middle of a piece—and what’s funny is that those “test-pressings” are far more interesting and rewarding from a musical perspective than everything Lang Lang has ever recorded! We could talk for a long time about why Hofmann made so few recordings. I know of about seven different explanations people give for why this was the case. The most likely scenario is that the technology available at that time simply could not capture the piano sound to Hofmann’s satisfaction. Most of what we do have are not Hofmann in his prime—and Hofmann never knew he was being recording. Nevertheless, we possess enough. We have enough “secret glimpses” to verify beyond a shadow of a doubt the testimony of Rachmaninov, Godowski, Gabrilowitsch, Backhaus, Samaroff, Friedman, Harold Bauer, György Sándor, and so many others.
There probably are other pianists who can match Hofmann note-for-note when it comes to “virtuosity”—by which I mean how fast and accurately they could play. Evgeny Kissin probably could, in some repertoire (listen to his live recording of the Brahms-Paganini Variations). Josef Lhévinne probably could (listen to his recording of Chopin’s Etude in G# minor). Martha Argerich probably comes close in certain pieces (listen to her Left Hand in Chopin’s 16th Prelude). Leopold Godowski is rumored to have been able to match Hofmann’s technique in certain repertoire. On the other hand, some have argued that Hofmann’s technique was never surpassed. Even in old age, recordings of Hofmann’s double-thirds, his octaves, his passage-work, his trills, and so forth display mind-boggling speed and power. As David Dubal once exclaimed about the Coda from Chopin’s 4th Ballade, recorded when Hofmann was in his sixties: “Hofmann makes the piano do things it’s not supposed to do…and it’s terrifying.”
At the end of the day, however, who cares about technique? It is Hofmann’s musical conceptions we cannot get over. Once you hear that sound, and his grasp of musical density, you cannot get his sound out of your head. And you don’t want any other sound. You only want Hofmann’s glittering passagework. You only want his trills, which are unlike any other pianist’s trills. (I’d rather listen to one trill by Hofmann than everything Claudio Arrau ever recorded.) You only want the Hofmann Left Hand—and, oh, how Hofmann despised what he derisively labelled “right-handed pianists.” The clarity and purity of Hofmann’s playing, as well as his brilliant understanding of counterpoint and “inner lines”—these are what keep us coming back. Listening to anyone but Hofmann play fioritura passages becomes unthinkable.
Vladimir Horowitz was a great pianist—but he was known to be vain, dishonest, transparent, and lacking intellect. Something he repeated over and over again throughout his life is that “every time I play a piece, I am like Chopin; I change the conception every time I play it.” But it’s a lie. Horowitz is basically Horowitz. Even when you compare early recordings with later recordings, the conception usually doesn’t change in a major way. Perhaps Horowitz tried to change his conception, but he failed. Hofmann, on the other hand, was not just one pianist: there were many “versions” of Hofmann, each more fascinating than the previous. We have recordings of Hofmann playing pieces on tour, and a few days later he completely changes the conception. Hofmann, therefore, accomplished something Horowitz could not.
Great pianists asked about Hofmann struggle to find superlatives. The interview by Charles Rosen is typical; he just can’t say enough good things about Hofmann, and how much greater Hofmann was than any other pianist who ever played. Two brief excerpts:
If you want to get a feeling for Hofmann’s genius, listen to his live recording of Chopin’s F-minor Ballade at the legendary “Casimir Hall Recital” on 7 April 1938. Then, listen to the test recording he made of the first movement of Chopin’s B-minor Sonata—and you will hear what sounds like a completely different pianist. Both these recordings are now on YouTube. They give the full gamut…but of course, there’s so much more… so much more…
Here’s the bottom line: Other pianists—Lang Lang, Arrau, Cziffra, Graffman, Serkin, or whoever—can play things very well. They can sometimes play pieces pretty fast, or with good articulation, or nice dymanics, and so forth. But Josef Hofmann doesn’t just “play very well.” Josef Hofmann takes the listener into a fantasy world; and Hofmann interpretations transform the piece in a way nobody ever thought possible. Josef Hofmann doesn’t just play a piece “very well”—he takes you into a different universe.
Proof Jeff Is Not Crazy
Some quotes by other musicians, so nobody thinks I am exaggerating about Hofmann:
Mark Arnest (2003):
To say “most unique” is a redundancy, but Hofmann may nevertheless have possessed the most unique pianistic approach in recorded history. Differently put, his playing may have the least in common with that of any other great pianist. At his prime, his playing was a riot of color. Among recorded “Moonlight” sonatas, for instance, Hofmann’s 1936 broadcast (Marston 52014-2) is without precedent and without descendants. Never has the first movement had such a brilliant polychrome surface. The voicing is amazing: each note is heard, at times through a haze of pedal, yet blazingly clear underneath, a result of his extraordinary fine dynamic control. Even in some of his latest performances, such as Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” (Marston 52004-2), Hofmann creates sounds you’ll hear nowhere else. Hofmann’s misfortune is to have been at the leading edge of a stylistic development that we now take for granted—clean, precise playing—and the trailing edge of what is now taboo. To a generation raised to believe the score is an infallible text, his spontaneity frequently looks like mere arbitrariness. No one, we think, could actually believe all these different ways of interpreting a piece; so he must be insincere. Ironically, while Benoist felt the need to defend Hofmann against the charge that he was unimaginative, the tendency today is to regard Hofmann’s interpretations as overly imaginative, running roughshod over the composer’s intentions.
Harold C. Schonberg (1997):
It was not that Hofmann was incapable of great bursts of sound when they were needed. But he represented aristocracy at all times, a musician blessed with an unerring ear, taste, and the ability to float lines that seemed to spin into infinity. His impact is hard to describe. But to those who heard him, including this writer, the finish and transparency of his playing, and the sheer perfection of his technique, somehow made all other pianists sound thick. From the beginning, he was recognized as one of the greatest pianists in history. […] At the age of 10, he came to New York and made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera House on 29 November 1887. The consensus was unanimous. Such well-informed critics as Henry Krehbiel (New York Tribune) and W.J. Henderson (New York Sun) could not believe what they had heard. This is no child, they wrote. This is piano playing equal to anything the world has to offer. […] When he played in St. Petersburg in 1912, he gave twenty-one consecutive sold-out concerts. He did not repeat a piece, playing 255 different works. His memory was infallible, all the more amazing in that he seldom practiced. Once a work was in his fingers, it was there for good. As a matter of fact, he really did not need the music. He could hear a piece and immediately duplicate it on the keyboard, note for note. No wonder Rubinstein called him a phenomenon such as the world of music had never before seen.
Geoffrey Dorfman (2005):
Dismissal of Hofmann (and this has been tried by those who should know better) is at this point fatuous and irrelevant, akin to a tourist declaring he doesn’t care for the Pyramids. This is for the simple reason that, like those monoliths, Hofmann was one-of-a-kind, sui generis—and that sort of phenomenon is, by definition, incomparable. Similarly, those pianists who assert that they would never play à la Hofmann do not as a rule raise the more obvious point—that they couldn’t if they wanted to. One does not have to maintain Hofmann as the ultimate pianist to assert that he was inimitable. Of course, it is possible to claim a level of individuality for every great artist, but in Hofmann’s case the artistic profile is so deeply etched in wax, shellac, vinyl, and tape, that the savvy listener can identify his playing in a matter of seconds. At the same time, it cannot be easily imitated (as opposed to other affettuoso performers like Horowitz, Gould, or Paderewski) because the subtleties of his pianism are so intimately and uniquely wedded to the musical line. This “immediate recognition” factor is usually a characteristic of great composers, rather than instrumentalists. Hofmann, however, doubled as a composer (as did most of his colleagues/rivals), and as the standard repertoire passed through his hands, it also filtered through a composer’s creative intelligence. Even when the recorded acoustic is atrocious (for instance, the off-the-air Chopin First Concerto fragment with Hamilton Harty from 1935), it is unmistakably Hofmann at the keyboard.
From Volume 9 of the Marston Hofmann Series:
Jorge Bolet (1914–1990) was interviewed in Manhattan by Gregor Benko on 9 April 1987. Hofmann’s playing awed the Cuban-American pianist Jorge Bolet with an intensity that lasted until the day he died, although Bolet always maintained that he patterned his own ideas about performance after Rachmaninoff, rather than Hofmann: “He was a unique personality, a unique pianist. What he did was perfect…for him” he explains. We can hear Bolet’s awe more than fifty years later as he describes Hofmann’s “boundless imagination” that was brought to bear on Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111, as well as Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy, with a middle section that was “…so sensuous,” while other Hofmann performances were “…basically so simple, straight, without deviating one iota…” from the score.
Hofmann, Stokowski, and the Curtis Institute
Kristina Wilson has written:
The piano department at the Curtis Institute of Music is its oldest department, and one of its most distinguished. When Mary Louise Curtis Bok began planning a new music conservatory in Philadelphia, she turned for assistance to one of her oldest and dearest friends: renowned pianist Josef Hofmann. Although Hofmann offered guidance on all facets of the new school, his immediate priority was to take advantage of that rarest of opportunities: unlimited freedom to curate a piano faculty worthy not only of Mrs. Bok’s vision, but his own specific beliefs about what a representative, world-class piano department should be. Mary Louise Curtis Bok, by virtue of being born into a wealthy and well connected musical family, was introduced to the finest musicians from an early age. An accomplished pianist herself, she first met Hofmann while still living with her parents, as he would often visit the Curtis estate while in Philadelphia to perform. The relationship of Hofmann with the Curtis family further expanded when he served as the music editor for the LADIES HOME JOURNAL (published by the Curtis Publishing Company, founded by Mary’s father, Cyrus H. K. Curtis), which saw him write articles as well as answer letters in an advice column for eleven years. In addition, Hofmann played various recitals and concerts in the area to raise money for the Settlement Music School, another Philadelphia music conservatory with which Bok was deeply involved before founding Curtis. Thus, when Bok decided to proceed with plans for a new music institute, Hofmann was the logical choice to assist her, both personally and professionally.
In tandem with Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, Hofmann worked closely with the Boks in developing every aspect of the new school. Although not lacking a campus (three mansions off Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia had been purchased and donated by the Boks), adequate funding, or a sweeping vision, a substantial obstacle remained: attracting the high level of talent the founders knew was essential for success. To entice the likes of Marcella Sembrich (voice), Carl Flesch (violin), Louis Bailly (viola), Felix Salmond (violoncello), Lynnwood Farnam (organ), and Artur Rodzinski (orchestra), Hofmann and Stokowski—though to a lesser extent, as Stokowski was then still a rising talent—exercised their influence and powers of persuasion to draw these and other instructors from across Europe and the United States. The efforts of Hofmann and Stokowski paid off and, when Curtis opened its doors on 13 October 1924, the quality of its music and academic faculties was quickly recognized. According to a 1928 feature on Curtis in the Musical Courier, “The response was immediate. The realization by famous musicians and educators throughout the country that here was something new and epoch making in art brought forth a large outpouring of candidates for admission.” Furthermore, it was later said of Hofmann in particular that “…no artistic director did more for the Curtis Institute than Josef Hofmann in establishing a world class institute of musical learning, putting Philadelphia on the world cultural map.” Though the school’s success had quickly exceeded even the greatest expectations of its founders, it was the piano department that shone just a bit brighter as the crown jewel of the newly minted conservatory.
Hand-picked by Hofmann, the piano faculty represented the finest of the American and European schools, with each instructor bringing their individualized backgrounds, methods, styles, and techniques. There was George Boyle, the Australian/American pianist who studied under Ferruccio Busoni and gave the American premiere of Debussey’s Preludes in 1910; Pittsburgh born David Saperton, known for being the first to play and completely transcribe the works of Leopold Godowsky; the Polish/French harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, the first to record the entirety of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord and credited with reviving it as a virtuosic instrument; German pedagogue and famed chamber musician Wilhelm Backhaus, whose interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, and Schumann were widely esteemed; Polish-born Moritz Rosenthal, an outstanding student of Franz Liszt and Kammervirtuoso for the Emperor of Austria; and finally there was Isabelle Vengerova, the famed Russian pedagogue formerly of the Imperial Conservatory in St. Petersburg, who, in addition to rigorous (and often intimidating) instruction, had an innate psychological insight into her pupils which helped her to further push them to their highest potential. By gathering a wide array of talent, Hofmann ensured that a variety of backgrounds, methodologies, thought, technique, and teaching were represented in order to best offer students a well-rounded and complete learning experience.
The sketches are from when I drew pianists in high school (mid 1990s) using Conté crayon. Somewhere in Kansas I have a bunch of sketches of different people…here are Fulton Sheen, Tiegerman, and Franz Liszt:
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 For the record, Abram Chasins (d. 1987) was a magnificent pianist; no wonder he served as a professor of piano at the Curtis Institute during its golden age.