The famous Polish-born American pianist, composer and pedagogue, Leopold Godowsky [Godowski], was born to Jewish parents in Sozły, near Vilna, in what was then Russian territory but is now part of Lithuania. He considered himself of Polish heritage. As a child, he received some lessons in basic piano playing and music theory; at age fourteen, he entered the Königliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where he studied under Ernst Rudorff, but left after three months. Otherwise, he was self-taught.
Leopold Godowsky's career as a concert pianist, which eventually would take him to every continent except Australia, began at age ten. In 1886, after a tour of North America, he returned to Europe, intending to study with Franz Liszt in Weimar. Upon learning of F. Liszt's death shortly after his return, he traveled instead to Paris, where he was befriended by the composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns, who enabled him to make the acquaintance of many leading French musicians. Saint-Saëns even proposed to adopt Godowsky if he would take his surname, an offer which Godowsky declined, much to the older man's displeasure.
Leopold Godowsky's pedagogical activity began in 1890 at the New York College of Music. While in New York, he married Frieda Saxe and the next day became an American citizen. In 1894 he moved to the Broad Street Conservatory in Philadelphia, and again in 1895 to the Chicago Conservatory, where he headed the piano department. A successful European concert tour in 1900 landed him once again in Berlin, where he divided his time between performing and teaching. From 1909 to 1914 he taught master classes at the Vienna Academy of Music (Konservatorium Wien). The outbreak of World War I drove him back to New York, where his home was frequented by many distinguished performers and celebrities of that day. Sergei Rachmaninov, a particular friend, dedicated his Polka de W. R. to him. Godowsky was also a close friend of Einstein.
After the war, Leopold Godowsky resumed touring, but a stroke he suffered on June 17, 1930, during a recording session in London, put an end to his public performances, and made it impossible for him to recoup the considerable financial loss he had suffered in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The only surviving recording from that historic session, unfortunately in very poor sound, is a rendition of the Scherzo No. 4, Op. 54 by Chopin, which has recently been included in a 3-CD set devoted to Godowsky issued by Marston Records. The suicide of his younger son in 1932 and the death of his wife in 1933, combined with his despair over the deteriorating political situation in Europe (his plans for a "World Synod of Music and Musicians" and an "International Master Institute of Music" came to nothing) cast an even deeper shadow over his last years, and he stopped composing. He died of stomach cancer in New York on November 21, 1938.
Leopold Godowsky was survived by his son Leopold Godowsky, Jr., the co-inventor (with Leopold Mannes) of color photography, as well as a violinist. He married George Gershwin's younger sister, Frances Gershwin, thus continuing the musical line. He was also survived by his daughter, the actress Dagmar Godowsky (1896-1975), who during the 1920's appeared as a co-lead in various Hollywood silent movies, including with Rudolph Valentino. She was a notorious vamp, a popular socialite, and wrote a humorous autobiography First Person Plural (New York 1958).
As a composer, Leopold Godowsky has been best known for his paraphrases of piano pieces by other composers, which he enhanced with ingenious contrapuntal devices and rich chromatic harmonies. His most famous work in this genre is the 53 Studies on Chopin's Etudes, in which he varies the already challenging originals by: introducing countermelodies; transferring the technically difficult passages from the right hand to the left; transcribing the entire etude for left hand solo; or interweaving two etudes, with the left hand playing one and the right hand the other (as impossible as this seems). These are so taxing even for virtuosi that only three have ventured to record the entire set: Geoffrey Douglas Madge, Carlo Grante and Marc-André Hamelin. He also transcribed for the piano two sonatas and one partita for solo violin, and three suites for solo cello by J.S. Bach, while highly embellishing them by the addition of complementary voices in contrapuntal manner. These have been recorded by Carlo Grante and Konstantin Scherbakov.
The Piano Sonata, the Passacaglia, and Triakontameron are amongst other works of his that have become more well-known of recent times. The Passacaglia is based on a theme from Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and has acquired a reputation for extreme difficulty. (Even Vladimir Horowitz gave up on it, stating that it would require not 2 but 6 hands to perform. However, Horowitz was not a fan of Godowsky's work in general, and the reality is that there are more challenging works in the concert repertoire.) The Passacaglia has been recorded by Carlo Grante, Marc-André Hamelin (twice), Rian de Waal, Ian Hobson, Antti Siirala, David Stanhope and Konstantin Scherbakov, among others.