Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, in the Ukraine, on October 1, 1904. His father was an engineer. His mother and sister, Regina, were pianists, a brother, Georg, a violinist.
His family recognized his musical talent early. When he was three years old, his mother started teaching him piano at home; formal training began at age six. He studied both piano and composition at the Kiev Conservatory, and in his early years leaned more toward composing.
The political upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution cost his family most of their possessions, and in 1917 (at age 13) Horowitz began playing piano recitals to earn money to help support them. He gradually gained a following, and after his successful 1922-23 season, he went out on a 70-concert tour, playing 200 different works.
In 1925, Horowitz was granted a student’s visa for foreign travel, but on arrival in Western Europe, he ignored schools and instead embarked on a two-year concert tour of Europe, winning positive reactions from audiences and critics alike. Next, Horowitz traveled to the United States under the sponsorship of impresario Arthur Judson. Early in 1928, Horowitz played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham.
In 1933 Horowitz met his future wife, Wanda Toscanini, after an invitation from her father, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, to be the soloist in the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto. They married the same year.
Horowitz quit the concert circuit four times, between 1936 and 1938, from 1953 to 1965, from 1968 to 1974, and from 1983 to 1985. “For me, playing the piano is the easiest thing in the world,” he said in 1975. “It’s all the things around playing that drive me crazy.” On another occasion, he said: “I could play every day. It is the moving that is the big deal for me. I have to take my own cook because I can’t eat hotel food.”
In addition to the cook, he also took along a machine to purify water. “Every place has a different kind of water, and I don’t want foreign chemicals in me,” he explained.
When Horowitz did play on tour, he required that his personal piano from his Manhattan living room accompany him, and stipulated that concerts were at 4 P.M. and only on Sunday. Advance teams redecorated his hotel rooms to make them more like his own home.
Horowitz receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President and Mrs. Reagan.
Critics sometimes complained his highly-personalized interpretations ignored composers’ intentions, but Horowitz was not overly worried by these accusations. “When I sit at the keyboard,” he said, “I never know how I will play something. The head, the intellect, is only the controlling factor of music making. It is not a guide. The guide is your feelings. Chopin never played his own pieces the same way twice.”
Another time Horowitz said: “I am a 19th-century Romantic. I am the last. I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake, you hear it. But the score is not a bible, and I am never afraid to dare. The music is behind those dots. You search for it, and that is what I mean by the grand manner. I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back.”
Of his art, Horowitz said, “The most important thing is to transform the piano from a percussive instrument into a singing instrument – a singing tone is made up of shadows and colors and contrast. The secret lies mainly in contrasts.”
In the last four years of his life, he performed in a much-publicized tour of the Soviet Union, performances in Europe and America, and recorded compact discs, videotapes, television programs, and films.
Here is Horowitz being interviewed by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes:
I remember as a teenager and young adult watching his performances on television. He is one of my very favorite pianists.
Vladimir Horowitz passed away on November 5, 1989, at the age of 85.
Information for this article was taken from his obituary in the New York Times by Bernard Holland. For more about Horowitz, see this article by Mary O’Connor.