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Stephen Speicher

Rachmaninoff and Hofmann

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I have read in several sources that Rachmaninoff held the virtuosity of Josef Hofmann in the highest regard. For instance, in a 1932 interview with Rachmaninoff for the New York Times, the reporter states that "He held Josef Hofmann as the greatest living pianist, not only technically but in every way." In an April 15 1936 letter to Vladimir Wilshaw, Rachmaninoff says:"Kreisler is considered the best violinist. After him, or rather alongside him, comes Jascha Heifetz. The best pianist, I daresay, is still Hofmann, but on the condition that he's in the mood, or 'in form'."

I know nothing about the "mood" that Hofmann may be in, but I remember listening to old 78 recordings by him and not being overly impressed by Hofmann's emphasis and interpretation of some pieces that I knew. My question is: Did Rachmaninoff ever express in his own writings, or through the writings of others, the detailed reasons for his extemely high regard of Hofmann? I would be particularly interested in what Rachmaninoff thought about Hofmann's interpretations, not only his technical expertise.

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I have read in several sources that Rachmaninoff held the virtuosity of Josef Hofmann in the highest regard. For instance, in a 1932 interview with Rachmaninoff for the New York Times, the reporter states that "He held Josef Hofmann as the greatest living pianist, not only technically but in every way." In an April 15 1936 letter to Vladimir Wilshaw, Rachmaninoff says:"Kreisler is considered the best violinist. After him, or rather alongside him, comes Jascha Heifetz. The best pianist, I daresay, is still Hofmann, but on the condition that he's in the mood, or 'in form'."

I know nothing about the "mood" that Hofmann may be in, but I remember listening to old 78 recordings by him and not being overly impressed by Hofmann's emphasis and interpretation of some pieces that I knew. My question is: Did Rachmaninoff ever express in his own writings, or through the writings of others, the detailed reasons for his extemely high regard of Hofmann? I would be particularly interested in what Rachmaninoff thought about Hofmann's interpretations, not only his technical expertise.

Dear Stephen,

At first, I was inclined to think the question you posed wouldn't have much interest to a general Objectivist audience, but given your assurance that Hofmann has been addressed on other lists, I’ll gladly proceed. For the record (no pun!), let me say that Hofmann recorded much less than Rachmaninoff did, and although I've heard some of his recordings, I don't own any, so at the moment I’m not able directly to compare performances of the two artists. Rachmaninoff, by the estimates of many, was the greatest pianist of the twentieth century, and I take no issue with that assessment. But there can be no question that Hofmann, a child prodigy and a brilliant intellect, was a formidable talent. It’s also true that the two men had a nearly unbounded admiration for each other’s art.

To my knowledge, Rachmaninoff left no writings except what people have collected from his letters, many of which are in the Bertensson/Leyda biography, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (Indiana University Press, 2001). He references Hofmann with glowing accolades several times in the book, and although I'm not sure these letters really answer your question, the detail provided is interesting. For example, occasionally he could be critical and even blunt, as when he told Hofmann that the first part of a suite he performed in New York in 1930 was “monotonous.” But the book also contains one of Rachmaninoff’s most charming compliments to Hofmann, expressed in a letter onf Jan. 19, 1931:

My dear Mr. Hofmann:

There is a story that goes as follows: “Once upon a time in Paris there were a great many tailors. ‘When one of them succeeded in renting a shop in a street devoid of tailors, he wrote on his sign: THE BEST TAILOR IN PARIS. The next tailor who opened a shop in the same street was forced to write on his sign: THE BEST TAILOR IN THE WHOLE WORLD. What was there left for the third tailor, who rented a shop between these two?—He wrote with becoming modesty: THE BEST TAILOR IN THIS STREET. . . .“

Your touching modesty, as expressed in your letter of January 15, as well as your incomparable professional knowledge, gives you full right to that last title:

You are the best in this street.

The only other written sources documenting Rachmaninoff’s opinions and viewpoints are those provided by journalists who interviewed him over the years. Unfortunately the question you ask (“Why do you like X?”) can be virtually forbidden by their canon of ethics, since often they traffic only in superlatives such as "the greatest of all time." Even in a better period of journalism like the 1920s and ‘30s, whenever they sensed a superlative, many were virtually opposed to elaborations and reasoning--especially if their copy had been endorsed by an "authority." Also, many of the interviews of Rachmaninoff were worshipful pieces by writers who regarded him as an icon, so that gaining an interview with him was a coup—they were not about to commit the unpardonable effrontery of asking him to explain himself. (Plus, as everyone knows, art is subjective, so how could there really be meaningful "reasons" for anything?)

Stephen Siek

Prof. of Music

Wittenberg University

P.O. Box 720

Springfield, OH 45501

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Dear Stephen,

At first, I was inclined to think the question you posed wouldn't have much interest to a general Objectivist audience, but given your assurance that Hofmann has been addressed on other lists, I’ll gladly proceed. For the record (no pun!), let me say that Hofmann recorded much less than Rachmaninoff did, and although I've heard some of his recordings, I don't own any, so at the moment I’m not able directly to compare performances of the two artists. Rachmaninoff, by the estimates of many, was the greatest pianist of the twentieth century, and I take no issue with that assessment.  But there can be no question that Hofmann, a child prodigy and a brilliant intellect, was a formidable talent. It’s also true that the two men had a nearly unbounded admiration for each other’s art.

  To my knowledge, Rachmaninoff left no writings except what people have collected from his letters, many of which are in the Bertensson/Leyda biography, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (Indiana University Press, 2001). He references Hofmann with glowing accolades several times in the book,  and although I'm not sure these letters really answer your question, the detail provided is interesting.  For example, occasionally he could be critical and even blunt, as when he told Hofmann that the first part of a suite he performed in New York in 1930 was “monotonous.” But the book also contains one of Rachmaninoff’s most charming compliments to Hofmann, expressed in a letter onf Jan. 19, 1931:

The only other written sources documenting Rachmaninoff’s opinions and viewpoints are those provided by journalists who interviewed him over the years. Unfortunately the question you ask (“Why do you like X?”) can be virtually forbidden by their canon of ethics, since often they  traffic only in superlatives such as "the greatest of all time." Even in a better period of journalism like the 1920s and ‘30s, whenever they sensed a superlative, many were virtually opposed to elaborations and reasoning--especially if their copy had been endorsed by an "authority." Also, many of the interviews of Rachmaninoff were worshipful pieces by writers who regarded him as an icon, so that gaining an interview with him was a coup—they were not about to commit the unpardonable effrontery of asking him to explain himself. (Plus, as everyone knows, art is subjective, so how could there really be meaningful "reasons" for anything?)

Stephen Siek

Prof. of Music

Wittenberg University

P.O. Box 720

Springfield, OH 45501

P.S. If I may add a postscript for the benefit of the Hofmann-philes out there, I should say that a few of his recordings I've heard I think are absolutely stunning, although I think the consensus is that he was a less consistent performer than Rachmaninoff. I also neglected to say that it is now possible to get a great many of his live broadcasts and public performances which were recorded--I only wish the same were true with Rachmaninoff!

SS

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