The outstanding American pianist, Byron Janis, was born into a Polish-Russian Jewish family, whose name of Yankilevitch was shortened to Yanks when the family emigrated to America and by the time Byron was 15, it had been changed again, first to Jannes and then to Janis. The parents were not musical, but by the age of 5 young Byron’s talent was already in evidence. He began lessons at age 4 with Abraham Litow who had studied at the prestigious Music Conservatory in Leningrad. Janis studied with Litow until he was 7. As the child’s progress was so rapid, that when he was 7 his parents took him to New York to play for Josef and Rosina Lhévinne. The father stayed in Pittsburgh at the family store, whilst Byron, his mother and sister moved to New York. At tthe age of 8, Janis began studying at the Juilliard School with Josef and Rosina Lhévinne, and received musical influences from Sergei Rachmaninov and Alfred Cortot. But after one year their concert schedule prevented regular tuition. Eight months were spent under the tuition of Dorothea Anderson La Follette, after which the Lhévinnes decided that Janis should study with Adele Marcus. For the following six years Janis received two lessons per week from Marcus.
Byron Janis made his recital debut at the age of 9 in Pittsburgh and the following year, through the help of Samuel Chotzinoff, played on radio’s Magic Key Hour. Chotzinoff was music critic of the New York Post, music consultant for NBC Radio, and founder of the Chatham Square Music School where Marcus was a teacher. At 10, Janis lost sensation in a finger due to an accident; but this did not prevent him making his made his orchestral debut in New York with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Frank Black, playing S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 when he was 15 (1943). When he returned to Pittsburgh to give his orchestral debut there at age 16, it was with the same work on February 20, 1944 accompanied by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with the 13-year-old Lorin Maazel on the podium. Vladimir Horowitz was in the audience and invited Janis to play for him in New York. At the age of 17 Janis became Vladimir Horowitz’s first pupil, taking lessons every week for three years. The fee for these lessons, and the cost of his studies with Adele Marcus, was paid for by philanthropist William Rosenwald. Vladimir Horowitz would not allow Janis to study with any other pianist, nor copy his own style. In order to have regular lessons, Janis would go on tour with Vladimir Horowitz and his wife. During his time with Vladimir Horowitz, Janis gave about 50 concerts including a successful tour of Brazil. After this, he decided to make his Carnegie Hall debut. He remained a close friend and one of only three students ever acknowledged by Vladimir Horowitz - the other two being Gary Graffman and Ronald Turini.
When Byron Janis was 20, Vladimir Horowitz stopped giving him lessons, and Janis embarked on a successful career as a the touring virtuoso concert pianist. In 1948 he toured South America; that same year he played at Carnegie Hall in New York, to critical acclaim. In 1952 he made a tour of Europe. He played with the greatest orchestras and conductors of the time including the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam with Eduard van Beinum and the London Symphony Orchestra with Antal Doráti. At his London debut he played S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Norman del Mar. When he returned to London and played the same concerto in 1961 a critic wrote that it was ‘…played with all the ardour, fire, and sympathy it calls for and so rarely gets by Mr Byron Janis, an enormously gifted pianist from America’. However, in November of the same year in a performance of L.v. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 Janis was described as ‘…the urgently forward-driving but often hard-hitting soloist’. In the same month he played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra. Janis was described as an ‘exceedingly tense and vivid’ pianist. ‘At times his inability to give less than his all led him to adopt tempi too fast even for his phenomenal technique.’
In 1960, Byron Janis was chosen as the first American to be sent to the Soviet Union, and his performance opened the successful exchange between between the USSR and the USA during the cold war. The success of this tour led to a further invitation two years later where, in one programme, he played Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54, S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 1 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major Op. 26 with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. The success of this performance led to the American recording company Mercury sending equipment and engineers to Moscow to record the S. Rachmaninov and Prokofiev concertos. The result was a brilliant Mercury Living Presence LP that is an all-time classic, pairing the S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Aided by exemplary sound recording, the Prokofiev in particular is still regarded by many connoisseurs as the work's finest recorded interpretation. The following year the recording of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26 won a Grand Prix du Disque. In 1995 the CD version won the Cannes Award for Best Reissue. This was the first of his many world tours, on which he premiered many works and performed breathtakingly challenging piano-concerto programs. In 1961 Janis was honoured in being selected by both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra to appear as soloist in both of Franz Liszt’s piano concertos during the 150th celebrations of the composer’s birth. The late 1960’s saw the height of Janis’s career when he was performing almost one hundred concerts per year.
In reviews from the early 1960’s critics often commented on Byron Janis’s tension during performances. ‘A good deal has been said about the art of relaxation when playing the piano. Mr Janis played as though he had never heard of the word.’ Descriptions such as ‘intense nervous force’ and ‘hard-driven’ appear often, and by 1964 in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 ‘…he eschewed not only tradition but also many of the composer’s actual directions… at the opening of the first movement’s Allegro con spirito, for example, where each bar was shaped with forceful accents, or in the slow movement’s Prestissimo section, where a fierce urgency replaced the proper lightness.’ It sounded as though Janis was becoming a Horowitz clone and he admits that when he began studying with Horowitz he ‘…soon became very disturbed’, as Adele Marcus’s teaching and that of Horowitz were completely at odds with each other. From the age of seventeen Janis was always hearing Horowitz play, especially at his home, and the impressionable young man absorbed every nuance of Horowitz’s style. ‘I knew exactly how he phrased, how he felt about a piece and it all got into my ear. At that time I did not realise what was happening. I was becoming a copy of Horowitz.’
During a visit to France in 1967, Byron Janis accidentally discovered in Paris the autograph manuscripts of of two previously unknown Waltzes by Chopin, the G-flat major, Op. 70, No. 1, and the E-flat major, Op. 18; in 1973 he located 2 variants of these waltzes in the library of Yale University. This was considered "the most dramatic musical discovery of our age". For these achievements, he appeared on the front page of the New York Times many times. He also published an edition of Chopin waltzes. This led to a 1975 French television documentary, Frédéric Chopin: A Voyage with Byron Janis (produced by the Public Broadcasting Service), in which he detailed the difficulties in determining the authentic versions of Chopin's music.
Byron Janis interrupted his career in the late 1960’s at the onset of an illness, and temporarily resumed it in 1972. Soon however, his concert appearances became more rare. In 1973, at the climax of his career, he began to suffer from psoriatic arthritis in his hands and wrists. In spite of the attendant physical and emotional distress, he continued to practise five or six hours a day and continued his concert schedule. In 1975 he was still playing Chopin études in concert without the audience knowing his suffering. However by 1984, when all the remedies he had tried had failed, he was now taking large doses of drugs. This state of affairs, combined with the thought of being unable to play the piano, understandably led to mental depression. ‘It was a life-and-death struggle for me every day for years.’ On February 25, 1985, he gave a special concert at the White House in Washington, D.C., at which time his illness was publicly disclosed. The ailment had not prevented him from continuing to play piano well, but it often made it impossible to play to his former high standard. The painful and crippling condition eventually required a series of surgeries to restore movement to his hands and wrists, used medication, and also found that acupuncture helped him. In an interview with ABC he explained, “Arthritis has taught me to look inside myself for new sources of strength and creativity. It has given my life a new intensity. I have arthritis, but it does not have me.” He recovered sufficiently to resume performing and recording commercially and continues to do so today. He continued his performing career and even made two highly acclaimed CD’s.
In the meantime, Byron Janis devoted much of his energy to teaching, composing, and humanitarian concerns. He has taught since 1962, and from 1987 has given classes at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1986, he became a spokesperson for the Arthritis Foundation as its National Ambassador to the Arts, often playing in fund-raising concerts. He works on the Board and Music Advisory Committee for Pro Musicus, an international organization devoted to helping young artists. He recently completed his autobiography.
Byron Janis is renowned internationally as one of the world's greatest concert pianists. A pianist following the Grand Tradition, Janis is one of a group of American pianists born in the 1920’s, including Gary Graffman, William Kapell and Van Cliburn, who were greatly influenced by Vladimir Horowitz. He specialised in the big Romantic concertos by S. Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, F. Liszt and Tchaikovsky.