EVERAL OF MY ABSOLUTE favorite pianists are Alfred Cortot (d. 1962), Vladimir Horowitz (d. 1989), Ignaz Friedman (d. 1948), Glenn Gould (d. 1982), Sergei Rachmaninoff (d. 1943), Leopold Godowsky (d. 1938), Josef Lhévinne (d. 1944), Edwin Fischer (d, 1960), Evgeny Kissin (b. 1971), Dinu Lipatti (d. 1950), William Kapell (d. 1953), Benno Moiseiwitsch (d. 1963), Severin Eisenberger (d. 1945), Martha Argerich (b. 1941), Wilhelm Backhaus (d. 1969), Walter Gieseking (d. 1956), Sviatoslav Richter (d. 1997), Ignace Tiegerman (d. 1968), and Abe Chasins (d. 1987).
…but compared to Josef Hofmann, they all sound like students!
When Rachmaninov—a first-rate pianist, conductor, and composer—would hear Josef Hofmann perform any piece of music, he would instantly drop it from his repertoire and never play it again. When Abe Chasins asked him why, Rachmaninov replied: “What’s the point? That’s the music; there it is, in total perfection. There’s nothing that can be added to such a performance. And who else can do it but Josef? Nobody!” Hofmann was one of the three greatest musical prodigies of all time (the other two being Camille Saint-Saëns and Felix Mendelssohn)…yet he was much more than a child prodigy. Anton Rubinstein, who hated child prodigies, called Josef Hofmann “the greatest musical genius the world has ever known.” Hofmann’s ear was legendary, and he could hear a difficult piece of music twice and memorize it instantly according to Rosina Lhévinne (who taught a Julliard).
For many years, I have struggled with a question—and I still have no answer. The basic question is: “What’s the point of ever attempting a piece that Hofmann has recorded?” Consider Hofmann’s “live” performances of Chopin’s 3rd Sonata, or the Chopin concerti, or Chopin’s 4th Ballade. These were all secretly recorded and Hofmann didn’t know anyone would ever hear them (strictly speaking, the 3rd Sonata was a private test recording). His playing is…unreal. Of course, this question does not concern choral music, because choral singing cannot be accurately captured by a microphone, whereas the piano (a percussion instrument) can be captured much better.
When it comes to the 4th Ballade (Op. 52, f-minor) of Chopin, recorded on his 50th anniversary of his appearance in America, David Dubal of Julliard rightfully said “Hofmann here makes the piano do things that the piano should not be capable of.” Hofmann’s (live) interpretation of this piece is an ever-widening vista of stupendous pianism absolutely without equal. The counterpoint, the melodic ideas, the coördination between hands, the pedaling, the fingerwork—the entire thing (every second) is far beyond anything ever attempted on the piano. I had listened to this piece hundreds of times before I heard Hofmann play it. I had carefully studied all the recordings by Cortot, Horowitz, Moiseiwitsch, Krystian Zimerman, Sviatoslav Richter, and so forth. But one I day in the 1990s I went up to the old KU music library and took out the Hofmann LP record. I placed it onto the record player and then…shear bliss! Over the next few years—until it was eventually released on CD—I listened to that LP record so many times I almost put a hole in it! 1
Again the question returns: What is the point of attempting anything Hofmann has done? I know it is good for all of us to learn the fundamentals of music, and to learn pieces for the joy of learning them. I totally understand that. However, if a human is offered the choice between a lovely, fresh, ripe nectarine and a moldy, old, disgusting nectarine what (sane) human being will choose the moldy one? Josef Hofmann is the ripe nectarine! In those days, there was no internet—yet people somehow recognized Hofmann for what he was: the absolute greatest pianist of all time. Steinway even placed him in a very special category (“Class A”) whereas masters such as Cortot, Horowitz, and Rachmaninov were below him in “Class B.” The most amazing thing is that Hofmann basically stopped practicing at a young age because his true love was invention. Hofmann had 60+ patents to his name and invented many items—such as windshield wipers, after the ticking of a metronome! Josef Hofmann also invented the pneumatic shock-absorber:
Here’s another patent from 1941 when Hofmann lived in Hollywood California. (I wish it gave his address; I’d like to go see if his house is still there.)
Rachmaninov admitted Hofmann was the greatest pianist of all. Horowitz, in the Steinway basement, saw Hofmann’s piano and begged the Steinway people: “May I please just touch it?” Olga Samaroff and Isabelle Vengerova both admitted Hofmann was above all other pianists. Other pianists practiced their entire lives—every day!—yet never reached Hofmann’s status. Godowski practiced for hours each morning. Rachmaninov practiced three hours of scales each morning, and went to Godowski for special exercises. Horowitz reached his zenith in the 1940s and continued to practice his entire life, but steadily declined after 1953 (to the extent he could barely even play in 1983) with a few occasional “flashes” of his old genius, such as Chopin Nocturne Op. 55, No. 2, recorded just a few days before he died. And yet Hofmann almost never practiced after the age of 25, unless he was “in the mood.” When Hofmann wanted to practice hard, he would stuff cotton in his ears and nose and go into a corner with the score. Anton Rubinstein was correct: Josef Hofmann was the greatest musical genius the world has ever seen. I’d rather listen to one trill by Hofmann than everything Claudio Arrau ever recorded in his entire life.
OR THIRTY YEARS, Mr. Gregor Benko has been pretending he will “soon” release a Hofmann biography. My understanding is that Gregor Benko has exclusive access to all Hofmann’s personal correspondence. It seems he was tricking us, and no biography will ever be produced. Perhaps we can assemble the sources for a biography ourselves! Also, perhaps we can get in touch with Hofmann’s children to help; those that are still living. I believe one of them is a doctor in New York City. As far as I know, the most important “primary” Hofmann sources I have encountered are:
(1) Abram Chasins: Speaking of Pianists (1958)
(2) The stupendous program notes for the (9-volume) Complete Josef Hofmann by Ward Marston, a pianist who has been blind since birth
(3) The Amazing Marriage of Marie Eustis & Josef Hofmann (Book)
(4) The works of Harold C. Schonberg, who was a critic for the New York Times Newspaper
If you are a musician, you owe it to yourself to listen to Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 performed by at least five different pianists. (I would suggest all the Richter recordings, all the Cortot recordings, all the Horowitz recordings, Benno Moiseiwitsch’s recording, and Krystian Zimerman’s recording.) Listen to it for a year, repeatedly. Then read the history behind the 1938 Casimir Hall Recital by Josef Hofmann. Finally, allow yourself to listen to Hofmann’s recording of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade—and your mind will be blown.
If you think I’m nuts, go read what Charles Welles Rosen said about Hofmann.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 It was recorded “live” 7 April 1938 in Casimir Hall.