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Josef Hofmann, legendary pianist

By September 27, 2020March 19th, 2023No Comments

I’m afraid that I’m on a piano roll (no pun intended). I realize that I posted performances by Hofmann two years ago, and these, although different from what I posted two years ago, might be repetitive. I am willing to take the chance because Hofmann was such an extraordinary musician.

The description of Hofmann’s life at the bottom of the post is the same as it was two years ago. There is more than an hour’s worth of music here. I encourage you to listen to it all, especially to the Chopin Concerto.


Although the term ‘ballade’ was associated with the French poetry in the 1400s, it was until the 19th century that it was no longer merely used by only poets to tell stories. Chopin composed his four ballades during his mature stage after he left his homeland Poland. It is said that Chopin wrote music for the Lithuanian Ballads of the Polish Adam Mickiewicz. Even Schumann mistakenly commented that Chopin’s ballades were as programmatic as Schumann’s works. This is misleading since Chopin was never interested in music with titles, programs, or characters in the true sense like Schumann. Chopin even did not consider Schumann’s Carnival Op.9 music at all. The narrative sequence in Chopin’s ballades does not follow any specific format; it is embedded in many unpredictable and creative phrases throughout the music.

Chopin’s ballades are pure music in their finest forms without any suggestive narration. Though Chopin was somewhat inspired by the stories of his native Poland and particularly the poems of Adam Mickiewicz, he wanted listeners to follow their own narration through his music. Therefore all analyses on the content of Chopin’s ballades are merely suggestions. It is not necessary to know the poem or content to interpret these abstract works. All four ballades are large-scale works, which last from 8 to 12 minutes, in triple time, 6/4 or 6/8, and have poetry, dramatic and contrasting subjects. They all share these common features, but they are no less than individual works and should not be put in or performed as a group. Even Chopin did not intend to do so. He developed individual motives and combined them through innovative modulations for each ballade. In his ballades found many classical forms of sonata, rondo, variations in revised forms and daring flexibility. The ballades combine many traditional forms and creative expressions, but are still in classical and academic standard.

The ballades are considered the finest of Chopin’s creation and among the most representative of romantic music. Liszt, Brahms, among others, also composed the genre ballade after Chopin, but the musical term ballade is widely associated with Chopin and his ballades are among the most frequently played in concerts around the world. Many pianists found the poetic interpretation of these ballades a real challenge once they have mastered the technical difficulty.

Ballade No. 1, G minor, Op. 23, 1833

Composed within several years, finished in 1835, published in 1836, and dedicated to Baron Stockhausen, the first ballade showed Chopin’s initial attempt in his formulation of the musical form. It is widely agreed that this ballade was inspired from Mickiewicz’s “Conrad Wallenrod”. The ballade opens with the strange Largo section in 4/4 and questionable chord D G Eb, because the piece itself is in G minor, and this triad does not seem to have a relationship to the key of the piec. This suggests some irresolvable issues that promote the coming first narrative subject in D minor.

I have a bit of a personal story with respect to this next piece. When I was an adolescent, there was a television show on PBS. It was called “Notorious Woman”, and it was about the life of Georges Sand. Rosemary Harris played Georges Sand, and I don’t remember who played Chopin. This would have been in about 1976. The theme song for this series was the main theme from this second concerto, the second movement. And strangely enough, before I saw this program, I had never had any desire to learn French. However, after seeing this series, I became obsessed with learning French to read Sand’s autobiography! It is no longer 1975, I never read Sand’s autobiography, but I do speak French!

Chopin’s Concerto in F minor op. 21, for piano and orchestra, was written in autumn of 1829 and, after final improvements made that winter, was given its premier performance by the composer on March 17, 1830 in Warsaw, with resounding success. In the summer of the latter year Chopin completed the Second Concerto in E minor, op. 11, which he performed at his farewell concert of October 11, 1830 in Warsaw before leaving his native country one month later. Travelling by way of Vienna, Munich and Stuttgart, he arrived in Paris in autumn 1831 with a number of works destined for publication in his luggage. While acclimatizing himself to his new environment and establishing contacts with important figures – an unpleasant period for the composer – certain confusions arose that caused the two concertos to be issued and numbered in reverse order by the publishers. (Chopin himself, following the sequence of their composition, always referred to the E-minor work as his second concerto.) Opus 11 was published in 1833, opus 21 in 1836.

The Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor Op 58 was the last of Chopin’s three piano sonatas, written in 1844 during the years of his full maturity as a composer. Unfortunately, we only have Hofmann’s recording of the first movement. This is likely because this recording was a test (for Hofmann) to see if Hofmann like then-current recording technology any better. In the past, he did not like the way in which his recordings sounded.

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.

Hofmann died on February 16, 1957 in Los Angeles.

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.’