|Part of Godowsky's arrangement of a Chopin Étude|
At lunchtime in the Dominion-Chalmers Church on Wednesday there was a lecture-recital about the music of Leopold Godowski from the Swedish pianist, Carl Petersson, who also gave a recital at the National Gallery yesterday (which I'll describe later). He began by asking, "Who here has heard of Godowski?" and not many of us had. "I'm here to give a great man a small renaissance," Dr. Peterssen said (whose PhD was written on the composer), going on to describe the life and particularly turbulent childhood of this man.
He was born to a Jewish family in Lithuania; his father died when he was one year old and he was then brought up by his uncle, who sold musical instruments for a living. By the age of five, Leopold could play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, not just on the violin which he was forced to play because his uncle thought there were too many pianist prodigies in Europe, but the orchestral part on the piano, too. The boy didn't need to struggle to learn how to play and gave recitals from the age of 9 onwards; he said it was as natural to him as eating or breathing. When he was 12 he was taken on a tour of North America, but the uncle was no good at looking after him. Leopold found himself "ditched" in Vancouver and, without knowing English, had to make his own way back to New York (which he did). Back in Europe he found a better protector, a Mr. Saxe, whose daughter he eventually married. As a teenager he wanted Liszt to be his teacher, but by the time he had the opportunity, Liszt had died. He ended up in Paris as a sort of foster son of Saint-Saëns.
As an adult he taught the piano, not liking pupils with "fast fingers and slow brains". Although he suffered permanently from stage fright, he also became a very successful performer in Berlin, for a while, liked living there, so when asked to move to Vienna he was reluctant. His wife advised him to demand exorbitant fees and for his sponsors to cover a phenomenal amount of expenses. The ploy didn't work: all their demands were accepted.
Dr. Peterssen called Godowsky a workaholic, a visionary and a philosopher. He was an idealist, inspired by other visionaries engaged in what he called the "vain fight against selfishness, ignorance and brutality." He believed that the human race should diffuse love, light, harmony, not be engaged in the crude commercialism which was "the curse of our age."
It seems we need him back to reiterate those thoughts now.
Why is Godowsky not better known? My illustrations to this blogpost give a clue –– his music was just too impossible to play! Even Horowitz commented that one needed six hands for it; his compositions don't sound particularly strange and modern, though, being in the old Viennese tradition. Dr. Peterssen claimed that this composer could have been remembered as the King of the Waltz rather than Strauss, had his waltzes been more playable. He (Godowsky) claimed that his contemporaries who composed experimentally, such as Alban Berg, were "dishonest snobs"! He didn't like Wozzeck at all. He knew all the famous early 20th century Viennese and wrote music for the left hand, for Paul Wittgenstein; but that was too hard to play as well. Godowsky's main breadwinning occupation was the transcription or arrangement of other composer's works for piano. He even had the effrontery to "arrange" 53 Chopin Études, complicating them beyond measure.
His adult life was fairly grim, his son committing suicide and his wife dying soon afterwards. He had a faithful daughter called Dagmar who looked after him until he died a joyless death of cancer in 1938.
The short examples of Godowsky's music we heard after the lecture didn't sound particularly complex or extraordinarily memorable, in my opinion. We heard an extract from the Java Suite, part of an attempt by the composer to pay tribute to the music of the world (he didn't get very far with it) ...
... , two songs sung by the soprano Hélène Brunet, so rarely heard they may never have been performed before, this side of the Atlantic, which sounded like early Schönberg or Mahler, as well as extracts from Godowsky's "Miniatures" and "Impressions" for piano, entitled Orientale and Valse Macabre.