Friday, 12 January 2018

Quotes: Horowitz - His Life and Music (1992) by Harold Schonberg - Chapters

Harold C. Schonberg

Horowitz: His Life and Music

Simon & Schuster, Hardback, 1992.
8vo. 432 pp. Appendices I–IV The Horowitz Recordings [317-354].
Discography by Jon Samuels [357-404]. Index.

First published, 1992.


1. Return of the Native

I got excited. It was my country. I looked through the window [of the airplane] and I said this is Russia. This is where I was born. This is where I grew up. I never thought I would have this kind of thrill, this kind of nostalgia, this remembrance of things past. All educated Russians have certain things in their blood that never vanish. We grew up reading Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov. We all, and not only musicians, have Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin in our ears. This was what I was going back to, and it evoked memories. Even pride in old Mother Russia it evoked.
– Vladimir Horowitz, 1987, describing his feelings en route to Russia in 1986

On April 20, 1986, the wheel came full circle for Vladimir Horowitz with an audible click, and he recognized it as such. His life, as he later said, was “now completely rounded out.”

The man generally considered the world’s greatest pianist, the archetype of Romanticism, the most electrifying pianist of his time, the last great direct descendant of the old Russian school of piano playing, the virtuoso supreme, on that date appeared on a Russian stage after an absence of sixty-one years.

But a few days before his appearance at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory he had gone through another powerful emotional experience. Shortly after his arrival in Moscow, Horowitz told the authorities that he wanted to visit Scriabin’s house. For that he had deep-rooted reasons. His uncle Alexander from Kharkov had alerted Scriabin in 1914 about a promising youngster in Kiev who was on his way to becoming a great pianist. So when Scriabin gave a concert in Kiev, Uncle Alexander arranged for his eleven-year-old nephew, Volodya, to meet with the great pianist-composer. They had a short visit. As Horowitz remembered it:

Scriabin must have hated the experience. He had to listen to me only a few hours before his concert. He was short, elegant, and nervous. He was going to play two of his difficult late sonatas in a few hours, and he could not have been very interested in a little Jewish boy from Kiev. I played for him a Chopin waltz, the Melodie by Paderewski, and Borodin’s Au couvent. Perhaps he was polite and did not want to talk about my playing. Instead he said that I should grow up to be a cultured man. There were many pianists, he said, but very few of them were cultured.

Scriabin’s words remained in Horowitz’s mind all his life. And Horowitz adored Scriabin’s music, recorded a fair amount of it, and played it better than anybody else. So a pilgrimage to the Scriabin Museum, which was also the house in which Scriabin had lived, was high on Horowitz’s list of priorities.

The Russians said yes, of course, but wait a day or two. What Horowitz did not know was that the building had been neglected. A crew of painters and workmen was rushed to 11 Vakhtangov Street and two rooms were put into passable shape. When Horowitz arrived at this Potemkin Village the paint was still wet, although he was so thrilled to be in the Scriabin’s ambience he did not notice it.


The visit, said Gelb [Peter Gelb, VH’s producer], left Horowitz “visibly moved.” Another segment of his past, one that meant a great deal to him, had activated his memory bank.

Most Russians had no memory bank at all when it came to Vladimir Horowitz. Sixty-one years is a long time. Nevertheless the Russians were in a state close to hysteria when the announcement was made that Horowitz would be giving a concert in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. If Horowitz was an overwhelming presence in the West, he was sheer myth in Russia. Russian musicians, of course, knew what he represented – Romanticism incarnate, harnessed to incredible fingers – but very few had actually heard him. For decades he had played only in America.

When it was learned that Horowitz was coming to Moscow, there was, as the Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman [b. 1952] described it, “a sort of insanity. I don’t ever remember such excitement for any musician who played there.” To pianists of Feltsman’s generation, Horowitz was “a sort of antique hero, something from mythology.” Feltsman’s teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Jacob Flier, was a Horowitz admirer who had managed to collect some of his recordings, and Flier made his class listen to them. Now the antique hero could be heard in person.

There also was something else in the mind of some Russian pianists – a show-me attitude. Russia was not entirely divorced from the intellectual life of the world, and the pianists there had heard that Horowitz had the reputation in certain circles of being all fingers and no brain. Thus there were those Russian musicians prepared in advance to dismiss him as a superficial virtuoso. The others, who desperately wanted him to live up to his reputation – after all, he was the legendary Russian pianist Horowitz – were worried. Could an eighty-three-year-old musician possibly do so? And if by now Horowitz had no technique left, what else could he possibly offer? Could he certify his standing as a legend?

So when Horowitz stepped on the stage of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the event was much more than a mere piano recital. A mighty figure had returned; and more, a Russian who had conquered the world. And he still was one of their own, even after sixty-one years. There was an outpouring of love and pride from the audience, captured eternally on the videocassette made of the concert.

In a way it was a sort of miracle that Horowitz played in Russia at all. His appearance had been preceded by some high-level negotiations involving the United States and Russia, the State Department and the Politburo, President Reagan and Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. The two superpowers had not had a cultural exchange since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and there still was considerable tension between them.

And at the beginning of the negotiations there was also Vladimir Horowitz to deal with – the temperamental Horowitz with his demands for all the amenities when on tour, with his financial arrangements, with his piano, with his entourage. He expected certain niceties and would not travel unless he was sure they would be forthcoming. As things turned out, it took the combined resources of several governments to make him happy.  

But as far as Horowitz was concerned, the time was right. He had gone through a terrible period during 1983 and 1984, when he had to overcome psychological and physical ills and the wreck of one of the great techniques in pianistic history. Nobody thought he would ever play again. But he pulled through, started practicing, found that his skills had returned, and he reentered the world. Early in 1985 he had given concerts in London and Milan[1] for the first time in decades. The recitals were a huge success, he was greeted as myth come to life, and he felt that he had played well.


Thus he was feeling euphoric in 1985, and when his manager, Peter Gelb, proposed the return to Russia, Horowitz did not need much urging. But he immediately set a condition. As on his return to England [May 1982], where his sponsor had been Prince Charles, he would not go to Russia unless he was invited by the government. The financial aspect was also important. If Horowitz never did things only for money, he expected a good return when he did play.

Horowitz had said for many years that he would never go back to Russia. “We all say things, only to live long enough to discover that people and events can make a person change his mind,” said Horowitz, discussing his trip in 1987. Glasnost, perestroika, the new wave of liberalism sweeping over the Soviet Union, the change in the climate between the two superpowers – all these factors, said Horowitz, entered into his decision to go.

He also thought about his family, the little that was left of it. His mother had died in 1930 and his father in a gulag in the late thirties. Jacob, Horowitz’s eldest brother, had died during the Revolution in the early 1920s. He had left a child who had a son, who in turn had a son who attended the Horowitz Moscow concert. George, the other elder brother, had died during World War II. Vladimir’s sister, Regina, who was always called Genya and was three years older than he, had died in 1984. It is not generally known that in February 1975, Horowitz tried to get Genya to the United States for a three-month visit. He filled out all the requisite papers and made applications to the State Department, but the Russians would not cooperate. The only way Horowitz could keep in touch with her was by phone. There was a daughter from Genya’s first marriage, Yelena Dolberg, who was nine years old when Horowitz left Russia. Now she was seventy.


Two days before the April 20 recital at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, which seats about 1,700, he played an open rehearsal there, a tryout to gauge the hall and go through the program. The concert was supposed to be exclusively for students. But many of the tickets were seized by the conservatory faculty, and by bureaucrats and politicians with connections. There was no advertising, no official recognition of the Horowitz presence, but in Russia word of mouth had been refined to a high art and everybody knew about the advance concert. Many students crashed the hall, breaking through the police barriers and invading the premises. Things like that just did not happen in the Soviet Union in those days. Horowitz, when he was later told about it, was pleased and touched, and hoped none of the kids got into trouble.


Feltsman was in the audience. The first thing that struck him when Horowitz started to play – it was a Scarlatti sonata – was the Horowitz sound:

It took me half a minute or a minute to adjust my ears. The sound was very, very soft, very gentle, very piano, very beautiful. I can tell you that I have never heard in that hall, where many major artists played, this sort of sound. Fragile, floating, very sad. It was indescribable. Some of us pianists are good technicians, some of us are good musicians, but very few have this magical touch where the sound is floating. He had it. He had it as probably nobody else. It was physically, almost unbearably beautiful when he played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G sharp minor. The last section, where there is the theme in the left hand, he crossed over and hit that D sharp, where he kept it floating for about half an hour. It was a real miracle, absolutely a miracle. Technically there were a few little mixups, but that was beside the point. I didn’t care how many wrong notes he played – there weren’t many – because the playing was so beautiful. Such a unique, magic touch, this unique floating sound, I have never heard from any piano player in my life.

Feltsman came away from the concert with changed ideas about Horowitz. He too had heard from some of his colleagues that Horowitz was nothing but an acrobat with fingers. After this concert he knew they were wrong. “I could not agree with those who had said that Horowitz was a great piano player but a lousy musician.”

After the rehearsal Feltsman and many other musicians went backstage. […] “Tell me, tell me, how did it sound?” asked Horowitz.

Of course [Feltsman said] we spoke Russian. He spoke exquisite Russian. He wanted to know if the acoustics were all right. He asked me if I knew how old he was. “Yes, Maestro, I know how old you are. But I can assure you that your piano playing even at your age is much better than all of us youngsters put together multiplied by then.”

Horowitz beamed.

The next day Donna Hartman, the ambassador’s wife, telephoned Feltsman. Could he come right over? Horowitz, she said, wanted to see him. Feltsman said that he never moved so fast in his life. He was at Spasso House “with the speed of a nuclear missile.” He and Horowitz spent about three hours talking, mostly about music. Finally Horowitz said that he had to take his nap, but first would Feltsman like to play something? Feltsman said that since there was so little time, perhaps Horowitz would like to play? “With pleasure,” Horowitz said, and played Chopin’s A minor Mazurka from the Op. 17 set, the Liszt Consolation in D flat [No. 4], and then looked through a pile of music and picked out the Schubert-Liszt Ständchen[2]. This he played from the printed notes, Feltsman turning pages for him.

“It was divine,” Feltsman said. “I was watching his hands. I noticed that he was motionless. His face was serious and tense, like a mask. This was total concentration. His technique was very peculiar, and I don’t think that anybody could copy it. He was playing only from elbow to finger. The shoulder never moved. Flat fingers, as we all know.”

Feltsman was an accurate observer. Horowitz never used much shoulder motion. “I never take chords from the shoulder,” he once told an interviewer. “It’s like a boxer. When he boxes from far away, he loses power. Good boxers cut short. When you play like that, the sound is pleasant and full. You can hear every chord and every note equally. It’s never hard – just like an organ chord.” Horowitz loved to watch prizefights on television and considered himself an authority on boxing.

A single poster on the wall of the Moscow Conservatory was the only announcement of the official concert on April 20, 1986. The poster said, merely, VLADIMIR HOROWITZ, USA. The hall was, of course, packed for Horowitz’s first official Russian appearance since 1925. Only about four hundred tickets were put on sale, at eight dollars; the rest of the seats were reserved for dignitaries. But the state box used by Politburo members was empty. Philip Taubman, the Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times, cover the concert as a news story. He explained that the box was empty because top government and party leaders would have considered it inappropriate to attend a recital by an American citizen after the United States air strike against Libya, a Soviet ally. At this concert, as at the rehearsal, about two hundred students stormed the hall and managed to get in.

The April 20 program had to be specially arranged because it was being televised by a CBS crew for the program Vladimir Horowitz in Moscow, carried in America on the CBS Sunday Morning show. It was a rather light program. Horowitz did not play Schumann’s Kreisleriana (which he did play in Leningrad), because he thought it was “too long and intellectual” for a worldwide television audience.[3]


After the concert Horowitz was visited by his niece, Yelena Dolberg, the daughter of his sister. She told him that the concert was wonderful, and that she also had been at his last recital in Moscow, which was in 1925. Horowitz said that he probably played better now.


Feltsman was at the concert. Horowitz had played the same program as at the rehearsal, and the thing that most struck Feltsman was that he played it very differently. Some things were better than at the rehearsal, others he thought not so good. “It was the same program but a different concert.”

Several days later he and Horowitz met at a party. “Now,” Horowitz said, “tell me the truth. What did you think?”

Feltsman told him he liked it very much but that the second concert was completely different than the first.

“It’s always like that,” Horowitz said. “It’s supposed to be like that. I cannot play always the same way.” Then he went into detail about why his ideas had changed and how he went about this particular concert. It became “crystal clear” to Feltsman after this conversation that the often-expressed opinion about Horowitz, that he was nothing but a virtuoso, “a kid genius who is playing by intuition, and has no mental concept about what he is doing,” was all wrong. “Deeply wrong. He knew exactly what he had done differently, and why. He could analyze his playing. It was not a matter of his mood. I was very impressed, because this myth which is very common even now was simply not true.”


Taubman, who followed Horowitz to Leningrad, wrote that even more than in Moscow “this was clearly an emotional homecoming for the Russian-born pianist.” Horowitz, he thought, “played with a passion and a flair that seemed inspired in part by a renewal of affection for the city.” He quoted Horowitz as saying, “For me, Leningrad is like home.” Leningrad always had been Horowitz’s favorite Russian city. It was there that he had played a mammoth series of twenty programs in the 1924–25 season, becoming a hero of the Leningrad music-loving public and an object of awe to his colleagues. It was also still the most beautiful city in the Soviet Union, even in its shabby 1986 condition. In addition Horowitz loved Philharmonic Hall, the concert hall in the Winter Palace, both for its tradition (nearly every major musician since the early 1800s had performed there) and its acoustics.

As in Moscow, the concert left many in tears. Again as in Moscow, students crashed the hall, and those who could not get in were seen peering through windows and skylights. After the concert, which he played on April 27, an old woman came up to tell him how much she had liked the recital. She was the daughter of Rimsky-Korsakov.

For the Leningrad program Horowitz substituted Schumann’s Kreisleriana for the Mozart Sonata. Otherwise the program was a duplicate of the Moscow one, but it was the lengthy Schumann that made the Leningrad affair much more imposing. Horowitz later said that the Moscow program had been “political,” which was his way of saying that it had been put together for television.

Did Horowitz feel a special kind of pressure in the Russian concerts? He said that he did not. In Russia, he said, he suddenly felt like a Russian. It was noted that he started speaking in Russian even to Americans. There was a sixty-one-year retrogression. Suddenly Horowitz was cast back in time and started reliving his youth. He described his feelings on his return to New York:

What was fantastic was that after sixty years without contact with the Russians, everybody still knew my name. Not only pianists came to the concerts. The public was anxious to hear me. When I walked out I was not nervous at all. I felt as though I was home. It felt like home. I wasn’t worried about having a success, not having a success. I was home, and at home everybody loves you. I felt also like an ambassador of peace from America to Russia. In Moscow I was not nervous, no. I was more nervous in Leningrad. Nerves often help you to focus your energy. The program in Leningrad was better – less political, more demanding. Maybe that’s why I played better in Leningrad than I had in Moscow.[4] Also the hall in Leningrad has better acoustics than the Great Hall of the Conservatory in Moscow. Leningrad has the best hall in Europe, I think. It is in the Winter Palace, originally the ballroom of Catherine the Great. Everybody was heard there. Berlioz was there, Wagner, Clara Schumann, Anton Rubinstein. I also felt that I had a warmer reception playing there than in Moscow. Moscow is like New York, it has many nationalities in it. People come from everywhere. But Leningrad is more Russian. I would go tomorrow to Leningrad if I was invited.

In Russia I recognized my Russian heritage. I am a Russian pianist, born in the Ukraine and a student at the Kiev Conservatory there. Thus I like to think that my playing and my musicianship reflect a Russian tradition. Once a critic in America said that my playing, my style, was in the Anton Rubinstein tradition. I think he was correct. Josef Hofmann, the most famous of the Rubinstein pupils, heard me play one of the Liszt Petrach Sonnets and said to me, “You know, I think my teacher would have liked your pedaling.”


Politically Horowitz never had any love for the Russian system, but he did not find things as bad there as he had been led to believe. When he asked his relatives about conditions in Russia, they told him that they were very well off. One was an engineer, the other a mathematician, so Horowitz figured out that perhaps they enjoyed special privileges. Or perhaps they did not feel free to say all the things that were on their minds, and he did not press them. He knew that it could be dangerous for Soviet citizens at that time to criticize their country.

In Russia, Horowitz went to the opera, to the ballet, to the museums, to Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin, to Scriabin’s house. In Klin he played on Tchaikovsky’s piano. “Tchaikovsky composed the Dumka on it. I was given a facsimile of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. In the manuscript score he marked the last movement andante, not adagio the way conductors today play it.”

He had been to all those places before leaving Russia, but did not remember them and was happy to renew acquaintance. “I was too young for it to mean much to me. When you’re twenty-two you’re not impressed with those things.” He met many pianists, conductors, and spent some hours with Dmitri Kabalevsky, whose music Horowitz had played with considerable success in America in the 1940s. Horowitz was fascinated with the cemetery in Leningrad. “First is Tchaikovsky, then Anton Rubinstein, then there’s Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky. Just like that. At the end are Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Stassov. Everybody is there.”

Horowitz did not live long enough to follow the amazing weeks of late November 1989, when the Soviet System suddenly went to pieces, much less the staggering events of 1991, when communism died. He would especially have been pleased when Leningrad once again became St. Petersburg. The observation he made on his return home was short and pithy: “People are a bit down, and life is hard, but now Gorbachev is trying to make some better life there for the people. They deserve it. They have suffered very much, the Russians.”

2. Growing Up in Kiev

When I was young I spent much time playing operas. I was in love with opera and with singing. I didn’t play Bach, I didn’t play Mozart or Scarlatti at that time. Operas only. When I was twelve, thirteen, I was playing operas of Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Wagner. By that time I was really a very good sight reader. So I could play almost anything. But not scores. That I am not so good with. But piano reductions of operas and symphonies, those were easy for me.
– Vladimir Horowitz, about his childhood

Vladimir Horowitz grew up in Kiev, studied there, and gave his first recital there.


By the age of seven or so most prodigies are well into the mysteries of playing and, in some cases, composing. All great performing musicians have to start very early. After the age of six it may be too late; the reflexes for virtuoso piano and violin playing have to be trained in babyhood. In the entire history of piano and violin playing it is hard to think of an important artist whose ability did not reveal itself by the age of six.

Horowitz always maintained that, unlike most of the world’s great pianists from Mozart on, he had never been a child prodigy. Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Josef Hofmann, Leopold Godowsky, Ferruccio Busoni, and many other of the superpianists, he pointed out, were playing at the age of four, and their styles, in effect, had been fully formed by the time they were fifteen. At that age they were also veterans of the concert stage. Horowitz claimed that he started “late, around five.” He conceded that by ten he thought he had “some talent,” and that he was “a not so bad sight reader.” (From Horowitz, “not so bad” meant mildly stupendous.) He claimed that he never practiced very much, which may or may not have been true. Many pianists like to pretend that they never practice. This is a form of professional machismo. But it is a fact that as a young pianist Horowitz was compulsively reading through the piano literature and opera scores instead of practicing his scales.

Yet in claiming that he had never been a prodigy, Horowitz was being a little disingenuous. The only reason he wasn’t immediately recognized as a prodigy was the fact that the public did not know about him. His family was wealthy enough to avoid pushing their brilliant child or exploiting his extraordinary gifts.

The literature on prodigies is small. Psychologists have not been able to explain the phenomenon. But some children are born with an order of musical reflex that sets them apart. They usually have absolute pitch, the ability to name any note or combination of notes on hearing them. When they approach the piano at the age of two, when most children bang around aimlessly, they try to pick out concords and play little tunes. Their hearing is unusually acute. They have a tendency to move ahead faster than their mentors can teach them. They have amazing memories, to the point where they can hear a long piece of music two or three times and reproduce it on their instrument without ever having looked at the printed notes. Then they carry it in their heads for the rest of their lives. Little Volodya was typical of the species.

Not all prodigies develop into great performing artists, but on the other hand one cannot become a great performing artist without having been a prodigy. Horowitz certainly met all of the qualifications, and everybody who came into contact with him as a child or young man knew it. Sergei Tarnowski, his second teacher at the Kiev Conservatory, said that if Horowitz had not been a child prodigy, “then there never had been such a thing.” Horowitz amazed him with the rapidity with which he learned new pieces, with his phenomenal ear and his sight-reading ability. The boy stunned his teacher when he reproduced sections of operas and symphonies by ear, after hearing them performed only once.

But for all of this talent there is usually a price to pay. A by-product of being a child prodigy is often a one-sided attitude toward life. Prodigies, especially musical prodigies, start honing their gifts as little more than babies – sometimes as babies – and devote the rest of their lives to a ferocious discipline, a strenuous development of those gifts to the exclusion of almost everything else. The result can be a warped childhood, monomania, and a lack of general education. Prodigies are supremely gifted in their particular discipline but frequently unworldly outside of it. What else can one expect from a pianist or violinist who starts practicing perhaps an hour or so a day at the age of three or four, three hours a day at the age of five, five hours a day at nine or ten, and frequently six or more for the rest of his life?


Looking back, Horowitz grudgingly conceded that he would have given any teacher trouble. From the beginning he was going to do things his own way. No wonder they got angry at him, and Horowitz in his old age understood their problems. “I suppose that it was true that I banged a lot,” he said some seventy years later.

Horowitz grew up musically in what he considered “the Russian style” as practiced by Rubinstein. “Anton Rubinstein was very free in his style, and his was the tradition I grew up with. The idea was that you were supposed to know everything about your instrument, then everything in music, as much as you could learn, and then form your own personality. Rubinstein was a very free pianist, never mechanical.” Horowitz developed along the same lines; he always was the exponent of instinct over mechanical skill. “If you grow up playing only Kalkbrenner, Henselt, and Czerny etudes,” Horowitz said, “you will never become a pianist. Never. Impossible. You must know the great music from the beginning, be saturated with it. I never wanted to work only on technique.” To the end of his life, he never worked on traditional technique. No scales for him. His technique came out of the great music he played and certain finger exercises, derived from the music itself, that he devised.


Although many of the world’s major recitalists came to Kiev, Horowitz heard surprisingly few pianists on the concert stage when he was young. But he did go to a few concerts while still a student. Naturally he went to hear Josef Hofmann when the great Polish-born pianist played in Kiev. Hofmann was the idol of the Russian public, and many considered him the greatest living pianist. But Horowitz was disappointed. “Hofmann did not impress me very much. Of course he was a great pianist with incredible facility, but I did not like his interpretations. I was bored. Later on, in America, I heard him many times and had no reason to change my initial impression.”

Of the pianists he remembered, Rachmaninoff made the strongest impression. “With Rachmaninoff I had an immediate identification. He gave a concert of his own music that I heard when I was nine or ten. I also was playing his music at that time. He was singing on the piano all the time.”

While Rachmaninoff was in Kiev, Volodya’s mother made an appointment for her son to play for him at his hotel. But when the Horowitz family arrived they were told he had left. “He didn’t want to listen to some young pianist he had not heard anything about. I reminded him of this when we became friends,” said Horowitz.

But, Horowitz said, the musician who made more of an impression on him than anybody else was not a pianist. He heard one of Fritz Kreisler’s violin recitals “and he was fantastic. I did not sleep nights after I heard him, and I wanted to make that kind of sound on the piano.”

3. Novorossiisk, Taganrog, Gomel, Batumi


In his later conservatory years, Horowitz developed a passion for Grieg and played many of the Lyric Pieces and the Ballade. “I simply loved Grieg. Also Chopin and Schumann, of course. I went through all their music. The Liszt transcriptions went easily. I never had much trouble memorizing music like that. Once the forms and the textures were in the mind, the rest was easy. Memorizing the classical composers was much harder.” Grieg must have been an adolescent crush. There is no record of Horowitz playing any Grieg during his professional career.


With the arrival of the Communists, the once-happy and prosperous Horowitz family was shattered. Jacob, Volodya’s eldest brother, was drafted into the army and died during the Revolution. George became a drifter who settled for a while in Leningrad. Samuel’s business was seized by the state, and he was forced into a dull bureaucratic job.

During all this terror, Volodya was in his last year at the Kiev Conservatory, preparing for his final examinations. For his graduation recital in 1920 Horowitz played the Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C; the Mozart Gigue in G; a Beethoven sonata (Horowitz forgot whether it was the Appassionata or Op. 110); Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes; the Rachmaninoff B flat minor Sonata; Chopin’s F minor Fantasy; “and something modern, I don’t remember.” He ended with the Mozart-Liszt Don Juan and said that after he had finished it the jury stood up to express its approval. That had never happened before in the entire history of the conservatory, he said.

For his required concerto he chose the Rachmaninoff Third. For his chamber-music pieces he selected the Schumann Quintet and Schubert’s Winterreise. The concerts were tremendous successes. An elated Blumenfeld wrote to Rachmaninoff in New York about his talented pupil and the brilliant success he had had with Rachmaninoff’s music.

That was the end of Volodya’s studies. Now he was on his own.

Or he would have been had he not had his family to worry about. Now, at the age of seventeen, he had to start his professional career if only to become a breadwinner. Filial obligations forced him to face the public perhaps sooner than he would have wished.


Horowitz gave his first public concert in Kiev on May 30, 1921. At the debut, Horowitz said, there were not many in the hall. That state of affairs would not last long. Vladimir Horowitz had all of the ingredients for stardom. It was not only his pianistic skill. Perhaps equally important, he made a striking appearance on stage. He looked like the kind of pianist a romantic novelist would have invented. He was slim and handsome, with a pale complexion and a profile that suggested Chopin’s. He wore his hair long and curly. His hands were beautiful. He dressed impeccably; from the beginning he was a dandy. Many years later Horowitz, looking at one of his photographs from those days, grinned and said, “I was very esthetic.”


Shortly after the beginning of his career Horowitz made a friend who was to be close to him for the rest of his long life – Nathan Milstein, whom Horowitz met in 1922.

Milstein was then eighteen and a prodigiously gifted violinist. He came from Odessa (a city that spawned an unusual number of musically gifted Jewish children who subsequently went on to great careers as pianists and violinists), had studied with Peter Stolyarsky and then with the great Leopold Auer in St. Petersburg. Auer, a Joachim pupil who had been born in Hungary in 1845, had a successful recital career and then became the most important violin teacher of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; his pupils, among  them Jascha Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist, and Mischa Elman, were the equivalent of the Liszt and Leschetizky pupils on the piano.

Milstein was concretizing through Russia in 1922. In Kharkov he met Horowitz’s uncle, who raved about his brilliant nephew. When Milstein went to Kiev to play several concerts at the conservatory with Horowitz’s former teacher Tarnowsky at the piano, Horowitz and Genya went to all the recitals, visited him backstage after the first one, and invited him home for tea. He stayed for dinner. After the second recital he was invited to stay with the Horowitzes. “You could say,” Milstein wrote in his chatty but sometimes inaccurate autobiography, From Russia to the West, “I came to tea and stayed three years.”

On their very first night together there was, of course, music.

“Genya and Volodya played for me,” Milstein remembered many years later. “She played Schumann, Liszt, Chopin ballades. But Volodya played only his own Wagner transcriptions for me. He had never written them down. He played the ‘Forging Song’ from Siegfried, unbelievable. He could play Götterdämmerung by heart. He was like a tiger. I was terribly impressed.” Thus began a friendship that would continue for the rest of Horowitz’s life.


Milstein and Horowitz read through a good deal of the violin literature. They started to give concerts together. Indeed, writes Milstein in his autobiography, they gave a concert in the hall of the Kiev Merchant Guild ten days after they met. They were a great contrast: the shy, introverted, poetic-looking Horowitz with his resplendent coiffure, and the shorter, extroverted, happy-go-lucky, close-cropped Milstein. What they had in common was a supreme command of their instruments.


Looking back, Milstein said that the most remarkable thing about their joint musical appearances was that they never bothered to rehearse. They were musicians who thought alike and worked together with such rapport that they immediately “synthesized” the concert. “Volodya was absolutely out of this world. Rehearsals were not necessary. We had such spontaneity on stage. We had a contact, a spiritual contact. And he was such a wonderful sight reader, almost as good as Rachmaninoff.”


At first Horowitz and Milstein booked their own concerts, in which they were helped by Uncle Alexander in Kharkov. Later the state stepped in. An organization called Muzo-Narkompros, known as MUZO, began to establish full supervision over all of the musical life of the Soviet Union. Artists were required to get MUZO’s permission for all concert tours. MUZO also engaged and booked artist on its own.

For two years MUZO sent Horowitz and Milstein all over the country to play for workers and peasants, most of whom could not have cared less about going to concerts. Years later, Horowitz laughed at the recollection. It was obvious that nobody in the audiences had ever been to a concert. They were bored and restless and could not wait to get out of the hall.

“We went to Poltava, Gomel, Kharkov, Ekaterinodar, Simferopol, and Sevastopol. We were in Taganrog, Novorossiisk, and Nakhichevan. We appeared in the Caucasus, in Batumi, Tiflis, and Baku. There were interesting trips to Saratov and the Tatar Republic,” wrote Milstein.


Horowitz owed his Moscow orchestral debut to his father, who in 1923 went to the Auer pupil Lev Zeitlin, an old friend who was the concertmaster of Persimfans in Moscow. According to Volodya, Samuel said, “I have a son and if you engage him he will be very famous, and you can believe me.”

Persimfans, an acronym for First Symphonic Ensemble[5], was the only orchestra of its kind. It was a full symphony orchestra, more than eighty players, without a conductor – a Communist experiment in collectivism. The players sat in a circle and watched Zeitlin, who gave the downbeat and started them off. Horowitz played the Rachmaninoff Third with them and said it was a very good performance. Milstein shared the program with Horowitz, playing the Glazunov Concerto. When Darius Milhaud visited the Soviet Union he heard the orchestra and said it was very good, but wryly added, “a conductor would have achieved the same results, no doubt a little faster.”


Horowitz made a tremendous impression wherever he played and was soon being talked about as the most formidable pianist of his generation. It was not only because of the incredible accuracy of his pianistic mechanism but also because the playing far transcended mechanics. Horowitz had the magic, and that cannot be taught. There was something demonic in that tense figure at the keyboard, a suppressed force waiting to be released, a high-voltage charge (even when he played softly) that communicated itself to everybody in the audience. Gregory Ginsburg, for instance, was an admired pianist at that time whose fingers matched that of Horowitz, who was certainly at least as good a musician, who was motivated by the highest ideals. But Ginsburg did not have the magic. Horowitz did. It was a matter of temperament, of daring, of an alliance with the audience, of a new kind of playing and an unmatched degree of personality and tonal imagination.


The climax of Horowitz’s career in the Soviet Union came shortly before he left the country. In one season in Leningrad, 1924–25, he played some twenty concerts with twenty programs to wildly enthusiastic audiences.

This was a tribute to Horowitz’s popularity, and there had not been anything like it since 1912, when Josef Hofmann gave twenty-one consecutive concerts in St. Petersburg, playing 255 different works. Horowitz’s Leningrad recitals were the product of fast and furious labor, he said:

I still don’t know how I prepared those ten programs in so short a time. I certainly could not do it today.

My Leningrad programs have never been published outside of Russia. They are in the archives of the old St. Petersburg Conservatory, now the Lenin Conservatory. Between October 15, 1924, and January 18, 1925, I played those twenty concerts. Altogether there were forty-four big works and sixty-six small works on the programs. The major Liszt works were the B minor Sonata; the Spanish Rhapsody; Mephisto Waltz; Funerailles; Tarantelle from Venezia e Napoli; the Don Juan, Nozze di Figaro, and other transcriptions; and the First Piano Concerto. Of Schumann there were the C major Fantasy, Symphonic Etudes, Carnaval, and the three Romances; Chopin – Ballades in G minor, F, and F minor; the A flat Polonaise; the second and third sonatas; the Barcarolle; the four scherzos; and the F minor Concerto; and of course selected mazurkas, etudes, preludes, and waltzes. I was interested in Ravel in those days and played the Sonatine and Alborada del gracioso plus some smaller pieces.[6] Rachmaninoff – piano concertos two and three plus small pieces. I played a good deal of Medtner. I always played Bach-Busoni at that time, and on the programs were toccatas and fugues; the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C; the Chaconne.

A search in Leningrad turned up only the last program, which was played on January 18, 1925. Devoted to Chopin, it contained the Ballade No. 2, two scherzos, a nocturne, six etudes, six mazurkas, the Sonata in B flat minor, and the A flat Polonaise.

It is interesting that Horowitz claimed to have played the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in his Leningrad series. If his statement was correct – Horowitz could be unreliable – this would be the only known public performance he ever gave of the work. Horowitz once explained that he had never played it in America because during the climax of the third movement, the piano has only neutral chords instead of a big display involving the famous theme. Horowitz said he once asked Rachmaninoff, “If I play it, can I double the orchestra’s theme on the piano?” Rachmaninoff looked at him, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Nu, Horowitz, do what you want.” In the 1950s Horowitz was talking with Victor about recording the Second Concerto, but nothing came of it.[7]


About this time Horowitz made up his mind to leave Russia. He and Milstein had, during the previous few years, spent hours talking about making careers in the West. Like many musicians, they were less than enchanted with Soviet ideology and the mess it had made of the economy and the lives of the people. Horowitz’s father was an ever-present case in point. Even when Horowitz was a student his friends, colleagues and teachers had suggested that his future lay outside of Russia.


Things started to move when Horowitz met an impresario named Alexander Merovitch, a Russian who had started a concert bureau in Moscow. Merovitch was well aware of the potential that Horowitz and Milstein represented. He had met them around 1923, Horowitz said, and kept following them, cajoling them, promising great things if they played in Berlin and other European capitals under his direction. A smooth talker, Merovitch assured them that they would have a tremendous success. That helped Horowitz, who was more impressionable and innocent than the skeptical and more worldly Milstein, make up his mind. Finally he told Merovitch that he would go. Another thing urging his departure was the dread possibility of his being drafted. (The thought of Vladimir Horowitz as a soldier boggles the imagination.)

Horowitz secured a visa to Germany on the grounds that he needed to complete his studies with Arthur Schnabel in Berlin. That was not true, but he had to give some reason and that sounded convincing.


In September 1925 (Horowitz never could remember the exact date), pianist and impresario took the steamship from Leningrad to Bremen, en route to Berlin. Berlin, said Merovitch, was the only city in Germany that really counted artistically or professionally. Merovitch also started arranging for dates in Paris, a city that certainly had equal stature with Berlin as one of the two artistic capitals of Europe. Horowitz had British currency – £1,000, about $5,000 – in his shoes. That was the money put aside for his first three concerts in Berlin. Milstein, who had some concert dates in Russia to fulfill, was to follow soon after. Now the Merovitch concert bureau had expanded to all of two musicians – but two such musicians any impresario would commit murder to put under contract.

Horowitz was twenty-two years old.[8] He never thought he would be away from Russia for a long time. Quite the opposite. Deep down he had the feeling that he would not have the success that Merovitch had promised. He had his backup plan figured out. “I had become very popular in Russia, and if I would not have an equal success in Germany or France I would go back to Russia where they liked me and where my family was.”

It was a quiet departure. Nobody from the family came to Leningrad to see him off. If for no other reason, travel was next to impossible those days. Volodya and his father had taken leave of each other when he had played the Tchaikovsky and Chopin Concertos ten days before the steamship to Bremen. Natasha [Saitzoff, VH’s cousin – Ed.] had previously managed to leave Russia for studies in Europe. She later heard from the family that her uncle Samuel and Merovitch had a long private session in Moscow. “Uncle Samuel told Merovitch all about Volodya,” she said. “How temperamental and difficult he was, and how to handle him.” After Volodya arrived in Germany there was little contact between him and his family. It was not that he did not like his parents. “He was as interested in family as much as he could be interested in anybody but himself, and he really adored his mother,” Natasha said. “But his career came first. Later on, when he was established, he corresponded with them. He never lost touch.”

Horowitz, many years later, told Samuel Chotzinoff that a Soviet guard at the border examined his papers and passport, looked at him and said, “Do not please forget the motherland.” It could have happened. It could also have been a romantic invention that Horowitz made up.

4. A Greenhorn in Berlin

I played a virtuoso program in Berlin – Bach-Busoni, Liszt, and so on. Schnabel came backstage and was very enthusiastic. But Schnabel told me he never played that kind of music. “I don’t have the time,” he said. “I still don’t even know all of Bach.” I said to him, “You know, Mr. Schnabel, I do just the opposite. First I play these things and then I will have time for Bach.”
– Vladimir Horowitz, describing an encounter with Artur Schnabel

Berlin in the mid-1920s was a sad, bad, glad, mad city, striving to pull itself out of the terrible inflation that had massacred the economy after World War I. But it had the most intellectually stimulating life of any city in Europe except Paris and, musically, it was more exciting than Paris. In the 1920s Berlin was the city of the Staatsoper, where Erich Kleiber conducted the world premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925. It was the city of the Kroll Opera, in which Otto Klemperer conducted many premieres shortly after Horowitz arrived there; and the city of the Städtische Oper headed by Bruno Walter. It was the cabaret city of the Kurt Weil–Bertold Brecht Dreigroschenoper and Mahagonny. Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Max Planck, Oskar Kokoschka, Vassily Kandinsky, and Thomas Mann lived and worked there. So did many great pianists. It was a city of superb museums and symphony orchestras. It was an open, decadent city filled with homosexuals, prostitutes, con men, and shady nouveau-riche industrialists. The George Grosz drawings give an idea of the underside of Berlin in those years. To a provincial like Vladimir Horowitz it was a revelation.

Horowitz looked, listened, and started to work. There was one physical change. Merovitch decided that the curly locks Horowitz shook in Russia had to go. They were attracting too much attention and derisory laughter. Horowitz was given a close-cropped businessman’s haircut.

He spent three months practicing, learning the language, and going to concerts and opera before making his Berlin debut. For once in his life he was a constant concertgoer. He wanted to understand what German music making was all about, what the German pianists represented, how he stacked up against them and the international keyboard celebrities who were always passing through Berlin.


Horowitz did not like the German school of music making. He found German piano playing “pedantic, square, boring,” heavy, hidebound, thick, too severe, lacking in color, metrically too strict, obsessed with Seele (soul) and metaphysics. He hated the kind of programs they often put together – the last three Beethoven sonatas, the last three Schuberts. To Horowitz, this was not program making, and his Russian Seele rebelled against it then and until the end of his life.

Shortly after his arrival in Berlin, Horowitz met Rudolf Serkin, and a lifelong friendship began. Serkin was friendly with the cellist Francesco Mendelssohn (a descendant of the composer), and one evening invited him to a party in his house. Mendelssohn came with Horowitz in tow.

Serkin had not heard of Horowitz, and he politely greeted the unexpected guest. There were food and drink, conversation, music. Serkin played. Mendelssohn told Serkin that Horowitz was a very good pianist, and Serkin asked him to play something. Horowitz, who never needed much urging, complied. What Serkin heard galvanized him. It gave him a completely new idea of piano technique and the possibilities of the instrument, and the experience remained vivid with him for the rest of his life. He spoke about it not long before he died in 1991:

Horowitz played a Liszt transcription and some Chopin. I was completely overwhelmed at this kind of technique, power, intensity, and musicianship. The colors! I never heard anything like it. We liked each other and had a lot to talk about. Later he stayed with me in Basel for three weeks. We played four-hand music together, we played for each other, we discussed everything about the piano. We became very close friends and remained so. I learned so much from him. Never had I seen such concentration at the keyboard. Only a pianist can appreciate what he did. I had never even imagined this kind of playing before, and it opened a new world for me.

Horowitz looked up Artur Schnabel, an atypical product of the Leschetizky school in that he turned almost exclusively to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert in his later years. But the supposedly austere Schnabel continued to play Chopin and Liszt until about 1930. The fact that he became the leading pianist of the Austro-German classics did not inhibit his romanticism in that kind of music; and, remembering his concert appearances and listening to his recordings, one hears a kind of Romantic rhetoric that has vanished from the playing of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert today.

Schnabel had heard Horowitz play in Leningrad and had told Genya that he would take him into his class if he ever came to Berlin. Horowitz, for his part, had heard Schnabel in Leningrad and was impressed, especially with his performance of the Chopin B flat minor Sonata (a work that Schnabel dropped from his repertoire in the 1930s). “In the last movement, every note was there!” enthused Horowitz. (The last movement is a short – about one and a half minutes – sotto voce, prestissimo movement in single notes an octave apart, and it is very difficult to carry off.) He also heard Schnabel play Liszt, and his comment many years later was, “Not bad.” From Horowitz that was extraordinary praise.

So Horowitz got in touch with Schnabel, went to his studio, and played the Schumann Fantasy. He claimed to have played only ten bars or so when Schnabel interrupted him, swept him away from the piano, sat down and started to play the piece himself to demonstrate how Schumann really intended it to go. He ended up, said Horowitz, playing the complete work. Horowitz hated every bar of it. A few days later Schnabel sent a bill for £5 – $25 – to Merovitch for the “lesson.” Horowitz was at first stupefied, then outraged, and finally he thought it was funny. He did not know if Schnabel was ever paid. “If he was, Merovitch never told me.”


Of all the German pianists Horowitz heard, the two he most admired were Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Backhaus:

I was impressed mostly by Gieseking [Horowitz said in 1987]. He had a finished style, played with elegance, and had a fine musical mind. Emil Sauer was also a good pianist, good technique, style. Very good fingers. He was a Liszt pupil. He was at his best in salon music – Chopin waltzes, things like that. But I heard him play a very good, very correct Op. 109. Some of the Liszt pupils were horrible. One I could never understand was Siloti. He played very badly. Another Liszt pupil was the famous Moriz Rosenthal, and I hated his playing. He couldn’t make one nice phrase. I don’t understand how he got his fame. Perhaps when I heard him he was too old to have any control. He had dexterity but he had no real technique, and I don’t think he really knew how to play the piano. He didn’t make music.

Backhaus was a wonderful pianist, not really representative of the German style. About him I can speak with real enthusiasm. He was more relaxed than most of them. I once heard him play the Chopin etudes and it was remarkable. In the first one in C major not a single note fell under the piano. It was fantastic. He heard me play Liszt’s Feux follets and came up to me. “Horowitz,” he said, “I could never do that.” But he was being nice. He could have if he wanted. I have often been asked what I consider the most difficult piece I have ever played. I can answer that quickly. It was Feux follets. The Liszt Don Juan is not an easy piece, either.

I heard Edwin Fischer, who did not mean much to me. I heard another pianist in Berlin who had a big success and I thought he was awful – Mischa Levitzki. Just fingers, and you cannot listen only to fingers. There is a difference between artist and artisan. Levitzki was an artisan. But Ignaz Friedman, who I admired, was a great artist. He had wonderful fingers and a very personal, individual way of playing, even if some of his ideas were very strange to me. He had no hesitation touching up the music. I got annoyed with him at one concert when he changed the basses in Chopin’s F minor Ballade. I didn’t like that. For some reason he was happier making records than he was on the stage.

Horowitz went to the three Berlin opera houses as often as he could. His favorite work was Richard Strauss’s Salome. In Russia he had become familiar with the music and had memorized large sections of it. To the end of his life he played excerpts from the opera at home for his friends, tearing into the “Dance of the Seven Veils” with abandon. In Berlin he heard the composer conduct Salome. One thing about the performance Horowitz never forgot. Strauss was constantly looking at his watch.

For the oncoming three recitals scheduled for January, Horowitz and Merovitch put together programs they hoped would demonstrate all aspects of his talent – his sonority, his virtuosity, his musicianship. The first program was built around the Schumann Fantasy. It opened with the Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C. Then, after the Schumann, there would be Rachmaninoff and the tremendous Mozart-Liszt Don Juan paraphrase. The second program contained Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, Ravel (the Sonatine and other pieces), and the Mozart-Liszt Figaro. For the third program there was the Liszt B minor Sonata, a work not played very often in those days, especially in Germany. The thunderous Liszt, of course, is one of the monumental piano works of the nineteenth century. Merovitch had also signed a contract with the Berlin Symphony (not to be confused with the Berlin Philharmonic) for a performance of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Concerto with Horowitz.

Horowitz tried out the pianos of various manufacturers and settled on a Steinway, which he played for the rest of his life. No other instrument, he felt, could approach its powerful, brilliant bass, the responsiveness of the action and its potential for color. Merovitch scouted around for a manager and finally settled on the Wolff-Sachs agency in Berlin. Wolff-Sachs would handle all of the details of the Horowitz appearances – advertising, choice of hall, responsibility for pulling in audiences, and the press releases to newspapers and critics.

Wolff-Sachs was not particularly lavish in its publicity efforts. The only advertisement one can find appeared January 1, 1926. On that day the readers of the Musik-Zeitung, Berlin’s most important musical weekly, could learn from a small advertisement that one Vladimir Horowitz would be giving three Klavierabende in the Beethovensaal on January 2, 4, 14. Wolff-Sachs had also arranged for an appearance with the Berlin Symphony after the second concert.

A debut recital in a major city is a harrowing, even searing, experience for any musician, especially an unknown one. Weeks before the advertisement appeared, Horowitz and Merovitch started worrying. Terrible, nightmarish things must have gone through their minds. Item: Wolff-Sachs was a highly respected agency, but would it be able to attract any kind of audience for a young, unknown Russian pianist? How awful it would be if nobody came. Item: Would a critic attend the concert? If there was no press coverage, the recital might be a waste of time and money. Item: If a critic did attend, would he understand what the performer was trying to do? Item: Would any major musician attend the recital? For word of mouth in the professional musical community is of supreme importance in furthering a career. Item: Would there be the kind of miracle wherein a wealthy music lover would be so impressed with the young Russian genius that he would act as his sponsor?

All one could do was practice, wait, worry, and hope.

5. Crashing Through

My career was finished forever. I didn’t sleep the whole night. I was in despair. I called a doctor to give me an injection to calm me down. I told him I have to go back to Russia.
– Vladimir Horowitz, after his second Berlin concert

It was a nervous man of twenty-three who walked on to the stage of Beethovensaal on January 2, 1926, bowed to the audience, and started playing. The high-strung Vladimir Horowitz was on edge after a sleepless night. He admitted as much many years later. He also said that perhaps he was not at his best, because so much was hanging on this concert that nerves got the better of him.

He also remembered that there were no more than fifty people in the audience (the hall seated around a thousand) and no critics at all.

His memory was inaccurate on both counts. The audience was reported in the press as half full, and there were indeed critics there, including Heinz Pfingsheim of Musik-Zeitung.

Two days after the debut Horowitz played the second recital, and he thought the concert had gone flat. He was hysterical when he got back to his hotel room. He had failed, he told Merovitch. He was a miserable pianist. He had to go back to Russia.


The first reviews of Horowitz’s Berlin debut recital on January 2 did not start appearing until almost two weeks after the concert.


So the $5,000 that Horowitz had smuggled out of Russia was well spent. The gamble had paid off. Reading the reviews, one paramount thing becomes immediately apparent: everybody realized that Horowitz had something more than fingers. He could communicate. That slim, intense figure on stage simply forced the audience into awed respect. Horowitz had extraordinary personality, a stage presence all but palpable. All of the artists who have gone on to superstar status had this charisma, and it is something that cannot be taught. Toscanini had it. Callas had it. Horowitz had it. Whatever it is, it resides in the performer’s psyche, and without it there can be no super career.

The third recital was sold out and Horowitz finally was satisfied with himself. He thought he played as well as he could. The public was enthusiastic, especially about the Liszt Sonata. German critics and audiences of the day had a tendency to regard the Liszt B minor Sonata with distaste; to them it was a large dead animal that was somewhat overripe. But they had not heard Vladimir Horowitz play it. After his performances the Liszt B minor Sonata began to be recognized for what it is – a great, imaginative, monumental piece of music, something far more than a technical stunt.

Offers came in – for concert appearances and also, from Welte-Mignon, for piano-roll recordings. Horowitz and Merovitch looked at each other. Things were going along very nicely.

Merovitch booked two concert appearances in Hamburg, and he and Horowitz arrived there a few days before the concerts. An advertisement in the Hamburg Echo notified the public on January 17, 1926, that Vladimir Horowitz would be giving a recital on Tuesday, January 19, at the Hotel Atlantic.

But no critic from the Echo was there to review it. Instead there was a review in the Fremdenblatt, which appeared, atypically, on January 20, the day after the concert. It was signed M. Br.-Sch., which stood for Max Broesecke-Schön. He must have been one of the faster writers in the German critical press.


This was, on the whole, a review that would have made Horowitz and Merovitch very happy. In the afternoon they left the Atlantic Hotel, where they were staying, and went for a walk. The rest is history. As Horowitz told the story:

We went out walking, in the zoo. When we came back to the hotel about six-thirty there was waiting for us the manager of the symphony orchestra. He was very nervous. A woman [Helene Zimmermann] who was supposed to play the Tchaikovsky with the orchestra that very evening had fainted during the rehearsal and was in no condition to play. He asked me to replace her.

It was six-thirty when I received the news. “Can you play in two hours?” On two hours’ notice? No rehearsals? I thought a little bit and said yes. I rushed to shave and get into evening clothes. Of course there was no time for rehearsal. Before the concert Eugen Pabst, the conductor, had a little talk with me about tempos. He was not very simpatico. He looked at me as if to say, “Who is this guy coming here to play with me?” He said, “I conduct like this, and this, and this. You have to follow me.” I said, “OK, sir. OK, sir. Yes, I will.” I didn’t even know what kind of piano I was playing. Of course in Hamburg it had to be the Hamburg Steinway, but was it even in tune? How was the action? I knew nothing. It turned out to be a very good piano.

When I came out nobody even applauded. They had never heard of me. Just like if you go to a concert to hear Mr. Smith. Who is Mr. Smith? So Pabst started the concerto, pom, pom, pom, pom, POM. When I played the first three chords he turned from the orchestra, he looked at me like he didn’t believe what he was hearing, and he didn’t conduct for a while. He came next to the keyboard to listen. He still didn’t believe it. He never heard sound like that. When I finished the cadenza and he was back on the podium, he began to follow me. There was no longer any question of me following him. When the concerto was finished, it was bedlam, absolutely bedlam. The audience went wild. I never saw anything like that in my life. In 1986 I returned to Hamburg for the first time since then, and I got a letter from Pabst’s daughter. She apologized for being unable to attend the [1986] concert, and then in the letter she told me the whole story about the Tchaikovsky again.


After the Hamburg concerts, word was flashed all through Germany and Horowitz was famous. Merovitch was now able to book him for about forty European concerts through 1927 at an increased fee.

Germany was conquered. Now it was time for Paris. Merovitch had booked a hall there for an early February concert and, full of elation and anticipation, Horowitz and his manager took the train to the French capital. They traveled third class; they were just about broke.

6. Parisian Lion

I remember once when I was new in Paris a lady I knew who managed concerts asked me to sit for a portrait. She said the artist was very good and one day would be famous. I asked what I would have to do for that. She said sit for two or three hours twice a week. Never, I said. Never. Good-bye. The painter’s name was Bonnard.
– Vladimir Horowitz, about a missed opportunity during his early days in Paris

“He made Paris tremble,” Arthur Rubinstein once ruefully said, talking about that first Horowitz season early in 1926.

It did not take Horowitz and Merovitch very long to discover that Horowitz’s reputation had preceded him in the French capital. Horowitz may have been unknown to the French public, but not to the professionals. Word of mouth in musical circles had traveled with its usual speed. The critics were primed and waiting. This time, Horowitz said, he did not feel edgy. After his German success he was confident that he could handle himself anywhere.

And he could. He simply overwhelmed Paris, and seldom in the musical life of that city did an artist make so explosive an impact. The startled critics and the public were carried away with what they instantly recognized as a new style of playing.


The first Horowitz appearance in Paris took place on February 12, 1926, and the locale was the hall of the old Paris Conservatoire, where Chopin had played the premiere of his Andante Spianato and Polonaise in 1835. The Horowitz concert was hastily arranged, without much in the way of publicity. That accounted for the small audience. Many of those present were Russian émigrés, gathered together by Merovitch. The program consisted of the Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C; the Liszt Sonata; several of Ravel’s Miroirs (including Alborada del gracioso) and Jeux d’eau; and a Chopin group consisting of the Barcarolle, some etudes and mazurkas and the A flat Polonaise.

But if the audience was small, the important critics were there, and they realized that they were in the presence of something new.


The climax of Horowitz’s first year in Paris came with a recital at the Opéra on December 14. This time he repeated some of the pieces he had been playing in his previous series: the Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C; the Liszt Sonata; six Chopin etudes, three mazurkas, and the A flat Polonaise; the two Paganini-Liszt etudes [Nos. 2 & 6 – Ed.] and the Spanish Rhapsody. His encores were Mendelssohn’s Spinning Song [Op. 67 No. 4 – Ed.], the Schubert-Liszt Liebesbotschaft, and his own Carmen Variations. The Carmen threw the audience into a frenzy, and the police had to be called in to evacuate the hall.

In the ten following years, until his first retirement, Horowitz gave some thirty concerts in Paris. The city could never get enough of him; he created a sensation every time he played. And, of course, every pianist rushed to hear the fabulous new virtuoso.


Naturally this brilliant newcomer was automatically admitted to the most exclusive salons of Paris. Chief among them was the home of the Princesse de Polignac, where one would invariably bump into Stravinsky, or members of Les Six, or Nadia Boulanger. It was in the salons that much new music was first heard; composers tried out their pieces there. Horowitz was always welcome chez Polignac, and also at the salons of Vicomtesse de Noailles, or Elsa Maxwell or Misia Sert. About two years later he met the American composer Alexander Steinert at the salon of Prince Rofredo Bassiano, and Steinert became one of his closest friends.

Arthur Rubinstein in his memoirs has given a vivid idea of life and fun in the Parisian salons of his day. He was on close terms with all the right people – Countess Greffulhe, Count Jean de Castellano, Princesse Yourievskaya, Count Potocki, Prince and Princesse de Polignac and Count and Comtesse de Ganay. In one charming passage of his memoirs Rubinstein reports spending a weekend with the Polignacs at Reims. Back in Paris he runs into Jean Cocteau. “Are you going to Misia’s?” Cocteau asks. Rubinstein says he has not been invited. “Come with me. She has Diaghilev, Massine, and Eric Satie to hear a ballet by Milhaud which he will play four-hands with Auric.” The ballet was Milhaud’s wonderful Le boeuf sur le toit. Such was the artistic life in Paris in the 1920s. What a time for the young and talented in music – or, of course, any of the arts – to be there! Picasso and Braque and Vlaminck; Joyce and Hemingway; Cocteau, Honegger, and Massine; Ravel and Poulenc; René Clair, Virgil Thomson, and Diaghilev; Dali, Chagall; the stern goddess known as Nadia Boulanger; Gertrude Stein….

Many Russian refugees were in Paris at the time – intellectuals, musicians, nobility, military men, all waiting for the nonsense in Russia to be over so they could come back. They thought the Revolution was only temporary. Chaliapin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Balanchine were living in Paris. Such Russian critics as Leonid Sabaneyev, Boris de Schloezer, Peter Souvtchinsky, and Arthur Lourié became fixtures of the musical life there. Horowitz and Merovitch were friendly with all of them. […] The tight little colony of Russian intellectuals in Paris were constantly in touch with each other and exerted a good deal of influence in the artistic life of the city.

Young, handsome, shy, brilliantly talented, elegant in dress and demeanor, fluent in French, Horowitz became an increasingly popular figure in the salons. There he met all the important musicians, littérateurs, and society figures of Paris. Among the composers he socialized with were Roussel, Poulenc, Szymanowski, Honegger, and Respighi.

“One night,” he recollected, “I played Ravel’s Jeux d’eau at a salon and this little man came to me and said that he was Ravel and that I had a great talent. ‘But,’ he said, ‘you should know in our country we play Jeux d’eau differently. We play it more impressionistically, like Debussy, but you played it in the style of Liszt.’ I said I was sorry. What could I say? In the meantime Ravel was thinking. He looked at me and said, ‘I think you are right. It is very Lisztian.’” Newspapers later helped Horowitz out by improving on the story. Most versions have Horowitz not knowing who the little man was until Ravel, after the musical talk about the piece was over, introduced himself and left Horowitz with his mouth wide open.


None of Horowitz’s music has been published. He composed a number of piano pieces, a violin sonata, a cello work, and some songs. The only work of his own that he ever recorded on flat disc is his Danse exotique. It is charming and sophisticated, in the French salon style, influenced by Poulenc and ragtime. Horowitz claimed that he had written it before leaving Russia. He made a Welte piano roll of the piece in 1926 and also a Victor recording in 1930. On the roll its title is Moment exotique. For Victor it has two names. First it came out on a ten-inch disc as Danse exotique by Horowitz-Demeny. Nobody seems to know who Demeny was. This was followed by the same performance, also on a ten-inch disc, under a different title: Danse excentrique, and the composer is listed merely as Horowitz. The reference to Demeny has vanished. Both discs have the same label number – 1468.

The ebullient Poulenc and Horowitz were introduced at one of the salons and became good friends:

He was wonderful. He would barge into my flat without an appointment, always in a hurry, full of enthusiasm. “Horowitz, I have for you a nocturne! I have come to play it for you!” He would sit down and play it. “Good-bye!” And he would rush away. He knew the piano well and was a very good pianist. For years I played his Toccata in my recitals. I remember once we all had dinner at Charles de Polignac’s salon. Poulenc played a new piece for me and I told him the ending was terrible. So he changed it. I sometimes played my own compositions for him, and he enjoyed them very much. The three composers who had the nicest things to say about my pieces were Poulenc, Prokofiev, and Szymanowski.

In Paris the most important French pianist was Alfred Cortot, one of the supreme twentieth-century keyboard artists. Horowitz blew hot and cold about Cortot. It always seemed hard for him to give another pianist unqualified praise. But even so, Horowitz admired Cortot the interpreter even if he did not admire Cortot the technician:

His Chopin and Schumann were for me the best. His Schumann was fantastic. He had good taste and a good but not great technique, though he lost his technique in the last years of his life. He played a lot on the radio. I remember hearing him in many things. Once I visited Rachmaninoff in Switzerland at his house. When I walked in he was laughing so loud his false teeth were coming out. I asked him what was so funny.
“I have just been listening on the radio to Cortot playing all the Chopin etudes.”
“That was so good?” I asked.
“Wonderful. But, you know, the most difficult of the etudes were the ones he played most ‘musical.’”

The word “musical” applied by virtuoso pianists to other pianists is often a code word meaning good musician, not so good fingers or, in baseball lingo, good field, no hit. Rachmaninoff was so amused because Cortot covered up his technical deficiencies by playing slowly in the hard passages. Critics and connoisseurs, taken in, automatically hailed the slow passages as “musical.” So the more Cortot slowed up, the more everybody would say “How musical!” (When Horowitz told the story a sour look came over his face. “Today,” he said, “that has become the thing. Everybody plays slow, pianists, singers, everybody, and that shows how musical they are. It is crazy, I tell you.”)


When Horowitz arrived in Paris he had a letter of introduction from Neuhaus to Arthur Rubinstein, who was about twenty years older than Horowitz and a popular pianist in Paris, especially in the salons. They saw a good deal of each other, but Horowitz had the feeling that Rubinstein didn’t like him very much. “Something didn’t click between us. Maybe he was jealous.” Nevertheless they often met in Rubinstein’s house in Montmartre. “He once played the orchestral part of the Brahms B flat Concerto for me on the second piano. He hadn’t studied it at that time and wanted to be more familiar with it. At least we had one thing in common – neither of us ever worked on technique. We studied only repertoire. Rubinstein never practiced. Like with me, everything with him was spontaneous.”

The basic difference between Rubinstein and Horowitz was that where Rubinstein generated love, Horowitz generated awe. In My Many Years, the second volume of his autobiography, Rubinstein has a few words to say about his relationship with Horowitz. Even before they met he admits to some jealousy because everybody in Paris was talking about the young Horowitz. Shortly after their first meeting, Rubinstein went to a Horowitz concert and was impressed: “I shall never forget the two Paganini-Liszt etudes, the E flat and E major ones. There was much more than sheer brilliance and technique; there was an easy elegance – the magic which defies description.”

After the concert Rubinstein went backstage with many others. Horowitz, “sweating and pale, received the great homage with regal indifference.” When Rubinstein went up to him Horowitz said that he had played a wrong note in Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie. “I would gladly give ten years of my life,” Rubinstein ruefully noted, “to be able to claim only one wrong note after a concert.”

The two often played together, four hands or at two pianos. On the surface they were friends, but Rubinstein says that he began to feel “a subtle difference” between them:

His friendship was that of a king to his subject, which means he befriended me and, in a way, used me. In short, he did not consider me an equal. It caused me to begin to feel a deep artistic depression. Deep within myself I felt I was the better musician. My conception of the sense of music was more mature, but at the same time I was conscious of my terrible defects – of my negligence of detail, my treatment of some concerts as a pleasant pastime, all due to that devilish facility for grasping and learning pieces and then playing them lightheartedly in public; with all the conviction of my own musical superiority, I had to concede that Volodya was by far the better pianist.

Incidentally, Rubinstein thought of Jascha Heifetz much as he thought of Horowitz. “I never envied either of them their great success and I took it for granted that Heifetz was the greatest violinist of his time, who never touched my heart with his playing, and Horowitz, the greatest pianist but not a great musician. On this premise our trio got along together quite well.”

A pianist Horowitz met in Paris and admired very much was Ignaz Friedman, a Pole born in 1882 who had been a Leschetizky pupil. In recent years piano buffs and young pianists have rediscovered the Friedman recordings, all made before World War II, and have been studying them openmouthed. Friedman was a technician almost in Horowitz’s class, with an even bigger, more colorful sound. He played with great generosity of spirit and an abandon that was always emotionally controlled. Nobody has played the Chopin mazurkas with such a rakish quality, such affinity for the rhythms of the Polish dance, such fluency and imagination. He was a very close friend of Rachmaninoff’s, and that alone would have endeared him to the young Horowitz, who idolized Rachmaninoff but had not yet met him.

Friedman was one of the few pianists about whom Horowitz, later in life, would talk about with real respect. “Nobody has made a better recording of the E flat Nocturne [Op. 55, No. 2] than Friedman did. It is amazing.” But in concert Friedman occasionally bothered Horowitz with “too many eccentric ideas. He played the F minor Ballade rolling all the left-hand chords at the big opening theme. Personally Friedman was a nice man, a darling, an angel. He loved to hear me, came to all my concerts, and he understood my playing.”

Horowitz had mixed feelings about another giant, Leopold Godowsky:

Godowsky had tremendous equipment, but in public he pulled back and was not very exciting. In the studio Godowsky was something else. I used to stand near the piano and watch his fingers. He had indescribable leggiero. Such scales! He had been a friend of Saint-Saëns’s, and he got that technique from him. He got incredible effects but I did not like his playing. It was not for me. What a pianist can learn is very easy. What you cannot learn is very difficult. Anybody can learn to play fast. When you practice Chopin ten hours a day for years, as Godowsky did, of course it will go like that. That’s no real achievement. Godowsky was a very good musician, but he overloaded the music he played. It was too much, all the extra stuff he put into it. In his Chopin he played all the notes but everything else was missing. He played everything mezzo-forte, without dynamics. It all sounded the same.

Horowitz kept a small apartment on the Rue Kléber in Paris. It was all he could afford. Until he went to America in 1928, he was playing a great deal all over Europe but not making much money. Or so he said. It is true that in 1926 and 1927 he was unable to command the fees that his American success in 1928 guaranteed. But even before the days of real affluence, Horowitz had money. His problem was that he spent it almost as fast as he made it. Always the dandy, he bought clothing “and nice things.” And the more he made, the more he spent. When he went to England after his American tour, he had enough left over to buy a Rolls. He had $6,000 in the bank and the Rolls cost him $5,000, an enormous sum in those depression days. Horowitz never learned to drive his Rolls and had to engage a chauffeur. Driving a car was too hard for him, he said. Playing the octaves in the Tchaikovsky was much easier.

7. On the Road

We always had to borrow money. When we traveled, it was third class because we could not afford the best accommodations. I ate cheese sandwiches, believe me, not truffles and caviar.
– Vladimir Horowitz, on his early touring days with Merovitch

Now that the Horowitz career was under way, he started the traveling routine that is part of the recitalist’s life. He went where his manager sent him. Young artists do not pick and choose; a career is yet to be solidified. So Horowitz learned to put up with the drudgery of the routine: into a city after a long train trip, into a third-class hotel, a concert that evening, bad pianos everywhere, dull after-concert receptions, inferior food, and then, as often as not, back on a train the next day. Horowitz discovered, as all the others have done, that there is nothing very glamorous about a touring artist’s life. As early as the 1850s the American idol Louis Moreau Gottschalk had expressed it as well as anybody: “Arrived at half-past eight at the hotel, took in a hurry a cup of bad tea, and away to business. One herring for dinner! nine hours on train! and, in spite of everything, five hundred persons who have paid that you may give them two hours of poesy, of passion, and of inspiration. I confess to you secretly that they certainly will be cheated this evening.”

Horowitz found himself playing in most of the European countries, going from Portugal to England to Norway to Sweden to Germany and Italy, and it is hard to find a negative critical response to the young Horowitz. A reviewer might have had reservations about this or that, but every one responded to the high-voltage playing and the powerful musical personality.


Horowitz played a great deal in Germany, but he made Paris his headquarters. At one of his recitals there, in 1927, a very sharp, experienced pair of ears listened to the playing with more than usual interest, and then read the reviews with a calculating eye. The result was an offer to go to America under the very highest auspices. Horowitz and Merovitch would, of course, have eventually made their way to New York, but the deus ex machina who was at the 1927 concert made the process much easier.

He was the American concert manager Arthur Judson. Judson approached Merovitch, offering to represent Horowitz in America and suggesting thirty concerts in the United States for the 1927–28 music season. Merovitch may have known something about the Judson organization, but neither he nor Horowitz could have realized the power that Judson exerted in the musical life of America. They were, after all, still greenhorns from Russia. But to a musician who knew anything about the commercial and managerial side of American classical music, an unsolicited approach from Arthur Judson would be something like a parish priest being summoned by His Holiness the Pope.

At the time Judson was already the strongest manager in America, and that was nothing compared to what he became a few years after he took Horowitz under his wing. His very presence carried an aura of power. A big, handsome, dignified, imposing, even imperious man, a trained musician (violinist and conductor), he took over a good part of the American musical establishment.

Between 1930 and 1935 he was, simultaneously, the manager of the New York Philharmonic and its summer concerts at Lewisohn Stadium; the manager of the Philadelphia orchestra and its Robin Hood Dell summer concerts since 1915; the president of Columbia Concerts (the largest music managerial office in the world) and Community Concerts (which he had set up to book musicians into cities all over the United States); the second largest stockholder of the Columbia Broadcasting System, and the sole owner of Columbia Records. Most of the world’s leading conductors were under contract to him, and many of the greatest instrumentalists and singers. Thus when a Columbia Concerts artist appeared with an orchestra or was booked around the country, Judson shared the artists’ fee.


Judson’s influence up to World War II extended into the press, which was not then as concerned about conflict of interest as it is today. Two great New York newspapers had critics who were in effect on Judson’s payroll. Olin Downes from the Times was intermission commentator for the New York Philharmonic broadcasts, and that stately figure of Yankee probity, Lawrence Gilman of the Herald Tribune, wrote the program notes. Nobody raised an eyebrow; it was common practice. Today, on the New York Times, such extracurricular activity would be unthinkable.

Judson and Merovitch worked out the schedule for the first Horowitz appearances in America. His debut was scheduled for January 12, 1928, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in Carnegie Hall. It also was to be Beecham’s American debut. Then there would be a concert tour of the United States, first in concerto appearances, then in solo recitals.

Horowitz was thrilled with the prospect and, as he said, frightened a little. Could he conquer America as he had Europe? And there was something on his mind that compulsively overrode everything else, including even his American debut, important as that was.

Now was his chance to meet Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was living in New York.


So on his second day in New York Horowitz got Alexander (known to all as Sascha) Greiner, the concert and artists manager of Steinway & Sons, to telephone Rachmaninoff and make an appointment.


On the designated afternoon, Horowitz went to visit his hero. Rachmaninoff, then fifty-five years old and thus more than twice the age of Horowitz, had an apartment on West End Avenue. Horowitz was trembling when he rang the doorbell:

I was scared to death. Would my idol like me? He was a little bit anti-Semitic, you know. He was terribly anti-Communist, and he thought it was the Jews who had made the Communist revolution. He opened the door and was very polite. We started to talk about music and especially about his Third Concerto, which I had to play. He asked me what cadenza I played, and this and that. He said, “When you are free I would like to hear you and I will accompany you.” Then he went to the piano and played pieces by Medtner. He never had a good instrument in his house. It was a small apartment. The piano, a Steinway Model L, was in his bedroom. We both liked Medtner’s music very much, though I had not played it in public for a long time. Rachmaninoff and I immediately had a rapport, right away. Like electricity. I don’t know how it happened.

Horowitz also played some Medtner. Rachmaninoff listened, not saying much. The two men were sizing each other up. They chatted pleasantly; they discussed the forthcoming Horowitz performances of the D minor Piano Concerto; they talked about Blumenfeld, Prokofiev, and other musicians they knew and the musical scene in Russia. Horowitz felt that they were going to be friends despite the thirty-year difference in their age.

The next day Rachmaninoff reported back to Greiner by telephone and discussed Horowitz’s playing. “I don’t know how Horowitz does it,” Rachmaninoff said. “He plays against all the rules and regulations of piano playing as we were taught – but with him it works.”

About Rachmaninoff’s anti-Semitism: perhaps Horowitz was reading things into a few offhand remarks that Rachmaninoff made. In the Rachmaninoff biography by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, an episode is cited that suggests Rachmaninoff’s strong aversion to racism. In 1912 he was a vice president of the Russian Musical Society, and when “he learned that a very good musician in an administrative post in one of the Society’s schools was to be dismissed on the ground that he was Jewish, Rachmaninoff promptly submitted his resignation.”

Now Horowitz, thrilled that he and Rachmaninoff had hit it off, was in an elated frame of mind for Tchaikovsky, Beecham, and the Philharmonic.

He could not have known what was about to happen.

8. ''The Octave Race''

I was less controlled in those days and there was sometimes a show-off quality to my playing. Beecham tried to keep up but couldn’t, and he and I did not end together, but the important thing was that I played my way, not his.
Vladimir Horowitz, on his American debut with Beecham

New York had never seen a debut appearance like the collaboration between Vladimir Horowitz and Thomas Beecham. Horowitz was to describe it as “crazy”.

Beecham undoubtedly had heard of Horowitz, but had not heard him play and certainly did not know how he was going to approach the concerto. Anyway, Horowitz believed that Beecham was much more interested in making a good impression in his New York debut than in paying much attention to “me, a little Jewish boy from Kiev.”

At the rehearsals of the Tchaikovsky, Beecham conducted without music but, Horowitz claimed, he did not know the concerto that well. His tempos were the slowest that Horowitz ever encountered, and the disgusted pianist considered them positively plodding. Beecham went his own way, apparently not even bothering to listen to the soloist. So the ensemble was terrible. Conductor and soloist were not together at the rehearsals, and Horowitz had the feeling that they would not be together at the performance. He said he did not sleep at all the night before the big moment, and he arrived at Carnegie Hall on the evening of January 12 in an apprehensive state. Rachmaninoff was in the audience, and that alone would have been enough to unnerve Horowitz. Many other musicians were there; word of mouth about a brilliant newcomer was operating as usual. In Horowitz’s own words:

We walked on stage. His opening tempo was very slow. I still believe he did this on purpose, to play me down. I am told that he broke his suspenders during the first piece and had to conduct with one hand, holding up his pants with the other. [True.] So he was not in a good mood when he came out for the concerto. When the performance started, for a little bit I followed him. Then I felt I could hear people snoring in the audience, it was so slow. I could see that my American career already was over. So I said to myself, “He can go to hell.” So I played my own tempos. I wanted to show my octaves, everything. I had to do this because I wanted to have the greatest success of my life. I kept thinking that if I did not have a success I would have to go back to Russia. In the last movement Beecham started slow and when I came in I took my own tempo. I ran away. I played the octaves the loudest, the fastest, they ever heard in their life. I was too fast, I admit it. It was not artistic. It was show-off, pour épater le bourgeois.

After the concerto I was greeted by people in the artists’ room. One of my visitors was Olin Downes, the critic of the New York Times. He was all excited. Then I left for home, saying nothing to Beecham. But we were not enemies or anything like that. He did not dislike me, the way Furtwängler disliked me. A few years later I had to play the Tchaikovsky in London with Beecham. When I walked into the hall for the first rehearsal, Beecham said, “Mr. Horowitz, I have the score.” And it was a wonderful performance. This time he was a darling.

The octaves Horowitz refers to is the passage near the end of the finale, and it is the climax of the concerto. Horowitz, excited, nervous, took off like a sprinter from the blocks, and he created a whirlwind that simply blew the audience out of its seats. At the end there was an animal roar from the thrilled listeners. Whatever the musical merits or demerits of the Horowitz explosion, New York had never heard anything like it.

There must have been at least twenty-five daily newspapers in New York in those days, including foreign-language papers, and most of them had music critics. Horowitz got some bad reviews – the critic of the Evening World, for instance, called the Tchaikovsky “an exhibition of piano playing in its most degraded state” – but the important critics jumped on the Horowitz bandwagon.

Then, as now, the most powerful arbiter of musical taste was the New York Times, and from 1924 to his death in 1955 Olin Downes was its music critic. A stout, extroverted Viking of a man, Downes wrote in flamboyant prose influenced by James Huneker. Himself a bit of a pianist, Downes was basically a fan who empathized with all pianists, mentally playing along and dissolving with excitement when something especially wonderful happened.

Downes called Horowitz “a young virtuoso of brilliant technic and overwhelming temperament… sensational if by no means impeccable.” He said that it had been years since a pianist created such a formidable impression in New York City. Downes noted that Beecham had not used a score and mildly said that “if he had had a score before him there might have been smoother cooperation with the pianist… It was quickly evident either that conductor and pianist had not sufficiently rehearsed… of that there were differences of conception.” It was clear to Downes that Horowitz wanted a faster tempo at the beginning of the concerto, “and there were many pages where the two see-sawed their ideas.” Nevertheless Horowitz “made a tremendous impression… His treatment of the work was a whirlwind of virtuoso interpretation. Mr. Horowitz has amazing technic, amazing strength, irresistible youth and temperament.” And in the slow movement the pianist showed that he could evoke beautiful colors. Thus despite the lack of coordination with the orchestra and a sometimes overstressed tone in forte passages, the performance triumphed because of the pianist’s “electrical temperament, physical capacity for tremendous climax of sonority and lightning speed.” The occasion marked “the appearance of a new pianistic talent which cannot be ignored or minimized.” In his last paragraph, Downes hedged, as experienced critics are wont to do: “As has been before said in these columns, one concert does not make a conductor or a virtuoso either. Half a dozen barely suffice to test a new leader. But within the limits of a single concert, there was no question of this triumph.”


A day or two after the performance Horowitz received a letter from Rachmaninoff. It said: “Mr. Horowitz, you have won the octaves race. Nobody has ever played them like you. But I will not congratulate you because it was not musical.” Rachmaninoff was disturbed by the undisciplined impulsiveness that Horowitz showed. If ever a pianist represented ultimate technical and emotional control it was Rachmaninoff, and he would not have responded happily to the show-off octaves and extroverted bravura that marked this performance. Horowitz said that he was “disturbed, a little” by the letter, but he felt that it would not harm their relationship. In any event, Rachmaninoff had, of course, known perfectly well what had happened and, seated in the audience, must have sweated out the desperate pianist’s problems with his conductor.

As for Merovitch, he was happy. Horowitz’s name was in all the papers, and that was all that mattered.

Then Horowitz started his American tour, playing a series of orchestral dates in the big cities. He made his American recital debut in Carnegie Hall on February 20, 1928, playing the Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C; some Scarlatti; and Chopin’s etudes and mazurkas and the A flat Polonaise. His pièce de résistance was the Liszt Sonata.

Again every pianist who was in New York, or could make it to New York, came to hear the highly touted newcomer. As Horowitz remembered it, there were, seated in the audience with arms crossed and show-me attitude, “Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Lhevinne, Gabrilowitsch, Moiseiwitsch, Bauer, Friedman, Levitzki, and I don’t know who else.” Horowitz said that “after the booboo of I made of the Tchaikovsky, they wanted to see if I really could play.”


From Ernst Urchs, manager of the Wholesale and Concert Department of Steinway & Sons, came a confidential report to the chief Steinway executives dated February 23, 1928:

Re: Vladimir Horowitz. Concert on Feb. 20, 1928, first piano recital in America. Good house, over $1,400 in box-office sales for first appearance. Great enthusiasm. Some excellent criticisms. Evidently will make great popular favorite. Marvellous technician and best critics count him excellent musician as well. Is only 24 years of age and will undoubtedly improve. Personally a very modest, retiring nature. Amiable and easy to get along with. Has had 12 or 13 orchestra appearances in the United States since arrival beginning of January, chiefly with N.Y. Philharmonic, Philadelphia, New York Symphony, St. Louis, etc. Average fee during season 1927–28 about $500. Reappears United States October to end of December 1928, at fee of $1,000 less 20% commission to Concert Management Arthur Judson


Wherever he played, Horowitz was anxious to get back to New York and Rachmaninoff. They continued to cement their relationship. Whenever Horowitz returned to the city after playing somewhere he immediately got in touch with his friend, and vice versa.

Perhaps the greatest thrill of Horowitz’s life occurred when he played the Third Concerto with Rachmaninoff playing the orchestral part at the second piano in the Steinway basement. Horowitz later said he was so nervous he thought he would die. Also, “He scolded me again for the octaves in the Tchaikovsky.” Rachmaninoff was impressed with the way Horowitz took on the Third Concerto and told Greiner so. Rachmaninoff never had the success with it that Horowitz had, and it could even be that the Horowitz performances in America made Rachmaninoff rethink the way he himself played it. At least, in an interview with Philip Ramey in 1977, Horowitz said that when Rachmaninoff recorded the Third with Ormandy, around 1940, he kept asking the conductor during the rehearsals, “Does Horowitz do that? How does he play this – faster, slower?” Horowitz claimed that Ormandy told him this. “Imagine!” And Rachmaninoff, when anybody would talk to him about the concerto, would say, “That’s Horowitz’s.”

To Horowitz, Rachmaninoff was the greatest of all pianists, “because his playing had such individuality. And such sound. If you want to get an idea of his sound go to the second movement of his recording of his First Piano Concerto. I always thought his Beethoven was the best thing he played, and his Chopin the worst. Rachmaninoff once showed me a letter from Schnabel, who had heard him play a Beethoven sonata. Schnabel said it was the best Beethoven playing he had ever heard.”

Rachmaninoff, said Horowitz, was the eternal refugee, unhappy wherever he was. He remained a Russian, his friends were Russian, he preferred to speak Russian. Soon he and Horowitz became more than friends; in many respects Rachmaninoff was a surrogate father, and Horowitz humbly took his advice and suggestions. Their greatest pleasure was in playing four-hand and two-piano music:

In his homes in Switzerland and Los Angeles we played two-piano music together, his suites and Symphonic Dances, the Mozart sonata, and other things. He wanted to give a two-piano recital with me. There is a recording of Ashkenazy and Previn in the two suites. It’s a caricature, absolutely a caricature, terrible.

I have said that to me he was the greatest pianist, but that does not mean I liked everything he played. Then again, he did not always like everything I played. I remember once hearing him in the Moonlight Sonata. When the melody came, he hit the G-sharps boom, boom-BOOM. Like a trombone, instead of piano or pianissimo. I heard him in his last years play the Beethoven First Piano Concerto. He made the slow movement sound like a Chopin nocturne. This was not Beethoven, although I heard him play other Beethoven things wonderfully, like Op. 111. He had a sense of humor sometimes. He once learned a few Debussy pieces. Debussy was a composer he never had any sympathy for, and I asked him why he put the Debussy on his program. “I want to prove to the public that this is not good music.” Rachmaninoff had to wait a long time before his Third Concerto became popular. He grew to dislike the Second Concerto almost as much as the famous C sharp minor Prelude. A lady once came up to him after a concert, raved over the Second Concerto, and asked him what inspired him to compose his Second Concerto with those wonderful, wonderful, wonderful melodies. Rachmaninoff answered her, “Twenty-five rubles.”

Rachmaninoff told Horowitz that he had technical difficulties all his life. “This is hard to believe, but that is what he said.” He told Horowitz that every morning for three hours he worked on scales. “He went to Godowsky to ask for special exercises. He was a gloomy man. He told me that all his life he had tried to succeed in three things – composition, piano playing, and conducting – and has succeeded in none.”

Rachmaninoff shunned publicity and gave very few interviews. Robert Croan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette told Horowitz in a 1979 interview that he once asked Rachmaninoff why? Rachmaninoff said, “Well, you know, Mr. Croan, I was brought up never to lie. But I cannot tell the truth.”

Horowitz once asked Rachmaninoff what his most memorable musical experience had been. This, said Horowitz, was a man who had known Anton Rubinstein, had known Tchaikovsky, had played everywhere and with everybody.

“I was on tour in Russia with Fedya,” Rachmaninoff said. Fedya was Feodor Chaliapin. “I was his pianist and we gave a concert in the Crimea. Fedya sang a group of my songs on this program. After the concert a little man with a beard came backstage and said to Chaliapin, ‘You are fantastic.’ Then he came to me and said, ‘Mr. Rachmaninoff, nobody knows you but you will be a great man one day.’ The little man was Chekhov.”

After his first season in America Horowitz realized that he probably would never have to worry about money again. “I could trace the course of my career by the summers. Every summer I took a vacation in Antibes. The first summer I walked around on foot. The second summer I could afford a bicycle. The third I went around in an automobile – a Studebaker, which I had purchased in America and shipped back to Europe.”

9. ''King of Kings''

In the United States I played private concerts at the homes of the very rich people. In Chicago, for instance, I was engaged by Cyrus McCormick. I played half an hour, everybody was drunk, and I got my $5,000, over twice as much as for my concerts. The millionaires those days could afford it. Today that kind of thing has disappeared.
Vladimir Horowitz, 1987, on his early years in America

Now Horowitz had achieved his dream. He was internationally famous, he was regarded with awe by his peers, and he got reviews that were the envy of the profession. Constantly being interviewed, he impressed journalists as a happy, well-adjusted man, always nattily dressed and color coordinated. No matter how stupid or stereotyped the questions, he answered them patiently, generally saying much the same things in different cities: how he played for Scriabin, how much he liked America, what he thought of American orchestras, and the like. Never did he have anything provocative to say, yet he always was good copy because he so obviously enjoyed the attention he was getting and was so willing to cooperate with the musical press. From his earliest years Horowitz understood the value of publicity.

He watched his fees go up. This was particularly gratifying. Horowitz equated success with his fees, and he was getting big ones. In the days of the Great Depression, when a family man was thrilled to be making $1,000 a year, Horowitz earned $1,500 a concert, and he was giving many concerts. Between 1928 and 1935 he played nearly 350 times in America alone. He would also crisscross Europe every year, generally in the autumn and spring, finishing off his season with a May or June recital in Paris.

In America the excitement about Horowitz was such that it even permeated a not very musical White House. Horowitz was invited to play there for the President Hoover on January 8, 1931. Over half a century later his memory failed him on that event:

I seem to have drawn a complete blank on that concert. I remember that I played a white piano, not a good one, and that when I was received by the president I said, “I’m delightful,” not, “I’m delighted.”

On his program were Bach-Busoni, the Hummel Rondo, Dohnányi, Chopin, and the Carmen Variations.

One index to an artist is the kind of audience he draws. Horowitz always attracted the professionals as well as a general audience. It was noted that, especially when he played in New York or a cosmopolitan European city, his concerts drew in every musician in the vicinity. In the audience of his Carnegie Hall concert of January 22, 1931, was a musical Who’s Who including Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Milstein, Carl Friedberg, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Egon Petri, Walter Gieseking, Mieczyslaw Munz, Mischa Elman, Jacques Thibaud, Paul Kochanski, and Felix Salmond. Horowitz said that so distinguished and ultracritical an audience never frightened him. He welcomed the challenge.


It did not take Horowitz very long to like America very much. But, as a newcomer to the West and, especially, capitalistic America, one thing at that time he could not understand was business. After his first touring years in the United States and Europe, and with the help of a recording contract, he said, he cleared $100,000. A friend who was a financial adviser took him to a broker so that he could invest in stocks. “What does this mean, invest?” Horowitz wanted to know. “I didn’t know what it meant. You make money, you spend it, like in Russia. But in America you had to invest. So the money was invested. So I lost $70,000 in the famous crash of 1929. I had to start all over again. I said I would never buy a stock again, and I never have.”

After that, Horowitz put whatever he made into a savings account. Much of that money he used to buy art. Horowitz, Milstein (who painted in his spare time and was a connoisseur), and the conductor Vladimir Golschmann (who had a collection of Picasso and Braque) often went to galleries together. Horowitz also picked the brains of other experts and dealers. The pieces he bought, Horowitz said, ended up a much better investment than the stock market.

“I bought fantastic pictures through the years,” he said. “Always I went to the major galleries and spent hours looking. I had a big Picasso from the White Period, a Manet, a Monet, a Renoir, a Modigliani, a Degas pastel, a Rouault. It was much harder to find them than to buy them, and then it had to be proved they were authentic. Some paintings I bought against the advice of dealers. I paid $5,000 for them. Suddenly they were worth $100,000, and I sold them.” The Picasso was a large painting that dominated the living room. When Horowitz bought it, Toscanini came to look at it and wanted to know how much it cost. Horowitz said $23,000. Toscanini said, “All artists are crazy.” In the sixties, when Horowitz sold most of his collection, the Picasso alone brought $750,000.


The New York managers thought they knew everything American musical tastes. They discouraged their artists from presenting what they in their infinite wisdom considered “difficult” music, or problematic music, or anything except the well-tried, popular classics. Before World War II, when Horowitz was on the Community Concerts series, he was constantly being asked to change his programs. “In one city they asked me not to play Chopin’s G minor Ballade. They thought it was too difficult for their audience. I played it anyway.”


Horowitz never had a wildly adventurous repertoire, but he defied his managers and played such composers as Prokofiev and Medtner. Even the Brahms Paganini Variations were suspect by the all-knowing managers. Horowitz had the piece in his repertoire and played it anyway, up to 1943, then he dropped it permanently. Later audiences would have given a great deal to hear Horowitz play this brilliant test of a pianist’s technique and musicianship. Incidentally, like many pianists of the day – Claudio Arrau, for example[9] – Horowitz did not always play all of the variations; and when he did, they were not in Brahms’s order: he generally started with Book II up to the last variation, then went to Book I, and then returned to Book II for the final variation. (He never played the Brahms Handel Variations, by the way.)

In 1931 he had Stravinsky’s Petrushka, seven Brahms waltzes, the Hummel E flat Rondo (an effective, charming piece he probably picked up after hearing Friedman play it), and the Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 3 on his programs. In those days he was also playing Liszt’s E major Polonaise and music by Szymanowski. He played the Liszt Dante Sonata in 1934, and that was a virtually unknown piece in those days[10]. He had some Ravel in his repertoire.[11] In 1943 and 1944 he came up with a piece nobody knew – the Ricordanza Variations by Czerny. He introduced to America three Prokofiev sonatas, he played the world premiere of the Barber Sonata in E flat minor, and he played music by Kabalevsky and Jelobinsky. Horowitz stood up to the managers very well. But after 1945, as a matter of choice and not managerial Diktat, his programs began to be more and more conservative.


When Hitler started coming into power, Horowitz after 1932 refused to play in Germany.

England remained unconquered by Horowitz until 1930. He had played there once previously, in 1927. The 1927 concerts did not go very well. Horowitz appeared twice, once in Albert Hall, which he said was too big, and once in Aeolian Hall, which he said was too small. Albert Hall, which seated about seven thousand, had terrible acoustics and an echo. It was said of this hall that you could hear two concerts there for the price of one.

When Horowitz went back to England in 1930, it was to play the Rachmaninoff Third with Willem Mengelberg and then record it with Albert Coates. It was Horowitz’s first concerto recording. The performance and recording startled the British critics and public, who made a major revaluation of not only Horowitz but also of the Rachmaninoff work.

Two years later, when Horowitz made a tour of England, he sold out everywhere and gained one of his most ardent critical supporters, the celebrated Neville Cardus of the Manchester Guardian. Cardus, who was held to be one critic sans peur et sans reproche, went his American colleagues Gunn and Devries one better. He wrote a review flatly calling Horowitz the greatest pianist “alive or dead.” He was promptly deluged by mail from fans of Backhaus, Petri, Cortot, and Rachmaninoff. Others asked him if he had heard Liszt. In a long article written some years later, Cardus defended his statement.

If anything, he wrote, his initial reaction had been an understatement. “Horowitz must be regarded as the perfect pianist.” He had everything – tone, technique, rhythm, sensitivity. “The ensemble of these attributes has convinced me not once but often that as a pianist pure and undefiled he has no peer in his time, to say the least. There has never been a romantic pianist of more than Horowitz’s purity of style and pride of carriage.” Cardus followed this with about a thousand words of analysis, concluding with, “He brings no portentous message to us from the high gods of music – only rare musical pleasure, beautiful colors, patterns that engage the mind and delight the senses.”

Cardus was also responsible for passing on a delightful anecdote about a Horowitz rehearsal with Beecham. They were working on the Tchaikovsky for a performance due to be performed on November 10, 1932. At one point Beecham stopped his players and said, “Mr. Horowitz, really, you cannot play like that. It is incredible, not permissible. My orchestra cannot live up to it.”


10. Marriage

After we were married Wanda told me that she had made up her mind that I was the man for her. She discussed it with her father, who listened sympathetically and said only, “You will have a difficult life. You will be marrying an artist. Marrying an artist is very difficult.” Wanda knew that. Her mother’s life was a good example. She had to put up with all of Toscanini’s rages, stubbornness, schedules, intolerance, egoism, and infidelities.
– Vladimir Horowitz, discussing his marriage

In 1933 Vladimir Horowitz, at the age of thirty, surprised everybody, perhaps even himself. He married Wanda Toscanini, the daughter of the most celebrated of all conductors. The public was delighted. It seemed to be a marriage that was Hollywood come to life: the union of the most admired young pianist of his generation – handsome, athletic-looking, elegant – and the striking, sultry daughter of the man most musicians at that time would unhesitatingly have called the greatest conductor who ever lived.

But there were those who were dumbfounded.

If ever a man seemed destined for bachelorhood it was Vladimir Horowitz. He always had lived a carefree life, relishing his freedom. And, of course, his sexual preferences were no secret to the musical world. Horowitz preferred men. Thus there was a certain amount of know-it-all smiles when the engagement was announced. Was it a marriage of convenience? Or, perhaps, was it a desire to be a member of the Toscanini family and sit at the feet of Maestro? There were those who honestly believed that Horowitz was more interested in having Toscanini as his father-in-law than in having Wanda as a wife. Horowitz had played under the old man’s baton and, like all musicians, had been swept away by his authority, his ear, his understanding of musical form, his personal and musical dynamism. And Horowitz knew that Toscanini had a high opinion of his piano playing; the conductor had made no secret of his admiration for the brilliant virtuoso.

Thus, when Wanda showed interest in Horowitz, he was ripe for capture. He did want to settle down and, as it turned out, he did develop strong emotional attachment to Wanda, a woman who had been trained to take care of another brilliant and temperamental musician, one Arturo Toscanini.


It was in Milan later in 1933 that Horowitz and Wanda got to know each other. At La Scala he had played both the Brahms B flat and the Rachmaninoff D minor in one evening, an endurance contest he would never think of doing later on. […] She began to see Horowitz on a regular basis. They spent several days together, and on one occasion Horowitz reached into a pocket, took out a box, opened it and put a gold chain around her neck. Things were obviously getting serious. On October 8, 1933, their engagement was announced, and the next day the newspapers carried the story.


Wanda went with Horowitz on his English tour in 1933, with her sister, Wally, as chaperone. Wally, who had married Count Emanuele Castelbarco in 1930, was amused. She said Horowitz was charming, like a mischievous child. The marriage took place in Milan on December 21, 1933. The Toscaninis were there, and so was Gregor Piatigorsky (Milstein was on a concert tour and could not attend).


Whenever he was in New York, Horowitz tried to spend as much time with Toscanini as possible. Toscanini lived in a mansion overlooking the Hudson River in Riverdale, just north of Manhattan. Horowitz and his bride were constant visitors. “He and I got along all right,” said Horowitz:

We constantly talked about music. Mozart was a special subject. At that time he did not conduct many Mozart concertos, mostly because pianists those days played at best only two or three of them – generally the D minor [K. 466 – Ed.] or the A major [K. 488]. I had not played any in public. But both of us knew all of the major Mozart concertos and loved them. I own scores of the concertos with Maestro’s markings and metronome indications. Of course we discussed Beethoven. I remember him saying to me, “Horowitz, I know you don’t like to play many of the Beethoven sonatas, especially the last ones, because you think they are badly written for the piano by a deaf man. Why don’t you make changes? What is wrong if you make the changes in good taste? We conductors always change Beethoven’s scoring in the symphonies and nobody, the critics, the audience, nobody hears the changes.” I told Maestro that conductors could make those slight changes, but in a Beethoven sonata if the pianist changed one little note everybody would scream “This is not in the text!” But Toscanini kept asking me to make changes for better pianistic solutions of the text. “What do you care about what they say?” he would ask. But I never had the nerve.

Another thing they talked about was pianists of the past who had played with Toscanini or whom Toscanini had personally known. Horowitz especially wanted to hear about Busoni, and was pleased to learn that Toscanini had a high opinion of him. Toscanini, said Horowitz,

was crazy about him as a person and as a musical thinker. But Wanda tells me that Toscanini once heard Busoni play the Waldstein and at the opening measures walked out of the hall. There too many tempo changes. Yet Busoni visited Toscanini at the Ansonia Hotel before World War I and played Liszt for several hours, until three o’clock in the morning, and Toscanini, who did not like Liszt, said it was divine. He said he never heard anything better. And Toscanini was difficult, very, on pianists.

Another thing that Busoni did that impressed Toscanini was at one of the Sunday evening concerts at the Metropolitan Opera. The official piano there was a Knabe, and it was an old, decrepit instrument used by several pianists and accompanists who preceded Busoni on the program. Toscanini said that when it was Busoni’s turn to play, everybody thought he would have the instrument changed. But no. Busoni played the Knabe and Toscanini said that he made it sound like the greatest of all pianos. Busoni could be very eccentric. In Berlin he was played an Emperor that was piano and pianissimo from beginning to end. He explained that he was curious to hear how it would sound that way.


Through the bad sound in both recordings [of Brahms’ D minor Concerto, 1935 with Toscanini and 1936 with Walter – Ed.] comes a blazing, even blistering, conception. Without ignoring the musical elements, Horowitz makes a lithe, athletic virtuoso piece out of the concerto. This is an exciting and impulsive Brahms, fast and brilliant, a damn-the-torpedoes performance that is quite likely the only one of its kind. It is even – rare for Horowitz – not entirely clean; the first-movement octaves are smudged and overpedaled. But Horowitz, for better or worse, makes the Brahms D minor sound like a new experience, and it is hard not to respond to the visceral excitement he generates. No pianist who has played this notoriously difficult work has displayed such rhythmic impetus, fantastically clean articulation (forget about the octaves), and sheer power.

The Walter performance is more relaxed than Toscanini, who did not give his soloist much, if any, breathing space. Walter, in the Adagio movement, let Horowitz bring out some of the inner voices that Brahms so carefully marked and so many of today’s pianists so carefully ignore. Milstein heard one of the Walter performances and Horowitz was pleased that his friend, who always spoke his mind and could criticize him severely, said it was one of the greatest performances of the concerto he had ever heard.

These two performances of the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto point up the differences between tempos then and tempos now. The last five decades have seen tempos becoming slower and slower. Toscanini and Horowitz performed the concerto in 38 minutes, 56 seconds. The Walter/Horowitz performance comes in at 40 minutes, 42 seconds. By today’s (1992) standards, those tempos are not only alarmingly fast; they also will be considered unmusical in many quarters. Toscanini set the tempos for all of his performances. Walter could be more flexible when working with a soloist.

It is hard to come by accurate timings of concert performances in the 1930s, but the fact that neither Downes nor Gilman complained about the tempo of the Brahms in their reviews, or even mentioned it, suggests that in the mid-1930s the Toscanini and Walter approaches were the norm. Three decades later, in the mid-1960s, such pianists as Rudolf Firkusny, Arthur Rubinstein, Van Cliburn, and John Ogdon were timed at between 44 and 46 minutes. In the 1980s Krystian Zimerman, Daniel Barenboim, and Claudio Arrau were running from 48 to over 50 minutes. At those tempos the Brahms D minor Concerto sounds like a different piece from the one that Horowitz with Toscanini and Walter had played fifty years earlier.

Horowitz said he played the Brahms D minor Concerto no more than a dozen times between 1934 and 1936, and he forgot it as soon as he could. “As with the late Beethoven sonatas,” he said, “I admit its great message, but it is not my kind of music. Rachmaninoff heard the New York performance on the radio and telephoned me, asking how I could ever play this awful music. It is poorly orchestrated and poorly written for the piano, he said. Myself, I enjoyed playing the B flat Brahms much more. It is a better concerto.”

If Horowitz was not happy with the Brahms D minor Concerto in 1934, two events occurred later in the year that took his mind off that work. The fall of that year saw a reunion. Horowitz’s father managed to get out of the Soviet Union to visit his famous son. And on October 2 a child, Sonia, was born to Wanda and Volodya.

Horowitz had never lost touch with his family, and had been in communication with his mother and father ever since he had left for the West in 1925. Indeed, he was sending them money on a regular basis. In 1930 Sophie, his mother, had died from peritonitis. Shortly before the reunion with his son Samuel had remarried, but the Russians, as was their charming custom, kept his wife hostage in Moscow, where they lived. One of the first things that Samuel did after embracing his son in Paris was proudly to show him a photograph of his new wife, a woman considerably younger than he. Horowitz had been very close to his mother, and that action hurt him very much.


Shortly after his return to Russia, Samuel Horowitz was arrested during one of Stalin’s purges. Nobody knew the reason for his arrest. Nobody ever did in Stalin’s day. Perhaps it was felt that by visiting his son, Samuel had been contaminated by capitalism. The poor man was put through hell. Natasha Saitzoff said that when Horowitz’s sister, Regina, got permission to visit her father in the gulag, he was in so deplorable a condition that he did not recognize her. He died in the prison camp.

As for Sonia, she was raised in a manner guaranteed to create problems when she grew up. As a busy touring pianist, Horowitz was away from home for long periods. He was also developing emotional and psychosomatic problems that within a short time would result in a disappearance from the stage. Wanda had to be with him in those desperate times. For the first year or so after the birth, Wanda stayed in Milan, taking care of the baby. Then she joined Horowitz in Switzerland, leaving the child with a nanny. Wally, the Countess Castelbarco, then living in Milan, would supervise the nanny. Then Wanda went to America with her husband. She saw Sonia only intermittently during the child’s first few years. When Toscanini was at his home in Milan, he too would keep an eye on the child. Or Sonia and her nanny might stay with Aunt Wally at the Castelbarco estate in Crema, near Venice; or at the Toscanini summer home in Isolino on Lake Maggiore. “She was passed around like a package,” Wanda recalled. Under those circumstances, Sonia could not put down any roots, and her education was hit and miss. Toscanini loved her – more, it was said by many in the Horowitz circle, than her parents did. To almost everybody, Toscanini could be a monster. But to Sonia he was the doting grandfather, doing everything he could to spoil her.

In retrospect, Wanda thought that Toscanini had a bad influence on Sonia. When she was eight years old he would keep on telling her how brilliant she was, how wonderful, a real genius who could do anything. “If you want to play the piano, you will play the piano. If you want to write music, you will write music. It you want to paint, you will paint.” Later Wanda was to realize not only how much damage her father had caused but also how negligent she and Volodya had been as parents.

And during those years of Sonia’s childhood, her father was going through his own kind of mental anguish. The result was a physical and emotional breakdown that kept him away from the public for two years.

11. Disappearance

Up to that point in my life I had never thought much about myself. I just played the piano. But when you spend so much time sick in bed it changes you a little bit, and sometimes you change without realizing it. When I started to practice again I think I found something different in my playing. I read through much music and started to get interested in modern composers, which I never had been except of course for Rachmaninoff, and he was really a nineteenth-century composer. I became familiar with many composers I had never played, such as Hindemith and Respighi.
Vladimir Horowitz, about his first retirement in 1936

It did not take Horowitz many years to slide from the top of his world into a private hell. In the early 1930s Horowitz seemed to be blessed with everything – fame, money, looks, health, an adoring international public, the respect of his peers. Yet Horowitz after 1933, the year of his marriage (which might be more than coincidence), slid deeper and deeper into a depression to the point where he could not play at all. The outwardly happy, pleasant, relaxed public figure that the journalists had been describing started to slither in quicksands of self-doubt and self-loathing. The years from 1936 to 1938 that saw him away from the public were a desperate attempt to find himself and save himself.

The first Horowitz disappearance from the stage – there would be three more in the years to come – started with an operation in 1936, but that was only the physical part of his problems. The psychological part was more debilitating. Horowitz was physically and intellectually drained, and he felt he had played certain works so often “that I couldn’t hear them anymore, even while my fingers were performing them.”

Occupational fatigue hit him. He began to hate his concert routine and even his piano. He was dissatisfied with his progress as an artist, and he took it out on the music. His formerly impeccable technique began to sound a bit slipshod, and he did not seem interested in what he was playing. Perhaps, too, his responsibilities as a married man with a child were more than he could face. It was a classic what-did-I-get-myself-into reaction from a free-wheeling bachelor new to matrimony and bachelorhood.

Then in 1936 he decided to have his appendix out.

There was nothing wrong with the appendix, as the operation showed. But his mother had died six years previously, at the age of fifty-seven, from peritonitis. There were no antibiotics in those days. After Horowitz received the letter about his mother’s death he started brooding and developed intestinal pains. “Of course this was all psychosomatic, absolutely. But you never know,” said Horowitz in 1987. “Maybe my appendix was really bad. I was convinced of it.” The chances are that Horowitz was having his first attack of the colitis that began to plague him in the 1950s. But he made up his mind that his trouble was appendicitis, and he wanted the offending organ removed.

This was easier said than done. It was no simple matter to find a surgeon who would operate for no clear medical reason. Finally he found a doctor in Paris who would cooperate, and the operation took place in September 1936. “The appendix was clean but the operation wasn’t. I developed phlebitis, became really sick and was in the hospital for three months. For almost a year I couldn’t walk and during all that time I didn’t touch the piano.”

This time his illness was physical, and there was a great deal of pain, so much so that Horowitz began to wonder if he would ever be able to play the piano again. He also was still depressed because of his mother’s death. “So I was a very nervous man at the time. Then when I started to walk it took months before I felt comfortable again. The muscles were gone.”

At the beginning of 1937, Horowitz was still depressed and actually in the mood of throwing in the towel. He and Wanda discussed the future. He had told her that he had the feeling that he would never play in public again, that they could live a quiet life while he taught and composed. Money was no problem. By that time the Horowitzes had more than enough to spend the rest of their lives in relative luxury.

Horowitz convalesced in Bertenstein, Switzerland, in a house overlooking Lake Lucerne. Wanda and Sonia were there as well. Horowitz took the cures at several spas. At one point he and Wanda visited Toscanini in Salzburg, where Toscanini was conducting several operas. Horowitz would sit in the garden with his leg on a stool because of the phlebitis. Toscanini would look at him unbelievingly. “He’s crazy,” he kept saying. “There’s nothing wrong with him.”

But there was, although it was something out of Toscanini’s experience.


In this period he spent a good deal of time with Rachmaninoff, who was living near him in Switzerland. Rachmaninoff had cancer and only a few years to live, but still was playing the piano like the giant he always was. In many respects Rachmaninoff was the perfect pianist. His fingers were infallible, he had a technique that could match Horowitz’s note for note, his sound was the music of the spheres, and his interpretations were animated by the most aristocratic of musical minds. The man had everything.

In Switzerland, Horowitz and Rachmaninoff talked endlessly about music, they played four-hand music – everything they could get their hands on – and he listened to Horowitz and encouraged him. Horowitz knew that Rachmaninoff was not in good health at the time, and appreciated his help and advice all the more. “He fussed over me and begged me to practice. At least an hour a day,” he said. Rachmaninoff was the stabilizing force in Horowitz’s life during this period. He calmed Horowitz down, tried to rebuild his confidence and kept urging him to resume his career.


It seems clear that between 1936 and 1938 Horowitz was suffering from the first of a series of guilt feelings that afflicted him for his entire professional life and even during his student days. All his life except for his last five years he was torn two ways: between being an artist and being an entertainer. He knew how good he was pianistically, but he had nagging doubts about the way he was employing his gift. He may have been considered by many the world’s greatest pianist, but had he prostituted his art? Was he merely pandering to the public by playing his virtuoso stunts instead of devoting his life to the highest artistic ideals? He desperately wanted to be recognized as a great musician as well as a great pianist, but he knew that some of his colleagues and some important critics had reservations about his ultimate artistry. When he began to have doubts about himself as a musician, as opposed to a “mere” pianist, the result was a breakdown that resulted in real and imaginary illness and retirement from the stage.


His protracted absence from the stage inevitably started the rumor factory working overtime. Horowitz was fatally ill. Horowitz was in a sanatorium. Horowitz was in an insane asylum. The climax came with the announcement of Horowitz’s death. On vacation in Gstaad in 1938, Milstein and Horowitz one night were listening to the radio. Suddenly they heard: “Now you will hear music in memory of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz. News of his untimely death just came in from Paris.” Horowitz said, unnecessarily: “That’s not true!” Then he said, “But what good publicity!” Papers all over Europe carried the news, and Horowitz was one of the few people ever to read his own obituary notices. For days Wanda was on the phone to wire services, newspapers, and friends, correcting the false report. Horowitz was then deluged with congratulatory telegrams on his resurrection.

Gradually he worked himself out of his problems. Rachmaninoff was not his only prop. Horowitz spent some time with Serkin and the violinist Adolf Busch, who was his father-in-law. They lived in Basel, and whenever Horowitz dropped in for short visits they would encourage him, urge him to play, try to build up his ego. Serkin and Horowitz played four-hand music and discussed pianistic problems. Once Serkin listened to Horowitz read through the fugue of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. “It was amazing,” said Serkin, “but Horowitz just took it for granted. I think that at that time he did not have a high opinion of himself. We tried to tell him how good he was and he seemed embarrassed.”

Early in 1938 Horowitz started feeling that he, the keyboard, and the music were as one again. He was making peace with himself.

Serkin and Busch provided the jumping-off point. They suggested that a quiet return would be best; that instead of returning with a blare of trumpets to a major concert hall, Horowitz should test himself at a benefit concert in Zurich on September 26, 1938, sharing the program with the Busch Quartet. Horowitz agreed. He chose a Chopin group – the Polonaise-Fantasy, Barcarolle, and several etudes. Everything went well. Serkin and Busch told him that he was again in top form, and even Horowitz agreed that it had not been bad. There followed a few concerts in France, and soon Horowitz was once again playing everywhere in Europe except Germany and Italy. Germany was out because of Hitler. Italy was out because Toscanini’s son-in-law would not have been welcome in the land of Mussolini. Toscanini, who was a fervent opponent of the regime, was on the Fascist blacklist.


In 1941 Horowitz rented a house in Los Angeles. He claimed he had a persistent sore throat, and the California climate would make him more comfortable. Another unstated reason, most likely the real one, was to be near the ailing Rachmaninoff. Once again Wanda and Sonia were uprooted. They joined Horowitz in Los Angeles.

Horowitz and Rachmaninoff resumed their close friendship and also the two-piano playing they had left off in Switzerland in 1937. Their performances went so well that they started inviting small audiences to listen to them. On June 15, 1942, one member of the audience at Rachmaninoff’s house was Sergei Bertensson, who later (with Jay Leyda) wrote a well-researched biography of Rachmaninoff. An expatriate Russian who had been an arts administrator in St. Petersburg, Bertensson was friendly with Rachmaninoff and had heard him rave about Horowitz. He never forgot the concert, which he described in the biography:

Except for members of both families, I was the sole auditor. The program included the Mozart sonata and Rachmaninoff’s Second Suite for Two Pianos. It is impossible to word my impression of the event. “Power” and “joy” are two words that first come to mind – expressive power, and joy experienced by two players, each fully aware of the other’s greatness. After the last note no one spoke – time seemed to have stopped.

At another such evening, Bertensson heard the two pianists in Rachmaninoff’s own transcription of his orchestral work the Symphonic Dances. “The brilliance of this performance was such that for the first time I guessed what an experience it must have been to hear Liszt and Chopin playing together, or Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein.”

Rachmaninoff talked very seriously about the two of them giving a two-piano recital in Carnegie Hall, but because of his illness, nothing came of the plan. At least Rachmaninoff could hear Horowitz play the Third Concerto one last time, on August 7, 1942. “One of the greatest moments I ever experienced on the stage came after I played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl,” said Horowitz. “William Steinberg conducted. Over 23,000 people came, and when I finished the concerto Rachmaninoff came to the stage and said I played it the way he had always dreamed it should go.” Horowitz was thrilled. But he told friends that Rachmaninoff was merely being nice. “Of course,” Horowitz said, “he plays the Third better than I do.”

The Horowitz/Steinberg was never recorded, but a few happy collectors have a copy of the May 4, 1941, performance of the Rachmaninoff Third, taken from a New York Philharmonic broadcast performance with Barbirolli. Presumably it would not have been substantially different in conception and execution from the “dream” performance that Rachmaninoff saluted some fifteen months later. It goes at an exceptionally fast clip, much faster than anybody today would dare to play it. Nor is it possible to think of a pianist who could, at that tempo, articulate with the precision that Horowitz brought to it. Yet, with all the speed, Horowitz has time to dwell lovingly on the lyric elements and shape them with a master hand. The dash and élan of the finale are breathtaking. If a performance like this impresses modern listeners as too fast, too virtuosic, it cannot be emphasized often enough that tempos were prevailingly much faster half a century ago, and today’s slow tempos actually misrepresent the music.

When Horowitz was notified that Rachmaninoff was dying – he died of cancer on March 28, 1943, at the age of seventy – he canceled over a month of concerts except for an appearance with Toscanini on April 25, and rushed back to Los Angeles to his friend and mentor for the last time. Rachmaninoff’s last words to Horowitz, a few days before his death, were “Good-bye. Good-bye. I will not see you again.”

Horowitz was brokenhearted and never really got over it. Later, when Toscanini died in 1957, Horowitz was shattered, but not even Toscanini’s passing left the hole in his life that Rachmaninoff’s death did. Toscanini was a sort of Jehovah to Horowitz, a divine presence who could be approached only with awe and reverence, fear and trembling. Rachmaninoff was a friend, a pillar, a surrogate father – and also a colossal pianist who could talk to Horowitz on equal terms. It was Rachmaninoff who was Horowitz’s first inspiration when he was a student. It was Rachmaninoff who had been instrumental in pulling him out of his black depression between 1936 and 1938.


The most publicized wartime activity of Horowitz was a concert with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony for the war-bond drive in Carnegie Hall on April 25, 1943. They were heard in the Tchaikovsky Concerto, and the concert brought in an incredible sum for those days – $10,190,045. The concerto was recorded live from the stage. After the concert, Toscanini went to Horowitz’s dressing room and kissed his hands. Horowitz also played for such charities as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the American Red Cross, and Russian War Relief. He even went to naval and military bases and played for the troops – the A flat Polonaise, Träumerei, and other short pieces he thought appropriate.

In addition, he maintained a busy touring schedule and worked on a new knock-‘em-dead ending for a program. He unveiled it at his Carnegie Hall concert on March 28, 1945, when an astonished audience heard his transcription of Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever. In this piece, the greatest of all American marches (the greatest of all marches?), Horowitz closely followed the score. As he played it, one could hear fifes, trombones, horns. Horowitz made the piano sound like a brass band. It was by far the most popular transcription he ever made. At the premiere, Carnegie Hall all but collapsed from the enormous Horowitz sonorities and the resulting yells, cheers, and general hysteria. Horowitz later said that the Sousa arrangement was a precelebration for the oncoming end of the war. A little more than a month later he played it in Central Park for I Am an American Day.


12. In Horowitz’s Shoes – and Tails


A significant change in Horowitz’s life-style occurred in September 1945, when he bought a town house on East Ninety-fourth Street near Central Park in New York. To pay for the house, which cost about $35,000 (when he died in 1989 it would have been worth about $2.5 million), he sold his collection of Fabergé pieces and Russian painted lacquer boxes. Now, for the first time, the Horowitz family had a permanent residence.

But Sonia was not a regular member of the family. She spent most of her time away from home. First she attended a convent school, where she was allowed home only on weekends. Then she was sent to the George Junior Republic School, near Ithaca, where, Wanda said, there were many disturbed children, although she did not realize it at the time. Sonia would come home for vacations, a young rebel, smoking, using foul and abusive language. She was a most unhappy adolescent, and her parents looked at her with dismay. They did not know how to handle the problem, and the girl was permitted to go her own way. She played the piano a bit, painted a bit, wrote poetry. She had talent but never concentrated on anything. In desperation, Wanda sent Sonia to a psychologist, who was unable to do anything for her.

Wanda, at least, tried to do something about her daughter. Horowitz, not an understanding father, ran the other way, retreating into his music.

There was another thing on his mind that nagged him. The thin-skinned Horowitz was, for the first time, encountering a breed of music critics who despised the Horowitz approach to music.

During the 1940s there was a pronounced change in the nature of the New York music critics – and then of critics around the country, many of whom took their intellectual guidance from the New York critics. There also was an equally pronounced change in the way these new Fauves listened to music.

The older critics in the major cities started to fade away and then disappear after 1940. These were critics who had been born in the nineteenth century, were trained in that tradition, and were thus inherently sympathetic to the Romantic kind of music making that Horowitz represented.

The new school of critics that replaced them was trained differently. To them, Romanticism and virtuosity were dirty words. In the 1940s Mozart and the piano music of Schubert were starting to be rediscovered, atonalism and serialism began to be the new musical language, and new values began to shape musical and critical thinking. To this new age virtuosity was considered vulgar, and any kind of Romanticism was suspect. The musical text started to become more important than the musical meaning. Literalism swept the international musical community. It was the architecture of music that now mattered, not its emotional content.

When Virgil Thomson came to the Herald Tribune in 1940 a new critical age was inaugurated. Almost to a man the previous generation of important American music critics had been trained in Germany or were influenced by German Romantic thought. But Thomson’s milieu was the chic intellectual and artistic world of Paris in the 1920s. He had been trained not by Rheinberger or Reinecke but by Nadia Boulanger. His age was the age of Poulenc and Stravinsky, not Wagner and Strauss.

Formidably brilliant, he brought to criticism a trenchant, witty style and a large dose of healthy cynicism about what he called “the fifty pieces” – the standard repertoire pieces that were played over and over season after season – and “the business of music.” He had relatively little experience with concert life, he frequently reviewed music that he was hearing for the first time (Die Meistersinger, say, and a good deal of the standard repertoire), and thus he had no icons to worship. In a short time he shook up the American musical establishment, striking out at such sacred cows as Toscanini (an example of the “wow” technique), Sibelius (“vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description”), Heifetz (“silk-underwear music”) and, above all, Vladimir Horowitz.


The fact is that Horowitz represented everything Thomson did not like about Romantic performance practice. Obviously he considered the pianist an intellectual lightweight, and in review after review from 1942 onward he called Horowitz such things as “a master of distortion and exaggeration” interested only in “wowing” the public.

On April 9, 1946, Thomson wrote a critique taken as gospel by many of the new generation of music critics.

In this article Thomson conceded the pianist’s technical mastery and the real excitement that he provided. Despite all that, “Horowitz’s playing is monotonous and more often than not musically false. He never states a simple melody frankly. He teases it by accenting unimportant notes and diminishing his volume on all the climactic ones. The only contrast to brio that he knows is the affettuoso [affected] style.” In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Michael Steinberg cribbed Thomson in his Horowitz entry with the statement, “It is nearly impossible for him to play simply, and where simplicity is wanted, he is apt to offer a teasing, affettuoso manner or to steamroll the line into perfect flatness.” 

The New Grove was published in 1980, and Steinberg could have backed up his Thomson-based assessment with some of the Horowitz performances of the late 1970s. Horowitz was going through a bad period at that time. But it is difficult to find in Horowitz’s playing during the 1940s the kind of “distortion” that Thomson heard. There could be tension verging on neuroticism; there could be a few liberties; there could be fluctuations of tempo not specifically marked in the music. But the liberties and fluctuations were common nineteenth-century practice, and one can only conclude that Thomson did not know much about nineteenth-century Romantic style, and probably would not have responded to it if he did. Always a Francophile, he was oriented toward the clear, objective, lucid French style rather than the generous, colorful Slavic style. His ideal of a fine pianist was E. Robert Schmitz, a French musician completely forgotten today. Another Horowitz basher, B. H. Haggin, took a minor pianist named Webster Aitken as his ideal of music making.

Thus Horowitz started to get bad reviews. […] Some critics in Europe and the United States objected strenuously to Horowitz’s musical approach when he played the German classics (which were, in any case, only a fragment of his repertoire).

The irony is that the charges the critics brought against the Horowitz approach to Beethoven would have disqualified Beethoven himself as a pianist. Beethoven’s own way of playing was described by Anton Schindler and Carl Czerny, two of Beethoven’s associates who went into great detail about his style – about his metrical freedom, his constant fluctuation of tempo, his rubato, his extreme dynamics. Horowitz, incidentally, had read Schindler and Czerny. One wonders if Thomson had.

Then there was an element of cultural snobbism that swept the international musical life. One heard such comments about any musician as, “Oh, yes, it’s all very well that he plays Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Scriabin. But how can we tell how good a musician he is until we hear him play Mozart and Schubert?” Anyone who timidly suggested the reverse – “Oh, yes, he plays Mozart and Schubert very well, but how good a musician can we tell he is until we hear him play Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Scriabin?” – would have been branded a musical yahoo. Yet it takes just as much imagination, skill, and inner resource to play Liszt well as to play Mozart well. Perhaps more, considering how few great Liszt pianists we have today compared with the large number of Mozart pianists (though a strong case can be made that today’s celebrated Mozart specialists are stylistically wrong in their rigid, literal approach).


The concerto appearance [Tchaikovsky’s First with Szell in January 1953 – Ed.] was followed by a Carnegie Hall recital on February 25. The program contained two works Horowitz had never played in public – Schubert’s posthumous B flat Sonata and Scriabin’s Ninth. The Schubert and Scriabin pieces had been tried out in recitals around the country but were really programmed with New York in mind. The Schubert was a deliberate challenge. Horowitz was going to show the public that Serkin and the younger generation (who adored the last three Schubert sonatas) had no monopoly on the B flat Sonata.

The attempt misfired. The audience loved it, but the Schubert was not well received by critics and many of Horowitz’s colleagues. It ran counter to everything learned musicians understood as correct Schubert playing. It was full of nuances that were considered excessively Romantic, and Horowitz was in effect advised by his critics to stick to music he knew something about.

The reviews came as a shock to him. Horowitz had put a great deal of thought and work into this interpretation and believed he had something legitimate to say about the music – as indeed he did. Some years from now, when performance practice of the 1820s has been more thoroughly analyzed, the Horowitz recording of the posthumous Schubert B flat may well stand out as the poetic, imaginative performance it is.

Horowitz at that time was on one of his manic-depressive swings. Despite the animal excitement he could still bring to his music, he was tired, bored, and, as Pfeiffer noticed, nervous. He became prone to tantrums. He also thought he was starting to suffer from colitis, and that terrified him. An attack during a performance would have been too embarrassing for him to bear. He became moody and depressed. His repertoire shrunk. Horowitz-watchers noticed that the same pieces were turning up year after year with distressing regularity. One wondered how many times he could play the Chopin G minor Ballade or A flat Polonaise without going through them as a boring, mechanical exercise.

Horowitz took care of the problem his own way. Not very long after the Silver Jubilee [25 years from the US debut – Ed.] concerts he disappeared, not to be seen on the concert stage for another twelve years.

13. The Lazy Life

Twelve years: 1953 to 1965. For twelve years the most popular pianist since Paderewski hid, in effect, behind closed doors. The public knew he was alive because occasionally a new recording appeared, but after a while the name of Vladimir Horowitz began to mean less and less. The feeling in musical circles was that he would never play again. His friend Abram Chasins told all within hearing that Horowitz was finished, dead in the water. To everybody, it was a mystery. What tremendous force was it that could paralyze so great a pianist at the height of his career?

Eventually Horowitz gave reasons for his long retirement, but those were long after the fact and nowhere near the full story. During his years away from the public he lived quietly, seldom leaving his house, and not until he was ready to play again did he give the world an idea of what had gone through his mind.

The official Horowitz explanation was given in an interview twelve years later with Howard Klein of the New York Times, which appeared on May 9, 1965. “For thirty-three years,” Horowitz told Klein, “I traveled – thirty-three years of sitting on trains and going to some small towns. I can’t read on trains because the movement bothers my vision. I get there early for the concert and go to a movie. Believe me, I was tired of all this.” Many busy touring artists go through a similar experience. They begin to feel like trained monkeys on a treadmill, performing the same tricks over and over again, unable to relax or find pleasure in what they are doing. After a while they just go through the motions, to the detriment of their art.

Thus Horowitz was talking honestly to Klein, and his rationale was true enough as far as it went. In 1953 he was bored: bored with music, bored with the routine of travel-hotel-concert-travel-hotel-concert, bored with himself and with his audiences.

But more. The pattern of 1936–38 was repeating itself. Again there was a search for identity. Again there was self-loathing mixed with self-pity. The bad reviews he received for the Schubert B flat had shaken his self-confidence, with perhaps a childish automatic reaction: “They don’t like me? I’ll show them! They’ll be sorry when I’m dead.”

So again there was the chasm between what Horowitz was and what he secretly wanted to be. He was torn two ways, and the result was a severe emotional disturbance.   


What Horowitz wanted more than anything was to be accepted as a great musician rather than a flashy virtuoso. Yet, he found, he was not strong enough to keep away from the flashy kind of music his public demanded as the last piece in his recitals. So, as always, he gave the public what it wanted.

Horowitz blew his dilemma all out of proportion. Romantic pianists of his generation (and of today for that matter) nearly always ended a recital with a piece of pyrotechnical splendor. It was not a law writ on tablets, however, and Horowitz could have played whatever he pleased. But for some reason he refused to realize that his public would gladly take whatever he offered it, anything from Scarlatti to Rachmaninoff, anything, as proved when he dropped the virtuoso stunts from his repertoire.   

But instead of scrapping the kind of music that had become offensive to him, he simply quit altogether.

There was one other deep-seated reason for the retirement that he did not publicly discuss. In the early 1950s he began having intestinal spasms, which were diagnosed as colitis. That would be enough to scare any public figure. Horowitz’s problem was known to his friends, and some shrugged it off as psychosomatic. But Jack Pfeiffer sometimes saw Horowitz doubled up in pain. “It was real. There was no nonsense about it,” said Pfeiffer. “He was sick and he was afraid he was going to get sicker.” Giving concerts with that ailment was an impossibility for Horowitz. Suppose he had an attack on stage? Even worse, suppose he cramped up while he was playing a concerto?


For the first six months or so he sat at home, sulking and brooding, not even touching the piano. Wanda did her best to give him the peace of mind he so obviously needed. Then friends started to visit. Among them was the ever-faithful Milstein, who would drop in and try to cheer Horowitz up whenever he was in New York.

“People say I was Horowitz’s closest friend,” said Milstein. “This is not exactly true. Horowitz was like a brother to me, and that is a different thing. Friends give and take from each other. Volodya took but did not give. That was the way he was made, and I accepted it, the way a man accepts the faults of a brother he loves.”

It was an observation that others in the Horowitz circle would endorse. You had to accept Horowitz for what he was. He was entirely self-centered, in love only with himself and the piano. Pfeiffer, always in constant attendance to Horowitz, said, “I don’t think he had feeling for anyone.” Much the same could be said about Wanda’s relations with people.


The lazy life of the first year of the Horowitz retirement could not last forever. Canasta was fun, and so was watching television and fooling around at the piano. But eventually Horowitz got bored with doing nothing, and he began to work himself into the mood for serious playing and teaching.


14. Uncashed Checks

I can play you a beautiful tone with my knuckle. No, really. A beautiful tone! What does it mean? Nothing. Meaning comes from the way one, two, three, four, five tones are connected with one another. And this is the melodic line, what the pianist must achieve on a percussive instrument. Not easy!
– Vladimir Horowitz to Tom Frost, his record producer, and to all of his pupils


During the early years of Horowitz’s retirement, Jack Pfeiffer became Horowitz’s confidant, and they would generally have dinner once a week. After a while Horowitz began to talk with Pfeiffer about making records, but only if the recording technicians would come to him. There was precedent for this kind of action. As early as 1905, in the Paleolithic age of recording, the HMV engineers packed up their equipment and brought it from London to Adelina Patti’s castle in Wales, where the great soprano made her records. But an artist needs extraordinary clout for this kind of high-handedness. Patti had that clout. So did Vladimir Horowitz. To RCA he still was (at that time, anyway), in the jargon of the trade, a valuable property.

Thus started the series of Horowitz recordings at home.

Horowitz had been looking around for interesting things to play. In a 1965 interview with Abram Chasins, Horowitz said that in a way the period of his long retirement was like going back to childhood. Now he had the time to take a fresh look at literature he had played when young, including much of the Classic repertoire that he had neglected.

And then, through Wanda, he rediscovered Clementi. She had found a volume of Clementi sonatas while on a trip to Italy and brought it home.

Horowitz was not unfamiliar with Clementi’s music, but he had never made a serious study of the composer. This time it was a revelation. He had his European contacts get in touch with music dealers everywhere, and before long he had a complete set of all the Clementi sonatas, many in first editions. “He would sit there evening after evening and go through all the Clementi sonatas,” said Pfeiffer, who was his page turner. Pfeiffer found this most unusual. Many supervirtuosos had probably never even looked at the music of Clementi, unless they had been assigned the Gradus ad Parnassum exercises when they were children.

Muzio Clementi (1752–1832) was an Italian-born pianist, composer and teacher – and piano manufacturer, too – who lived in England most of his life. He was one of the first of the tribe of international piano virtuosos, and he astounded audiences with his dexterity, his double notes, and his singing style. In 1781 he and Mozart met face to face in a “duel” in the court of Joseph II in Vienna. Mozart won the competition; at least the emperor thought so. Perhaps Mozart himself was not so sure. He wrote a violent letter back to Salzburg, condemning Clementi’s playing, calling him a charlatan. Usually Mozart loftily dismissed other pianists. This time he was disturbed.

In a way, Clementi was the Vladimir Horowitz of his day. And to Horowitz’s delight there was a taxonomical connection between him and Clementi. One of Clementi’s most famous pupils was John Field, the Irish pianist who settled in St. Petersburg. There he taught a pianist named Alexander Villoing. Villoing taught Anton Rubinstein, who in turn taught Horowitz’s teacher, Felix Blumenfeld. So there was a Clementi connection with Horowitz and he boasted about it. Horowitz would cite Beethoven’s interest in Clementi, and would play sections from the sonatas that anticipated not only Beethoven but also Mendelssohn, Chopin, and other Romantics. He became fixed on Clementi and made up his mind to record a group of the sonatas.

When the news of the projected Clementi record came out, Howard Taubman, then the music editor of the Times, sent a staff critic to interview Horowitz about it. It was felt by the Times that the championship of a virtually forgotten composer by the world’s greatest virtuoso was a legitimate news story. It was also the first interview since Horowitz’s retirement. The recording was issued in 1955. It was not a best-seller, but nobody had expected it to be.


The longer Horowitz remained in retirement, the more determined he seemed to be to show the world that he could still play. And, starting with the Clementi disc, he began to record material he had never before played in America. In 1956 he came forth with a Scriabin disc that contained the Sonata No. 3 and sixteen preludes, all new to his repertoire. With this disc, he leaped into the top echelon of Scriabin performers.


Then, shortly after Toscanini’s death [on January 16, 1957 – Ed.], the Horowitz family was hit by another blow. Sonia had been critically injured in a motorbike accident near San Remo on the Riviera.

Sonia, at that time a young woman of twenty-three, had been living in Italy, spending much time with her aunt Wally, who recently had been divorced from Count Castelbarco. Sonia was much closer to Wally than to her own mother, and it was Wally who probably saved her life. They were vacationing in the Riviera. Wally and she decided to go to a restaurant for lunch. Sonia preceded her on her motorbike while Wally went in her own car. On returning, with Wally in her automobile directly behind her, Sonia tried to pass a bus on a curve. She went out of control and into a lamppost, was thrown and suffered a fractured skull. Wally phoned for help, and Sonia was taken to a hospital. A specialist was called in, and he said that Sonia had to be transferred to specialists in a hospital in Milan. Wally, exerting here considerable influence, arranged to get Sonia to Milan on a U.S. Army helicopter on the grounds that an American citizen had been injured.

In Milan, the specialists found brain damage. Sonia underwent surgery and pulled through. Wanda, as soon as Wally notified her of the accident, took the next plane to Milan. Horowitz stayed home. He may have rationalized that there was nothing he could do, and that he even would be in the way. But his behavior during such a family crisis caused friends to wonder just what kind of man he was. Wanda stoutly defended him, pointing out that at the time he was very sick. Sonia recovered, but Horowitz thought that she was never the same again. The accident, he firmly believed, had impaired her mental capacities.


When Horowitz felt ready to record again, he went to Hunter College and Carnegie Hall instead of using his home as a studio. But his relations with RCA were not to last much longer.

Horowitz had been friendly with George Marek, the vice president and general manager of the RCA Record Division. Their friendship cooled in 1955, shortly after the Clementi record. Horowitz had put a great deal of time and effort into it. It had been a labor of love, and he proudly played the disc for Marek. Marek said, “Oh, yes. Wonderful, wonderful. But commercially it doesn’t mean anything.” Horowitz found this remark condescending and insulting. Pfeiffer, who was there, said that “it was like a pail of cold water in Horowitz’s face.” Marek may not have been tactful, but he was correct about the merchandising aspects of the discs Horowitz was making. Neither the Clementi nor the Scriabin records sold very well – certainly not enough to take care of Horowitz’s $40,000 annual guarantee. And by the early 1960s, Horowitz had not played in public for about ten years and his very name was being forgotten. Sales of all of his records had severely fallen off. The bottom-line men at RCA were not happy.

Then RCA did something very stupid. The company told Horowitz that he should make some records that had “popular appeal.” Horowitz asked RCA to suggest repertoire ideas. RCA came up with some remarkable recommendations: the William Tell Overture, the 1812 Overture, waltzes. Cocktail pianists could have played this pop stuff just as well as Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz said, “Is that all they think of me?” Wanda was livid.

Horowitz made up his mind to leave RCA. But before that happened, he was fired. RCA dropped him around 1960, along with a group of musicians that included Gary Graffman. The Horowitz records simply were not selling. Graffman did not get the news about Horowitz until he called him to discuss his own predicament. When Horowitz said that he too had been dropped, Graffman was stunned. Horowitz suggested that the two of them open a whorehouse.

Soon after that, Graffman signed with Columbia and suggested to Horowitz that he get in touch with record executives there. “Do you really think they would be interested in me?” asked Horowitz, playing the innocent. Graffman laughed. He called Schuyler Chapin, the head of CBS Masterworks. “Would you like to have Vladimir Horowitz on your list?” Chapin instantly got in touch with Horowitz.

Pfeiffer was in Florida on sabbatical at the time and did not know what was going on. He might have been able to smooth things over between Horowitz and RCA. But by the time he returned it was too late. Horowitz had become friendly with Goddard Lieberson, the suave, imaginative head of Columbia Records, and Lieberson offered him every kind of inducement to sign with Columbia, which he finally did.

Chapin negotiated a contract with Horowitz in 1961. Horowitz asked for surprisingly little in the way of an advance or an annual guarantee. He was content to work largely on royalties from the sale of individual records. Wanda was in on all the discussions, and Chapin, as he later said, “rapidly learned that if she had chosen to do so she could have outmerchandised R. H. Macy himself.” Throughout the negotiations Chapin had the feeling that Horowitz was “a very shy man, someone who wanted to know that he was going to be loved, admired, and cared for.” When the contract was signed, Horowitz turned to Chapin and asked, “Will you take care of me?” Chapin assured Horowitz that he would.

Thomas Frost was appointed by Chapin to be Horowitz’s producer. Frost was born in Vienna and came with his family to the United States at the time of the Anschluss in 1938. He had studied the violin as a child. In America he studied theory with Paul Hindemith at Yale. Frost was a thoroughly trained musician, and he and Horowitz became close friends.

Frost worked on Horowitz’s first Columbia record, Columbia Records Presents Vladimir Horowitz, and was the producer for almost all of his subsequent Columbia recordings. The first record, released on September 24, 1962, contained the Chopin B flat minor Sonata, two of Rachmaninoff’s Etude-tableaux, the Schumann Arabesque, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 19 (arranged by Horowitz). It was a typical Horowitz program. He had previously recorded the Chopin and Schumann for Victor. Now, with a new company, he could start rerecording some of the major items in his repertoire. The other pieces on the disc were first Horowitz recordings. Columbia advertised it heavily, and the record became a best-seller.


Jack Pfeiffer of RCA thought that under the circumstances the move to Columbia was the right thing for Horowitz. It brought some excitement into his life, a sense of purpose, the desire to work again. Horowitz and Pfeiffer remained the best of friends, and the two of them would listen to the Columbia records as they came out. Pfeiffer thought that Columbia was doing a very good job for him, and it was true. On the Columbia discs the Horowitz sound was less clangorous than the close-up sound Victor had only too often provided. When they listened to the Horowitz performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Pfeiffer remembered that his reaction was one of acute jealousy. “Why couldn’t he have done that for us?”

Chapin was dying to record Horowitz in the Rachmaninoff D minor Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but Horowitz would have none of that; he felt he was not ready. His second disc featured Schumann’s Kinderscenen, along with pieces by Scarlatti, Scriabin and Schubert. It was released on April 15, 1963. Then came a record with the Beethoven Pathétique, the Chopin B minor Scherzo, and short pieces by Chopin and Debussy. After that came a disc devoted solely to Scarlatti sonatas. All of the records were best-sellers. Columbia and Horowitz were very happy.

But still there was no indication that Horowitz was ready to give concerts.

15. Media Blitz

It was not until 1962 that Horowitz began indicating that maybe, maybe, he would resume his career. When Wanda was asked what she thought, she would shrug her shoulders and look despairingly at Volodya, who was doing what he seemed to do best – lying comfortably on his divan.

It was a long hibernation, and Horowitz could not be pushed. Pushing made him stubbornly react in the opposite direction. What finally set him moving again was a combination of factors: his improved physical and mental health, the knowledge that his pianistic skills had not deserted him, and the appearance of such new Russian heroes as Richter, Gilels, and Ashkenazy. Pride was involved. Who were these upstarts to challenge the only one?

And there was a financial reason for Horowitz to return to work. After twelve years a good part of his savings had evaporated. He lived as he always had lived – expensively and even lavishly, with all of his needs taken care of. Toward the end of his retirement some financial pressure began to be felt, and one year he actually found himself in debt. So he quietly started selling off his art collection. The Modigliani, Matisse, and Picasso disappeared from his walls, as did the Degas, Renoir, and all of the others.


Horowitz had the itch. But he was still torn two ways. On the one hand he was not too anxious to return to the rigors of concert life – the traveling, the discomfort, the fear of memory lapses, the critics, and all the other pressures. There was also his colitis, seemingly cured, but could he be sure? On the other hand he missed his public. He knew he could play as well as ever, and could give the new heroes something to think about.

Julius Bloom, the executive director of Carnegie Hall, helped him come to a decision.

At Wanda’s suggestion, Horowitz approached Bloom toward the end of 1964. He wanted to play on the stage of Carnegie Hall to see if he felt comfortable enough for a return to concert life, and he asked if such a thing would be possible. Bloom immediately made all the arrangements.

Horowitz and Bloom soon became friends. Bloom was a thoughtful man, trained in sociology and philosophy, a visionary, knowledgeable about music, experienced in all of the ins and outs of the music business. Bloom felt – or, as he later said to a journalist, he knew – that Horowitz wanted to return. The more Horowitz insisted that he did not want to return, the more Bloom knew that he did. But never once did he try to push Horowitz into playing. “That would have stopped everything then and there. He needed to be persuaded, to be oozed in.”


The “oozing” process took place on selected afternoons on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Starting on January 7, 1965, Horowitz played a number of secret rehearsals until April for a tiny, handpicked audience. Meanwhile Bloom reserved Carnegie Hall for a May 9 concert.

All of this was a well-kept secret. “I knew that the last thing Horowitz wanted was publicity,” said Bloom. At the first Carnegie Hall tryout Bloom was of course present. “We all sat there stunned while he played. It was absolutely fantastic.” The most thrilled person in the tiny audiences was Wanda. She, like Bloom, knew better than to try to nail Horowitz to a definite return. All she did was encourage him and tell him how well he was playing.


There was hysteria on the announcement in the Times of the Horowitz return. It was the start of a media blitz that astonished even veterans who thought they had experienced everything. Papers from all over the world picked up the Times story. Impresarios from Europe and Japan immediately requested Horowitz’s services. There was even an official request from Moscow. Horowitz gave a press interview on March 19 in Carnegie Hall. This too received international coverage. Horowitz said in effect that he was a new man. He said he would no longer play flashy transcriptions (though in 1967 he did revive the Carmen Variations). His programs, he said, would concentrate more on important pieces and he would program music that had not previously been in his repertoire.


When it was announced that tickets for the May 9 concert would go on sale at the Carnegie Hall box office on April 26, more than 1,500 Horowitzphiles were standing three or four abreast in a line that extended east from Carnegie Hall down to the Avenue of the Americas on that day. Some had arrived two days early. Most had camped out overnight. The first in line got his fifteen minutes of fame; he was Michael Lintzman, a music teacher from Brooklyn, and he was in all the papers. The weather was terrible – rainy and cold. Wanda came down the evening before the box-office opening and looked at the sodden group of Horowitz fans. She immediately went into the Nedick’s coffee shop on the corner and ordered coffee for all. The lineup outside Carnegie Hall would be a permanent feature of nearly all future Horowitz concerts. People would start lining up two days before, and they would expect to be given coffee by Wanda Horowitz some time during their camping-out period. Wanda never failed them. And the press never failed her.

Ticket sales were limited to four per person. Top price was $12.50 (“one of the highest in the history of the 2,760-seat house,” said the Times), scaled down to balcony seats for $4 and $3. When the box office closed, only some 300 purchasers had been taken care of. Assuming that each of the 300 had purchased four tickets, that still left about 1,500 seats unaccounted for. There was a public outcry and the newspapers started asking questions. Wanda indignantly said that she had purchased a block of 296 seats, all but eight of which she had paid for. The Steinway people said they had purchased only 20. What had happened to more than 1,000 seats? The New York State Attorney General’s office said there would be an investigation.

In any case, no ticket went to waste. The hall was sold out, and scalpers were charging outrageous prices for the few tickets they had managed to locate.


Now all that remained was for Horowitz actually to give his concert. The progress of an artist from stage door to the center of the stage has been described as the longest, loneliest walk in the world. This entrance would be by far the longest, loneliest walk that Vladimir Horowitz had ever taken.

16. Still the Master

May 9, 1965, was a sunny, humid day in New York. Horowitz went through his usual preconcert routine as though this was just another performance. But of course it wasn’t. What was going through his mind? He never said. And nobody asked him. On the day he gave a concert Horowitz was not to be approached by anybody during his preparations.

For Horowitz, getting ready for a concert was always more than a normal toilette. I was a ceremony, a purification rite, even a sort of baptism. On this Sunday, Horowitz got up around noon, as usual, and had breakfast. Nobody was permitted to speak to him. After breakfast he washed, shaved and dressed. For his afternoon concerts – this one was scheduled for 3:30 – he always wore the once-traditional gray trousers and a swallowtail coat. He was the last pianist alive to do so.


Shortly before 3 P.M. Horowitz, Wanda, and Jack Pfeiffer got into a limousine and headed for Carnegie Hall.

Schuyler Chapin and Carnegie Hall officials were at the stage entrance on West Fifty-sixth Street waiting for Horowitz to appear. Chapin was fulfilling his promise to take care of Horowitz during their association. Today he would act as his valet. Also waiting was a gaggle of reporters, photographers, and television crews. After a while everybody had palpitations. The hall was full – it had been since 3 P.M. – and everybody was there except the pianist. Chapin started thinking of what he would say to the audience if Horowitz had panicked and decided not to show up. He looked desperately at Goddard Lieberson. Lieberson looked desperately at Chapin. They stood and waited. There was nothing else they could do.

Horowitz arrived at the Carnegie Hall stage entrance at 3:25 P.M. for his 3:30 concert. His limousine, he explained getting out of the car, had got caught in traffic. (Pfeiffer later said this was true. The area around Central Park, two blocks north of Carnegie Hall, is always crowded on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.)

Horowitz was immediately surrounded by media people. He did not seem to be disturbed. Everybody else was still shaking. Chapin rushed Horowitz to the dressing room, let him warm up for five minutes on the practice piano there, and escorted him to the wings. Horowitz stood there, looking bemused. Chapin put his hand on Horowitz’s back and gently pushed him on to the stage.

The audience stood and roared as the pianist appeared. Horowitz bowed to the balcony, the boxes, the parquet. Everybody in the audience was rooting for him and waves of love were radiating through the hall, as well as waves of anxiety and fear. “I was more nervous,” said Gary Graffman, “than at any concert I ever gave. Would he come out, look at the audience, scream and run off?”

Horowitz launched into the Toccata. With so many professionals in the audience, it was possible to look in any direction and see moving fingers, pianists playing along with the soloist. Horowitz hit a particularly exposed wrong note shortly after the opening, and there was an audible gasp. Later on there were also a few wrong notes. But Horowitz did not seem bothered, and he calmly went along, singing out the Adagio and clarifying the part writing of the Fugue as only he could. There was a shout of approval at the end.

Then came the Schumann C major Fantasy. Horowitz played the first movement in a rather reflective, introspective manner. In the second movement he articulated the bold chords with his old authority. But during the coda there was a moment where he teetered on the edge of disaster. Schumann was cruel here; the writing calls for wide, fast jumps in both hands, and few pianists get through it unscathed. Suddenly Horowitz lost control. It was only for a fraction of a second, but everybody who knew the piece knew that Horowitz was going to break down. He didn’t. He recovered, finished the coda, kept his foot on the pedal, reached for a handkerchief and mopped his face. Then he started the slow, lovely last movement and played it simply and beautifully.

The Scriabin Ninth Sonata, spooky and complicated, was Horowitz at his best. No living pianist could have matched the color he brought to it, the clarity of the voicings, the identification with the composer’s diabolical mysticism. It is not for nothing that it is called the Black Mass Sonata. The shorter piano pieces also went beautifully. In Chopin’s F major Etude he ended up with a diminuendo on the four last chords where Chopin’s marking is forte. That drives purists and many critics crazy. (As a matter of fact, it was common practice with pianists of the preceding century. Rosina Lhevinne, the widow of the great pianist Josef and one of America’s best piano teachers, used to refer to that practice as a “reverse accent”.) The concert ended with Chopin’s G minor Ballade. This time Horowitz had new ideas about it. But he always had new ideas whenever he played the piece. He never did figure out exactly how he wanted it to go, but he chased after it as relentlessly as Lancelot ever sought the Grail.

Then came the encores, mostly quiet pieces. The only technical excitement was provided by the Moszkowski A flat Etude. Horowitz played the scale passages prestissimo, every note clear, relishing the effect he was making, and at the end there were yips of approval. This was the old Horowitz. He sang his way through the Debussy Serenade to the Doll and Scriabin C sharp minor Etude, and at the end there was Schumann’s Träumerei. The audience gave Horowitz a standing ovation. He was recalled again and again. Finally the house lights were turned on and a stagehand came out and lowered the keyboard lid.


Columbia rushed to get out the recording of the concert. Horowitz kept insisting that this concert was a historic document, and that he wouldn’t change a note. But he did. Some of the slips in the Bach-Busoni are on the record, but not the terrifying moment in the Schumann Fantasy.

Columbia sent a test pressing to the senior music critic of the Times, who noticed that the Schumann had been cleaned up. He called Columbia and asked what had happened. An hour later his phone rang:
“Mr. Schonberg?”
“This is Vladimir Horowitz. I understand you have question about my record?”
“The coda of the Schumann…?”
“Yes. Let me explain.”
“Of course.”
“You remember how hot it was in the hall? And you know how nervous pianists get when they come to the coda? So while I was playing it, even before I got to the coda, the perspiration run into my eyes and I could not see the keyboard. So I played blind. So you know how important records are for posterity. I did not want to be represented by something that was not my fault. It was an act of God, the heat and the perspiration. So I corrected the passage after the concert.”
“All very well, Mr. Horowitz. But Columbia is advertising it as the return of Vladimir Horowitz to Carnegie Hall, and it isn’t.”
“But it was an act of God!”
“What about truth in advertising?”
Horowitz kept repeating “act of God.” His respondent kept repeating “truth in advertising.” They got nowhere.

Howard Klein, who had been at the concert, reviewed the record for the Times. He noticed that the Schumann performance on the disc was cleaner than he had remembered. He phoned Horowitz, who said, “Well, they tell me that that’s the way it was.” Then Klein called the Columbia recording people and asked, “Is this in fact what happened?” They told him yes, that the disc indeed was the actual concert. Klein rushed a review into print. Not long after, Klein discovered that he had been had.

Two years later, when Klein had another Horowitz disc to review, he brought up the issue of splicing together a finished product from various tapes and then advertising the result as a live concert.

The honesty of records had been an ethical issue ever since magnetic tape recording started to be used after 1948, the year the LP disc was introduced. Experienced listeners soon learned never to trust any LP record. The old 78-rpm discs were entirely honest; if an artist did not like what came out in the playback, there was nothing that could be done about it. He or she had to record the entire thing over again. Now, with magnetic tape, a measure or even a single note could be corrected.

In studio recordings, it was expected that the artist would correct inexact passages. But many innocents continued to believe that a recording advertised as an actual performance really was recorded “live” and sold in an unaltered state. Klein mentioned that after his review of the Horowitz comeback he had learned that the ending of the second movement of the Schumann Fantasy was not the actual concert performance. “The question here is one of ethics.” In the case of the comeback disc, why not be honest and tell what was actually done? For in pretending to be the recording of a live concert, the disc offered most but not all of the truth.


17. The New Horowitz?

Almost four thousand seats! The house will be only half full! It will be a fiasco! A disaster! A disgrace!
– Vladimir Horowitz to a journalist about his forthcoming Metropolitan Opera recital

It was a happy and relaxed Horowitz who faced the world after his 1965 return. He told the press that his long sabbatical had solved his problems: “Before, I was always aware there was a public in the hall, and I played to please the public. Times are different now. Today I play the music I want and I just try to do my best.” He said that now he was at a point where he had become a free agent. He had no managers. Julius Bloom took care of his business affairs, and he did exactly what Horowitz told him to do. “If I want to play in New York, I play in New York. If I want to play five times, I play five times. I make the decisions.”

He said that he had also simplified business arrangements by making all the concerts he played single admission. “They are not part of a series. I also continue to insist on afternoon concerts because that’s when I’m freshest and I believe it is also the best time for the audience.” Here Horowitz was working along the lines of the Charlie Wilson theory. “Engine Charlie” of General Motors had, many years previously, achieved a kind of immortality with his statement: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

The first New York concerts after Horowitz’s 1965 return were held in Carnegie Hall on April 17 and November 27, 1966. On the programs were pieces either new to his repertoire or that he had not played for years. The Scriabin Tenth Sonata, Mozart’s Sonata in A (the one with the “Turkish March”), Beethoven’s C minor Variations (which he had not played since the early 1950s), and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie, which he had not played in concert since 1951, were on the April 17 program. On November 27 there were Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann, Haydn’s F major Sonata (No. 23), Debussy L’isle joyeuse and three preludes (Bruyères, Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses, and La terrasse des audiences au clair de lune), and Schumann’s Blumenstück.

Horowitz was taking seriously his promise to expand his repertoire. From 1965 to his death audiences could count on something new at almost every concert. In the next two decades he programmed for the first time in the United States Scriabin’s Fifth and Tenth sonatas, several Mozart and Haydn sonatas, Liszt’s B minor Ballade, Schumann’s Kreisleriana and F minor Sonata, several Clementi sonatas, Liszt’s Scherzo and March, the Mendelssohn Scherzo a Capriccio, and Schubert’s B flat Impromptu. He also revived Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata, which he had not played since 1948.

Then in 1968 television entered his life. Horowitz and Luciano Pavarotti were the two most popular, highly paid classical musicians of their time, and it was inevitable that Horowitz, like the great Italian tenor, would turn to television.        


At CBS the projected show was called Project X and had a top-secret tag attached to it because Horowitz would have been furious had there been a publicity leak. Rehearsals were held in Carnegie Hall. Special pains were taken to ensure that the highest technical standards obtained. The floor of the stage was sprinkled with talcum powder to avoid squeaking. The television crew wore velvet slippers. Programs were printed on silk so that there would be no rustling. In all, the project cost CBS about $275,000.

Horowitz watched some of the playbacks. He was somewhat startled at what he saw. In his interview with Time he said that he had never before seen a close-up of his hands on the keyboard. “It’s fantastic, but sometimes the technique is awful. Things I tell my students not to do, I’m doing.” And of the close-ups of his face: “To me it’s almost an invasion of my privacy.”

The videotape was made by CBS at Carnegie Hall on January 2 and February 1, 1968. For both tapings the hall was full, and reviewers were present. The program contained two Scarlatti sonatas; Chopin’s G minor Ballade (Horowitz’s old friend and adversary), F sharp minor Polonaise, and F minor Nocturne; the Schumann Arabesque; Scriabin’s Etude in D sharp minor; and, as always, Schumann’s Träumerei as an encore, followed by the Carmen Variations. The TV special was sponsored by General Telephone and Electronics. Called Vladimir Horowitz: A Television Concert at Carnegie Hall, it went out over the CBS network on September 22, 1968, and later in the year on Christmas Day.

On this show many music lovers and piano students were seeing and hearing Horowitz for the first time; and even those who had watched his playing through the years could see things not visible in the concert hall – the close-ups of the Horowitz hands, for instance. There must have been reverberations between teachers and students all over the country as they watched the fabulous Horowitz doing all the “wrong” things. In his review, Robert Finn of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was amused at this aspect of the film. “I think,” he wrote the following day, “this concert should have borne ‘adult only’ label, for if many piano-looking youngsters get the idea that they should hold their hands like Horowitz, American piano playing will be set back 50 years.”


Then, suddenly, only four years after proudly proclaiming himself a new Horowitz, he disappeared from the stage. This time nobody seemed to be prepared for it. Could it have been an adolescent Horowitz response to a bad criticism? Some thought so.

In 1969 Horowitz gave a recital in Boston and was mauled by the Boston Globe critic. Michael Steinberg, never hospitable to Horowitz, praised his technique. But his music making? Steinberg repeated what Virgil Thomson said in the 1940s, citing what he considered the broken lines, the fussy approach, the “incoherencies.” Steinberg was a literalist very much of the new school, and his ideal of piano playing centered on such sober, architecture-minded artists as Alfred Brendel.

Was it cause and effect? Wanda said no. She said that in Boston he had “an overdose of sunshine” and became very ill. But that does not sound like a convincing excuse for a long absence. And, as was quickly pointed out, it was after the bad reviews of his Schubert B flat Sonata in 1953 that Horowitz disappeared for twelve years.

This time it was not for twelve years. But Horowitz did not play another concert for almost five years. When he stopped in 1969 after the Steinberg review he was, all agreed, “a bundle of nerves,” as Jack Pfeiffer described it. Horowitz made it clear that he was not going to play in public for the time being. The only thing he seemed to relish were his Social Security checks (he had turned sixty-five on October 1, 1968). When they came on the first of the month he cashed them with great satisfaction.

During his absence from the concert life, however, he made records for Columbia – five discs over the next four years. He recorded old repertoire, such as the Beethoven Moonlight and Appassionata, and standard Chopin works. He learned four Schubert impromptus. He recorded Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and Schumann’s Kreisleriana. He became interested in a relatively obscure Chopin work, the Introduction and Rondo (Op. 16). He restudied a few Scriabin pieces.

He also watched the sales of his records go down. So did the Columbia bottom-line men. With Horowitz no longer before the public, the public began to forget him. Horowitz’s association with CBS Masterworks was coming to an end. It was the same pattern that had occurred at RCA more than a decade earlier.

In 1969 and 1970 he had psychiatric help and shock therapy, and by 1971 he was nearly back to normal. He even started an association with Harold Shaw, an experienced New York concert manager, which meant that although he was not yet ready to resume his career, he was at least thinking about it.


When Harold Shaw started managing the Horowitz concerts in 1974, the pianist’s fee was $11,000. Shaw soon boosted that to 80 percent of the gross receipts. All of a sudden Horowitz was making $50,000 and up per concert. It was no great secret, even outside business. It was also no secret that whoever presented him would almost always be making money. Pavarotti bragged that nobody ever lost money at one of his concerts despite his outlandish fee. The same could be said of Horowitz. These Horowitz concerts were generally billed as special events, with ticket prices hiked accordingly. The 20 percent that came to the presenter easily covered all expenses, with a good sum left over. And the Horowitz price went ever upwards. Toward the end of Horowitz’s career, reports from Europe indicated that he was clearing as much as $300,000 a concert; and he peaked with his first appearances in Tokyo, where he got $1 million for his two concerts and the television rights. When the Japanese public learned about that, they were enraged: not so much because of the enormous fee but because Horowitz was off form in 1983 and the Japanese felt that they had been cheated.

Horowitz was once asked where all the money he made went to. “To Internal Revenue,” he immediately answered. Horowitz had the reputation of being money-mad. As a matter of fact he turned down many lucrative offers, refusing for years to play on the radio, to make sound tracks for films, to appear on television (eventually he did turn to television, but on his own terms).

As one of his managers insisted, “It is important to realize that for Horowitz a concert had to be the right combination of what was interesting artistically to him as well as rewarding financially. When the balance was right he would do it. He would never do anything for money alone.”

Or, as Horowitz once said, “I want to be paid, but I will not be bought.”

The biggest moment in the year of the Horowitz return came on November 17, 1974, when he gave a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was the first concert ever given in the eight-year-old, 3,900-seat auditorium, and also the first New York appearance by Horowitz in six years. The concert was a benefit for the Met, now being run by Horowitz’s old friend Schuyler Chapin.

The event also coincided with the entrance of Peter Gelb into Horowitz’s life. Gelb was with the New York public relations firm of Gurtman and Murtha. He was a bright, energetic young man, full of ideas. In 1974 he read about Horowitz making a return in Cleveland after a five-year absence from the concert stage. Gelb knew Harold Shaw, and approached him as a representative of Gurtman and Murtha, offering to get publicity for Horowitz. Shaw was intrigued by the young man’s imaginative ideas and said that he would engage him through Gurtman and Murtha – if Horowitz liked him. Horowitz had never had a press agent before and certainly would not pay for one. Why should he? Everything he did was news. But he was getting older and, Shaw thought, perhaps would welcome the help of a smart public relations man who was tactful enough not to get in his way. Certainly Horowitz had nothing to lose, and if things did not work out Gelb could be dismissed.


Peter Gelb and Horowitz got along famously. The first thing Gelb did was organize a press conference in Horowitz’s living room after his return from Cleveland. The subject was Horowitz’s projected concert on November 17 at the Metropolitan Opera, and Gelb whipped up a great deal of press interest in the event. Journalists were invited by Gelb to the second rehearsal at the Met, and one result was a front-page story in the Times. Horowitz was delighted with the publicity, and Gelb officially became his personal representative at Gurtman and Murtha. That continued for four years. In 1978 Gelb left New York to work for the Boston Symphony as publicity director and eventually an assistant manager of the orchestra. Later he would return to New York and form an even closer association with Horowitz.

The rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera were necessary because Horowitz had to make sure that the acoustics satisfied him. Chapin, after discussions with Cyril Harris (the hall’s acoustician), provided a screen at the rear of the stage to throw the piano’s sound into the auditorium. Horowitz was given two rehearsals.

At the first, Horowitz tried out many locations, conferring with Wanda from the stage. She and a few of the invited guests prowled the parquet while Horowitz was playing, and they contributed their acoustic assessments. Horowitz was happy with the sound from a particular location, and the spot was duly marked on the stage floor. He was worried – or pretended to be – about the size of the big house and said to a critic[12] at the second rehearsal that he would never be able to fill it. The critic told Horowitz that he was being childish, and that he was willing to bet every seat would be taken.

“Bet?” asked Horowitz. “How much?”
“Fifty dollars?”
They shook hands on the bet. Of course the hall was filled, and of course Horowitz paid his debt in due time, and of course the critic never cashed the check, keeping it as a souvenir.

The program consisted of the Clementi Sonata in F sharp minor; Schumann’s Kinderscenen; the Scriabin Sonata No. 5 (new to his repertoire); Chopin’s Introduction and Rondo in E flat, two mazurkas, and (still once again the challenge) the Ballade in G minor. For encores, Horowitz played Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Scriabin. The Metropolitan Opera cleared over $100,000 from the recital, of which Horowitz got half.


Horowitz seemed happy and pleased with himself. But those happy days were shattered by the news he and Wanda received on January 10, 1975. Their daughter, Sonia, was found dead in her Geneva apartment.

18. Sonia

She was a strange child and I did not understand her. Perhaps I was not so good a father.
– Vladimir Horowitz to Harold C. Schonberg about Sonia

Sonia’s life had not been happy; and Wanda, who had a terrible attack of guilt feelings, brooded about her daughter’s death for a long time. Horowitz too went through a bad period, though many did not realize this because he never talked about it. In any case, his mind-set was such that his own routine had to take precedence over everything else, even the death of his daughter.

Still, it nevertheless was a searing experience. Twelve years after Sonia’s death, Horowitz and Wanda still found it painful to talk about it.


By all accounts, Sonia was a precocious child, the most intelligent of all the Toscanini grandchildren. Wanda had a letter from Maestro in which he said he never had a special liking for any of his children, but among the three grandchildren, he said, “Sonia is my favorite.”

She might have developed into a good pianist had she put her mind to it. Rachmaninoff said that Sonia had hands like Anton Rubinstein’s – a thick palm, spatulate fingers, a wide stretch. In short, an ideal piano hand. She had a fine musical memory and a superior ear, with a Toscanini-like ability to hear a single wrong note among a welter of violins. Horowitz’s cousin, Natasha Saitzoff, staying with the family in Switzerland before the move to America, came down one morning to hear the four-year-old Sonia singing themes from the Brahms B flat Concerto. She had been listening to her father practice it the day before.


What Sonia did not have, with all of her obvious intelligence, was application. She never pursued anything all the way through. She gave up her piano studies as a young teenager. She dabbled in painting and tried to write poetry, but became bored and dropped those pursuits. In school she never was a good student. As she grew up the subject that interested her most was religion, especially comparative religions, about which she read a great deal.

In her early teens she started to act up, defiantly smoking, constantly arguing with her parents, and using foul language. Anybody with experience would have known that all this was a desperate scream for attention, for help, but her parents did not have experience.

Sonia’s bid for attention having failed, the trouble really began. She refused to go to school anymore. Her parents found her unmanageable. So they sent her to a psychiatrist who suggested she be put into the George Junior Republic School near Ithaca, New York. It was a school that worked on the lines of the American republic. It had a president, a vice president, and the equivalent of a Congress. Everybody in the school had a vote. Wanda said that the move was “a catastrophe. The school had the most horrible, disturbed children, and that was not the place for Sonia.”

But she finished high school there before going home to live with her parents.

Sonia was a loner. She did make friends easily and was enthusiastic about them for a while, but she dropped them just as quickly. Wanda wondered if she ever had any real friends. Perhaps she sublimated that need in religion.


At around the age of twenty Sonia decided she did not want to live in America. “She really didn’t like any place,” said Wanda. “She couldn’t find any place on this earth.”


As far as Wanda knew, Sonia never took drugs, “but she almost lived on sleeping pills and toward the end she started drinking. Then she stopped drinking. Then she started again.” Wanda realized she was an unhappy, disturbed young woman but did not know what to do about it:

She remained in contact with us, and was always angry. She was angry with the French, with the Italians, with the Americans, with everybody. She couldn’t find peace. She was extreme in everything. Love and hate – there was no half way. She could weigh 180 pounds and then go down to 130. On January 10, 1975, she was found dead in her rooms in Geneva. She had taken too many sleeping pills. By accident or design – nobody will ever know. She couldn’t find peace. She was forty when she died.

Sonia had wanted to write a biography of her father, and she discussed the project with Natasha. Of course nothing came of it. Finally her mental problems were beyond her control. Toward the end she had trouble articulating her thoughts. She would talk to friends, but incoherently. Horowitz told Natasha that he believed her motorbike accident in 1957 had caused severe brain damage.

When Sonia died in Geneva, history repeated itself. Wanda immediately got on a plane, while Horowitz stayed home. His way of coping with a crisis was to flee from it.

Wanda had brought Sonia to Geneva in 1974, asking the pianist Nikita Magaloff, who lived near there, to look after her, which he did. Sonia said she wanted to take piano lessons again, and also wanted to continue her Russian studies. Magaloff put her in touch with a Russian pianist, Alexis Golovin. She never got around to taking lessons, but she and Golovin became friends and she would spend much time on the phone with him, discussing her problems. The main problem seemed to be her father. She told Golovin that she loved her father but that he had rejected her. She kept waiting for him to show any desire to see her, any suggestion of love from him.

It never happened.

In Geneva and elsewhere it was generally believed that Sonia had taken her own life. But there was no evidence one way or the other. Natasha believed that it was an accidental death from an overdose of drugs. “If she had wanted to commit suicide she would have done it long before.”

Wanda returned from Sonia’s funeral in Milan distraught. One night some friends came to East Ninety-fourth Street to pay their respects. Horowitz came downstairs and, said Vera Michaelson, a public relations woman who was a neighbor in Connecticut, where Horowitz and Wanda had a summer home, it was the first time she had ever seen him haggard, untidy, looking as though he had not slept for weeks.

Mrs. Michaelson and her husband soon said they had to leave.
“No,” said Horowitz. “I want to play.” He went to the piano.

Mrs. Michaelson said that she did not remember what he played, except that “it was not sad, not funeral music.” Mrs. Michaelson was looking at Wanda while Horowitz played. “She looked at him with such tremendous love. She was terribly in love with him at that moment.” Horowitz played for about two hours. It was a tribute that Sonia would have appreciated and perhaps even understood.

19. Travelling à la Paderewski

About two months after Sonia’s death, Horowitz was once again on the road with Wanda, meeting the rest of his commitments for the 1974–75 season, during which Horowitz played about twenty concerts in the United States and Canada. It was the biggest tour he had undertaken since the 1950s.

If Horowitz had any deep feelings about Sonia’s death, he managed to hide them very well. And Wanda refused to talk to the press about Sonia in any detail. Her only comment was that she thought she would never get over it, but that life must go on. Horowitz made no statement at all. But he was willing, even eager, to talk about everything else.

Something new in his relations with the media was entering Horowitz’s life. Ever since his American debut in 1928 he had been in the public eye, always an object of intense curiosity to the musical public. But he never gave much of himself in his interviews, constantly repeating the same old stories – his relationship with Rachmaninoff, his childhood meeting with Scriabin, and so on. Generally he ended up saying the same things over and over again, and his observations were never particularly original or stimulating. In all fairness, this is true of most artists. They are forced back to the same stories, year after year. After all, they can’t invent new things to say.

But now, all of a sudden, Horowitz seemed to relish public attention and actively courted the media. He liked to hear himself talk, and he began to fancy himself a wit, a raconteur. Since he was not as witty as he seemed to think he was, this actively bothered many of his admirers. By exposing himself too much, by sometimes coming close to making a fool of himself, Horowitz lost some of the mystery and awe he had previously commanded. He began to be known as a character, an eccentric. He not only relished being a celebrity, he began to try to live up to it, even to the extent of appearing on television talk shows.

On some of those shows and in press conferences during the last decade of his life Horowitz often tried to be both wit and grand seigneur. It was a pose that did not ring true. Horowitz, unlike Rubinstein, was not cut out to be a grand seigneur. His wisdom – and he could be very wise – was sometimes clouded by an adolescent quality and a vanity that could lead him into silly verbal extravagances. His repartee in press conferences could usually best be described as embarrassing.

And then, in those last decades, there was his mode of travel, gleefully described by the American press.

He traveled in grand style. In the old days, that was traditional among superstars. Idols like Adelina Patti, Paderewski, or Nellie Melba, with their private railway cars, their forty pieces of luggage, their chefs and servants, delighted the public with their lavish mode of life. It was part of their mystique, and it became part of Horowitz’s.

Typical was a 1977 concert in Miami, which hit all the newspapers. The Horowitz entourage included his wife, his valet, his secretary, his tuner, his recording engineers, and his cook. His own piano went along with him. In Miami, Judith Drucker, the local impresario, let it be known that Horowitz said he would not play unless a supply of fresh gray sole was on hand. She had it flown from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and it was delivered to the Horowitz cook so that the fish could be prepared à la Horowitz. (Naturally any suite in which Horowitz stayed had to have a kitchen.)

Drucker also told the press of other Horowitz requirements. He demanded blacked-out bedroom windows. There were to be no calls until noon. He needed a room large enough for two concert grands. A limousine had to be standing by at all times. Drucker reaped a million dollars’ worth of publicity from the episode. So did Horowitz.

As Horowitz’s manager, Harold Shaw was the one who had to instruct Drucker – and other impresarios around the country – on the way to keep the pianist happy. If Horowitz was not happy, Wanda was unhappy; and if Wanda was unhappy, the entire community would know about it. Woe betide any local manager who did not meet the Horowitz requirements for physical well-being, or who failed to sell every seat in the hall. Not that the latter happened very often.


The American public read the reports about Horowitz’s requirements with amusement and even delight. This, by golly, was the way superstars were supposed to act.

Was Horowitz spoiled rotten? By normal standards, yes. But a neurotic genius like Horowitz could not be judged by normal standards. Two of his business associates had a ready explanation for Horowitz’s behavior. Peter Gelb, his manager after 1981, explained that Horowitz “was operating by his own necessities.”

The behavior may have been eccentric, Gelb said in a long, analytic justification, but it was borne out of “practical reasoning.” For instance, Gelb said, Horowitz had a habit of not signing a contract until a month or so before a concert because he did not want to cancel. “He knew that the only way he could live up to his commitments was by not making commitments until the last possible moment. He knew enough about himself to know that he would never know how well he would feel a few months ahead of time. By limiting his commitments until the last moment he could fulfill them.” As for the living requirements he expected:

When he demanded special food and special treatment from his hotel it was in his mind that it was the only way he could survive. He really thought that. If he didn’t have his water, if he didn’t have his Dover sole in the period he was having Dover sole, he was not going to live to the next day. In that sense he was a hypochondriac, but he really wasn’t being some kind of prima donna. He was being very practical. He wouldn’t – he couldn’t – play anywhere unless he had all the things he was accustomed to. It wasn’t a question of being spoiled. It was something much more basic. Believe me, I have dealt with spoiled people, and I know. Having the things he need was essential to him. He couldn’t live without them. And if he couldn’t live he couldn’t play the piano.

Harold Shaw thought much the same way. He said that he never found Horowitz personally difficult. Demanding, yes. Difficult, no. Most great artists who are considered demanding, he believed, are really not. They need certain things to produce their best work. “His doctor told him that because of his high blood pressure he had to stretch out at intermissions, relax, maybe even take a catnap. Horowitz tried it and it helped him a lot. He needed the sofa that had to be in the artist’s room for his concerts. He was not being difficult, he was being practical. He needed it to do his job.”

Shaw had another observation to make, one that would be backed by all managers: “It is the middle rank of artists who are difficult. They know that they are never going to make it to the top, and they can drive you crazy with their incessant complaining and the way they change their minds from day to day. They blame everybody but themselves that they are not Vladimir Horowitz, Jessye Norman, or Kathleen Battle.”


20. Anniversaries

Am I not well preserved? Come. Feel my muscles.
– Vladimir Horowitz, aged seventy-five, to his photographer, Christian Steiner

In May of 1976 it was going to be the eighty-fifth anniversary of the opening of Carnegie Hall. The Music-Hall, as it was originally called, had opened on the corner of Seventh Avenue and West Fifty-seventh Street on May 5, 1891, thanks to the philanthropy of the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and it had brought Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky from Russia for the opening night and the ensuing week of concerts. So Julius Bloom, running the venerable auditorium eighty-five years later, decided to try for a heroic splash on the order of the 1891 opening. The program he worked out was advertised as The Concert of the Century.

Perhaps it was. It is hard to think of another event that brought together such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein (conducting the members of the New York Philharmonic), Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Mstislav Rostropovich – and Vladimir Horowitz. Also gracing the scene was the Oratorio Society (which had sung at the opening night and later that week in 1891).

Horowitz was a prominent participant in the program. He accompanied Fischer-Dieskau in Schumann’s Dichterliebe cycle, played the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s A minor Trio with Stern and Rostropovich, and the slow movement of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata with Rostropovich. The Horowitz-Rostropovich collaboration in the Rachmaninoff came about because the soprano Martina Arroyo canceled at the last minute, whereupon pianist and cellist volunteered to fill in.


Toward the end of 1977, on December 26, Horowitz was interviewed at home by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. Wallace and Horowitz were casual friends. Wanda was an active participant on the show. There were those who found it embarrassing. Horowitz did not show up as an intellectual giant. He looked ill at ease, as evidenced by his nervous, gargled giggle, and he tried too hard to be a regular guy. Wanda was constantly prompting or correcting him. This was not the kind of publicity Horowitz needed.

Two years after the anniversary year of Carnegie Hall came another anniversary, this one more personal. January 12, 1978, marked fifty years since Horowitz had made his American debut with Tchaikovsky under Beecham in Carnegie Hall. Horowitz celebrated it, almost to the day, with his first orchestral appearance in twenty-five years. On January 8, 1978, in Carnegie Hall, he played the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Horowitz had said that he would never again play a concerto, but a golden anniversary is, after all, something special, and he relented.


Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center was the home of the New York Philharmonic, but Horowitz would not play there. He did not like the acoustics. So the Philharmonic packed up and moved south for this one concert. It was fascinating for the audience to hear the Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall for the first time in more than fifteen years.


The concerto was preceded by Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Symphony No. 7. When Horowitz came out after intermission and played the concerto, there was pandemonium at its conclusion. Naturally the Horowitz-Ormandy Rachmaninoff recording was immediately released, in a touched-up version (as the 1965 return concert had been). But the reviews were mixed.

Something was creeping into Horowitz’s playing that alarmed some of his admirers. The Times reviewer was unhappy about the self-indulgence of the performance. It ended up a collection of details, he said. For a few years the Times man had been grumbling about Horowitz’s increasingly noticeable mannerisms and his concentration on detail to the detriment of the melodic line. In 1974 he had greeted a Horowitz performance of Chopin’s G minor Ballade as “mannered and even inexplicable.” There were further complaints about disjointed playing in 1976: “It seems to be getting more pronounced as he grows older. A large-scale work ends up episodic.”[13]

Horowitz was entering a bad period, one in which mannerism took precedence over style. His playing still generated the old electricity. But it sometimes had something unsettling about it, something exaggerated, calculated and artificial. The overpronounced rubatos and tempo fluctuations approached bad taste. Sometimes the rhythm was slack, and that almost never was characteristic of his previous work. Sometimes the playing even approached parody, lending support to those who had been claiming all along that Horowitz distorted a melodic line. There could be no defense against these charges with the Rachmaninoff performance, for instance. It was an exhibition of affected sentimentality that had nowhere near the dignity and integrity of the Coates and Reiner recordings.

Also, for some reason, Horowitz started having his piano regulated in a peculiar manner. It sounded hard and bleak, much to the dismay of his technician, Franz Mohr. “In my estimation,” Mohr said, “it was overbrilliant, but I was not going to argue with Vladimir Horowitz. Specifically, the piano he used for his performance with Ormandy of the Rachmaninoff Third. Horowitz got it into his head that he needed more volume, that he would not be heard over the orchestra, that the instrument [the famous CD 186 in the Steinway basement, reserved for Horowitz alone] had to be more brilliant. How do you make a piano more brilliant? You file the hammers down so there is little felt, and the hammer is more compact.” Then Mohr lacquered the hammers. He worried about the forthcoming Ormandy performance. He thought that the piano sounded ugly, and he told David Rubin of Steinway that he would not take responsibility for the instrument Horowitz was playing.


On February 26, 1978, Horowitz played at the White House. It was the first time he had played there since 1931. Harold Shaw engineered the invitation. He had invited Gretchen Poston, the social secretary for President and Mrs. Carter, and several White House officials to one of Horowitz’s Carnegie Hall concerts. There Shaw spoke to Poston about the possibility of a Horowitz appearance at the White House. An hour-long concert was proposed. Poston relayed the message to the president, a music lover who was constantly playing Horowitz records. Carter thought it a fine idea.

When Horowitz arrived, he went to the East Room and tried out his piano, which had preceded him to Washington. He was unhappy with the acoustics and suggested some rugs on the floor. The president and his wife scurried around, found some carpets, and got on their hands and knees to push them around, assisted by White House aides. Shaw looked on all this with amusement. “Where is the press corps? Where are the cameras? What a story!” he kept saying to himself.

Horowitz played the Chopin B flat minor Sonata, two Chopin waltzes (C sharp minor and A minor), and the A flat Polonaise. For encores there were Träumerei, Rachmaninoff’s Polka de W.R., and his own Carmen Fantasy with a new coda. Political figures were present, and also a sizable group of musicians including Eugene Ormandy, Samuel Barber, and Mstislav Rostropovich. President Carter was thrilled to have Horowitz in the East Room, and his introductory comments were from the heart. Horowitz played magnificently. One of his encores, the Rachmaninoff Polka, charmed everybody. Horowitz opened the recital with The Star-Spangled Banner. That was his idea, and he was very emotional about it.


The anniversary concerts continued, around the country and in New York. There were two Carnegie Hall golden jubilee concerts: March 12 and 19, 1978. There was the usual lineup outside the hall. There was the usual ticket scandal; about a thousand tickets were unaccounted for. There was the usual investigation. It turned out that a scalper had managed to get a large number of tickets. It also was reported in the press that Vera Stern had provided some three hundred Carnegie Hall benefactors with tickets so that they would not have to stand in line. Horowitz and Wanda were furious. The scandal was such that the Carnegie Hall box-office head resigned.

For his golden jubilee concerts Horowitz brought back the Liszt Sonata in B minor. He also played the Schumann Arabesque, Mozart’s C major Sonata (K. 330), which he had never played, and some Fauré – the Impromptu No. 5 and the Nocturne No. 13 – also new to his repertoire. There was some Rachmaninoff (the Moments Musicaux in B minor and E flat minor [Op. 16, Nos. 3 and 2]) and two Chopin polonaises, the C sharp minor (which he would drop almost immediately) and the inevitable A flat.

Bringing back the long, demanding Liszt B minor Sonata took some daring on Horowitz’s part. Some years previously he had told a critic that he was too old to play it anymore. It was for young men, he said. He no longer had the technique and stamina for it. But nobody could have guessed that from his blazing jubilee performance. The Horowitz octaves were functioning as well as ever, the variety of color was all but blinding, and the piece was held together in a masterly manner.

The way he prepared for the Fauré pieces was typical. When he looked at music by a composer with whom he was not too familiar, he did a great deal of preliminary reading. “First of all,” as reported in the New York Times magazine to Helen Epstein,

I study the whole composer. I play everything he wrote. Ensemble music, everything. I play myself – not listen to recordings. Records are not the truth. They are like post cards of a beautiful landscape. You bring the post cards home so when you look at them, you will remember how beautiful is the truth. So I play. I’m a very good sight reader. The texture of the music talks to me, the style. I feel the music, the spiritual content of his compositions.

I also know everything about the composer. I always believe the composer and not what the others write about him. I read the letters of Fauré, what he was thinking. They gave me the characteristics of the composer. What he liked in music, what he didn’t like. The first time I play a new piece of music, I listen. I think there is something there, something is hidden. I read it again the next day. Then two days I leave it alone. Then I repeat the third day. Five days. Six days. And then I am in that music just like I play “Tea for Two.”


21. Collapse

In 1981 Horowitz left the Shaw management for Columbia Artists Management, Inc. (CAMI), where he came under the wing of Ronald Wilford, the CAMI head. Horowitz and Wanda called him “the barracuda.” It was at this time that Peter Gelb renewed his association with Horowitz. It came through Wanda, after some delicate negotiations.


Shaw later said that losing Horowitz was his own fault. As a member of the Horowitz circle who had dinner with him and Wanda at least once a week, Shaw had been watching with consternation the decline of Horowitz’s health. It was the beginning of his medicated period, where his psychiatrist was giving him drugs that seemed to be detaching him from reality. Horowitz was gulping down sleeping pills and antidepressants of enormous potency, and for the first time in his life he was drinking. His tipple was a large glass of Campari and Cinzano. Wanda called his doctor to find out what to do about the drinking problem, which was something new in her experience. “Try to have him drink less,” was his only advice. Wanda said that she felt like killing him.

Like many others, Shaw honestly believed that Horowitz could no longer function and would never play again. So, horrified, he backed away from the situation. Looking back, some years later, he said that he had no regrets. Indeed, he thought that Peter Gelb was one of the best things that had ever happened to Horowitz. Gelb was the right man at the right time, and he got Horowitz into film and television, an area that Shaw knew little about. “I wouldn’t have done as good a job as Gelb,” he said, “and I even had a feeling of relief when it was all over between me and Horowitz. Handling him was a full-time job for several people at once.” The Shaw office suddenly became a quieter place.

Gelb settled in. There was the Metropolitan Opera concert of November 1, 1981, to take care of. For this, Horowitz was preparing two big pieces, Chopin’s F minor Ballade and his first performance in New York of the Liszt B minor Ballade. (He had just learned the Liszt piece and had tried it out at one concert during his 1981 tour.) The concert also was scheduled to be recorded (it was).

There were other things to discuss with Horowitz that Gelb felt were more important than the concert. He strongly advised Horowitz to return to Europe, where he had not played for decades. Horowitz vacillated and went through his usual routine: he was too old, the trip would take too much out of him, they had forgotten him in Europe, it would be a disaster.

Gelb persisted, suggesting London as the beginning of the tour. He dangled an invitation from the Royal Family as bait; Horowitz would go at the personal invitation of Prince Charles. The Royal Festival Hall concert would be broadcast on an international television hookup. Horowitz suddenly became very interested. Gelb flew to London, and things were quickly arranged. Horowitz would give a benefit concert for the Royal Opera (which was trying to raise funds for a major renovation), with Prince Charles the patron of the event.


The London public was agog. The Royal Festival Hall concert on May 22, 1982, was Horowitz’s first London appearance since October 19, 1951. One of the major pieces on his program was the Schumann Kinderscenen. Horowitz was very pleased with himself about that choice. He told everybody he had selected it in honor of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, who were expecting their first child. He also prepared a surprise: he would play the British national anthem before his first number.

Also on the program were six Scarlatti sonatas, Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie and G minor Ballade, and the Rachmaninoff B flat minor Sonata. His encores were a Chopin waltz, the Rachmaninoff Polka de W.R., and Scriabin’s D sharp minor Etude. The live broadcast, produced by Gelb and directed by Kirk Browning, would be simultaneously relayed via satellite to the United States, Japan, West Germany, and France. (A Sony videocassette of the concert was shortly made available. It was titled Horowitz in London: A Royal Concert.)

The benefit brought in over £65,000 for the Royal Opera. A week later, on May 29, also in Festival Hall, Horowitz gave another recital, with a somewhat different program. The major changes were the Fourth Ballade by Chopin and Liszt’s B minor Ballade. But this time there was no royal hoopla.

The London concert was a critical success. Many of the reviewers were hearing Horowitz in the flesh for the first time and reacted in wonderment.


But to those familiar with his playing there was a notable deterioration. Horowitz was still under toxic medication, and one of the by-products of the drugs seemed to be a loss of self-criticism and judgment. In London it was not as evident as it soon would be, but it was there. Some pianists noticed it without knowing the reason. The London-based American pianist Craig Sheppard, in an obituary notice in the London Independent of November 28, 1989, wrote that the 1982 Horowitz performance of the Rachmaninoff B flat minor Sonata in the Festival Hall “was a mere shadow of what he had done with the same work in Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1968…. One missed the lion, the prowess, the unbelievable tonal control that were the Horowitzian trademarks of the past.” (This Rachmaninoff performance, incidentally, was not on the Victor disc of the London concert.) Sheppard, of course, had no way of knowing about Horowitz’s sad physical condition. What he did know was that “there will never again be another phenomenon like him.”

When Horowitz returned to America after London, he prepared to go on tour. By then he was losing physical control. Horowitz thought he was playing well even when he was having memory lapses and lack of finger coordination. He seemed not to realize what was happening, and insisted on going on a tour extending from Philadelphia to Chicago and Pasadena, ending with his first appearances in Japan.

Wanda knew the tour would be a disaster and she was strongly against it. Indeed, she was frantic. But she couldn’t talk him out of it. He was adamant that he play and wouldn’t listen to anybody. Once he made up his mind he was stubbornly immovable. When Wanda suggested that he stop his medications and psychiatric sessions, Horowitz blew up. He told her that it was she who needed mental help. Off on his tour he went.


When Horowitz was read a translation of the reviews [of his Japanese concerts on 11 and 16 June, 1983 – Ed.] after he returned to New York, he said it was worse than the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He said he would never play again, and for a while it seemed that he might keep his promise. He didn’t appear in public for a year after that. Critics everywhere wondered if the great career had come to an end. A newspaperman visited Horowitz at home and was shaken by what he saw. Horowitz was in deplorable shape. He had put on much weight, his belly hung over his belt, he was unable to talk coherently. No interview was possible under the circumstances. “He moved like a zombie,” said a friend, aghast. Another friend drew Wanda aside, asked if Horowitz had Alzheimer’s disease. On October 1, 1983, Ronald Wilford gave him a birthday party for a close circle of friends. The eighty-year-old Horowitz sat on a couch, saying very little, looking like a shriveled old man. People would go up to him to pay homage and walk away puzzled. Horowitz did not seem in contact with the world. Anybody who came near him in that distressing period knew that he would never play again.

22. Resurrection

For a while nothing was heard of Vladimir Horowitz. There was a total blackout on East Ninety-fourth Street. Not even Horowitz’s closest associates – neither Peter Gelb, nor Jack Pfeiffer, nor Ronald Wilford, nobody – had the faintest of what was going on behind those closed doors. Vladimir Horowitz became the forgotten man.

But suddenly, unexpectedly, around March 1985, Gelb got a phone call from Horowitz and went to see him. He was impressed with what he saw. Horowitz looked almost like his own self. He was off all medications, felt much better, and – surprise of surprises – had decided to play again.

Not much is known about his recovery. Those involved with it have refused to talk, especially Giuliana Lopes, the person who by all accounts did the most to pull him through. Mrs. Lopes had been engaged in 1959 to be Sonia’s companion. After Sonia’s death she found herself back in the Horowitz household as the maestro’s companion.

Mrs. Lopes, married to an engineer at RCA Records, became Horowitz’s confidante. She knew more about him than anybody except Wanda. Perhaps more. He leaned on her and confided to her all of his problems. She cooked for him, traveled with him, became his prop. Mrs. Lopes always refused to be interviewed. She felt that the relationship between herself and Horowitz should forever remain private.


When Horowitz summoned Gelb, it was to discuss the future. Horowitz said he was old, had just recovered from severe emotional and physical problems, and did not yet have the strength for concerts. How could he get started again?

Gelb proposed the idea of a film to be shot in the Horowitz living room. It would be a documentary made over the course of a month. Thus Horowitz would have the chance to ease himself back.


After a while Horowitz loved making the show. He started kidding around and enjoying himself. When the filming was over – it took six shooting days, starting on April 24, 1985, but spread out over a longer time – he was confident he could return to concert life. In the film Horowitz did some talking and Wanda was very much in evidence. When the film was completed, it was entitled Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic and was released by MGM.

At the beginning of the filming Gelb alerted RCA and Columbia to the fact that Horowitz was back in form. No one in those two companies believed him and would not even send anybody to Ninety-fourth Street to listen. So Gelb picked up the phone and called Gunther Breest, at that time the artists and repertoire director for Deutsche Grammophon records in Germany. “Here’s your chance. You always wanted Horowitz,” he said. Breest got on the next plane and immediately signed Horowitz to a contract for the sound track recording of the film.

Horowitz played the Bach-Busoni Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland; Mozart’s Sonata in C (K. 330); Schubert’s A flat Impromptu (Op. 90, No. 4); Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor (Op. 17, No. 4) and Scherzo in B minor; Liszt’s Consolation in D flat and Au bord d’une source; Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G sharp minor; Schumann’s Novellette in F (his first performance of the piece); Scriabin’s Etude in C sharp minor (Op. 2, No. 1); Chopin’s A flat Polonaise; and Moszkowski’s Etude in F.

It is a fascinating film, as much for the portrait of the Horowitz personality as for his playing. He was dressed in a dark business suit with a red polka-dot bow tie and matching handkerchief coyly peeping from his breast pocket. He was relaxed, happy, and charming. For the most part his comments were natural-sounding as he rambled on in a stream-of-consciousness manner about his early life and whatever else came to mind. “I can play still! I can play still!” he kept on exultantly repeating. At the keyboard he can be heard noodling a bit, and among his noodles are a few measures from Stars and Stripes Forever and Tea for Two. He loftily dismissed the occasional wrong note that could be heard. “I don’t want perfection. I’m not Heifetz. I’m Horowitz.”

Occasionally he prattled a bit too much and his cutesy side was rather adolescent (though in a peculiar sort of way that was part of his charm because it was so innocently transparent). He said he could give a Carnegie Hall concert the following week if he had to. Then he went into his innocence act. Would anybody come? Would people have forgotten him? He and Wanda, who was very much a part of the film, engaged in a bit of badinage, she as sharp and contentious as always. By now the two of them had made peace with each other. Franz Mohr, Jack Pfeiffer, and some members of the filming team are also on camera. Everybody walks on eggs, catering to Horowitz, assuring him that he is wonderful, wonderful.

And often the playing in this film is wonderful. The old color is back, the fingers are still the commander of the keys, and above all there is none of the mannered, neurotic playing of a few years back. Some of the shorter pieces – the Rachmaninoff, the Scriabin etude – are pristine Horowitz. The A flat Polonaise has drive and power, the Mozart simplicity and grace. Only in the B minor Scherzo is there a feeling of struggle. It is a peculiar conception, rather small scaled with very little pedal, and it sounds like an incomplete statement.


Considering what Horowitz had been the previous year and what he now was doing, it can be considered something of a miracle. It marks the beginning of the glorious playing of his last five years. There was no evidence of the nervous tension that had been one of the marked characteristics of his style. The last period was much simpler and purer. Horowitz gave the impression of enjoying his playing, of being utterly relaxed. It was ripe music making of infinite nuance: relaxed, simple and natural, sweet and singing.

After the film was completed, Horowitz got in touch with Frost and said he was going to make studio recordings again. Would Frost be the producer? Of course. Which meant that Breest and Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft also got the next three records Horowitz made, which were among the best-selling records in the history of classical music. Several million copies were purchased. Breest eventually left Deutsche Grammophon for Sony/CBS Records, and Horowitz went with him. That is why the very last disc Horowitz ever made was issued on the Sony Classical label in April 1990, about five months after his death.


In 1985 the German critic Joachim Kaiser, who had written an important book on twentieth-century pianists, came to New York to interview Horowitz during several of the Deutsche Grammophon studio sessions, and also to provide the program notes for the ensuing compact disc, which contained Schumann’s Kreisleriana, the Schubert-Tausig Marche militaire, and short pieces by Liszt, Scriabin, and Schubert.

Kaiser was in awe and not a little frightened. “After all, he’s said to be as withdrawn as Garbo, deified as Liszt.” No such thing. Kaiser found “a delightful old gentleman” eager to engage in conversation. He watched Horowitz warm up, indulging “his sense of fantasy,” playing some Scriabin and Liszt, “insouciantly combining three Schubert impromptus with the Wanderer Fantasy.” Horowitz then settled down to Schumann’s Kreisleriana:

As he says himself – and demonstrates – he used to play Kreisleriana too fast. Now the passages of twilight lyricism seem to have become his favorites. And now he conceives the middle section of the first piece much more beautifully and poetically. There may be a hint of a Schumann-Eichendorff Lied buried there. I allowed myself to point it out to the maestro: the first line of Auf einer Burg is “Eigenschlafen auf der Lauer.” Suddenly Horowitz switches to German to give me the second line, “oben ist der alte Ritter.” (I wonder if any young German Schumann players know their Eichendorff so well.)

After the end of the film and the resumption of recording, Horowitz felt stimulated. He took the summer off and it was agreed that he would perform in Europe in the fall. Two recitals in Paris and another two in Milan were arranged. Horowitz would be playing in Paris for the first time in thirty-four years, and in Milan for the first time in a half century.


On November 15, 1985, The Last Romantic was shown in Carnegie Hall. Horowitz did not attend. Had he done so, it would have been the first time in history that a pianist attended his own recital as a member of the audience.


23. Globetrotter


After leaving Germany for a successful appearance in London, Horowitz spontaneously decided to play in Tokyo. He felt that he was on a roll, playing well, and he very much wanted to redeem his reputation after the 1983 disaster.

This time the Japanese public was wary. The concerts nevertheless sold out. In Tokyo Horowitz went so far as to apologize for 1983, saying that he had drunk too much, eaten too much, and taken too many sleeping pills.

In Japan, Horowitz played the same program he had recently presented in Leningrad and Germany. The concert, on June 22, 1986, was given in a hall on the campus of the Showa Women’s University in western Tokyo. Horowitz had made up his mind so quickly to play in Tokyo that it was impossible to get a hall in any central site. “So rushed were recital preparations,” reported Clyde Haberman for the New York Times, “that programs also were not available until the intermission.”

As soon as he started playing, everybody realized that this was not the Horowitz of 1983. His old electricity galvanized the audience. He was repeatedly called back after his final piece, and played three encores, after which there were eight curtain calls. Backstage, wrote Haberman, Horowitz was tired but happy. He felt that he had played well.

When the reviews appeared, they were ecstatic. Hidekazu Yoshida of the Asahi Shimbun, who in 1983 had called Horowitz “a cracked antique”, now called him “a magician.” All the critics expressed amazement over the Horowitz “revival.” Horowitz was content; he had indeed rehabilitated himself. His general behavior this time was different too. Instead of sulking in his hotel room he went shopping and even went out for dinner although, Haberman reported, “he has stayed safely to his preferred diet of sole and chicken. The only Japanese fare he is known to have sampled is tea.”

On his return to America in the fall of 1986 Horowitz gave a few concerts, including an appearance at the White House on October 5, 1986. This even made front-page news when Horowitz was upstaged by Mrs. Reagan. While the president was describing the pianist’s harsh life in Russia during the Revolution, Mrs. Reagan inadvertently moved the legs of her chair over the edge of the small platform that serves as a stage in the East Room, and she toppled into the audience, landing at the feet of former ambassador to Great Britain Walter H. Annenberg. There was a gasp and everyone rushed to the rescue. She was not injured and laughingly walked back on the platform, to be embraced by Horowitz. “That’s the reason I did this,” she told the audience. The president quipped, “Honey, I told you to do it only if I didn’t get any applause.”

The East Room of the White House was crowded with musicians, diplomats, and politicians. Horowitz was being honored not only as a musician but also as a cultural ambassador who was helping to improve relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Ambassador Hartman was there. So were Yuri Dubinin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States; George P. Schulz, the American secretary of state; Zubin Mehta, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, assorted pianists great and small, heads of great libraries and museums, philanthropists, administrators – in short, the cream of the American cultural establishment.

The audience heard music that Horowitz had played in Moscow: Mozart’s Sonata in C (K. 330); Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca and the Schubert-Liszt Soirée de Vienne No. 6; two Chopin mazurkas and two etudes by Scriabin; Schumann’s Träumerei and Moszkowski’s Etincelles. He was in good form, exhibiting his sensitively spun and unabashedly Romantic Mozart, and having fun with the other works on the program. As always, it was the virtuoso pieces that brought down the house. There were smiles and nudges after his elegant performance of the delicious Schubert-Liszt Soirée, which Horowitz ended with a stylish cadenza of his own; and the fleetness and accuracy of the prestissimo scales in Etincelles had everybody cheering.

Back in New York, Horowitz worked hard on a record that was to contain Schubert’s big B flat Sonata, the Mozart Rondo in D and B minor Adagio, Schubert’s Moment musical in F minor, and the Schubert-Liszt Ständchen and Soirée de Vienne No. 6. Frost edited the tape and brought it to Horowitz, who turned it down. He told Frost that his concept of the Mozart pieces and the Schubert B flat Sonata had changed while he was making the record. Especially the Mozart; he suddenly got new ideas about Mozart embellishments, he said, and would have to revise his thinking. The Schubert Sonata he found too fussy, and the only things he liked were the Ständchen, Soirée, and Moment musical. Those three pieces ended up in a disc, Horowitz at Home, released about three years later. Late in 1991 the rejected Schubert B flat Sonata shared a compact disc (named Horowitz the Poet) with the 1987 Vienna performance of Schumann’s Kinderscenen. (The Schubert should not have been released; Horowitz was right in calling it too fussy, and its appearance was a disservice to his memory.)


After he repeated the same program in Hamburg on June 21, 1987, Horowitz returned home. He was to live almost two and a half years more, and he had plans for returning to Europe, but it was not to be. The Hamburg concert was his last appearance anywhere as a recitalist.

In New York, Horowitz resumed work on the Deutsche Grammophon series. These late recordings were in many respects probably the best he ever made. They are signing, beautiful, and relaxed. Here virtuoso and musician come into perfect balance. There no longer are the neuroticism, athleticism, and demonism that had long characterized his playing. Everything is simple and natural. Mozart suddenly occupies an honored place in his repertoire. Horowitz also had always loved Haydn, and his very last disc took a look at a lovely, witty Haydn sonata that he had never previously played.

Horowitz was wise enough to realize that he could no longer be the thundering virtuoso, and he avoided large-scale pieces in the last years of his life, choosing his recorded repertoire very carefully. Aside from Schumann’s Kreisleriana, he kept away from anything that would tax him physically. The celebrated electricity was still present, but not with the voltage of previous years. Instead there was gentleness, an infinite variety of sound and flexibility of rhythm, a singing color world in which conception, ear, feet, and finger worked together in perfect, artistic harmony. It was a new Horowitz, and if he was not as stunning as before, the rewards – as critics all over the world were quick to point out – were perhaps greater.

25. Mozart and “Liebestod”

Horowitz had been thinking about a concerto recording for well over a year, and early in 1987 he discussed repertoire with friends. He talked about Liszt’s E flat. He said he might pair it with the Chopin F minor. Or maybe Liszt’s A major Concerto, which he adored. He even spoke about the Saint-Saëns C minor Concerto. But he ended up with the A major Mozart (K. 488). Horowitz had never played K. 488 in public but was not unfamiliar with it. In 1939 he learned the work when he was going to play it at the Lucerne Festival with Toscanini, but at the last minute it was replaced by the Brahms Second.

Recording sessions for the Mozart were arranged. The locale would be La Scala [sic: Abanella Studio – Ed.], Milan, in March 1987.

Since 1985, Horowitz had been having a great love affair with Mozart. In his old-age look at Mozart, Horowitz, knowingly or unknowingly, was experiencing what the great Italian-German pianist Ferruccio Busoni had experienced in the final years of his life. Busoni, famous for his Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, suddenly turned to Mozart, giving series of the concertos in a day when most of them were unknown.


Wanda unbelievingly watched Horowitz get the concerto ready for Milan. He did very little work on it. No more than an hour a day once or twice a week, she said, and that was in February for a session coming up in less than a month. She did not know how he could get it into his fingers in so short a time with so little practice, but on this occasion she underestimated the old pro. Horowitz knew how to pace himself. And besides, this was a recording session, not a concert. He could have the sheet music in front of him.


In March, Horowitz went to Milan to make his record, which contained the last of the few concertos he ever recorded. Instead of another concerto to go with the Mozart, Horowitz finally decided to play Mozart’s Sonata in B flat (K. 333). Conductor and orchestra were Carlo Maria Giulini and the Scala Orchestra of Milan.

Not many orchestras or major conductors had been available on such short notice. Milan was selected because the Scala was available. Giulini came into the picture because he was a major conductor and he too was available because he spent most of his time at home with his ailing wife. He would no longer travel, and he lived near Milan, so he would have no problem going home after the recording sessions. Normally a concerto session with any pianist other than Horowitz would take two days at most. With Horowitz and his frequent rest breaks, it might take ten days, and the world’s top busy conductors would not give up that much time. Giulini could. Horowitz and Giulini were on good terms, and Horowitz felt that Giulini would not fight him and his free way of playing Mozart.


The performance was filmed as well as recorded, and the film cassette was a best-seller. It had its premiere at Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival on October 8, 1987. Like The Last Romantic, it was a Peter Gelb Production directed by the Maysles documentary team – Albert Maysles, Susan Froemke, and Charlotte Zwerin. The music was punctured by some on-screen talk by Mr. and Mrs. Horowitz. Wanda was in good form. There was one shot of her listening to European music critics quizzing Horowitz. “Always the same questions,” she mutters, with a disgusted look. At the end of the film she was asked what she thought of the performance. She looked at the questioner unbelievingly. “Do you want me to say that I don’t like how he played?”


Early in 1989 Thomas Frost recorded what was released as the Horowitz at Home album. It contained some Mozart, including the B flat Sonata (K. 281), which was new to the Horowitz repertoire, and also the three Schubert-Liszt pieces from the discarded 1986 recording – Ständchen and the Soirées Nos. 6 and 7.[14] The Mozart sings and dances, and the Liszt arrangements are among the greatest of their kind in recorded history. This combination of relaxed control, linear independence (in the Ständchen), pure song, long-arched phrases, and blinding colors makes the playing unique, even for Horowitz.

For a few months after the completion of the disc Horowitz took it easy. He hardly touched the piano at all, at least during the day. Virginia Bach, who worked there at that time as a sort of assistant – keeping his music in shape, seeing that he signed his autograph pictures, sorting his mail, doing some light bookkeeping – was herself a pianist and was dying to hear him play. But, she said, he never touched the piano during the first few months she was there.

It was only when he started thinking about a new recording that he worked a little bit. Around the end of August 1989, he was going through the repertoire for what turned out to be his last recording. Mrs. Bach never heard him play scales or any kind of exercise. He would just play through the music, occasionally stopping and repeating a phrase. He never played any single piece more than five times. Usually it was only three.


The disc consisted of music Horowitz had never publicly played in America. His original idea was to play only Haydn and Chopin. But he changed his mind. He did start out, as planned, with Haydn and Chopin, recording the Haydn Sonata No. 49 in E flat and Chopin’s Etudes in A flat and E minor (Op. 25, Nos. 1 and 5), Mazurka in C minor (Op. 56, No. 3), Nocturnes in E flat (Op. 55, No. 2) and B (Op. 62, No. 1), and the Fantaisie-Impromptu.

But after the second session he told Frost: “You are going to be very surprised. I found something better to end the record with than the Fantasy-Impromptu.” He had been looking through volumes of Liszt because he was unhappy with the Chopin. He felt he needed a bigger ending, and he looked again at the Liszt arrangement of the Liebestod, on which he had worked with Halim [his last pupil – Ed.]. “That’s the perfect ending!” In a few days he had the piece entirely in his fingers, and it was made the ending of his record. It turned out to be symbolic. He also found a little-played Liszt work, the Praeludium to Bach’s cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen. Liszt later composed a large-scale set of variations on the cantata theme that sometimes is heard, but the short, highly chromatic, dark-colored, intense Praeludium was a complete novelty to most.

Usually Horowitz asked for two sessions a week, two hours each session. Frost, the producer of the record for CBS/Sony, figured that the sessions would last about three weeks before Horowitz was satisfied. But, as he wrote in a Times piece on April 11, 1990, on occasion of the disc’s release, “this time, however, he was driven by some mysterious source of energy that made him eager to complete the recording in a couple of weeks. He was back on his old three sessions a week, having wonderful time, enjoying himself.” He was more energetic than Frost had seen him for a long time. And he was looking forward to attending the Traviata performance that his new friend Carlos Kleiber would conduct at La Scala on December 5. Then there were the two recitals he planned to give in Berlin and Hamburg in mid-December.

The recording took six sessions in a period of twelve days. The last session took place on November 1. Four days later Horowitz was dead.

26. Artist-As-Hero

Vladimir Horowitz died instantly at his home on Sunday, November 5, 1989, at about 1 P.M. The medical report said that his eighty-six-year-old heart had just stopped beating.

There had been no indication that anything was basically wrong with Horowitz’s health. He had always taken care of himself. His diet was Spartan, he did not smoke or drink, he walked his mile or two each day, and shortly before his death he had a medical checkup at which he was assured that he was in fine shape.


Musicians around the world were asked to talk or write about Horowitz, and for several months magazines were full of articles and interviews. All, inevitably, made the point that an era had come to an end. One of the more sensitive and thoughtful assessments came from Vladimir Feltsman:

When I learned from that day’s television broadcasts that he died, it hit me, but somehow I was asking myself why I did not feel any real sadness. Of course I felt sorry for Wanda and for all of us, but why wasn’t I sorry for Horowitz? I realized that his life as a musician, despite all the complications, was an extremely lucky one. He was born to play the piano, he got all possible fame in the world he lived in, he lived a long life, he rediscovered Mozart, he went back to his motherland, and the circle of his life was complete. He had fulfilled himself. It was the happy life of an artist, and I can only wish all of us to have this sort of life. He left a legacy. His sound is here and it is still floating, somewhere above us.


Horowitz remained the archetype of the Romantic pianist, his name still a legend to all pianists and the public, the most potent and electrifying virtuoso of the twentieth century, the musician with the strongest, most individual personality, a reincarnation of the nineteenth-century artist-as-hero.

He was unique, the last of his kind; and when he died there was nobody to replace him. In his day, in his way, he was, as the Countess d’Agoult had said of Liszt 150 years before, the only one.

[1] This does not seem to be correct. VH’s first concerts after the 1983-84 breakdown were in the end of 1985, on 26 October and 2 November in Paris (Théâtre des Champs-Elysées) and on 17 and 24 November in Milan (La Scala). There was also a recital in New York (Carnegie Hall) on 15 December. No London appearance during that time has turned up. See The Horowitz Website. Ed.
[2] A little earlier, in February and March 1986, VH had made his famous recording of this piece. It was released in 1989 on the Horowitz at Home album. Ed.
[3] Mozart’s Sonata in C major, KV 330, was substituted for Schumann’s work. Ed.
[4] The Leningrad concert has been released on CD by Palexa. Despite the wretched sound, it does confirm VH’s words that he played better there than he did in Moscow. Ed.
[5] In Russian: Первый Симфонический Ансамбль. Ed.
[6] Ravel must have been, like Grieg, another “adolescent crush”, although it continued until 1940. VH’s Ravelian repertoire included “Scarbo” from Gaspard de la Nuit, the Sonatine, Jeax d’eau, “Alborada del gracioso” and “Oiseaux tristes” from Miroirs and Pavane pour une infante defunte. What a pity that nothing of this was ever recorded! Ed.
[7] What a missed opportunity! It’s difficult not to wonder what kind of idiots worked at Victor. It’s understandable if they put the commercial value of a recording first, but that’s beside the point. Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto with VH would have been a guaranteed best-seller. One needs no benefit of hindsight to draw the conclusion. Ed.
[8] VH turned 22 on 1 October 1925, that is shortly after his leaving “the Motherland”. Ed.
[9] Michelangeli, too, including on his 1948 studio recording. Ed.
[10] This is not an exaggeration. The first recording of the Dante Sonata was made in 1940 by Louis Kentner, and that was not the original version but an arrangement for piano and orchestra by Constant Lambert made for a ballet choreographed by Frederick Ashton. The first recording of the original was made in 1945 by György Sandor. See the liner notes by Marina and Victor Ledin to this Naxos edition. Ed.
[11] See note 6. Ed.
[12] No doubt Mr Schonberg himself. Ed.
[13] Mr Schonberg is quoting himself in this paragraph. Ed.
[14] Not entirely correct, of course. The three rejected pieces were two Schubert-Liszt and one Schubert (the Musical moment), as correctly pointed out earlier by Mr Schonberg himself. The third Schubert-Liszt piece, Soirée de Vienne No. 7, was recorded in 1988/89. There are a few similar (and minor) inaccuracies more, but I have not taken the trouble to correct them. Ed.