Friday, September 6, 2013

Vladimir Horowitz never peeled potatoes

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old riddle. “Practice, practice, practice”, is the answer.

Vladimir Horowitz was fond of stating he only practiced a few hours a day, and cautioned students about over-practicing a musical work to the point that it became stale.  While he was usually coy about how he developed his technique, saying he learned it the same way he learned to speak four languages, he once confessed that in post-Revolutionary Russia “It was very cold, I was very hungry, and there was nothing to do but practice piano”.  There was no television, nor even any radio – and 78rpm discs were in very short supply at a time when the family subsisted on “rabbit ragout” – which was a euphemism used at a time when the stray cats and dogs in Kiev suddenly vanished.  To take his mind off the misery that surrounded him, young Volodya worked tirelessly and attentively at the piano – not merely at scales and etudes, but any music he could get his hands on: the standard piano repertoire, operas, orchestra scores (Horowitz was a fantastic site reader), and even the popular music of the day. 

Horowitz developed a technique so comprehensive that the standard repertoire became inadequate for fully displaying his skills, and he was – as he often pointed out – a frustrated composer.  He composed original works, but most famously offered arrangements, or transcriptions, of other composers’ music.  He almost never committed these transcriptions to paper, and many have tried, with varying success, to decipher the notes by listening to recordings and watching videos of his concerts.  Some of his arrangements changed over time, particularly his variations on the Gypsy Dance from Act II of Bizet’s Carmen.  Listening to the plethora of recordings, both officially published and “pirate” recordings of concerts, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only was Horowitz altering his work over the decades,  this most spontaneous of pianists often made changes “on the fly”.  

This kind of freedom, today heard only from jazz musicians, was common in the Classical and Romantic period.  Mozart and Beethoven were both spectacular improvisers, as was Liszt.  Being able to improvise leads to greater freedom in interpretation.  This freedom is part of what endeared Horowitz to the public, and drove anally retentive critics to distraction.  It also upset more than a few pianists, and I can only conclude that their sniping comments at Horowitz’s transcriptions were the result of enraged jealousy.  Particularly galling was Arthur Rubinstein’s hypo-criticism of Horowitz playing “all those Carmens, all those Danse Macabres” because Rubinstein himself played his own arrangements of Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance and the March from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges.  The piano transcription has a respectable lineage going all the way back to Liszt and Busoni. 

Truth be told, most pianists prepare a work to within an inch of its life, then bring it to the stage with all the spontaneity of peeling potatoes.  This was never the case with Horowitz.



Indeed, Hank ! This ability to improvise, and the feeling of freedom and spontaneity that comes with it, is also, I think, what makes the playing of Gyorgy Cziffra so dazzling and endearing at times (in addition to his superhuman technique, of course). Cziffra too was no potato peeler. Pity he never had Horowitz' sonority, nor his colour-producing magic.

By the way, how's your "Toward the Flame" book going ? Is it ready yet ?

Best regards,


Alexander Arsov said...

Thank you for this entertaining essay, Hank. I very much enjoyed reading it. I have two questions which you are by no means obliged to answer.

1. Do you have any reading recommendations about VH's life besides Schonberg and Plaskin (though I seldom take down the latter from the shelves)?

2. How would you describe VH's Danse Macabre: as VH's original transcription, as VH's revision of Liszt's transcription, if the latter how much did he change Liszt's "original"?

I am asking because (1) the biographical part in your essay contains some fascinating details I didn't know before; and (2) VH's 1942 recording of the Danse is a special favourite of mine (after I heard it I no longer need the orchestral original).

Hank Drake said...

Hi Alexander.

As for reading recommendations, there is an excellent essay by Richard Taruskin which strongly refutes some rather snide comments by Tim Page.

I've always felt that Horowitz's changes to Danse Macabre are much closer to the orchestral version than Liszt's transcription. By the way, Horowitz recorded the Liszt version on a piano roll - although rolls are not always reliable, of course.