Horowitz, Vladimir (Samoliovich)

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Horowitz, Vladimir (Samoliovich)

Horowitz, Vladimir (Samoliovich), legendary Russian- born American pianist; b. Berdichev, Oct. 1, 1903; d. N.Y., Nov. 5, 1989. Reared in a musically inclined Jewish family, he began playing piano in his early childhood under the direction of his mother, a professional pianist. His other teachers were Vladimir Puchalsky, Sergei Tarnowsky, and Felix Blumenfeld. He made his first public appearance in a recital in Kiev on May 30, 1920, that marked the opening of a fantastically successful career. The revolutionary events in Russia did not prevent him from giving concerts in and around Kiev until he decided to leave Russia; his first official concert abroad took place in Berlin on Jan. 2, 1926. Arriving in Paris in 1928, he took brief instruction with Alfred Cortot, and on Jan. 12 of that same year, he made his American debut in Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto with the N.Y. Phil, under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham; he subsequently appeared as soloist with several other American orchs., earning the reputation of a piano virtuoso of the highest caliber, so that his very name became synonymous with pianistic excellence. In 1933 he married Wanda Toscanini, daughter of Arturo Toscanini. In 1942 he became a naturalized American citizen.

Horowitz seemed to possess every gift of public success; he was universally admired, and his concerts sold out whenever and wherever he chose to appear. His natural affinity was with the Russian repertoire; he formed a sincere friendship with Rachmaninoff, despite the disparity in their ages; Rachmaninoff himself regarded Horowitz as the greatest pianist of the century; Horowitz’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, which he played numerous times, was his proudest accomplishment. His performances of works by Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky were equally incomparable. During World War II, he appeared with Toscanini in numerous patriotic concerts; it was for such a celebration in N.Y.’s Central Park that he made a vertiginous transcription for piano of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, a veritable tour de force of pianistic pyrotechnics, which he performed for years as an encore, to the delight of his audiences. On Dec. 9, 1949, he gave the premiere of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata in Havana. On Feb. 25, 1953, the 25th anniversary of his American debut, he gave a recital in Carnegie Hall in N.Y. After this recital, he withdrew from the stage, not to return for nearly 12 years. However, he enjoyed making recordings when he was free to change his successive versions in the sanctuary of a studio. He also accepted a few private pupils. He then announced a definite date for a concert in Carnegie Hall: May 9, 1965. Tickets went on sale 2 weeks in advance, and a line formed whose excitement and agitation would equal and surpass that of a queue of fans for a baseball game. Horowitz himself was so touched by this testimony of devotion that he sent hundreds of cups of coffee to the crowd to make the waiting more endurable on a rainy day.

On Feb. 26, 1978, he played at the White House at the invitation of President Carter, a performance that coincided with the 50th anniversary of Horowitz’s American debut. On May 22, 1982, at the behest of the Prince of Wales, he gave a recital in the Royal Festival Hall in London, marking his first appearance in Europe in 31 years. Through his recordings, he formed a large following in Japan; to respond to his popularity there, he gave a series of concerts in Tokyo and other Japanese cities (June 1983). The climax of his career, which became a political event as well, was his decision to accept an invitation to revisit Russia in 1986, where he played for the first time after an absence of 61 years to enormous acclaim. His Steinway grand piano was shipped to Moscow. Horowitz himself was accompanied by his wife, a piano tuner, and his cook (to prepare the special foods consisting of fresh sole and other delicacies that were airmailed to Moscow each day). Horowitz made a short introductory speech in Russian before he played his program of works by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Scriabin, and also pieces by Scarlatti and Chopin.

Returning to N.Y., Horowitz resumed his concert and recording career. He was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom by President Reagan in 1986, and the National Medal of Arts in 1989. He made his last recording on Nov. 1 of that year; 4 days later, in the afternoon, he suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack. His passing created a universal feeling of loss the world over. His body lay in state in N.Y. and was then flown by his wife to Italy, where it was interred in the Toscanini family plot in Milan.


G. Plaskin, H.: A Biography (N.Y., 1983); D. Dubai, Evenings with K: A Personal Portrait (Secaucus, N.J., 1991); H. Schonberg, H: His Life and Music (N.Y., 1992); P. Brunei, V. H: Le méphisto du piano (Paris, 1997).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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Horowitz, Vladimir (Samoliovich)

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