Josef Hofmann was born in Krakow, Poland, on January 20, 1878. The boy was brought up in the musical family. His mother was the operetta soloist and possessed an excellent soprano; his father was a composer, pianist, and the conductor of the Warsaw Opera as well. The children were inculcated in love for music from the early age. Joseph first teacher was his elder sister. Three-year-old child managed to learn all piano exercises at the incredible speed. Later, his father, Casimir, began to teach him.
Joseph's professional debut took place in one of Warsaw suburbs one and a half year after the young musician touched the piano keys for the first time. Soon the glory of the virtuoso boy swept across Poland. The family began to receive numerous proposals concerning the performances of Joseph at various venues throughout the country. However, Casimir did not want to exploit the child, and consented for participation only in several charity concerts.
At the age of seven, Hofmann performed the first part of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto in Warsaw. Critics marked the pianist inborn sense of style, accuracy and gentle tone. There Anton Rubinstein first heard the young musician playing. The maestro was delighted by Joseph playing the piano and in no time related about the incredible boy to the most influential German impresario, Hermann Wolf. Anton Rubinstein considered Hofmann a unique, one-of-a-kind pianist that never before had appeared in the history of music. Due to the emphatic persuasion of Rubinstein and Wolf, Casimir allowed his ten-year-old son to perform.
Hofmann Jr.'s first performance outside Poland was in one of the concerts at the Berliner Philharmonie, where he played the First Concerto by Beethoven in full. Hans von Bülow was the conductor. This concert was triumphant. For a long time, the applause and enthusiastic shouts did not cease, causing the young genius to bow. The performances throughout Europe followed. Hofmann visited Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Holland. Camille Saint-Saëns attended his concert in Paris. He declared that the boy was the greatest miracle of the century.
Much information was published in the press about Hofmann. Critics compared him to Mozart, and the audience idolized him. One day the parents promised Joseph to pay 25 cents for each concert. Once after another successful performance, when the audience asked for an encore, the young virtuoso said, "The concert is over and I have earned my quarter". After performing one more number, backstage, he said to his father, “Now, in the future, you should pay me by the piece – two cents for my own compositions, and five cents for other ones”.
Awesome success in Europe opened for Joseph Hoffman the doors to the first-rate USA scenes. On November 29, 1887, one of the most landmark pianist’s performances took place. He played The First Piano Concerto by Beethoven, The Variations by Rameau, Polonaise Brillante by Weber-Liszt, several compositions by Chopin and one his own piece at the Metropolitan Opera. Adolf Neuendorff conducted the concert. The applause started as soon as Joseph stepped onto the stage. The child was dressed in a striped sailor shirt and knee-length breeches. The boy made a huge impression on the American public. It was a real miracle - Joseph Hofmann played as a master, his performance was poetic and incredibly deep, which did not correspond to the real age of the artist. A series of performances followed. In ten weeks, he gave fifty-two concerts in the USA. Henry Abbey was the facilitator of the tour, held in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Baltimore.
On November 26, 1887, a news story in the press that young Joseph Hofmann was engaged to perform a myriad of concerts in the United States attracted the attention of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty towards Children. The organizers closely followed the number of pianist performances. It was recommended that the boy should participate in four concerts per month maximum. However, this requirement was regularly violated. The President of the Society sent a complaint to the Mayor of New York concerning this fact. On February 2, Joseph Hofmann was subjected to medical examination, which revealed the state of chronic weariness and general fatigue. The boy’s father decided to cancel all scheduled concerts. Henry Abbey brought a lawsuit of 75 thousand dollars as a penalty for violating the contract terms. A new medical examination revealed that a physically healthy child is showing signs of "mental disorder". Abbey was forced to withdraw the accusation; otherwise, the angry Hofmann’s admirers would not give him the opportunity of further work.
On February 21, Casimir Hofmann announced in the press that he did not want to risk his son's health anymore. Alfred Corning Clark, art patron from New York decided to help the young talent and dole out money the amount of money necessary for learning, with the condition that the child would not give concerts before the age of majority. With these funds, Joseph Hofmann was sent to Berlin, where Heinrich Urban (composition) and Moritz Moszkowski (piano) became his teachers. Moszkowski was fascinated by the pianist’s play, saying that Hofmann plays the piano much better than he does. In 1892, Joseph was honored to become the only private student of Anton Rubinstein. During two years of studying, Rubinstein gave him about 40 lessons. In his book “Piano Playing: With Piano Questions Answered” Hofmann wrote" Rubinstein chose the method of indirect instruction through leading questions in the strict sense of the word. Thus, he sought to awaken in me a particular musical sense as a parallel to his generalizations, and thereby protect my musical individuality.”
It was Rubinstein who insisted on uncompromising fidelity to the musical text, which in practice did not correspond to the maestro's own game. To Hofmann’s timid question that Rubinstein did not follow the proclaimed rule, he replied, “When you are at my age, you can do the same. If you can. On one day, the maestro called Joseph to himself and asked him to prepare his re-minor concert for the performance in two days (Anton Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No.4, opus 70). On March 14, 1894, Rubinstein organized Hofmann's debut performance in Hamburg, where he himself stood up for the conductor's console. From that moment on, the pianist became an independent artist.
In the autumn of 1894, Joseph Hofmann went on a concert tour. It started in England (his benefactor Alfred Corning Clark came there specifically from the USA), and then concerts were held in Germany and Russia. Joint performances in 1894, together with Anton Rubinstein, were the last for the creative tandem. Rubinstein died on November 20, 1894. Hofmann learned about his death from a newspaper, when on his way from London to Cheltenham for a recital. By an amazing coincidence, that evening Joseph Hofmann performed the great Second Sonata by Chopin, the third part of which was the Funeral March. This evening he played it not for the audience, but for his closest friend and tutor, Anton Rubinstein. On the last page of the sonata, the audience rose and continued to stand silently until the final chords, thus honoring the memory of the deceased musician. The day before, on the day of Rubinstein's death, Hofmann's first recital took place in London after seven-year hiatus (not counting the debut in Hamburg). The pianist performed Polonaise in E Flat Minor, Souvenir de Dresden, and Op.118 No.6 that Anton Rubinstein dedicated to him. Hofmann performed this work in public only twice - this day and commemorating the second anniversary of his teacher death, in St. Petersburg.
In 1898, Hofmann again performed on the stage in the United States. In 1900, Hoffmann acquainted with the famous pianist Leopold Godowsky that became his close friend for many years.
Without stopping teeming concert activity, in 1914, Hofmann emigrated to the United States, and in 1926, he received American citizenship. In 1924, he headed the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, becoming its director, and stayed in this seat until 1938. During this time, the institute gained the status of musical educational institution of the world importance. On November 8, 1937, one of the most significant performances of Joseph Hofmann took place: the pianist celebrated the 50th anniversary of his American debut on the Metropolitan Opera stage. The active performing activity of the musician lasted until 1940. The last time Joseph Hofmann played on the stage on January 19, 1946 at the Carnegie Hall.
The great pianist died on February 16, 1957, at the age of 79.
In addition to magnificent performing art, Joseph Hofmann was writing his own compositions. He created about a hundred piano pieces in the style of the salon music. He composed music under the pseudonym Mikhail Dvorskiy, hiding this fact for many years. By nature, Hoffman had an exceptional ear for music and picked out the musical pieces instantly and absolutely accurate, without seeing the note text before. An amazing case came down to us. Hoffmann picked out the most complicated piano work – Godowsky’s transcription of Die Fledermaus (The Revenge of the Bat) by Johann Strauss Jr. Periodically visiting Leopold Godowsky in his studio, Joseph eagerly listened to how he worked on this composition. A week later, Hofmann played it note to note, although Godowsky himself had not yet recorded the musical text on paper.
Hofmann was a diversified man. He conducted radio programs, popularly narrating about classical music to the broad audience. He was an excellent athlete as well - he played tennis, drove a yacht and a car. Hofmann's special hobby was engineering - the pianist owned a patent for a vehicle hydraulic springs and for wiper blades mechanism. In 1887, Joseph Hoffman made one of the world's first phonograph recordings. During the last years of his life, the musician was engaged in developments in the field of musical mechanics and sound recording: he had several dozen patents for various improvements of piano construction and adjustment.Hofmann's way of piano playing differed from that of his contemporaries, even from the way Ferruccio Busoni played. The manner was rather strict in comparison with the performance of the representatives of the school of Liszt and Leschetitzky; it reflected the renewed setting of modernity for scrupulous adherence to the musical text. The content of the composition and the meaning enclosed by its creator were of paramount importance. This approach was new; hence, nowadays it is the law for the musicians. The composer came to the fore, whereas previously the performer was the main person - therefore there was a free interpretation of the text, its embellishment, a large number of improvisations. Hofmann believed that the performer’s task was to execute correctly the musical text and convey the composer’s intent as much as possible without introducing his own improvisations or wandering from the written music text, even minimally. The accuracy of the text did not deprive his performance of freedom and poetry; the music seemed to come alive under the musician’s fingers. Hofmann noted in his book “Piano Playing: With Piano Questions Answered noted”, "Tantalizing, blatant bulging of the precious performing "I" by randomly adding nuances, shades, effects, etc. is equipollent to fraud; at best, this is a “playing for the upper balcony”, quackery. The performer should always be convinced that he plays only what is written ... The correct interpretation of the musical piece follows from its correct understanding, and this in turn depends only on meticulously accurate reading”.