HAVE frequently been asked some variation of this question: “Jeff, you often pontificate about Josef Hofmann, insisting—along with Sergei Rachmaninov—that no other pianist comes anywhere near him; but why exactly is this?” Of course I don’t have an answer, but I believe part of the answer has to do with the fact that Josef Hofmann came to prominence before there was such a thing as recorded music. Later on, Thomas Edison changed all that with his phonograph. (By the way, Josef Hofmann as a teenager assisted Edison with his invention!) Hofmann was trained in an era during which all music was ‘live’—and I believe we can never return to such a situation…or comprehend what it was like.
Consider that in 1900 the world contained approximately 1.6 billion people; currently, there are 7.5 billion people. Certainly we have child prodigies today, but not on the level we used to. Research the young Camille Saint-Saëns, the young Josef Hofmann, or the young Felix Mendelssohn. For that matter, research the early career of Lorin Maazel, who was conducting major orchestras at the tender age of eight! I would submit that today’s virtuosi cannot match those of 100+ years ago. Music, in general, has changed so much. Something else to ponder: in 1923 Vladimir Horowitz (with violinist Nathan Milstein) premiered violin concerti by Karol Szymanowski (d. 1937) and Sergei Prokofiev (d. 1953). That was possible because in those days it was 100% common—and fully accepted—for violinists to play concerti accompanied by the piano! Time haves changed.1
Recorded Music At Mass?
These days, people often ask: “Why can’t we have recorded music at Mass?”
I think the best answer was given by Father Peter Gee, FSSP, close to three decades ago. When I asked him why we can’t play records at Mass, he instantly replied: “Because the Mass is something living.”
For the record, our contributor (Mr. Keven Smith) attended the school founded by Josef Hofmann: The Curtis Institute. I hope he will (eventually) find time to share some stories with us!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Speaking of Vladimir Horowitz, before 1953 he was quite fantastic. He had numerous operas memorized, plus tons of chamber music and concerti, to say nothing of his solo repertoire, which was massive: Brahms, Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Bach-Busoni, Mussorgsky, Beethoven, Scriabin, Haydn, Mussorgsky, Schumann, and so forth. To give just one example, early in his career Horowitz accompanied (singer) Zoya Lodaya in Schubert’s Winterreise cycle, and Horowitz played the entire piano part from memory—a feat worthy of Friedman or Hofmann! By the way, after 1953, Horowitz’s playing deteriorated in a huge way, although he was paid massive amounts of money to perform until the day he died; again, a strange paradox which is not unrelated to what I’ve been talking about, in terms of our society’s appreciation for serious music. Times have changed; and so has music.