Jorge Bolet, in his introduction to Jeremy Nicholas's
study of Leopold Godowsky (Appian Publications 1989) writes "a
name revered by those few who have made unbiased examination (my
italics) of his contribution to the world of music" - and goes
on to write "He developed the polyrhythmic and polymelodic
possibilities of the piano to a degree that no other composer has
achieved. By so doing he became the last of the lineage of innovators
for the piano: Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff."
This assessment of a composer/pianist whose fame has been long restricted
to a discerning few and whose detractors are numerous will inevitably
be thought fulsome. Yet such an accolade from such a musician as
Bolet prompts serious investigation into Godowsky's standing - as
musician: composer and pianist.
It is difficult today to appreciate fully the regard in which
he was held by his contemporaries: " a phenomenon in an age
of phenomena". For in the world of the piano this was the
era of the great lions of the keyboard: Busoni, Pachmann, Leschetizky,
Hofman, Rachmaninoff, Paderewski. The list is endless. That Godowsky
occupied a prime place in this hierarchy we are only told - for
his recordings are few, difficult to obtain - and the music (apart
from the monumental Chopin Studies transcriptions, daunting even
for an accomplished pianist and quite unsuitable as an introduction
to his work) unobtainable except in expensive photocopy, or, very
rarely, in secondhand shops. His daughter Dagmar however remembers
"Everyone came to us. It was not unusual to come home and
find Paderewski, Chaliapin, Kreisler, Hofman, Caruso, Elman, Damrosch
(quoted in the Jeremy Nicholas book). We know his students called
him "Mr God". His friend and compatriot Josef Hofman,
after a phenomenal private recital, remarked "Never forget
what you have heard tonight - never lose the memory of that sound
- it is tragic that the public have never heard Popsy as only
he can play."
What we can however roundly assert, if we take the unbiased view
advocated by Bolet, is that his piano writing is the most innovative,
the most intricate and musically imaginative of its time, exquisite
above all in texture, with an individual melodic sensitivity (like
that of Medtner, not always fully understood or appreciated) which
is embedded in harmonies that defy description in the usual terminology
of classical/romantic/impressionist/neo-classical. Perhaps when
one thinks of Reger and Joseph Marx it is to all intents and purposes
late-romantic. But while this might suffice in consideration of
his original compositions it gives little clue to the body of
his transcriptions which virtually stand by themselves - unlike
anything from Liszt to Schulz-Evler. The secret I think lies in
Godowsky's great sense of architectonic structure. Above all it
is piano music for the pianist - who alone can fully appreciate
the subtleties and craftsmanship which, in performance, often
escapes the listener's ear, aware only of the rich colourful sound.
Colour, often of exotic shades, permeates all his music - even
in the much maligned transcriptions. These are in effect new works
in their own right in which Godowsky's purpose is regularly misunderstood
as simply pursuing sensational effects for their own sake. One
has only to listen, nay to study, the superbly sensitive transcriptions
of the Bach 'Cello Suites - in particular the C minor Sarabande
- to realise how mistaken this is, and how in a kind of religious
fervour Godowsky approached these works: "To explore inner
meanings, to probe hidden beauties: to give utterance to vaguely
suggested thoughts: to project undivulged ideas - inarticulate
sub-conscious impressions - was for me a labour of love and an
inexhaustible source of inspiration". (Foreword). He spoke
also of "the master's supreme powers in contrapuntal style
and emotional polyphony" (again my italics). Godowsky felt
he had to defend himself against his detractors and purists and
stated that he "wished to make clear that I have never introduced
any themes, motifs or counter-melodies which were not a logical
outgrowth of the inherent musical content." These transcriptions
are a supreme achievement to which he brought not only a reverence
but also a unity of mind with the Master and also something not
unlike the ingenuity and (musical) strategy of a master chess
player. It is good that in addition to the famous Chopin Study
transcriptions we can now hear, in spectacular performances, the
Piano Sonata, and the great Passacaglia even if the sprawling
Sonata is in some ways of less value in his work than the exquisite
watercolour of his treatment of Saint-Saëns' "Le Cygne"
which is of a delicacy belying its virtuosity.
Paradoxically the composition of his 'Java Suite' began almost
humbly in a desire to write 'end of recital pieces', just as the
magisterial Bach works were designed, in Godowsky's eyes, to provide
material suitable to begin a recital! The Suite was the first
of half a dozen projected works which he entitled Phonoramas -
tonal journeys for the pianoforte to be based on themes and melodies
from diverse parts of the world to which he had travelled. These,
as well as Java, were to include Japan, China, India and Turkey.
In the event only the Java Suite (1924) was actually completed.
And in fact only two fragments of indigenous music were used.
In the third piece - "Hari Besaar"- the melodic material
is entirely original, but within an exotic texture that is truly
evocative of his Javanese experience. This kind of exoticism ideally
suits the richly woven tapestry of sound that Godowsky creates
in his imaginative writing - complex patterns yet expressed "in
as musical a manner as I can, but accessible to laymen as well
as to the serious musician". (letter LG to MA 20/12/23).
"I never tried" says Godowsky " for effects of
sonority and picturesqueness in my compositions, and it will amuse
me to branch off in a new direction" (ibid). They are not
however, simply picture postcards, but evoke something of the
ethos of the people and their life. In each piece some central
melodic strand seems to suggest human consciousness within the
pictorial canvas. To describe them as 'impressionistic' is I suppose
superficially correct - yet although the 'impressions' are of
places with exotic names and pictorial beauty, the impressions
are more accurately of a spiritual/emotional experience awakened
in the composer - and also of an 'atmosphere' which, almost tangibly,
surrounds these places. The translation of these 'impressions'
into pianistic sound is astonishingly beautiful - described by
Sorabji as "worthy to place in the same rank as the great
'Iberia' Suite of Albeniz which they far surpass in variety of
mood, character and pianistic resource". ('Mi Contra Fa'
The overall scheme, originally intended as a three-section form
for each piece (designed to express the life of the people (Allegro),
their poetic nature (Lento) and the Dance) became a four-part
form of twelve pieces, each section consisting of three pieces.
All are in duple/quadruple time as is all Javanese music (just
as Godowsky's "Triakontameron" and "Walzermasken"
are in triple time.)
The sonority of the first piece "Gamelan" pervades
the whole Suite. Godowsky had certainly heard the Gamelan orchestra
in the Paris Grande Exposition Universelle (1889) but had experienced
it the year before, visiting Java as an impressionable youth of
nineteen. In the Foreword to the Suite he wrote:
"The sonority of the Gamelan is so weird, spectral, fantastic
bewildering the native music so elusive, vague, shimmering and
singular, that on listening to this new world of sound I lost
sense of reality, imagining myself in a realm of enchantment."
But anyone who thinks that the dazzle of effect hides a paucity
of melodic invention let him play a piece such as "The Gardens
of Buitenzorg" (the 8th piece of the Suite) condensing the
structure chordally, and listen to the result.
The second piece "Waygang -Purwa" depicts, in its curious
little posturing melody, the shadow-play of puppetry behind a
screen of white silk, echoing the native belief that shadows represent
the ancestral spirits. The joyous bustle of "Hari Besaar"
- the Great Fair - is alive with arguing traders, mysterious sidelong
glances of dusky maidens - its joyous central melody recalling
the music of Busoni's "Red Indian Diary".
The second section begins with a picture of "Chattering
Monkeys at the Sacred Lake of Wendit". "On every side
are jabbering monkeys, hundreds of them jumping from tree to tree
others nearer the ground are springing on and off the roofs
of the small hotel and bath-houses
" a scene full
of sparkling humour brilliantly evoked in an Allegro scherzando
In complete contrast the mysterious ruined temple of Boro Budur
is bathed in moonlight "an uncanny melancholy mood permeates
the whole atmosphere." The impression both seen and felt
is one of desolation which Godowsky describes as "the feeling
of inevitable decay and dissolution of all things earthly".
Surely here however we can detect, in the piano writing, the influence
The Bromo Volcano is depicted as in a colossal sunrise on the
Sand Sea in which some awesome spectacle alternates between exultation
and terror. This piece perhaps the most obviously virtuosic, with
all the rhapsodic romanticism of Rachmaninoff - yet ending in
a molto tranquillo passage of great tenderness - "the mere
consciousness that such elemental powers exist alleviates the
pain of living - an overpowering feeling of humility, of compassion
and tenderness towards all things alive, a passionate adoration
for the unknown source of all consciousness, filled the Soul
The seventh piece consists of three contrasting Dances in which
are enshrined traditionally the spirit of the Javanese people
- the third of which has another joyous melody which finally becomes
unbearably nostalgic, recalling those "yesterdays that look
back with a smile through tears" of "Alt Wien"
The final bar of this piece pre-echoes the following, as if Godowsky
was emphasising his own love for what is one of his most beautiful
compositions. It is as if he was saying "listen to this
No more exquisite impression in pianistic terms has ever been
conceived than "The Gardens of Buitenzorg". "Why
do certain scents produce unutterable regrets, insatiable longings,
indefinable desires?" This sensuously beautiful music recalls
Dunsany's "Bethmoora" (1918):
"In little gardens, at the desert's edge
Men beat the tambang and the tittibuk
And blew melodiously the zootibar
.While here and there one
Played upon the kalipac"
a fragrant sound-world that surely belongs to the story books?
"The Streets of Old Batavia" throng with a cosmopolitan
crowd and with the sounds of the Orient and the colours of the
bazaars. As we enter the perfumed courtyard of the Kraton, the
residence of the Sultan and his entourage, we hear the drowsy
swarming of gongs, the plash of fountains. "It is evening:
quaint scenes charm our vision. Faint sounds of the entrancing
Gamelan fill the fragrant air. The seemingly unreal reality casts
a hypnotic spell over our consciousness
", a stately
pentatonic melody suggesting a small procession.
Near the Kraton of Djokja (Djakarta) stand the crumbling remains
of the Water Castle - and here again in the final watery bars
the music of Ravel comes to mind, for Godowsky must surely have
known "Jeux d'Eau." Whole tone colour abounds.
The final scene is inevitably a dramatic peroration - full of
the pageantry of a royal procession, the Sultan preceded by court
musicians, jugglers and acrobats in a fitting dénouement
of this tonal travelogue.
Alexandre Tansman's three pieces of similar origins - evoking
the same sultry atmosphere with a delicately improvisatory sound,
are perhaps more than mere 'fillers' - yet in the shadow of the
Godowsky they pale by comparison. The flutter of the bamboo flute
and the sound of the inevitable Gamelan however has a vitality
that suggests that Tansman is more down to earth than his compatriot.
This recording, beautifully clear, will open up a new world to
many listeners. It astonishes me that this is a world premiere
recording, and that none of our young pianists (to whom today
the prodigious difficulties seem little problem) seem willing
to explore these byways in music (which regrettably these pieces
have now become.) Fortunately for us now this thoughtful young
Jakarta-born pianist is in command of, not only a powerful technique
which is demonstrable, but has the insight and sensitivity to
shun any kind of showmanship and to evoke the very spirit of these
long ignored pieces. The spirits, after all, are her own ancestors.
It is fascinating, too, to compare her vital playing with the
faded loveliness of Godowsky's own recording of "The Gardens
of Buitenzorg"- a pastel compared with her Brangwyn-esque
depth of colour - certainly gouache if not oils: to compare also
Saperton's frantic picture of "The Streets of Old Batavia"
with her restrained, yet bustling picture. Perhaps the nearest
comparison is with the playing of Doris Pines whose "Chattering
Monkeys" are only a little more breathless than Budiardjo's.
Surely this brilliant young pianist will explore those other works:
the Triakontameron and the Walzermasken. Let us be greatly indebted
to her for the present.
For those whose abilities at the keyboard cannot match the requirement
of these pieces but are anxious to explore the rich tonal worlds
of a composer far removed from the arid world of today, let them
seek out - in photocopy or from libraries - such delicious things
as his transcription of "Calm is the Night" (Böhm's
famous melody), the Rameau Sarabande (Renaissance No.1), his arrangement
of Kreisler's "Rondino on a theme of Beethoven", 'Alt
Wien' (the eleventh of the 'Triakontameron'), the two Waltz poems
and, for the more advanced, 'Le Cygne'.