The lives of musicians can be more than a bit repetitive. The same patterns are repeated again and again, as is the case with athletes—with all people who master a particular art or calling. The gifted one excels and develops a career, sometimes without breaking off from the master. This pattern fits Mozart—and also Nadia Comaneci. And we could review the lives of various gifted people; but even so, hardly anyone compares with Josef Hofmann, who was an archetype of the child prodigy, both as to his glory and also as a warning of the dangers of that prodigious dimension for the child—and later, for the adult.
A man who had earned the right to say it once declared that the phrase “child prodigy” usually means little more than “greedy parent.” But we ordinary folk have to understand that all musically gifted children are prodigies in some way. And today in contemporary America, it is hard for people to understand that real musical talent is not at all compatible with the American system of “education,” a truth that has liberating implications.
So as far as Josef Hofmann (1876, Kraków, to 1957, L.A.) is concerned, the prodigiousness has to be conceded big time and up front. His debut was at age five, and at age nine he toured much of Europe. By the time he was 12 years old, he was apparently the first pianist ever to be recorded, by Edison’s primitive means, in 1888. But the point is made. The boy’s fame was that widespread, and was ripe for the exploitation that was almost inevitable. In New York, there were so many recitals by the diminutive Josef that the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was attracted. Things had gotten completely out of hand and were headed for court when a philanthropist (Alfred Corning Clark) intervened with $50,000 to buy Papa off, so the kid could grow up with the exploitation off his back. He was to stay off stage until he was 18, and his teacher was none other than the foremost pianist of the era, Anton Rubinstein. Hofmann had 42 lessons in two years, and at the end, Rubinstein conducted as the boy played the Rubinstein Concerto No. 4 in D minor. That was in 1894; in 1937, Hofmann played that concerto again at the Metropolitan Opera House, on the 50th anniversary of his American debut. And he played much else besides, not knowing about the microphone that, greatly to our benefit, recorded the concert. Of course, by that time, Josef Hofmann had changed a lot and even become someone else. He had come a long way, and was supposed to have thought that Sergei Rachmaninoff was the best pianist in the world—and Rachmaninoff thought that Hofmann was the best. Together, they thought that Vladimir Horowitz would inherit their position by himself.
Earl Wild, who heard both of them in the 1920’s and 30’s, thought that Rachmaninoff was the better, but greatly admired Hofmann as well. Wild thought that if such matters could be judged at all, it could only be ventured by the advantage of repeated live hearings, and not on the basis of recordings of whatever kind. And I mention Wild for these reasons, for few people today can remember Hofmann in his prime, or Rachmaninoff in his. If we are as interested, as well we should be, then we are forced to listen to recordings.
As far as recordings are concerned, we are pretty well off with what Rachmaninoff has to offer: the four piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; his own Third Symphony conducted by himself; Schumann’s Carnaval and Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35 (two of the best recordings ever made of anything); and numerous short pieces, many of which are delightful. But I am certainly an ungrateful and selfish consumer because I will never forgive RCA for refusing to record Rachmaninoff’s renditions of the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 and the Liszt Sonata in B minor, as Rachmaninoff offered to do at the end of his career, right when he had toured with them and they were all prepped and ready to go! And I guess I’m mentioning all that because, from Rachmaninoff, we get a lot—even if some of us always bitch and moan and want more. But from Hofmann we get less—less and messier.
Hofmann’s career was different, and so were his personality and his experience. After all, he began recording in childhood, under strange, even bizarre conditions. His sensitive ears could only tell him that primitive recordings did not flatter his playing at all, or even represent it in some fantasy of adequacy. As the years went by, things didn’t improve much. Records were noisy, scratchy, and swishy in the acoustic era, and today computers have helped them sound better than ever—but not then. Hofmann’s best acoustics are the Brunswicks of 1922-23, and strangely enough, they are probably his best performances available in any form, and that’s because they were made before the damage done to him began to take its toll. He was drifting away from his true self, even then. He had been a busy player for most of 40 years, and the grinding repetition and the travel had been too much. But he was always more than an exhausted keyboard hack, even so.
Soon after the Brunswicks, Hofmann was offered the job as head of the piano department of a new musical conservatory that we still know as the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. By 1926, Hofmann was the director of the whole shebang, attracting fine teachers and students—Fritz Reiner taught conducting, Shura Cherkassky studied piano, and so on. But by 1938, Hofmann had to resign because of financial and administrative problems. The school had in effect been founded and funded to give Hofmann something healthy to do—and for a while, he did well. (Today, the Institute has many distinguished alumni, and thrives.)
But after 1938, Josef Hofmann didn’t do so well, though in one sense he did well enough. He had 70 patents in America alone—he was very interested in mechanical inventions: windshield wipers, hydraulic brakes, and so on. It was the desperation of an active mind trapped in a schedule of repetition. Hofmann had his mechanics and electronics and even some musical compositions, but his coeval Rachmaninoff had more. Rachmaninoff had a successful composing career and was also an accomplished conductor; he had “hunted three hares,” as the Russians say, and he wondered if he had caught even one of them.
However many hares Josef Hofmann had snared, he succumbed to the destructive lure of alcoholism. He showed up for various engagements incapacitated, and played sloppily in some of his last appearances. But Hofmann’s degeneration is not altogether the point. I think that he remains both a unique individual and a stunning example to musicians today, not to mention music-lovers. He was both a prodigy and a victim—a victor and a champion as well, a prime example of the disciplined freedom of musical expression. He was a singer at the keyboard and a conductor at the piano keys, and he remains a unique example of pianistic spontaneity, tonal beauty, and powerful rhythm. If he does not better than anyone represent the Golden Age of the Piano, then no one surpasses him. Because of his education by Rubinstein; his repertory of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt; and the form of his recitals, he constituted a standard, a marque of music that is still recognizable and presentable to us. And I have to say that through the work of Ward Marston, the legacy of Hofmann’s recordings is in better shape than it has ever been.
Josef Hofmann, or what is left of him—his sound image and even film at the keyboard—is right there on YouTube where we can access it. His Golden Anniversary concert of 1937 is full of pleasures that must be experienced to be appreciated, and his 1938 Casimir Hall recital is a series of revelations of what Romantic pianism could do in service to Romantic music. There are as well such privileged documentations as of the Rubinstein Piano Concerto No. 3 in G, Op. 45, recorded in 1944, as well as recordings of the fourth and fifth Beethoven concertos and the two Chopin ones.
But perhaps there are other sources as well, in other modes of delivery and discourse. The diaries of Hofmann’s first wife as they toured in the Russia and Mexico of 1907-09 and in 1911 were published in 1965 by the University of South Carolina as The Amazing Marriage of Marie Eustis and Josef Hofmann, edited by Nell S. Graydon and Margaret D. Sizemore. Touring is a grind, but it can also be revealing. In these pages, we find a Hofmann who apparently thinks that his audiences can actually make something of Beethoven’s Op. 101 and 110 piano sonatas, and I find this assumption to be as remarkable as it is doubtful.
I also found it remarkable that in 1911, Rachmaninoff and Hofmann sensed that the music of Scriabin had marked a cultural turn. “As Josef says, the modern music spoils the old for one, and yet gives nothing to replace the joy afforded by the old school. No melody, nothing which touches the heart.” Such a thought seems scandalously reactionary today, but it had its truth in its time.
There is also the demonstration of a certain hostility to Rachmaninoff, and a more positive view of Scriabin. There is an admission that Beethoven had to be hurried to suit provincial audiences—“They want explosions.” Hofmann was contradictory about Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, but not about himself, when he had printed on the program under his name the phrase “World’s Greatest Pianist,” for his appearance at the Lumberg Theater in Utica, New York, on October 10, 1916. Not many people then would dispute that bold appellation after hearing what they could of Josef Hofmann. As for today, individuals will differ, but above all, they must listen.