"The piano as a medium for expression is a whole world by itself. No other instrument can fill or replace its own say in the world of emotion, sentiment, poetry, imagery, and fancy."
Leopold Godowsky (b. 1870-1938) was one of the most highly regarded pianists of his time, praised by listeners, colleagues, and critics alike. Arthur Rubinstein remarked that it would take him "five hundred years to get a mechanism like [Godowsky's]," while Ferruccio Busoni considered himself and Godowsky to be the only composers to have made substantial contributions to keyboard writing and performance since Liszt. He was heralded among musical giants as the "Buddha of the Piano" and was probably the most astonishing instance of a self-taught performer and creator in the history of art. Ferruccio Busoni claimed that he and Godowsky were "the only composers to have added anything of significance to keyboard writing since Franz Liszt."
Godowsky's phenomenally difficult transcriptions and impeccable technique prompted some critics to describe him as "a pianist for pianists.” Among Godowsky's admirers were distinguished pianists like Vladimir de Pachmann and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who, according to Godowsky's daughter, idolized her father's music and performances.
Even those who disliked Godowsky's interpretations acknowledged his tremendous technical gifts: Claudio Arrau, despite showing unhidden distaste for some of Godowsky’s work, also declared Godowsky "one of the greatest technicians.”
Godowsky's vast repertoire spanned more than two centuries of music, from contemporary to that of Rameau and Lully. Although he regularly played public concerts until 1930, Godowsky was plagued by stage fright. He particularly disliked the recording studio; he once described the recording process thus:
T”he fear of doing a trifling wrong augmented while playing; the better one succeeded in playing the foregoing, the greater the fear became while playing. It was a dreadful ordeal, increasingly so the more sensitive the artist, I broke down in my health in London in the Spring of 1930, owing to these nerve-killing tortures. How can one think of emotion!”
Consequently, it was acknowledged that Godowsky's best work was not in public or in the recording studio, but at home. After leaving Godowsky's home one night, Josef Hofmann told Abram Chasins: "Never forget what you heard tonight; never lose the memory of that sound. There is nothing like it in the world. It is tragic that the world has never heard Popsy as only he can play."
Godowsky's pupils included Paul Wells, Apolinary Szeluto, Jan Smeterlin, Issay Dobrowen, Fannie Charles Dillon, Abbey Simon and most importantly, Heinrich Neuhaus, who taught Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, and Radu Lupu, among others.
Godowsky passed away in November 1938 of stomach cancer. In his obituary, The New York Times lamented:
“Leopold Godowsky was a unique figure among all his contemporaries: a phenomenal pianist and musician of the most exceptional attributes... He sought new worlds to conquer and set to developing the modem idioms of the piano in ways which had a strong effect upon the development of present day technic and upon composition for the instrument. This alone would entitle him to the fame rather unjustly denied him as a pianist. When he played his style was too perfect, too sensitive, perhaps too cool and unostentatious in its values, to win the approval of the crowd. He could play everything when he was at the zenith of his powers with a finish and apparent ease attainable by few, and with an understanding and abhorrence of exaggeration which did not favour him in the concert world. By other great pianists, such as Hofmann and Rachmaninoff, Godowsky was profoundly esteemed. He was a man of wholly exceptional mentality; widely read; at home and at ease with men who were leaders in other fields than his own; a traveller in many lands; a restless and curious inquirer in more than one realm of discovery. His service to music was great and enduring, proportionate to his industry, knowledge and modesty in his course.”