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8.225187 - GODOWSKY, L.: Piano Music, Vol. 6 (Scherbakov) - Schubert Transcriptions
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Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)

Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)

Piano Music Volume 6: Schubert Transcriptions


The great Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky was born at Soshly, a village near the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, in 1870, the son of a doctor. The first signs of his exceptional musical ability were clear by the age of three and he wrote his first compositions four years later, in 1879 making his first public appearance as a pianist. There followed a series of concerts in Germany and Poland and a very short period of study with Ernst Rudorff, a pupil of Clara Schumann and of Moscheles, at the Berlin Musikhochschule. Four months at the Hochschule proved enough and in the same year, 1884, Godowsky made his first appearance in the United States in Boston, under the auspices of the Clara Louise Kellogg Concert Company, then touring with that singer and with the singer Emma Thursby. 1885 brought appearances at the New York Casino, in weekly alternation with the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, and the following year he undertook a tour of Canada with the Belgian violinist Ovide Musin, for whom Saint-Saëns had written his Morceau de Concert. In the hope of studying with Liszt, Godowsky returned to Europe, but, learning of the latter’s death from a newspaper, he travelled, instead, to Paris, with the object of studying with Camille Saint-Saëns, distinguished equally as a pianist and a composer. Saint-Saëns was impressed by Godowsky’s playing and suggested that he should adopt him, on condition that he changed his name, a suggestion that Godowsky rejected. For the better part of three years, however, their relationship continued, with Sundays spent together, Godowsky playing to Saint-Saëns, before the latter played to his disciple his own compositions. The contact was a valuable one and allowed Godowsky to meet leading figures in contemporary musical life, including Tchaikovsky, whose music he played in that composer’s presence at the Paris chamber-music society, La Trompette. In 1927, six years after the death of Saint-Saëns, Godowsky transcribed for piano his mentor’s La Cygne (The Swan), from the Carnival of the Animals, and on his own deathbed in 1938 had a friend play this to him.


In 1890 Godowsky returned to America, where he joined the staff of the New York College of Music, married, and took out American citizenship. While continuing his career as a performer, he visited Philadelphia in 1894 and 1895, as the head of the piano department at the music school founded by Gilbert Raynold Combs, and from 1895 to 1900 led the piano department of the Chicago Conservatory. A successful concert in Berlin persuaded him to settle there in the latter year, teaching and using the city as his base for concert tours throughout Europe and the Near East. In 1909 he moved to Vienna to direct the piano master-class at the Akademie der Tonkunst.


There were American tours between 1912 and 1914 and with the outbreak of war Godowsky settled again in the United States, giving concerts and clarifying his innovative theories of keyboard technique in a series of editions and publications. At the same time he continued to write music of his own for the piano. He gave his last concert in the United States in 1922, but continued to tour throughout the world, acknowledged as one of the leading virtuosi of his time. His career as a performer was curtailed by a stroke in 1930, depriving him of the ability to play for the last eight years of his life. He was now increasingly led to pin his hopes for a lasting place in the history of music on his compositions and transcriptions for the piano. Such recognition, however, has been slow to come.


Godowsky’s Passacaglia was published in 1928. It takes the first eight bars of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and treats it as the basis of 44 variations, following the traditional baroque form and including, among other things, an apt allusion to the Erl-König. The variations, in which the theme returns in various guises and registers, lead to a virtuoso cadenza and a final fugue, in which the theme undergoes major transformations. The work, a tour de force, was designed to mark the centenary of Schubert’s death.


Two of the transcriptions of songs by Schubert, Am Meer (By the Sea), collected in Schwanengesang, and Trockne Blumen (Faded Blossoms) from Die schöne Müllerin were included in Four Piano Transcriptions of German Lieder (In Intermediate Grade), published in 1937. Trockne Blumen is the eighteenth song in the cycle, settings of verses by Wilhelm Müller. The young miller, his apprenticeship over, contemplates the flowers that his master’s daughter gave him, now, in his despair, to be planted on his grave for her to see when she passes. Am Meer is a setting of a poem by Heine in which the poet sits by the sea with his beloved, seeing her tears fall. The transcription, essentially a simple one, preserves the lower register of the original and the brief moments of drama, as the mist rises and then as the poet’s soul dies of love, poisoned by his beloved’s tears.


The Twelve Schubert Songs, freely transcribed for the piano were published in 1927 and are much more elaborate in conception. Ungeduld (Impatience), the last of the set, dedicated to Gertrude Huntley, paraphrases the seventh of the Die schöne Müllerin cycle. Here the young miller proclaims his love for his master’s daughter, the four strophes varied in arrangement, each ending with the declaration Dein ist mein Herz und soll es ewig bleiben (Thine is my heart and shall ever be).


Gute Nacht (Good Night), the fourth of Godowsky’s set, dedicated to Berthold Neuer, is a transcription of the first song in the Müller cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey). The singer bids his beloved good night, as he sets out on his journey through the winter snow, rejected. Godowsky again varies each strophe of the original song.


Das Wandern (Wandering), is the first song of Die schöne Müllerin in which the boy, his apprenticeship now finished, sets out on his wandering. In his arrangement, the second of the set, dedicated to Isidore Philipp, Godowsky reflects in his transcription something of the developing poetic mood of the five strophes.


In Heidenröslein (Hedge Rose), dedicated by Godowsky to Prince Mohammed Mohiuddin, Schubert set a poem by Goethe. A boy plucks a wild rose, in spite of the rose’s warning, for which he finally cares nothing. In this third of the set there is again variety in the transcription of the three strophes, the essential simplicity of which is nevertheless preserved.


Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message), the tenth of the transcriptions, dedicated to Hans Heniot, treats the Schubert song that starts the posthumously assembled collection, Schwanengesang (Swan Song), a setting of a poem by Ludwig Rellstab. Godowsky preserves the pace and spirit of the song, giving greater prominence to elements hidden in the texture of the original.


An Mignon (To Mignon), the eleventh of the transcriptions, dedicated to Herman Wasserman, is based on a setting of a poem by Goethe, written in 1796 and published the following year in Schiller’s Musenalmanach. The mysterious Mignon, who appears in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister, a pathetic child, kidnapped by gypsies, to be released by Wilhelm Meister, seems to have symbolic significance for Goethe, here in a poem and song in which there is underlying grief.


In Morgengruss (Morning Greeting), the fifth of the group, dedicated to Joseph Gahm, and the eighth song in Die schöne Müllerin, the boy bids the miller’s daughter good morning, wondering where she is and what she is doing. The strophic song has four verses, in the last of which the lark is heard, while love promises only suffering and sorrow.


Die Forelle (The Trout), the seventh of the set and dedicated to Cora Neuer, is based on Schubert’s well-known setting of a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, three verses that tell of an angler finally catching the trout that has eluded him, to the pity of the onlooker.


Wiegenlied (Cradle Song), the sixth transcription, dedicated to Dr A.I.Ringer, preserves the simple beauty of the original, a setting of a poem attributed, aptly enough, to Matthias Claudius.


In Wohin? (The Brooklet), the first transcription, dedicated to Sergey Rachmaninov, Godowsky elaborates the second song of Die schöne Müllerin, in which the boy hears the brook, its gentle sound reflected in the piano version, beckoning him on, he knows not where.


The eighth transcription, Die junge Nonne (The Young Nun), dedicated to David Saperton, is based on a setting of a poem by Jacob Nicolaus Craigher. Here the young nun of the title contrasts the raging storm outside, with the serenity of religious life and its eternal reward.


The ninth transcription, Litanei (Litany), dedicated to Robert Braun, based on a setting of a poem by Johann Georg Jacobi, offers prayers for the souls of the dead, that they may rest in peace. The song and its transcription are permeated by a mood of serenity.


Godowsky’s Schubert transcriptions end with a concert arrangement of the ballet music for Rosamunde, dated 1923, and an arrangement of the third Moment Musical, Op.94, from 1922.


Keith Anderson

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