The remarkable life of a legendary pianist
An interview with Byron Janis
When I was a child, I was proud that so many famous pianists were Jewish. Rubinstein, Horowitz, Radu Lupu, William Kapell, Artur Schnabel, Rudolph Serkin, Emil Gilels, Myra Hess, and so forth. One obvious exception was Byron Janis. Not a Jewish name, certainly.
But it turned out that the family name was Yankilovich, then it became Yanks, then Jannes, then Janis. Not only that, but Janis’s father, back in Russia, studied briefly for the rabbinate. And Janis himself identifies with the Jewish people and is a warm supporter of Israel.
Invited to perform in Germany years after World War II, he hesitated. “The horrors of the Nazi era haunted me,” he wrote. But was this a new and different generation he would play for? He asked to meet a group of young Germans. Had their parents noticed what was happening to the Jews? No, some of them said. Others scoffed at this denial.
Janis then played in Berlin, to great acclaim. He played in Munich, too, to more acclaim, and played four encores, including one by Felix Mendelssohn — a DNA Jew despised by the Nazis — but the audience was less enthusiastic. The local newspaper mentioned all the encores he had played — except the Mendelssohn.
Janis, who is 84, is unusually honest. The mezuzah on the doorpost of his crowded, comfortable apartment? Left there years ago by the previous tenant. Can The Jewish Standard publish a photograph of him wearing a tallit? He demurs: That would suggest he’s more religious than he is.
Still, his wife, Maria, says that he’s the most spiritual person she’s ever met. (Tall, willowy, and smashingly good-looking, Maria is the daughter of the actor Gary Cooper. She’s also a gifted artist.) Janis himself is tolerant of all religions: “Religiosity,” he says, “is not as important as spirituality.”
Like the Jewish people, Janis’s life has consisted of a series of severe setbacks, followed by remarkable victories. Perhaps the worst setback: In the 1970s, when his career as a pianist was flourishing, he was afflicted with psoriatic arthritis. It affected his hands and his wrists. When physicians saw X-rays of his hands, they said: This man, whoever he is, simply cannot play the piano.
But he did. Painfully. In fact, he played for 12 years without revealing that he had arthritis. “It was a constant battle, but if I hadn’t kept up my standards, I would have stopped immediately,” he has said. He underwent five operations on his hands. Not all of them were successful. One incompetent surgeon operated on his thumb — leaving it a half-inch shorter than his other thumb.
At that point, Janis became severely depressed. He remained depressed — until he started composing. He wrote the music for a documentary about his famous father-in-law, then composed music for a musical of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” As he has written, “Living with arthritis may have deformed my life and my hands, but I still drew strength from the discipline of daily practice — and now from a new source, the joy of composing.”
His depression lifted.
In 1988, at a concert at the White House, Nancy Reagan was the first to announce that he had arthritis and would become the National Ambassador for the Arts for the Arthritis Foundation. Said Janis, memorably, “I have arthritis, but arthritis does not have me.”
The Wall Street Journal wrote a few weeks ago, “This peerless pianist rose above hand surgery and debilitating arthritis to continue performing magnificently, offering hope to many who suffer from this affliction.”
Janis has met many famous people during his concertizing life. In 1944 he played for Vladimir Horowitz, who asked him to become his first pupil.
Horowitz, Janis says, had a wonderful sense of humor. When people would come up to him and say, “You know, you look like Vladimir Horowitz,” Horowitz would look surprised and reply, “You know, a lot of people tell me that!”
He was a splendid teacher. “Paint in more oils, not only in watercolors,” he told Janis. “Exaggerate in your playing. You can always cut back, but you cannot always add.” And when he was unhappy with something Janis had played, he didn’t offer any solutions: He wanted Janis to devise his own solution. “You want to be a first Janis, not a second Horowitz.” Says Janis, “He didn’t want to over-teach me.”
Another key person in Janis’s life was Samuel Chotzinoff, NBC’s music director. Chotzinoff took the young Janis to a rehearsal by Horowitz and Toscanini, saying at the conclusion, “That is how you should play.” He also took him to a concert given by Ignace Jan Paderewski, the world-famous Polish pianist and statesman, who was extremely old at the time. “That,” said Chotzinoff, “is how you should NOT play.”
Still another key person: Frederic Chopin. Janis fell in love with Chopin’s music when he was only “7 or 8,” and he has specialized in Chopin’s music. He quotes Franz Liszt on Chopin: “a man from another planet.” As for his music, “Nothing like it had been heard before nor has been heard since.” Just this year, EMI Classics issued a CD, “The Byron Janis Chopin Collection,” whose cover features a memorable sketch by Maria.
The jacket copy states: “Yet this album is important for another reason, beyond the pianist’s legendary abilities. In 1967, Janis discovered unknown versions of the Waltz in G flat major and the Grand Valse Brillante in E flat major, and six years later discovered alternate versions of the same pieces in the manuscript collection of Yale University.” He found one in 1967, in a trunk marked “old clothes” in a chateau. Six years later, visiting Yale University, he asked to see a folder resting on a high shelf. It contained the two waltzes, written one year earlier.
A book he wrote in 2010, with Maria, is titled “Chopin and Beyond: My extraordinary life in music and the paranormal” (Wiley). Actually he doesn’t like the term “paranormal” — he believes that things that puzzle us now may eventually be explained rationally.
In his book he tells of a variety of strange incidents:
• He owns a death mask of Chopin, which stood on his piano. His friend, Uri Geller, who is famous for bending spoons, asked to look at it. As he and others examined it, a clear liquid started pouring out of the mask’s left eye. Then it started bubbling out of the left side of the mask’s mouth. Janis tasted it. It was salty, like tears. Janis’s wife also tasted it, and agreed that it was tears.
• He was visiting Jerusalem with Geller, and it was raining cats and dogs. Their taxi driver advised them not to drive to the city — too dark and dangerous. Geller asked Janis to “do your thing.” Janis meditated on what he wanted to happen — the rain clouds disbursed “and there was Jerusalem in all her glistening splendor.” (Janis and others believe that he can affect the weather.)
• Before the couple met, Maria had been painting while listening to Janis’s recording of a Prokofiev concerto — and painted so vigorously to the music that she sprained a tendon and required an operation. Shortly afterwards, she went to a party — and recognized Janis from his photograph on the record album. He asked her about the cast on her arm, but she didn’t mention the “coincidence” Not long after, they were married. (The book is full of such “coincidences,” which Janis refers to as “synchronicity.”)
In concertizing around the world, Janis met many famous people — from Chaim Weitzman to Picasso (who happily fired pistols at a target with Gary Cooper). A photo in his book shows Maria Callas and Grace Kelly greeting him after a concert.
Jascha Heifetz and his family befriended him, and before a concert Heifetz complained to Janis that his shoes were not shiny enough. So he actually shined Janis’s shoes. “That was hard to explain,” commented Janis, “but so was Papa Heifetz.”
Toscanini introduced him to a professor who had a collection of Giuseppe Verdi’s letters — pornographic letters to young women he was infatuated with. (Remember, there were no telephones in those days.)
Marc Chagall, the Russian-Jewish painter who did the two gigantic murals at the Met in Lincoln Center, told him, “Terrible, terrible, the way they placed them. You have to go outside into the cold to the — what do you call it — mall, to be able to see them. They should be called ‘Murals for the Mall’!”
In the two-hour interview in his apartment, flanked by two pianos, Janis commented perceptively on a variety of subjects. He speaks very quietly; the phone rang almost incessantly. It was a hot day, and his wife mercifully served her guests cold drinks.
Among the questions and answers: Who is your favorite composer? “You can’t compare beauty. Chopin or Beethoven? It may depend on the time of day, or the mood you are in….”
“Today’s young musicians practice eight hours a day trying to achieve technical perfection. But they may lose their individuality. Four hours a day is enough.”
Who are your favorite conductors? “If you are talking about great accompanying conductors, there was Ormandy, Steinberg, and Kondrashin. Some great conductors are not great accompanists. I have often wondered, ‘Could it be a problem of ego?’”
What did Horowitz mean when he said, play from your stomach? “It means that your stomach has to be involved, particularly in forte playing, to get the kind of sound you need.”
Horowitz once joked that there were three kinds of pianists: Jewish pianists, homosexual pianists, and bad pianists. Do you agree? “There are two types of great artists. With the first, you are aware of the artist first. Hoffman playing Beethoven, Rachmaninoff playing Chopin. Others focus on the music: Schubert played by Richter, Schumann played by Cortot. I belong to the second type. The composer comes first.”
Are you worried about the place of music in America? “Now is a difficult time for the arts. If one of the presidential candidates wins, he will severely reduce support for the arts. And one of my causes is to let people know how important music is. If you play an instrument, for example, even badly, it has a healing effect on the brain.”