Vladimir Samoylovich Horowitz (October 1, 1903 – November 5, 1989) was a Russian-American classical virtuoso pianist and minor composer. His technique and use of tone color and the excitement of his playing were and remain legendary. He is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.
He was born in Kiev in the Russian Empire (now the capital of Ukraine) into the assimilated Jewish family of Samuil Horowitz and Sophia Bodik, the youngest of four children. Samuil Horowitz was a well-to-do electrical engineer and the distributor of electric motors for several German manufacturers. Horowitz’s grandfather Joachim was a merchant (and an arts-supporter), belonging to the 1st Guild. This status gave exemption from having to reside in the Pale of Settlement. Horowitz was born in 1903, but in order to make him appear too young for military service so as not to risk damaging his hands, his father took a year off his son’s age by claiming he was born in 1904. The 1904 date appeared in many reference works during the pianist’s lifetime.
Horowitz received piano instruction from an early age, initially from his mother, who was herself a pianist. In 1912 he entered the Kiev Conservatory, where he was taught by Vladimir Puchalsky, Sergei Tarnowsky, and Felix Blumenfeld. He performed Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor at his graduation in 1919. His first solo recital was performed in Kharkiv in 1920.
Horowitz’s fame grew, and he soon began to tour Russia where he was often paid with bread, butter and chocolate rather than money, due to the country’s economic hardships caused by the Civil War. During the 1922–1923 season, he performed 23 concerts of eleven different programs in Petrograd alone. Despite his early success as a pianist, Horowitz maintained that he wanted to be a composer, and only undertook a career as a pianist to help his family, who had lost their possessions in the Russian Revolution.
In December 1925, Horowitz crossed the border into the West, ostensibly to study with Artur Schnabel. Privately intending not to return, the pianist had stuffed American dollars and British pound notes into his shoes to finance his initial concerts.
In 1933, in a civil ceremony, Horowitz married Toscanini’s daughter Wanda. Horowitz was Jewish and Wanda Catholic, but this was not an issue, as neither was observant. As Wanda knew no Russian and Horowitz knew very little Italian, their primary language became French. They had one child, Sonia Toscanini Horowitz (1934–1975). It has never been determined whether her death, from a drug overdose, was accidental or a suicide.
Despite his marriage, there were persistent rumors of his homosexuality. Arthur Rubinstein said of Horowitz that «Everyone knew and accepted him as a homosexual…» David Dubal wrote that in his years with Horowitz, there was no evidence that the octogenarian was sexually active, but that «there was no doubt he was powerfully attracted to the male body and was most likely often sexually frustrated throughout his life.»Dubal observed that Horowitz sublimated a strong instinctual sexuality into a powerful erotic undercurrent which was communicated in his piano playing. Horowitz, who denied being homosexual, once joked «There are three kinds of pianists: Jewish pianists, homosexual pianists, and bad pianists.»
In 1982, Horowitz began using prescribed anti-depressant medications; there are reports that he was drinking alcohol as well. Consequently, his playing underwent a perceptible decline during this period. The pianist’s 1983 performances in the United States and Japan were marred by memory lapses and a loss of physical control. (At the latter, one Japanese critic likened Horowitz to a «precious antique vase that is cracked.») He stopped playing in public for the next two years.