The Pianists’ Pianist: Leopold Godowsky 150

Leopold Godowsky

Leopold Godowsky – the name immediately conjures up impossible acrobatics at the keyboard made to look ridiculously simple by all self-respecting professional pianists. How can anyone play the famous arrangements of the Chopin Études with only two or (in the case of some of the Chopin) one hand?? What dark magic is at work to make it not only possible, but look easy? Answer: the sheer genius of Godowsky in understanding the art of transcription and how to best harness the technical abilities of the virtuoso pianist. This year sees the 150th anniversary of his birth, so we thought (albeit rather late in the year) we would explore his legacy a little – so, all you pianists – flex your fingers now for some serious practise…

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.”


“A whole world by itself” – that, for me, encapsulates Godowsky’s output in a nutshell.

Ernest Newman expressed Godowsky’s art along similar lines: “…he has a remarkable facility for drawing out of another man’s work, something that was not formally expressed by the man, but really latent in his work.”

Sorabje, in his essay Leopold Godowsky as creative transcriber, in Mi Contra Fa, echoes these sentiments: “The great transcriber expounds, enlarges and amplifies matter and thought inherent or implicit in the original text, matter and thought that it has been left to him to discover and reveal, and as in Godowsky’s case, makes the original a point de depart for a great new creation…Leopold Godowsky must, I think, be considered as one of the supreme masters of transcription, to be put in the same transcendental class as Liszt and Busoni, and even in certain respects surpassing them.” And it is worth bearing in mind that this lion of the keyboard was, to all intents and purposes, self-taught…

Godowsky was born in February 1870 in Soshly (or Žasliai), a little village not far from Vilnius in Lithuania, but took US citizenship in 1891 living there until 1900 when he moved to Berlin and established his reputation as one of the greatest pianists of his generation. A move to Vienna in 1908 followed where he and his family stayed until the outbreak of the First World War when he moved back to the US where he remained for the rest of his life.

So much for the 50-word biography (well, 84 actually, but who’s counting?), but what of the music, the prolific output – mainly of “transcriptions” – he produced. I have deliberately enclosed transcriptions in inverted commas because I feel they are much more than that. Re-compositions, re-imaginings, re-interpretations if you like, of works whether originally for single instruments (such as the Bach Cello Suites, or the Chopin Études, or for full orchestra such as the Strauss Waltzes or for voice and piano as in Schubert songs), Godowsky takes the work in question and does things with it that I suspect even the composer would never have imagined possible! Let’s take a closer look at three examples…

We’ll start with Bach (well, we could hardly do otherwise – he was the foundation for so much) and the transcription of the Cello Suites. Here is Sorabje on the originals:

“…as far as I am concerned, these Bach solo-violin and ‘cello works are nightmares, grinning, dry, rattling skeletons of compositions, bloodless, fleshless, staring anatomies. Godowsly clothes them with flesh and blood and makes of them magnificent and indeed tremendous musical organisms having the sweep and grandeur, the profundity, solemnity and richness that is indeed associated with the greatest of Bach…”

He does love his Baroque prose, doesn’t he? I respectfully beg to disagree with him on his view of the originals.

A “slow moment” to begin! Here is the Prelude to Bach Cello Suite no. 2 BWV 1008 performed by Tanya Gabrelian. Godowsky does indeed bring out the dark, pensive mood, filling out the “unspoken” parts implied in the original cello line.

And now, the original with the sublime Mischa Maisky – the whole thing if you would like to listen…: a world away, far more of an introspective exploration, and yet you can hear that Godowsky has captured the essence of the movement, “filling out” the unspoken yet inwardly heard harmonies and emphasising the mood of the movement. This performance is particularly special and imbued with extra intensity as it was recorded during the Lockdown…almost too intense to bear.

Perhaps Godowsky’s greatest achievements are his Studies on Chopin Études – all 53 of -them (the studies, not the Études!), and 22 of which are for the left hand alone. The first group were composed at the age of only 23. Godowsky provided a preface to the works in which he says:

“The fifty-three studies based upon twenty-six Études of Chopin have manifold purposes. Their aim is to develop the mechanical, technical and musical possibilities of piano­forte playing, to expand the peculiarly adapted nature of the instrument to polyphonic, polyrhythmic and polydynamic work, and to widen the range of its possibilities in tone colouring.”

And in 1938 he explained his approach in an article for the journal Overtones [L409.b.66]:

“To justify myself in the perennial controversy which exists regarding the aesthetic and ethical rights of one composer to use another composer’s works, themes, or ideas as a foundation for paraphrases, variations, etc., I desire to say that it depends entirely upon the intention, nature and quality of the work of the so-called ‘transgressor’. Since the Chopin Études are universally acknowledged to be the highest attainment in étude form in the realm of beautiful pianoforte music combined with mechanical and technical usefulness, I thought it wisest to build upon their solid and invulnerable foundation to further the art of pianoforte playing. Being averse to any tampering with the text of any master work when played in the original form, I would condemn any artist for taking liberties with the works of Chopin or any other great composer. The original Chopin Studies remain as intact as they were before any arrangements of them were published; in fact, numerous artists claim that after assiduously studying my versions, many hidden beauties in the original Studies will reveal themselves to the observant student.”

Here is the wonderful, and much-missed, Jorge Bolet in conversation with a (very young) Michael Oliver discussing Godowsky’s transcriptions and then going on to perform a selection. Fascinating in all respects.

And finally to Johann Strauss: with another lion of the keyboard, Earl Wild, performing Künstlerleben (Artist’s Life) from the the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Johann Strauss Themes

A fantasia-like introduction leads to a jubilant statement of the waltz we know and love with knobs on [technical analytic term…] followed by a number of elaborations all hugely pianistic – a metamorphosis indeed! Jeremy Nicholas in his excellent notes for the Hyperion recording by Rian de Waal hits the nail on the head when he describes it as a “polyphonic pot pourri of joie de vivre”. Life-affirming, frankly, in these difficult times. But with only two hands…how? Surely impossible, particularly the finale, as it were. Glorious. Earl Wild steps up to the challenge in his usual masterly and musicianly way.

Now compare it with the original! A delight of course, especially when the Vienna Phil is playing, but quite different. Take your partners, ladies and gentlemen and clear the furniture to the side of the room…

For those of you wishing to flex your fingers as never before, the UL has the recent Carl Fischer edition of Godowsky in its shelves at M340.a.200.14 – 18. Good luck…

Belated 150th Leopold!



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