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Josef Hoffmann (piano)

By April 5, 2018March 16th, 2023No Comments

What was unique about Hofmann, besides that he was a musical genius, was the quality of the sound that he could get from the piano.  The piano is a percussive instrument, yet he could make it sing.  His technique was by all the accounts the best of any pianist of the 20th century.

Josef Hofmann, 1937 Golden Jubilee – Chopin: Berceuse Op. 57

Josef Casimir Hofmann (originally Józef Kazimierz Hofmann; January 20, 1876 – February 16, 1957) was a Polish American pianist, composer, music teacher, and inventor.


Josef Hofmann was born in Podgórze (a district of Kraków), in Austro-Hungarian Galicia (present-day Poland) in 1876. Hofmann was of partial Jewish ancestry. His father was the composer, conductor and pianist Kazimierz Hofmann, and his mother the singer Matylda Pindelska. A child prodigy, he gave a debut recital in Warsaw at the age of 5, and a long series of concerts throughout Europe and Scandinavia, culminating in a series of concerts in America in 1887-88.  Anton Rubinstein ( a very important piano teacher) took Hofmann as his only private student in 1892 and arranged the debut of his pupil in Hamburg, Germany in 1894. Hofmann toured and performed extensively over the next 50 years as one of the most celebrated pianists of the era.

He made the United States his base during World War I and became a US citizen in 1926. In 1924, he became the first head of the piano department at the inception of the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, and became the Institute’s director in 1927 and remained so until 1938.

In 1938 he was forced to leave the Curtis Institute of Music over financial and administrative disputes. In the years from 1939 to 1946, his artistic eminence deteriorated, in part due to family difficulties and alcoholism. In 1946, he gave his last recital at Carnegie Hall, home to his 151 appearances, and retired to private life in 1948. He spent his last decade in Los Angeles in relative obscurity, working on inventions and keeping a steady correspondence with associates.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1939. Hofmann died on February 16, 1957.

Education in music

Hoffmann continued to take music lessons from Heinrich Urban (composition) and with the pianist and composer Moritz Moszkowski.

By the early 1930s, in spite of problems, Hofmann retained exceptional pianistic command throughout this decade; Rudolf Serkin and a young Glenn Gould have recounted magical impressions created on them by Hofmann’s concerts in mid-and-late 1930s. After his departure from the Curtis Institute in 1938, a combination problems and a loss of interest in performing caused a rapid deterioration in his artistic abilities. Commenting on Hofmann’s sharp decline, Sergei Rachmaninoff said, “Hofmann is still sky high … the greatest pianist alive if he is sober and in form. Otherwise, it is impossible to recognize the Hofmann of old”. Oscar Levant wrote, “one of the terrible tragedies of music was the disintegration of Josef Hofmann as an artist. In his latter days, he became an alcoholic. …[H]is last public concert … was an ordeal for all of us”.

Technique and style

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 eventually built for him custom keyboards with slightly narrower keys.

Hofmann’s approach and style can be summarized by his motto “an aristocrat never hurries”.  He often stated that [Anton] Rubinstein and Moriz Rosenthal were the only pianists that influenced his art.  He adopted a more demonstrative style in live performances but a subtle and restrained style for his studio recordings; in both cases, he mostly adhered to the printed score.  After hearing a performance of Chopin’s B minor Sonata by Hofmann, Rachmaninoff cut that piece from his own repertoire saying “not since Anton Rubinstein have I heard such titanic playing”.


Hofmann started recording in studios in the 1880s but was never satisfied with the available technology and made only test pressings after 1923; he considered the test pressings made for HMV in November 1935 to be a worthwhile representation of his art. In the 1940s he recorded for the Bell Telephone Hour radio programs of which some rare footage remains, including Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2, and Beethoven’s Concerto in E-flat major, “Emperor”. Gregor Benko has remarked that Hofmann should not have appeared on many of the Bell Telephone Hour broadcasts since, by this time, his pianistic control had deteriorated considerably though the tonal palette was still immense and the phrasing provocative. Hofmann’s student Jeanne Behrend, after first hearing the recordings from 1940 to 1946, stated “well, it’s his playing, but nothing like what we heard in the 1920s.”

Earl Wild acknowledged Hofmann’s style as the biggest influence on him gaining a fluid and flexible technique: ‘His interpretations were always delivered with great logic and beauty.’ Jorge Bolet is reported to have said that whenever he heard either Rachmaninoff or Hofmann, he always thought to himself, ‘Every note that they play – that is what I would like to play.’