Wit and Wisdom

selected by Jeremy Nicholas


Many so-called humorous remarks by celebrated musicians fail to raise even a watery smile. Godowsky was well known for his waspish sense of humour and many of his witticisms and sagacious remarks have passed into musical folklore. Surprisingly, perhaps, the majority have stood the test of time and remain genuinely amusing. Among these is one of the most famous of all music-related anecdotes. You can find the full account of this story as the final item in this brief collection. Here for your enjoyment, in no particular order, are some of Godowsky's bon mots.


Oscar Levant, the pianist, composer, wit, actor and raconteur recalled in his autobiographical volume Memoirs of an Amnesiac the occasion when a film director asked him to include in a speech a quip made by Godowsky: "I don't like to go to concerts because if they're good, I'm jealous; if they're bad, I'm bored." (Levant actually refused to say the words unless he could attribute them to their author.)

Godowsky moved with his family from Vienna to New York in 1914. Their first home was the Plaza Hotel. Bechstein provided Godowsky with two grands, replaced free of charge every year, and of course these had to be accommodated in his apartment. As the moving men panted and strained to move the two latest instruments, one of them paused in his efforts, mopped his brow and told their owner exactly what he thought of having to lug heavy concert grands about. "What are you complaining about?" laughed Godowsky. "You only have to move pianos. I have to move audiences."

Once, when Godowsky was asked by a colleague whether he thought it would still be worth going to a recital by the elderly Vladimir de Pachmann, he answered, "I'll tell you, if he plays for one minute the way he used to, it will be worthwhile being miserable for the rest of it."

Apropos of wrong notes, a subject rich for musical anecdotes, when a young man made a point of mentioning the wrong notes he had heard Hofmann play in a recital, Godowsky merely commented: "Why look for spots on the sun?"

Godowsky was not an admirer of Eugen d'Albert - "I haven't one pupil in Vienna who plays as badly as him" - but when one of Godowsky's students made a similar observation on the number of d'Albert's mistakes, Godowsky smartly slapped him down with: "I'd rather listen to all d'Albert's wrong notes than to any of your right ones."

Like many pianists, Godowsky was frequently importuned by proud parents to hear their children and pronounce on their abilities. After hearing the offspring of one such doting father, Godowsky wrote: "Your daughter is not without talent; she manages to play the simplest pieces with the greatest of difficulty."

Once Godowsky was listening to Raoul Pugno perform one of his own compositions. When asked afterwards how he liked the piece, Godowsky replied: "It seems to me that Pugno first wrote the fingering of that work and then fitted the notes to it."

In May 1928, Godowsky wrote his fourth contrapuntal paraphrase on music by Johann Strauss II - the Symphonic Metamorphosis of the Schatz-Waltzer themes from the Gypsy Baron for left hand alone. It was composed for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein whose technical prowess was never quite able to match the inspired music he commissioned from Ravel, Prokofiev, Korngold and the like. "It is good music." Godowsky wrote in a letter to a friend after completing his paraphrase. "Very likely too good for Wittgenstein."

Godowsky asked Abram Chasins about a piece he (Chasins) had written and which had become a best-seller. "Is it true that your Rush Hour in Hong Kong has been published six months and is already in its sixteenth edition?" "Why yes, Mr. Godowsky." "You know, I was never crazy about that piece," said Godowsky, "but so bad I didn't think it was."

Leopold Junior, so often the victim of his father's gibes, recalled a favourite Godowskyism. There was that famous saying of Franz Liszt that when he didn't practice for a day, he noticed it; and if he didn't practice for two days, his friends noticed it; and if he didn't practice for three days, his audience noticed it. And Godowsky said, "I have had the same experience, and when I don't practice for four days, the critics notice it."

As for his fellow pianists, here was endless scope for indulging his caustic wit. Once Mark Hambourg's name arose in conversation. He had suffered many painful memory lapses during his recital the previous week which Godowsky and several others present had attended. "Wasn't it frightful, this forgetting?" exclaimed one. "It wasn't what he forgot that was so frightful," said Godowsky. "It was what he remembered!"

Dagmar (Godowsky's younger daughter) enjoyed a lively social life and some success in Hollywood as a vamp in silent movies. Her stage career, however, was short-lived after an encounter with a bottle of bootleg gin on opening night, when she was unable to perform. As time passed she managed Godowsky's affairs, devoting much of her time to his well-being. It was, Godowsky considered, a wise alternative to acting or her brief involvement with running a night-club. "My daughter is going to work again," he used to say. "I only hope it won't cost me too much."

Once, while playing at El Paso, Texas, Godowsky decided to take advantage of the Mexican liquor laws and made a quick visit to Juarez (the 18th amendment to the Constitution prohibited the sale of alcohol anywhere in the United States). On returning to El Paso, suitably refreshed, the pianist ran into difficulties with the frontier guards over his passport and was arrested. A night in jail was only avoided by his being able to convince guards of the necessity of his presence in the El Paso concert hall that night and he was released to United States officials. On his programme that night was his concert version of Adolf Henselt's Si oiseau j'etais (If I were a bird). "It came very near being," wrote the paroled pianist to his friend Maurice Aronson, "if I were a jail-bird!"

Josef Hofmann's recitals were always attended with keen anticipation of his encores. There would be demands for the same old war-horses - Rubinstein's Melody in F, Moszkowski's Caprice Espagnole, the Schubert-Tausig Marche Militaire - and, predictably, they would be trotted out on every occasion. After one such recital, Frieda Godowsky rose to leave. "Aren't you coming?", she asked her husband, who showed no signs of moving. "I'm not budging from this spot," Godowsky replied, "until Josef plays The Rosary."

Perhaps Godowsky's most satisfying relationship in his later years was with Albert Einstein.

The two first made contact without actually meeting. In 1922, during his tour of Japan and the Far East, Godowsky learned that Einstein was travelling two days behind him on the same route, making a lecture tour. Knowing that the Professor loved music and liked to play himself, Godowsky arranged that his pianos in each city would be placed in Einstein's room ready for him when he arrived. They did not meet until the autumn of 1933, at a Princeton University function.

"I asked him to explain the relativity theory to me," said Godowsky, his eyes twinkling. "He said he could not explain it. We tried to talk of music. Finally we compromised. We talked of economics. He has very decided views on economics and what ought to be done. I could not agree with him on all points." Both enjoyed each other's company hugely. One evening, Godowsky was playing a duet at his home with Einstein on the violin. During one passage, Godowsky forgot himself, banged on the piano and, reproving Einstein, cried, "What's the matter? Can't you count? One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four! "

When the musical world of New York decided to pay tribute to Einstein with a testimonial concert at Carnegie Hall in 1934, Godowsky was the obvious choice when it came to supervising the program. "They wrote to me asking me to be chairman," said Godowsky. "I wrote back that I would have to refuse. They wrote back thanking me for accepting."

Violinist Mischa Elman called round after an exceptionally successful tour and asked Godowsky excitedly to guess how much money he had made. "Half," replied Godowsky laconically, "Half."

One particular witticism is remembered above all - indeed, it has been quoted so frequently that were Godowsky's music to lapse into total obscurity there would be a danger of his name being known solely by this anecdote. It concerns the American debut of Jascha Heifetz. As a result of this appearance, Heifetz became the instrumental sensation of wartime America, and for the next half century remained the unchallenged king of violinists. The Godowskys, true to fashion, had taken the young maestro under their wing on his arrival in New York and had welcomed him to their home. It was a friendship that lasted till Godowsky's death.

At 2:30 on Saturday afternoon, 27th October 1917, Carnegie Hall was packed to the roof. In the audience were all the top string players and musicians of the city to hear the sixteen-year old violinist. Godowsky, together with Dagmar and violinists Frederic Fradkin and Mischa Elman were seated in their box. (Elman, like Heifetz, had been a child prodigy nurtured by Leopold Auer and had made his debut in New York in 1908 at the age of seventeen to enthusiastic, though not uncritical, acclaim.) Accompanied by Frank Sealy on the organ, Heifetz opened with Vitali's Chaconne, followed by Wieniawski's Concerto in D minor, Schubert's Ave Maria, some Mozart, plus Wilhelmj and Auer transcriptions and encore pieces with Andre Benoist at the piano. "The most breathtaking, the most crushing, the supremest genius of the violin that has confronted us in the past decade or perchance even more," wrote one critic. "The force and fervency of the general delight...were of the sort that make an event historic." And another: "There can be no question, even though one's judgement is based necessarily on only one recital, that Jascha Heifetz takes a place among the leading violinists of the world. Despite his extraordinary youth he already has acquired a mastery of his instrument that probably is not surpassed by any other living virtuoso."

At the interval, Godowsky's party went out into the airless corridors behind their box. Elman wiped his brow, looked about and mumbled, "Phew, it's awful hot in there." "Not for pianists," Godowsky quickly rejoined.

Heifetz was asked by an interviewer in 1952 if the story was true or whether it had been invented by a shrewd press agent.

It happened. I remember the date. Godowsky came to me during the intermission and told me the story. And it has been dogging my footsteps ever since. What amuses me is the sequel to that story, and a pianist is the target this time. At a concert in London, one warm summer night, a famous pianist was listening to Josef Hofmann play the piano. He started to take his handkerchief out of his pocket and mop his forehead - but he noticed that several of us, violinists, were looking at him with the obvious remark of Godowsky on our lips, and he placed his handkerchief sheepishly back into his pocket and sweated it out!

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