Josef Hofmann

Josef Hofmann

Composer • Piano

• 1876 1957


Joszef Kazimierz (or Josef Casimir) Hofmann was one of the great pianists of all time. Both parents worked for the Krakow Theater, where his father, Kazimierz Hofmann (1842-1911) was conductor and his mother sang in light operas. His father was also a notable teacher of harmony and counterpoint and began teaching his son the basics of music, while Josef's sister and aunt both taught him piano. This resulted in Josef becoming one of the all-time great child prodigies. In fact, it is said that his facility in mathematics and science were the equal of his musical talent. By the age of seven he was touring as a pianist and composing music. At 11 he made his U.S. debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, playing Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. This event has been counted as one of the most sensational concerts in history.

He became a well-known figure, appearing in 42 concerts throughout the U.S. He became a cause célèbre when the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children publicly protested the obviously exhausting exploitation, his father having resigned all his teaching posts in order to direct young Josef's career. The American glass-making magnate Alfred Corning Clark put up a fund of $50,000 to promote the boy's education. Fortunately, the family accepted, and Josef returned to Berlin in 1892 to study piano with Moritz Moszkowski.

However, he did not get along with Moszkowski. Instead, he auditioned for Anton Rubinstein in 1892, and the great pianist and teacher accepted Hofmann as his only private pupil. Hofmann traveled by train twice a week to Rubinstein's home in Dresden and worked strenuously with him, learning not only maturity in playing, but his musical ideals.

Hofmann debuted as a mature artist in 1894, the year of Rubinstein's death. He achieved unprecedented international success in Europe, Russia, and North and South America. He was regarded as the ideal pianist in a literal as well as a metaphoric sense; his style and technique were put before students as the goal to which they should aspire. He had a fabulous control over tonal qualities, and could erupt out of a restrained, dignified sound into a passionate emotional outburst. His repertoire was almost entirely limited to the first half of the nineteenth century (roughly, from Beethoven through Schumann and Liszt). However, he did play Rachmaninov's Third Concerto (which was dedicated to him).

He was the first professional musician in history to make a recording, which he did when he visited Thomas Edison's laboratories and made several cylinder recordings in 1887. He was not a prolific maker of commercial recordings, but a large number of live performance recordings was made, confirming the remarkable accounts of his playing.

In 1926 he accepted the invitation of Mary Louise Curtis Bok to become the director of the Curtis Institute of Music, which she had recently formed. He remained in that position for 12 years (1926-1948), and was instrumental in forming it into one of the world's great conservatories. In 1937 he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his U.S. debut with a concert at the old Metropolitan, playing an Anton Rubinstein concerto and some of his own music. He composed over 100 works under the pen name Michel Dvorsky. He moved to California in 1938 and closed his concert career in 1945; alcoholism was a factor. However, he continued to work on improvements to piano actions and recording techniques, accounting for some of the 70 patents he held.