Hofmann, Josef C.


Celebrated Polish-American piano prodigy, composer and inventor, pupil of Anton Rubinstein, his career cut short by alcoholism



Type:  Signed portrait
Description:  (1876-1957) Polish-American pianist, composer, music teacher, and inventor, one of the most celebrated pianists of the era.

His father was a composer, conductor and pianist, his mother a singer. To ensure Josef a thorough musical education, they moved to Berlin 1886. The child prodigy gave a debut recital in Warsaw at 5, and a long series of concerts in Europe and Scandinavia, culminating in a series of US concerts 1887-88. The 1887 US tour was 3 months of performances with 50 recitals, 17 at the Metropolitan Opera House but the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children stepped in, citing the boy’s fragile health. However, as per the contract that paid Hofmann $10,000, he was legally obliged to complete the tour. The contract was rendered void and he was legally forbidden to perform in public until 18. The final segment of the tour was cancelled, the family returned to Potsdam, outside Berlin. This marked the end of Hofmann’s child prodigy years. At 12, he was probably the 1st pianist of note to record on Edison’s phonograph.

In 1892, Anton Rubinstein accepted Hofmann as his only private pupil, meeting for 42 sessions in Dresden’s Hotel d’Europe. Weekly lessons included 10 Bach Preludes and Fugues and 2 Beethoven sonatas, from memory. Hofmann was never allowed to bring the same composition twice. Rubinstein never played for Hofmann, but gave ample evidence of his pianistic outlook during many recitals the boy heard. Rubinstein arranged Hofmann’s March 14, 1894 adult debut in Hamburg’s Symphonic Assembly Hall, playing Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Rubinstein conducting. After the concert, Rubinstein told Hofmann there would be no more lessons; they never saw each other again. Over the next 50 years Hofmann toured and performed extensively,

As a composer, he published over 100 works, many under the pseudonym Michel Dvorsky, including 2 piano concertos and ballet music. The US was his base during WW I, becoming a citizen 1926. In 1924, he became 1st head of the piano department at the start of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, its director 1927-38. He was instrumental in recruiting illustrious musicians such as Efrem Zimbalist, Fritz Reiner, Marcella Sembrich, and Leopold Auer as Curtis faculty. In 1937, the 50th anniversary of his New York debut was celebrated with gala performances including a “Golden Jubilee” recital at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera. In 1938 he was forced to leave the Curtis Institute over financial and administrative disputes. His artistic eminence deteriorated 1939-46 in part due to family difficulties and alcoholism. In 1946, he gave his last recital at Carnegie Hall, home to his 151 appearances, retiring in 1948. He spent his last decade in Los Angeles in relative obscurity, working on inventions and corresponding with associates.

As an inventor, he had over 70 patents, his invention of pneumatic shock absorbers for cars and airplanes was commercially successful 1905-28. Other inventions included a windscreen wiper, a furnace that burned crude oil, a house that revolved with the sun, a device to record dynamics (US patent #1614984) in reproducing piano rolls that he perfected just as roll companies went out of business, and piano action improvements adopted by the Steinway Company (US patent #2263088).

Hofmann’s views on technique and musicianship are explained in his book Piano Playing with Questions Answered. He had small but exceptionally strong hands. Steinway built him custom keyboards with slightly narrower keys. His concert pianos had subtle action changes for faster repetition, 2 not 3 pedals (he liked older Steinway trap work geometry), faultless regulation, accompanied on tours by his own recital chair, built with a short folding back and a 1½” slope from rear to front.

His approach and style can be summarized by his motto “an aristocrat never hurries”. His repertoire was mostly pre-20th century music. Although a poor sight reader, he was said to possess Liszt’s and Saint-Saens’ ability to hear a composition once and play it back correctly without seeing the printed notes. Rachmaninoff dedicated his 1909 Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor to Hofmann who disliked it and never played it.

The Josef Hofmann Piano Competition, co-sponsored by the American Council for Polish Culture and the University of South Carolina Aiken was established in his honor in 1994.

SP, 8 x 5 ½ heavy paper Perry Pictures, Boston Edition youthful portrait of a seated Hofmann likely at a keyboard, dated 1918 by him and signed at bottom border.

Condition: Very Good


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