Leopold Godowsky - the future “pianist of pianists” was born on February 13, 1870 in the Governorate of Livonia of the Russian Empire in the small town of Žasliai near Vilna (now Vilnius). He was the only child in the family of Anna and Matthew Godowsky. The father, a medical practitioner, died during cholera epidemic a year and a half after his son was born. The family, which was experiencing great financial difficulties, moved to Vilna. Mother and son found refuge with Anna's friends, Louis and Minna Passinock. Louise served as a managing director in music store and was an amateur violinist. He noticed the boy's musical potential and decided to give him violin lessons. The classes were so successful that after a while Leopold was able to play the first part of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. However, the boy was uncontrollably attracted to piano. He spent more and more time playing the instrument. Subsequently, Godowsky claimed that he did not even remember who was the first to explain him the layout of piano keys and gave the initial ideas about fingering. Probably, it was Minna Passinock, who played the piano a little. Hence, it is a fact that the future outstanding pianist did not receive systematic professional education in his childhood and was an autodidact. Already at the age of nine, he first appeared in front of the public in Vilna. The wunderkind's career began.
His talent attracted the attention of Königsberg banker Feinberg, who offered to finance Leopold's studies at the Berlin High School of Music. In 1884, Godowsky was standing in front of the enrolment board that was composed of Moritz Moszkowski, Woldemar Bargiel and the glorious Joseph Joachim. He was enlisted in the Ernst Rudorff class. The studies lasted only for three months. These classes did not satisfy the teenager. One of Leopold classmates later recalled that Godowsky’s natural talent put him far above his teachers. Three months later, the fund donated by the banker ran out, and in 1884, Leopold and his mother left for America in search of a better life. The young pianist gave his first concert in Boston on December 7. In early 1885, he gave concert in the Casino of New York City, substituting the famous Teresa Carreno, the wife of the equally legendary Eugène d'Albert. Then, together with violinist Ovide Musin, the pianist made a long tour through the Western states. Hence, it did not bring him financial success.
The most important events in Godowsky life occurred in 1886. In New York, he was introduced to the well-known philanthropist Leon Saxe, a wealthy businessperson, owner of several cigar stores in Wall Street and Broadway. He became interested in Godowsky playing the piano. Saxe introduced Leopold into his family and treated him like a son, although he had five own children. Leopold became friends with one of Saxes’ daughters, his age mate Frederica (Frida), who became his wife later. In June, Godowsky, together with Saxe, sailed to Europe with the aim of continuing studies in Weimar with Ferencz Liszt. However, he was balked in his desires. On June 31, a few days after Godowsky's arrival in Europe, Liszt died in Bayreuth during the Wagner festival. Some sources mistakenly claim that Godowsky studied for a short time under Liszt. Godowsky and Saxes settled in Paris, where a lucky chance in one of the clubs brought together the young pianist and Camille Saint-Saëns. At the request of those present, Godowsky performed his play “Märchen” (A Fairy Tale). The talent of the young man impressed the maestro. Thus began their communication, which lasted for more than four years. Saint-Saens, who had lost his son shortly before, even intended to adopt Leopold and, as Godowsky later recalled, “set a condition for me to bear his name. But I refused, and he was very angry with me”. Serious training with Saint-Saens was not enough. Godowsky recalled, “I played a lot to Saint-Saens, although he did not give classes to me. When I played him — even my own compositions — he invariably repeated: “Fascinating!”, “Delightful!”, “Stunningly, my dear” or something like that, and although these words were spoken sincerely, they could not be considered as constructive criticism". In the composer's house, Godowsky met representatives of Paris musical elite - Charles Gounod, Léo Delibes, Jules Massenet, Charles-Marie Widor, and Gabriel Fauré, he played for Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
In 1890, Saxe died and Godowsky returned to the United States, deciding to search for the better life there again. This time, he was on a roll. On April 24, 1891, he was probably one of the first pianists who gave the concert at Carnegie Hall two weeks prior to the official opening of this subsequently renowned hall. On April 30 the same year, he married Frida Saxe, who became his faithful companion for the rest of his life, and soon he received American citizenship.
Over the next decade, an active pedagogical activity of the pianist was developed, first in the New York School of Music (1891), then in the conservatories of Philadelphia (Gilbert Raynolds Combs's Broad Street Conservatory (1891-93) and Chicago (1893-1900). In his teaching practice, the technical principles that he continued to profess were formed: “weight play”, muscular freedom, and economy of movements. The beginning of the decade was also marked by the appearance of his first transcript experiments: Rondo or. 16 and the Great Brilliant Waltz op. 18 Chopin and Henselt Op.2 No.6 (Si oiseau j'étais). It is very significant that already in his first experiments of this kind of creativity, so fruitful thereafter, Godowsky addressed not to the orchestral or organ works, but to the originals from the piano repertoire. From 1893 to 1914, he created his sophisticated adaptation of Chopin's etudes, which became the benchmark of piano artisanship and combinatorics. Godowsky wrote in the preface to his compositions edition, “53 exercises based on Chopin’s 26 etudes serve various purposes. They are intended for the development of mechanical, technical and musical possibilities of piano playing, especially in the sphere of polyphony, polyrhythm, polydynamics and colouristics”. Yet within Godowsky lifetime, the indignant voices were heard protesting against such treatment of Chopin's writings. However, the advocates of Godowsky’s writings and transcriptions pointed to his “devilish” inventiveness, polyphonic art, completely original technical ideas, and the extraordinary use of tonalities. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Hoffman, Paderewski spoke in the press in favor of Leopold Godowsky method and his compositions.
In the last decade of the 19th century, the concert activity of the pianist touring in the USA and Canada steadily expanded. In the season of 1897–98, he gave a cycle of eight concert programs, including the major part of the 19th century piano repertoire.
On July 4, 1900, together with his family, Godowsky sailed to Europe (with his wife Frida, daughters Vanita (1894) and Dagmara (1898) and son Leopold (1900). During the short period, he was acquainted with the outstanding musicians. They were Gustav Mahler, Arthur Nikisch, Carl Reinecke, Ferruccio Busoni, Harold Bauer and Moriz Rosenthal.
On December 6, 1900, the pianist made a triumphal debut in the Berlin Beethoven hall. It promoted his reputation as one of the greatest pianists of his time. The concert program was quite impressive. It began with Brahms Second Piano Concerto. Already after the first part, the audience burst into applause. Then, after a short break, seven transcriptions of Chopin's etudes, Weber-Tausig’s Invitation to the Dance, and Tchaikovsky's First Concerto were played. The pianist himself described this significant event as follows: “The hall was in high spirits, the air seemed electrified. At the beginning, I played a study for one left hand, op. 25, No.4 (A minor). There was such a noise that it is impossible to describe. The ovations were deafening. Then followed op. 10 No.11 and op. 25 No.3 - united; op. 25 No.8 (sixths); op. 25 No.5 in the form of a mazurka; op. 10 No.4, in C Sharp Minor; Scherzo and op. 10 No.5, in G Flat Major, followed by an Invitation to the Dance. Success has surpassed everything I have ever seen, not excluding enthusiasm at Paderewski's concerts. I could repeat each of the etudes, but I did not want the concert to be too long. The audience could have been tired even before Tchaikovsky (Concerto in B Flat Minor), so I repeated only “Joke” and “Mazurka”. It is impossible to say how many times I was called after transcriptions. I could not count. Pianists such as Vladimir de Pachmann, Josef Weiss, Anton Foerster, and the entire audience went wild with them. They shouted like wild beasts, waved handkerchiefs, etc.”
In the following years, Godowsky gave concerts in all European countries. At the zenith of his career, he performed truly immense repertoire, including about twenty programs in which not a single composition was repeated.
Wherever he settled (New York, Berlin, Vienna), his house became the center of attraction for the most prominent representatives of the artistic world. He supported Edward Grieg and Jan Sibelius, was friends with Joseph Hoffmann, Fritz Kreisler, Theodor Leschetizky, Sergey Rachmaninoff.
In 1906 his youngest son Gutram, who was called Gordon in the English manner was born in Berlin. The compositional skill of Godowsky was developed. He created the enormous in scale and pianistic complexity Sonata in E Minor (1911), a cycle of 24 plays Walzermasken. The work on transcriptions continued: the Renaissance suite (16 adaptations of works by ancient masters), Symphonic Metamorphoses on the themes of waltzes by Johann Strauss.
In 1909, Godowsky was offered the position of a professor at the Academy of Music in Vienna, where he moved with the whole family and where he remained until the beginning of the First World War. According to the contract, his class consisted of 15 playing students and 25 irregular students.
It was the period when Isay Dobrowen, Joseph and Rosina Lhévinne, and Heinrich Neuhaus (1912-1914) were studying with him. H. Neuhaus wrote in his memoirs, “Leopold Godowsky was my best teacher and friend. He talked little with students in class and almost never, he mentioned technique. During his lessons, he spoke only about music, and his advice concerned the artistic interpretation of the work ... Godowsky manner of playing was captivating by impeccable taste and minor details’ filigree elaboration. He had such a sophisticated ear that he seemed to be "weighing the sounds" on some very sensitive scales. As a painter with light and shade, Godowsky created a deep sound perspective with his playing. His pianistic achievements were undoubtedly a whole epoch in the history of piano performance”.
However, teaching did not hamper him to follow his concert tours. From November 1912 to April 1913, the pianist toured through America, where he played under the direction of Leopold Stokowski and made his first record at Columbia company. The following season, he again spent four months in the United States. In July 1914, as usual taking his whole class with him, he rented a villa on the Belgian coast in Middelkerke. The First World War caught him there. He left for London on the last steamer from Ostend. From there he departed to the United States that turned out to be his last refuge.
He stayed at the Plaza Hotel in New York that quickly became the same hospitable place for the cultural elite as his homes in Berlin or Vienna. Paderewski, Chaliapin, Fritz Kreisler, Caruso, Hoffman, Mischa Elman, Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin were visiting the place. At the end of 1916, he moved to Los Angeles, in 1919 - to Seattle, and then again to New York to the Ansonia Hotel. He continues to give concerts, remaining one of the highest paid pianists (Godowsky’s hands were insured for 1,000,000 dollars). The seasons of 1921-22 were marked by long tours in the South America.
New transcribed works emerged - among them is the popular “Tango” by Isaak Albeniz and the Musical Moment in F minor by Schubert were among them. New original works were composed: six notebooks of “Miniatures” for piano four-hands, Triakontameron (30 pieces in three-quarter size).During 1923 Godowsky was touring in the countries of the Far East - Japan, China, Indonesia. His impressions of the Java gong orchestra were embodied in the Phonoramas of the Java Suite. During the tour, he began working on transcriptions of Bach's sonatas and solo cello suites.