🎂 Happy birthday to Polish-American virtuoso pianist, composer, and teacher Leopold Godowsky! Born on this day in Žasliai (then Russia, now Lithuania) to parents of Jewish ancestry, Godowsky’s talent manifested itself very early, and by age five he was already composing on both piano and violin.
Godowsky was one of the most highly regarded pianists of his time, praised by listeners, colleagues, and critics alike. Although he received a few lessons in his childhood, Godowsky was almost completely self-taught. Godowsky wrote in his autobiography:
“I would be very glad could I have stated with truth that I was a pupil of Liszt or any other great man, but I was not. I have not had three months lessons in my life. I have been told I was playing the piano before I was two. I think, however, an imaginative family perpetrated this story. I cannot vouch for the truth one way or the other.”
As a composer, Godowsky is best known for his paraphrases of piano pieces by other composers, which he enhanced with ingenious contrapuntal devices and rich chromatic harmonies. His most famous work in this genre is the 53 Studies on Chopin's Études (1894–1914), in which he varies the études: he introduces countermelodies, transfers passages from the right hand to the left, transcribes entire pieces for left hand solo and even interlaces two études, with the left hand playing one and the right hand the other.
The pieces are among the most difficult piano works ever written.
Photo of Leopold Godowsky courtesy Library of Congress.