100 Years Ago: Polish Pianists in America, Part 2


by Barbara Zakrzewska

Originally published on the PMC website on 8 August 2000


Józef Hofmann made his American debut in New York on 27 November 1887. At that time he was ten years old! His first concert took place at the Metropolitan Opera House with the orchestra conducted by Adolph Neuendorff. The young Hofmann became the favorite child prodigy of the public; he attracted their attention by his maturity, intelligence and masterful playing. [1] What was Hofmann doing exactly one hundred years ago during his American tours? On 27 February 1898 he began a tour organized by Mrs. Millar, his manager. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Joseph as a soloist, departed from New York in a special train that took the musicians and their instruments to several concert locations. [2] In April (on April 1st and 2nd) Hofmann was back in Chicago to perform Concerto No. 4 in D-minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff. According to a contemporary reviewer, he played “with miraculous spirit and fire.” [3]

Later during the same year, Alan Dale, an American reporter, visited Hofmann in his apartment. Joseph talked about Paderewski, expressed his opinions about the place of piano among other musical instruments, about the musicianship of the “true musicians” and the value of music. After a long conversation with the young pianist, Dale wrote:

…What do you suppose young Hofmann was doing when I strayed into his apartments at the Vendome for an official chat? […] Young Mr. Josef was simply sitting at a table eating griddle cakes in large doses […] He has short hair, neatly combed and parted at the side. He has a ruddy face and rather dingy eyes, one of which seemed to me to be cut on the bias, as the ladies say. He looks at you rather timidly and heavily, and if you were trying to guess his vocation you would not select that of a famous pianist. I rather imagined that he would be a masculine version of the maiden who is always standing with reluctant feet. Mr. Hofmann’s feet are anything but reluctant. They mean business. They are not too small to hold down a loud pedal […] The hands of this little pianist are strong enough to dig for gold in the Klondike, and find it. They are distinctly worth seeing […] Josef Hofmann speaks English fairy well, although he has a curious habit of using the feminine for the masculine personal pronoun, invariably… [4]

Another pianist from Poland, Maurycy Rosenthal, made his American debut at the beginning of November 1898 in the Boston Music Hall. At once, he achieved a phenomenal success. Soon afterwards, on 13 November, he appeared in New York. On this occasion Rosenthal was described as a Romanian pianist. During his recital held in the Steinway Hall he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat major, a work by Robert Schumann, three Chopin’s compositions and Liszt’s “Don Juan” Fantasia. After this concert a reviewer wrote: “…He does not penetrate to the soul or the music of Schumann and Chopin, and the spiritual quality without which real piano exposition cannot exist is not is not found in his playing. Further consideration of this phenomenal pianist’s powers must be deferred till future concerts. As an astonishing master of technique, however, he is certainly worthy of hearing…” [5]

After the ambiguous reception in New York, Rosenthal gave series of concerts in many cities. One of his tours consisted of 126 concerts! For several years he taught piano at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia and at the Guun School of Music in Chicago.[6] On 10 November 1898 Maurycy was in New York, because on that day he wrote a letter to Alexander Lambert, on a letterhead paper from the Savoy Hotel. [7] On 16 November Rosenthal gave a recital in Boston Music Hall with the following program:

Beethoven: Sonata op.109
Schumann: Carnaval
Chopin: Berceuse, Barcarole, Two New Etudes, Waltz in D flat major
Schubert-Liszt: Lindenbaum
Davidov: At the Fountain
Rosenthal: Carnaval de Vienna
for the encore, Rosenthal: Papillons

A reviewer wrote: “…The concert was an apotheosis of technique. There was much of inconsiderate pounding, much of an abuse of the loud pedal, much of the left hand blotting out what the right hand was doing, but there was more that was splendid in the best sense of the word, and that justly entitled the artist to rank foremost among the greatest living masters of the pianoforte.” [8] In another description of the same event we can read: “…The concert proved that Mr.Rosenthal has a splendid manliness of playing, is not without poetic insight, and is the Prince of Technique” [9]

The endless tours continued. On 23 November 1898 Rosenthal gave a recital in Boston with the following program:

Weber: Sonata in A flat major
Chopin: Sonata in B-minor, plus one (unspecified) Prelude, Etude, and Waltz
Field: Sonata
Henselt: Etude “Si Oiseau J’etais”
Rubinstein: Miniatures, Andalouse et Toreador
Liszt (Masaniello): Tarantelle

Again, the reviewers discussed the superiority of Rosenthal’s technique: “…There have been better ‘poets of the piano’ in Boston. There have been more stagey and more spactacular pianists who have been seen here since Herr Rosenthal’s last visit; but it may be said deliberately that in his absolute command of a technic which easily defies all the difficulties of even modern composers, Herr Rosenthal’s name “leads all the rest…” [10]

In December 1898 Rosenthal appeared for the first time in Chicago. He performed the Piano Concerto in E flat major by Liszt. For an encore he played Chopin’s Waltz in A flat major op.42. “Mr Rosenthal made his first appearance of the present season in Chicago in the Liszt Concerto in E flat major which he played in a tremendously brilliant and telling manner.There is nothing to be said of a performance of this kind beyond acknowledging its astonishing power and effect. In these qualities this pianist stands without a rival. For a recall he played in the afternoon the Chopin A flat major Valse, opus 42, with immense speed and precision. His tone is a little hard, and precision combined with speed or force according to the mood of the music, seem to be his ideals…” [11]

In December 1898 Rosenthal also gave a piano recital in Chicago. He played:

Beethoven: Sonata op.109
Schumann: Carnival
Chopin: Berceuse, Barcarole, Two New Etudes
Chopin: Waltz in D flat major in Rosenthal’s arrangement
Schubert-Liszt: Linden Tree
Davidov: At the Fountain
Liszt: “Don Juan” Fantasia

Unlike Godowsky, each recital of whom had a completely different program, Rosenthal had his favourites, including Beethoven’s sonata op. 109. Rosenthal’s interpretation of this work was greeted with positive reviews, though the music critic did not mince his/her words when discussing the rest of the program:[12]

One of the best pieces of work in this recital was his playing of Beethoven Sonata, which was clear and satisfactory […] Mr.Rosenthal’ s version of the ‘Carnival’ was praised in the most hysterical manner in the East. Very much can properly be said in its favor; it was an extremely brilliant performance, but from an interpretative standpoint seemed in places wanting in fine musical quality…In all the playing in this recital the masterly technic and full and sonorous tone, and in general qualities of intelligent musicianship were constantly in evidence; in other words Rosenthal showed himself one of the greatest masters of piano playing at present on the stage.



[1] Lahee, Henry Charles: Annals of Music in America. Boston 1922 p. 231. “The young Mozart” in The Daily Graphic: New York; press cutting without the date, in the NYPL collections; Music. Vol.13: February 1898, p. 499-501.

[2] Otis, Philo Adams: The Chicago Orchestra. New York, 1972, p.94, 99.

[3] Otis, Philo Adams: The Chicago Orchestra. New York, 1972 s.100.

[4] Quoted from a newspaper cutting dated 1898, without an attribution of the source. Collections of the New York Public Library.

[5] Press cutting from an unknown American newspaper dated November 14, 1888, held in the collections of New York Public Library.

[6] Błaszczyk, Leon Tadeusz: “Polish contribution to the musical life of America.” In Poles in America. Stevens Point 1978, p. 586. Press cutting from an unknown American newspaper in the collections of NYPL, dated November 14, 1888. Lahee, Henry Charles: Annals of music in America. Boston, 1922, p. 284.

[7] Hofmann’s letter in special collections of NYPL, Lambert Collection.

[8] Press cutting from “Boston Herald”.

[9] Review by Louis C.Elson in a Boston newspaper dated 17 November 1898, in the collections of NYPL.

[10] Music. Vol.15, January 1899, p.352-353.

[11] “Rosenthal Recital” – report in Music Vol.15, January 1899, p.352-354.

[12] Excerpt from an unknown Boston newspaper, dated 24 November 1898, in the collections of the NYPL.