This Week in Music History: Vladimir Horowitz is Born (1903)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The surprisingly mysterious date of birth of legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz…

Horowitz’s birth certificate (indicating 1903!)

It’s not entirely clear when Vladimir Horowitz was born, or where. The date was October 1 (in the ‘new’, Gregorian style), but the year isn’t certain. He was once thought to have been born in 1904, but it seems that his passport was doctored in 1925—the year he left the Soviet Union—so that it said he was a year younger than he really was. Why? So that the talented young pianist wouldn’t have to do military service. As for his place of birth, Horowitz always said it was Kiev, although some sources say Berdichev, a Ukrainian city several hours to the west, where his family may have lived. Kiev is the more likely place, however.

The details of Horowitz’s early years, at any rate, aren’t clear. But one detail shines through like a beacon: he was a very talented pianist. In the documentary film The Last Romantic, Horowitz relates how he was obsessed with the piano from as young as three years old:

Horowitz attended the conservatory in Kiev from the age of nine, and so did his sister Regine. After some eight years of study he made his public debut in 1920, and soon forged a partnership with a fellow Ukrainian who had been studying in St Petersburg: the violinist Nathan Milstein. Their futures would be closely linked.

Horowitz and Milstein left the Soviet Union together in late 1925. They had obtained permission to tour Europe, and, beginning in Berlin, they were hugely successful. Whether by accident or design, the pair stayed put in the West: Milstein never returned, and Horowitz only did so many decades later, towards the end of his life.

The pianist’s American debut came in 1928, as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic and Thomas Beecham, who, as it happens, was also making his debut there. Horowitz was lauded, although this was not the brilliant collaboration it might have been, with disagreements about tempi marring the performance—but there were other legends with whom the pianist got on rather better. One was fellow expatriate Sergei Rachmaninoff, who said Horowitz played his Second Sonata better than he did. Another was conductor Arturo Toscanini, whose daughter, Wanda, married Horowitz in Milan in 1933.

Despite all the success he achieved, Horowitz did not have an easy life, and he retired from the stage four times over the course of his career—he didn’t play in public at all during the twelve years from 1953 to 1965. But the public retained their devotion to him, waiting all night to get tickets to his comeback concert at Carnegie Hall in 1965.

And his fans back home waited even longer: 61 years. “Going back to Russia was the high point of his career”, Wanda says in Peter Gelb’s moving film of “reminiscences”. You can see—and hear—the emotion coursing through the hall in his legendary 1986 concert, a fitting coda to the career of one of the century’s great pianists at the age of 83. Or, possibly, 82.

Dive into our Horowitz archives with an intimate documentary portrait or his legendary concert in Moscow…

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