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Horowitz: His Life and Music by Harold C.…

Horowitz: His Life and Music (1992)

by Harold C. Schonberg

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Harold C. Schonberg

Horowitz: His Life and Music

Simon & Schuster, Hardback, 1992.

8vo. 432 pp. Appendix of Horowitz's recordings [pp. 317-354]. Discography by Jon Samuels [pp. 357-404]. Index.

First published, 1992.


1. Return of the Native
2. Growing Up in Kiev
3. Novorossiisk, Taganrog, Gomel, Batumi
4. A Greenhorn in Berlin
5. Crashing Through
6. Parisian Lion
7. On the Road
8. ''The Octave Race''
9. ''King of Kings''
10. Marriage
11. Disappearance
12. In Horowitz's Shoes - and Tails
13. The Lazy Life
14. Uncashed Checks
15. Media Blitz
16. Still the Master
17. The New Horowitz?
18. Sonia
19. Travelling a la Paderewsky
20. Anniversaries
21. Collapse
22. Resurrection
23. Globetrotter
24. Last Pupil
25. Mozart and ''Liebestod''
26. Artist-As-Hero

The Horowitz Recordings
Appendix I: 1926-32
Appendix II: LP and Stereo
Appendix III: 1965-82
Appendix IV: 1985-89 with a Digression on Horowitz and Mozart

Discography of Horowitz
- Chronological section
- Index and Release Section



This must be a very tall order indeed. Writing a full-scale biography of Vladimir Horowitz, I mean. If one must restrict oneself with only one name as the greatest pianist of the XX century, one could hardly choose better than Vladimir Horowitz (1903–1989). To describe him as legend, icon, myth, or genius is an understatement so trite that it hardly applies to such a phenomenon. No other pianist of the XX century has had so tremendous an influence over several generations young pianists, nor has any other master of the keyboard held so many of his contemporary colleagues in awe; it goes without saying that Horowitz could, and did, always mesmerise the audience. He lived to the ripe old age of 86, spending virtually all his life playing the piano; his graduation recital from the Kiev conservatory as well as his first public concerts were in 1920, when he was not yet 17 years old, and his last concert was in Hamburg in June 1987, months before his 84th birthday. Though not without a precedent in the musical history, a pianistic career of 67 years is a staggering achievement nonetheless, despite the fact that at least 20 of these years Horowitz spent without giving a single concert due to his four famous retirements from the stage (1936–38, 1953–65, 1969–74, and 1983–85).

All his life Horowitz suffered from intermittent depressions as well as from constant insecurity about his position between the hammer and the anvil, between an electrifying virtuoso and a serious musician. Despite all that, with fewer and shorter pauses than above, Horowitz dedicated to recording at least 61 years of his life; his first electrical recording for RCA Victor was made in 1928, his last recording was a digital one, made for Sony literally a few days before his death in 1989. He lived through one of the most spectacular technical evolutions ever: from the piano roll, through the 78-rpm records, the LP and the stereo, until well into the digital age and the compact disc. Horowitz recorded for all these mediums and, despite his highly restricted repertoire, left a colossal recorded legacy that has divided the piano world once and for good to Horowitz lovers and Horowitz bashers. Certainly many of his best recordings rank as some of the most stupendous technical achievements in the history of piano recordings. Their frightening power and orchestral sonority are not likely to be equalled in future. I am sure they will never be surpassed.

Horowitz's unique personality and musicianship have caused reactions that range from exaltation and adoration all the way down to aversion and detestation. One thing is absolutely certain: nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, who cares about piano playing can remain indifferent to Vladimir Horowitz. Love him, hate him, adore him, detest him, there is only one thing you can never do: ignore him.

Yes, I am pretty sure, writing this biography must have been a formidable task. The amazing thing is that Harold Schonberg has actually done a fantastic job.

Obviously, Mr Schonberg was neither a senior music critic in the New York Times for 20 years (1960–80) nor the first music critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for nothing. What is more, he knew Horowitz since the mid 1950s although he never was on intimate terms with him; quite understandable considering the fact that he was a critic and Horowitz was part of his work. Another thing of utmost importance, which Mr Schonberg mentions in his excellent preface, is that in 1987 he was officially engaged to write the biography of Horowitz in collaboration with the great pianist. Unfortunately, nothing came out of the project, but Horowitz and Schonberg did have several long interviews together. They were taped and extensive quotes from them are published in Horowitz: His Life and Music, providing the reader with invaluable, if not always entirely reliable, reminiscences of Horowitz about almost every significant event in his life.

In his preface, Mr Schonberg sets the tone of the whole book: informal, chatty, a trifle gossipy even, highly amusing but very often rather serious, always eminently readable. I am fully aware that it does sound like a perfect cliché, but I must say it: this biography reads like a novel. Now, there is one thing about clichés I like very much, namely that they are very often quite true and so is the case here. Just by way, in this very same preface, Harold Schonberg makes a very perceptive point saying that the desire of all young pianists to copy Horowitz had of course been an impossible quest since personality cannot be copied. (Later in the book he says pretty much the same but in other, and often quoted, words: ''Horowitz had the magic, and that cannot be taught.'') The preface is in fact a minor masterpiece, in many ways the perfect one, namely the one that compels the reader to read the whole book. Consider several random observations.

I was very impressed by Mr Schonberg's claim that Horowitz had in his fingers (as well as in his head, no doubt) all 32 of Beethoven's sonatas, no matter that he never played more than a dozen or so at his concerts. Horowitz, apparently, was a great opera lover and an ardent record collector when it came to old singers; his main objective in playing the piano was the formidable challenge to turn a percussive instrument into the most perfect imitation of the human voice. He was fond of playing in private long stretches of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin or Wagner's Ring, sometimes his own transcription of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss' Salome (What a waste that nothing of all that was ever recorded!) He used to express his dislike with the young generation of pianists in a very revealing way indeed: ''They don't sing!''.

We may well accept Mr Schonberg's information as reliable. Not only was he often guest in Horowitz's home, sometimes turning pages on the piano for him, but he always keeps his head cool, no matter how much he likes given Horowitz recording or not. He also says flatly what might well be called the leitmotif of the whole book: few people ever realised how serious a musician Vladimir Horowitz really was and that nothing can be further from the truth than the popular misconception that he was a mere virtuoso, stunning technician but third-rate musician. Indeed, in the next 300 pages or so Harold Schonberg makes a very strong case that Vladimir Horowitz was first and foremost a great musician. The Last Romantic he was often called – and rightly so. Horowitz was the last descendant of the great tradition of Romantic piano playing that had its roots in mythical figures like Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein.

Mr Schonberg chooses as a starting point of his narrative what he considers the most important moment in Horowitz's life: the return to his homeland after absence of 61 years and his now legendary Moscow recital in April 1986, fortunately preserved for the posterity on both compact disc and DVD with spectacular quality. Then Mr Schonberg bring us more than 80 years back until the birth of Volodya (affectionate nickname of Vladimir) and then goes on to follow in great detail his long and complicated life with remarkable clarity and objectivity. The small army of musicians, producers, directors, managers and such is managed skilfully as not to interfere at all with the delight of reading.

The book is full of amusing anecdotes, some of them are downright hilarious actually. The author usually doesn't bother too much if they are entirely reliable; that's wise since the opposite would have spoiled many of the most charming stories. The galaxy of names is staggering: Rachmaninoff, Toscanini, Rubinstein, Serkin, Schnabel, Busoni, Stern, Milstein and many, many more; they all are provided with certain amount of background, pretty extensive in the cases of the first two, and are sometimes exposed to a serious critical study (when the anecdote deserves it). There is hardly a single page in the whole book which is not hugely readable. Actually, for the most part the book is as absorbing and gripping as there ever was one.

But what really makes Mr Schonberg's book invaluable is that he does much more than just stating the facts; collating them from numerous different sources is hard enough, but the eminent critic goes a great deal further. His analysis of Horowitz's personality and most important relationships is often very shrewd, sometimes amazingly perceptive. Mr Schonberg explains in the greatest possible detail and fairly convincingly the reasons for all four retirements from the stage and how Horowitz always came to concertise again like Phoenix from the ashes. The only little blank spot here is his last resurrection. What exactly happened between 1983 and 1985, between the notorious "funeral" concert in Tokyo and Horowitz's return to what was to become his outstanding Indian summer, still remains largely a mystery.

Horowitz's two most important personal and professional relationships, those with Toscanini and Rachmaninoff, are analysed in detail but concisely and with admirable perspicacity. His complicated marriage with Wanda Toscanini is also discussed in great detail, and rightly so. It was a curious love-and-hate, cat-and-mouse relationship, a weird mixture of mutual affection and mutual dislike, but ultimately Vladimir and Wanda could not live without one another. They were married for 56 years, from 1933 until the pianist's death. Mr Schonberg, by the way, makes also a number of fascinating points about Wanda's character, more than for anybody else in the book – except Horowitz, of course. Her lot must indeed have been hard. Daughter of the greatest conductor of the first half of the XX century (or the whole, according to many) and wife of the greatest pianist of the whole XX century (or only the second half, according to some), hardly anybody was ever interested in herself.

There is also a special chapter which describes the tragic story of their daughter, Sonia, whom both parents outlived with more than a decade. In 1975 she was found dead in her apartment in Geneva, aged 40, having apparently died from an overdose sleeping pills, suicide or accident no one ever knew. Mr Schonberg points out without mincing words how Sonia's upbringing was a perfect preparation for the tragic end and he doesn't spare either Horowitz or Wanda a somewhat harsh, but just, criticism for having been far from good parents.

Indeed, one of Mr Schonberg's best qualities is the extremely well-balanced style which is often critical but never scathing; he neither raves nor rants; he observes coolly and dispassionately. Horowitz's alleged homosexuality is mentioned several times in passing as a well-known fact but is never elaborated upon – which is highly commendable indeed. Mr Schonberg is only too well aware of Horowitz's unique place in the musical history and he is ready to shrug his shoulders at much that would fill the faint-hearted with dismay. Horowitz's craving for publicity late in his life or his vanity and egoism are viewed as amusing rather than annoying as well as understandable and all too human faults, especially considering the superhuman status of artists of his calibre. So are the inaccuracies of his memory or the whims and peculiarities of his personality, some of which have been exaggerated a great deal through the years.

Ultimately, Mr Schonberg gives an overwhelming body of evidence, quoting a number of people and often sharing bits of his own reflections, that completely gives the lie to the most famous preconception about Vladimir Horowitz: that he ever was a superficial musician, his early and most virtuoso years included. This is a contribution to the Horowitz biography of paramount importance. As a special bonus to it, one may learn not only tons of interesting things about good many other great people (see above), but also some revealing details about the process of audio recording and its evolution, the business aspects of classical music industry, the psychology of prodigies and the elusive relationship between composer, music and performer, to name but a few.

Few caveats, however, should be mentioned as well. From time to time, especially towards the end, Harold Schonberg is in the habit of making the usual mistake of everybody who writes a musician's biography: quoting one review after another for pages on. This makes for an exceedingly tedious reading and the effect is positively debilitating. What critics write is exclusively their personal opinions, often in a rather florid language bursting out with affectation; no matter positive or negative, the reader is well advised to skip all excerpts from musical criticism in the book; he needn't worry that he will miss something important. But since Harold Schonberg was a critic himself, it is to be expected that he will exaggerate the importance of critics even more than it is usually done. He also does something else typical for critics: when he talks about recordings he is often presumptuous and high-handed. Of course I know that his opinions come from immense knowledge and experience, but that doesn't make them more valuable to me, especially when we're talking about a deeply personal and intimate phenomenon like music. But one must show understanding for the critics. The poor fellows have listened to so much music and have analysed it in so great a detail that they have long since lost completely the ability to enjoy it.

Still, it is very much to Mr Schonberg's credit that even in his most severe criticism to some recordings, he never harps on it and he never rambles. Moreover, he always gives more or less coherent reasons for his opinions; nobody is obliged to agree with them, nor should one be angry when one disagrees, of course. The four Appendices are generally a pleasant read and a fairly comprehensive overview of Horowitz's not exactly small discography; and they don't lack some fascinating insights into Horowitz on record or the recording industry in general. The Digression on Mozart and Horowitz is especially charming and contains lots of revealing comments about the art of interpretation, or what should more appropriately be called recreation. Some of them, by the way, come directly from Horowitz's own liner notes to Horowitz at Home (1989), one of his last discs. These are certainly worth reading and they prove yet again how deeply and indefatigably Horowitz studied the music which he played with such inimitable virtuosity.

Few words about the discography. Since it dates from 1992, it is of course dated. From the numerous CD releases of Horowitz recordings you will find only the old RCA Gold and CBS Masterworks series. All subsequent remasters are missing, including the now almost legendary nine volumes of The Complete Masterworks issued by Sony Classical in 1993. It is relevant to note that since 1992 a good deal of new material has been released: at least four discs from the so-called The Private Collection series, RCA's Horowitz reDiscovered as well as two recitals in the new Complete Original Jacket Collection box-set of 70 CDs. They all consist entirely of recordings never released before, among them there are even some pieces new to the Horowitz discography given here. For the most comprehensive current one the reader is advised to visit the invaluable Horowitz Website where, except all commercially released recordings of Horowitz, are listed numerous pirate ones, bootlegs and the like that are stored in private collections or in the vaults of the great companies. One can only hope that many of these treasures will be released in the future, carefully selected and remastered for the best possible sound quality.

Despite this, the discography in Horowitz: His Life and Music is still useful. Compiled by John Samuels, it contains a Chronological section that lists 133 recording sessions together with all pieces that were released from them. It must be noted, however, that in many cases Horowitz recorded far more than it was later released; perfectionist to the bone, many recordings, albeit complete, were never approved by the great artist and so remained unreleased and are omitted here. The Alphabetical section lists the recordings by composer and in alphabetical order, of course. For every piece there is a number that shows in which recording session from the Chronological section it can be found. So at least to find quickly when and where most (almost all, actually) recordings of Horowitz were made, this discography is very useful indeed.

In conclusion, Harold Schonberg's Horowitz: His Life and Music is quite simply a wonderful book. Considering the almost total lack of literature about Horowitz (rather strange, given his legendary status!), this biography is actually priceless. In the Preface Harold Schonberg mentions that only one other biography and a volume of recollections by a friend exist, so since virtually all material in the book was collected from interviews and the like, bibliography would make no sense; that's why the book has none but it is to Mr Schonberg's credit that he generally (except for some of the anecdotes) makes clear where his information comes from and how reliable it is. (Of course this was written in 1992, but a good many years later, that is today, a bibliography of books about Horowitz wouldn't look very different.)

It goes without saying that the book is indispensable for every Horowitz lover. I venture to claim that everybody who is even remotely interested in the art of piano will find it an absorbing read. Horowitz bashers needn't waste their time and money with it since they won't find anything to satisfy their doubtless remarkable intelligence. All other piano lovers, who have not read the book yet, are in for a fascinating and unforgettable journey.

PS Extensive selections of quotes from the preface and the appendices and the chapters. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Dec 9, 2009 |
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