Vladimir Horowitz

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Vladimir Horowitz
Birth name Vladimir Samoylovych Horowitz
Born October 1, 1903
Flag of Ukraine Kiev, Ukraine
Died November 5, 1989 (age: 86)
New York, New York, USA
Genre(s) Classical
Occupation(s) Pianist
Years active 1920-1989
Label(s) Columbia, Deutsche Grammophon, RCA Victor, Sony Classical

Vladimir Samoylovych Horowitz (Ukrainian: Володимир Самійлович Горовиць, Russian: Владимир Самойлович Горовиц) (1 October 1903 – 5 November 1989) was an American classical pianist of Ukrainian birth. In his prime, he was considered one of the most brilliant pianists of his time. His use of tone color, technique and the excitement of his playing are thought by many to be unrivalled, and his performances of works as diverse as those of Domenico Scarlatti and Alexander Scriabin were equally legendary. Critics claim that his performance style is overly mannered (termed Horowitzian), and often too much so to be true to the composer's intentions. He has a huge and passionate following and is widely considered one of the world's greatest pianists of the twentieth century.

Life and early career

Horowitz himself said that he was born in Kiev, Ukraine (under the Russian Empire), but some sources have given Berdichev, Ukraine as his birthplace. His cousin Natasha Saitzoff, in a 1991 interview, stated that all four children were born in Kiev; Horowitz's wife, Wanda Toscanini, however, gave credence to the Berdichev possibility. He was born in 1903, but in order to make Vladimir appear too young for military service so as not to risk damaging his hands, his father took a year off his son's age by claiming he was born in 1904. This fictitious birth year is still found in some references, but authoritative sources-including Horowitz himself-confirm the correct year as 1903. Untouched by the upheavals and prejudices of the time, growing up in a middle class Jewish family, with siblings and extended family musically inclined and connected, Vladimir received piano instruction from an early age, initially from his mother, herself a competent pianist. He was adept from the start, surprising her with his natural ability. His greatest gift was his innate and intense musicality, his capacity to become completely absorbed in the emotions of the piece that continued even when not at the piano. Technical facility seemed to come easily and he soon developed a wide repertoire.

Formal piano instruction

In 1912 he entered the Kiev Conservatory, where he was taught by Vladimir Puchalsky, Sergei Tarnowsky, and Felix Blumenfeld. In 1914, an Uncle, Alexander Gorovitz arranged for his friend and mentor Alexander Scriabin, only a year before his death, to listen to Vladimir play at parent's home. After listening to a short recital, Scriabin His praised the young man's talent but added, in order for him to be a great artist he would need a broad education in all arts and culture. This his family provided. However due to being pampered and spoiled at home by over-bearing and over-protective parents he developed a superior attitude and was prone to sulks, etc., causing chastisement from professors and leaving him with no real friends. Kiev, capital of Ukraine, was at that time, virtually unscathed by the Revolution of 1917 and until the 1920s became a Mecca for intellectuals and artists escaping famine and violence in other cities. One of these, his third and last teacher, Blumenfeld, a former student under legendary Anton Rubenstein (in a musical lineage that leads back to Liszt) taught him the grand Russian pianistic tradition that had captivated him since childhood. He left the conservatory in 1919 and played the Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 at his graduation. A difficult score, this work was the height of Russian Romanticism and his interpretation was later to astound audiences. His entire programme had the whole conservatory and guests on its feet in an unprecedented rapture of applause and adulation. This occurred while the Bolsheviks were storming and taking over the city. Although he had ambitions to compose he now had not the money to continue to study and forever regretted that he gave his all to playing. Due to the new privations wherein his family lost everything to the Communists, Vladimir decided he needed to give back and at eighteen he embarked on his professional career with the motto, "success above all." His first solo concert recital followed in 1920.

Pianistic success

His star rose rapidly, and he soon began to tour Russia where he was often paid with bread, butter and chocolate rather than money, due to the country's economic hardships. He found that the public praised acrobatics over musicianship and he played the most brilliant programs to bring the greatest rewards. [1] During the 1922-1923 season, he performed 23 concerts of eleven different programs in Leningrad alone.[1] In 1926 Horowitz made his first appearance outside his home country, in Berlin. He later played in Paris, London and New York City, and it was in the United States that he eventually settled in 1940. He became a United States citizen in 1944.

Career in the US

In 1932 he played for the first time with the conductor Arturo Toscanini in a performance of the Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’. The two went on to appear together many times, both on stage and on record. In 1933, in a civil ceremony, Horowitz married Wanda Toscanini, the conductor's daughter. Their different religious backgrounds (Wanda was Catholic, Horowitz Jewish) was not an issue, since neither was observant. As Wanda knew no Russian and Horowitz knew very little Italian, their primary language became French. They had one child, Sonia Toscanini Horowitz (1934-1975).

Despite receiving rapturous receptions at his recitals, Horowitz became increasingly unsure of his abilities as a pianist. Several times he withdrew from public performances (1936-1938, 1953-1965, 1969-1974, 1983-1985), and it is said that on several occasions, Horowitz had to be pushed onto the stage.[1] After 1965 he gave solo recitals only rarely.

Early Recordings

Horowitz made numerous recordings, starting in 1928 upon his arrival in the United States. His first recordings in the US were made for RCA Victor. Because of the economic impact of the Great Depression RCA Victor agreed that Horowitz's European produced recordings would be made by HMV, RCA's London based affiliate. Horowitz's first European recording was his 1930 recording of the Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 with Albert Coates and the London Symphony Orchestra, the first recording of that piece. Through 1936 Horowitz continued to make recordings for HMV of solo piano repertoire, including his famous 1932 account of the Liszt: Sonata in B minor. Beginning in 1940, Horowitz's recording activity was concentrated in the United States. During this period, he made his first recording of the Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 under Toscanini in 1941. In 1959, RCA issued the live 1943 performance of the concerto with Horowitz and Toscanini; some say it is superior to the commercial recording. Beginning in 1953, when Horowitz went into retirement, he made a series of recordings in his New York townhouse, including discs of Alexander Scriabin and Muzio Clementi. Horowitz's first stereo recording, made in 1959, was devoted to Beethoven piano sonatas.

Later recordings

In 1962, Horowitz embarked on a series of highly acclaimed recordings for Columbia Records. The most famous among them are his 1965 return concert at Carnegie Hall and a 1968 recording from his television special, Horowitz on Television, televised by CBS. Horowitz also continued to make studio recordings, including a 1969 recording of Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana which was awarded the Prix Mondial du Disque.

In 1975, Horowitz returned to RCA Victor, and made a series of live recordings until 1982. He signed to Deutsche Grammophon in 1985, and made both studio and live recordings until 1989. Four filmed documents were made during this time, including the telecast of his April 20, 1986, Moscow recital. His final recording, for Sony Classical, was completed four days before his death.

Personal Life

Despite his marriage, there is considerable independent evidence that Horowitz was gay or at the least male-inclined. He is credited with the cryptic aphorism: “There are three kinds of pianists: Jewish pianists, homosexual pianists, and bad pianists.”[2]

It is believed he underwent psychological treatment in the 1950s in an attempt to alter his sexual orientation. In the early 1960s and again in the early 1970s, he underwent electroshock therapy for depression.[1]

The last years

After another brief retirement from 1983 until 1985 (he was playing under the influence of prescribed anti-depressant medication and as a result, memory lapses and loss of physical control occurred during his tour of America and Japan), Horowitz returned to recording and occasional concertizing. In many of his later performances, the octogenarian pianist substituted finesse and coloration for bravura.

In 1986, Horowitz returned to the Soviet Union to give a series of concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. In the new atmosphere of communication and understanding between the USSR and the USA, these concerts were seen as events of some political, as well as musical, significance. The Moscow concert, which was internationally televised, was released on a compact disc entitled Horowitz in Moscow, which reigned at the top of Billboard's Classical music charts for over a year. His final tour was in Europe in the spring of 1987; a video recording of one of his last public recitals, Horowitz in Vienna, was issued in 1991. He continued to record for the remainder of his life.

Vladimir Horowitz died November 5, 1989, in New York of a heart attack. He was buried in the Toscanini family tomb in Cimitero Monumentale, Milan, Italy.

Repertoire and technique

Horowitz is best known for his performances of the Romantic piano repertoire. His first recording of Liszt's Sonata (1932) is still considered by some piano afficionados as the definitive reading of that piece, after almost 75 years and almost 100 performances committed to disc by other pianists. Other pieces with which he was closely associated were Alexander Scriabin: Etude Op. 8, No. 12 D-sharp minor, Frédéric Chopin: Ballade No.1 in G minor, and many Rachmaninoff miniatures, including Polka de W.R.. He is also acclaimed for his recordings of the Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies, as well as for his famous hair-raising transcriptions, especially of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 15 and No. 2. Towards the end of the Friska section of the latter, Horowitz gives the illusion of playing with three hands as he combines all the themes of the piece. It was recorded in 1953, during his 25th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, and he stated that it was the most difficult of his transcriptions. Horowitz's other transcriptions of note include Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Carmen and Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever. The latter became a favorite with audiences, who "expected" it as an encore. Later in life, he refrained from playing it altogether, because "the audience would forget the concert and only remember Stars and Stripes, you know." Other well-known recordings include works by Schumann, Scriabin, Chopin, and Schubert. He also championed contemporary Russian music, giving the American premieres of the Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonatas No.6, Op. 82, No. 7, Op. 83 and No. 8, Op. 84. He also premiered the Samuel Barber: Piano Sonata and Excursions.

Spiritual music

He termed himself the last pianist to play "in the grand manner" (of the nineteenth century) in search for the "spiritual values" behind the notes and in the manner of a modern day Liszt, creating an aura of mystery equaled by no other artist of his day. Even his dress echoed the period of that time. He seemed proud when called "the Greta Garbo of the piano" and one manager recalled, that he had the best sense of self-promotion that he'd ever found in an artist. He was careful not to be over-exposed.

Horowitz's extravagances were always well received by concert audiences, but not by some critics (Virgil Thomson was famous for his consistent criticism of Horowitz as a "master of distortion and exaggeration" in his reviews in the New York Herald Tribune). The style of Horowitz frequently involved vast dynamic contrasts, with overwhelming double-fortissimos followed by sudden delicate pianissimos. He was able to produce an extraordinary volume of sound from the piano, without ever producing a harsh tone, leading some to wonder if he had tampered with the hammers. He could elicit an exceptionally wide range of tonal color from the piano, and his taut, precise, and exciting attack was noticeable even in his renditions of technically undemanding pieces (such as the Chopin Mazurkas). He is also famous for his octave technique; he could play precise scales in octaves extraordinarily fast. When asked by the pianist Tedd Joselson how he practiced octaves, Joselson reports, "He practiced them exactly as we were all taught to do."[3] Horowitz's unusual hand-position meant that he played with straight fingers, and the little finger of his right hand was always curled tight until it needed to play a note; as New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg put it, “it was like a strike of a cobra”.[4] Sergei Rachmaninoff himself commented that Horowitz plays contrary to how they had been taught, yet somehow with Horowitz it worked. Another account has it that when asked by an interviewer why he played his octaves so loud and so fast, his response was, “Because I can!”

For all the aural excitement of his playing, Horowitz seldom engaged in bodily or facial histrionics on the stage. He rarely raised his hands higher than the piano's fallboard, his body was immobile, and his face seldom reflected anything other than intense concentration.

Peers' Quotes

Van Cliburn

His art sprang from the great Russian school of pianism that gave scope to melody, breadth to sound and vision to a narrative. His intense search for beauty, not only in the musical arts but also in the visual arts, was the fabric of his being.

Gaby Casadesus

His technique was dazzling and so natural that it seemed effortless.

Santiago Rodriguez

None of this 'let the music speak for itself' nonsense. He challenged you with his playing and you either loved it or hated it. But there was no ignoring it.

Gabriel Tacchino

Horowitz's pianism was complex as was his musical being. It was through him that a great part of the twentieth century could realize the meaning of what could be accomplished in the realm of technical mastery. Horowitz knew how to infuse new life into the piano. His success will be encouragement for all pianists in the future.

David Bar-Illan

The only virtuoso of our time who could be mentioned in the same breath with the two greatest composer-performers of the piano, Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

Bella Davidovitch

Today, many confuse the electrically charged playing of Horowitz with playing merely fast. It was ever so much more than that. After hearing him, one felt compelled to play, carried away by the force of his inspiration.

Vladimir Feltsman

Vladimir Horowitz had accomplished what he was born to do. He died with a full life behind him and at the height of his glory. In a way he had already become immortal during his lifetime and his voice will always be present in this world, his song floating above us forever.

Awards and recognitions

Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance - Instrumental Soloist or Soloists

  • 1987 Horowitz: The Studio Recordings, New York 1985 (Deutsche Grammophon 419217)
  • 1969 Horowitz on Television: Chopin, Scriabin, Scarlatti, Horowitz (Columbia 7106)
  • 1968 Horowitz in Concert: Haydn, Schumann, Scriabin, Debussy, Mozart, Chopin (Columbia 45572)

Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance

  • 1989 Horowitz Plays Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 (Deutsche Grammophon 423287)
  • 1979 Golden Jubilee Concert, Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 (RCA CLR1 2633)

Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance

  • 1993 Horowitz Discovered Treasures: Chopin, Liszt, Scarlatti, Scriabin, Clementi (Sony 48093)
  • 1991 The Last Recording (Sony SK 45818)
  • 1988 Horowitz in Moscow (Deutsche Grammophon 419499)
  • 1982 The Horowitz Concerts 1979/80 (RCA ARL1-3775)
  • 1980 The Horowitz Concerts 1978/79 (RCA ARL1-3433)
  • 1979 The Horowitz Concerts 1977/78 (RCA ARL1-2548)
  • 1977 The Horowitz Concerts 1975/76 (RCA ARL1-1766)
  • 1974 Horowitz Plays Scriabin (Columbia M-31620)
  • 1973 Horowitz Plays Chopin (Columbia M-30643)
  • 1972 Horowitz Plays Rachmaninoff (Etudes-Tableaux Piano Music; Sonatas) (Columbia M-30464)

Grammy Award for Best Classical Album:

  • Columbia Records Presents Vladimir Horowitz
  • 1966 Horowitz at Carnegie Hall: An Historic Return
  • 1972 Horowitz Plays Rachmaninoff (Etudes-Tableaux Piano Music; Sonatas)
  • 1978 Concert of the Century with Leonard Bernstein (conductor), the New York Philharmonic, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Vladimir Horowitz, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Isaac Stern, Lyndon Woodside
  • 1988 Horowitz in Moscow (Deutsche Grammophon 419499)
  • 1987 Horowitz: The Studio Recordings, New York 1985 (Deutsche Grammophon 419217)

Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1990

Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Classical:

  • 1966 Horowitz at Carnegie Hall — An Historic Return
  • 1987 Horowitz: The Studio Recordings, New York 1985 (Deutsche Grammophon 419217)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Glenn Plaskin, Biography of Vladimir Horowitz (UK: Macdonald, 1983, ISBN 0356091791), 52, 56, 353, 338–7.
  2. Wayne Hoffman, 15 October 2004, The Great White (Jewish, Gay) Way Forward. Retrieved January 17, 2007.
  3. Harold C. Schonberg, Horowitz: His Life and Music (Simon and Schuster, 1992, ISBN 0-671-72568-8).
  4. Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present (Simon and Schuster, 1963, ASIN: B000GWKBHO), 436.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bernhard, Thomas, and Jack Dawson (trans.). The Loser: A Novel. University of Chicago Press, 1991. ISBN 0-226-04388-6
  • Dubal, David. The Art of the Piano. Amadeus Press, 1989. ISBN 1-574-67088-3
  • Dubal, David. Evenings with Horowitz: A Personal Portrait. Carol Publishers, 1991. ISBN 1-574-67086-7

External Links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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