Tate_02-2018
The Music Column

“The World’s Greatest Pianist”

The lives of musicians can be more than a bit repetitive.  The same patterns are repeated again and again, as is the case with athletes—with all people who master a particular art or calling.  The gifted one excels and develops a career, sometimes without breaking off from the master.  This pattern fits Mozart—and also Nadia Comaneci.  And we could review the lives of various gifted people; but even so, hardly anyone compares with Josef Hofmann, who was an archetype of the child prodigy, both as to his glory and also as a warning of the dangers of that prodigious dimension for the child—and later, for the adult.

A man who had earned the right to say it once declared that the phrase “child prodigy” usually means little more than “greedy parent.”  But we ordinary folk have to understand that all musically gifted children are prodigies in some way.  And today in contemporary America, it is hard for people to understand that real musical talent is not at all compatible with the American system of “education,” a truth that has liberating implications.

So as far as Josef Hofmann (1876, Kraków, to 1957, L.A.) is concerned, the prodigiousness has to be conceded big time and up front.  His debut was at age five, and at age nine he toured much of Europe.  By the time he was 12 years old, he was apparently the first pianist ever to...

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