Vladimir Horowitz was a Russian-born American pianist that left a huge impact on the classical music scene in the 20th century. He brought joy to the world through his music up until 1989, and many people wonder what his talent would have sounded like on modern types of digital pianos. While we will never find out this answer, we can still celebrate his legacy.
Who was Vladimir Horowitz?
Vladimir was born on the 1st of October 1903 in Berdichev, a historic city located near Kyiv, present Ukraine, and the former Russian Empire. He was a virtuoso pianist in the Romantic tradition. The term “virtuoso” describes individuals who have exceptional technical and musical skills, often associated with dazzling displays of piano mastery.
His flawless technique and quality of tone brought to life the works of world-renowned composers, including Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Sergey Rachmaninoff, and Domenico Scarlatti just to name a few. The dynamic range and technical precision of his interpretations made him an appreciated figure in the classical music scene even before he turned 20.
From Russia to worldwide success
He fled from Russia in 1925 and went to Germany, where he quickly made a name for himself. His talent and hard work got him a lot of recognition. He went on to perform in England and France as well. Then in 1928, he debuted on the American scene. He would later emigrate to that country in 1940. And by 1945 he also received American citizenship.
Each of his concerts was considered an unprecedented event, with crowds flocking like sheep to buy tickets and witness his musical pyrotechnics. He was on fire, as the youth of today would say. In 1953 he withdrew from public appearances and focused on making recordings. Over the next 12 years, he would devote himself to studying new works
This would eventually lead to a historic comeback in 1965 at the world-famous Carnegie Hall. His public concerts were starting to get rare so people would flock to ticket stores like crazy to be able to get their hands on one of the seats at his performances. No other classical music interpreter from that period managed to put the crowds in such a state of trance.
In the last decade of his life, in the 1980s, he would also agree to take short trips outside the USA. He would go to Japan and Europe to perform there for packed concert halls as well. In 1986 he returned to The Soviet Union to perform two last concerts and his final tour was comprised of recitals in Europe.
Death and legacy
He died on the 5th of November 1989 in New York and he was buried in the Toscanini family plot in Milan, Italy. His last reprisals in the Soviet Union were considered a huge political event. It was his first return to the country since he left all the way back in the 1920s.
Not only that, but it was also during a period when relationships between the US and Soviet Union were getting slightly better. President Ronald Reagan even went as far as awarding him The Presidential Medal of Freedom for his outstanding performance in Russia.
After his Soviet tour, he was revitalized enough to sign a contract with Sony, which among other things, granted him the right to record albums from the comfort of his own home, on his favorite piano.
Although a lot of his later years in life were crippled with depression and other problems, he managed to redeem himself to the public before his death with excellent recordings and performances. We’ll get into that down the line in this article, but first, we wanted to cover why his works are so important.
Joachim Kaiser and Klaus Bennert wrote about his 1932 recording of the Liszt Sonata to be the definitive edition of that piece. Keep in mind that this was after more than 75 years and over 100 different recordings of the said piece by numerous pianists worldwide. Many of Rachmaninoff’s miniatures were also considered to have been refined by Horowitz’s talent.
Speaking of Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz is considered the most famous interpreter of the composer’s “Third Piano Concerto”. The two were best friends, and Rachmaninoff even went as far as to stop playing the piece once he saw how Horowitz handled it with such finesse.
Horowitz won an impressive number of Grammy awards over the span of his career, as well as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, awarded posthumously.
Struggling with depression, alcoholism, and others
Like with many notorious public figures, Vladimir Horowitz had many fans, critics and journalists who wanted to find out more about his personal life. Even though he was appreciated by many and even though people wanted to hear good things about him, his life was crippled by a series of tragic events that would lead him to struggle with depression and alcoholism.
He married Wanda Toscanini in 1933 in a civil ceremony, which had led to some gossip due to the fact that he was Jewish and she was Roman-Catholic. He knew very little Italian and she had basically no grasp on the Russian language, so they communicated in French. This was yet another reason for gossip, as many people saw the marriage as one of interest rather than love.
They only had one child, Sonia Toscanini Horowitz, who was born in 1934, about one year after their ceremony. Their daughter brought them joy, but sadly she would go on through some terrible events that would impact her parents’ outlook on life. She had a horrible motorbike accident in 1957, at just around 23 years of age, which put a lot of stress on her parents.
She survived but later got into other troubles. This would eventually lead to an untimely death in Geneva in 1975. Even today, people don’t know for sure if her drug overdose was an accident or if it was planned suicide. One can only imagine how heartbreaking this was for Vladimir. Because not too long after, in 1982, he was prescribed antidepressants.
And this was after several attempts of treating his depression back in the 60s and 70s through electroshock therapy. His playing went downhill in the first part of the 80s because of all these misfortunes piling upon him like rabid hungry dogs on a defenseless child. One Japanese critic even described him in 1983 as “a precious antique vase that was severely cracked”.
Fortunately for us and for his legacy, he did redeem himself afterward. His 1987 tour and his final recordings are regarded as some of the best classical music concerts and pieces that you should listen to.
Although his life had a few long hardships, Vladimir Horowitz managed to come up on top as an absolute legend. Despite going through things that would lead other people to suicide, he made a huge comeback and kept recording pieces up until the day he died. The 5th of November 1989, Vladimir’s death date, marks a sad day for humankind and music enthusiasts worldwide.
The heart attack he suffered was probably caused by the immense stress in his personal life. All those years of going through depression, alcoholism, and therapy must’ve gotten to him. Nevertheless, we are not here to theorize about his medical problems. We should celebrate Vladimir’s life and career. His music brought him the title of the best pianist of the 20th century.
If you’ve never heard of Vladimir Horowitz before, now is a good time to search for his music and recordings of his concerts. Although you will, sadly, never going to see him perform live ever again, the recordings do a phenomenal job of quenching your thirst for quality classical music. His technique and finesse are phenomenal.
His style frequently evoked an extraordinary volume of sound from the piano without producing a harsh tone. His technique frequently brought improvements even to pieces that aren’t considered demanding. That’s how much of a musical genius he was. The fact that he could make even a boring piece sound like something extraordinary was mind-blowing.
And if you’re an aspiring pianist, watching his concerts and listening to his recordings might inspire you and give you enough ideas to form your own style that might one day propel you to success. The classical music world desperately needs another Vladimir Horowitz.