As a conservatory scrub in 1989 I had a crazy idea: Write a letter to Vladimir Horowitz, arguably (in 1989, at least) the greatest pianist of the 20th century. I wrote to tell him what was true: His music making changed my life. I detailed how powerful an impact his 1940-something recording of Chopin’s G-Minor Ballade had on me. I played it, 40+ times over, in 2-3 minute increments on a series of 78 RPM platters at the conservatory library.

Everything about that performance was wrong but that is what made everything about it right. He ravaged it. Ate it. Spit out the crumbs. I could not switch those records fast enough.

I would later read that Horowitz could not eat if music was playing in the background. He said it upset his gut. I identified because his performance of the G-Minor Ballade turned my guts inside-out.

I cannot find the source of this comment now but as someone once said, hearing Horowitz for the first time makes it seem you’d been deaf your whole life.

I never expected a reply, and it gives me goosebumps to this day remembering my “Are you kidding me?” moment upon pulling from my mailbox an envelope with a return address of “Horowitz”. It was like getting a letter from God.

I moved to New York and briefly made the acquaintance of someone who had been part of Horowitz’s very small inner circle during the maestro’s later years. He seemed very surprised this happened, saying that Horowitz virtually never did this kind of thing.

In support of that comment I have two anecdotes to support the conventional wisdom that the greatest pianist of the 20th century was no people-person.

I told the owner of the house I lived in about this letter. She was impressed, but also surprised given her one experience with the pianist. After a concert in Pittsburgh, I think in the 1950s, a group of audience members went backstage to meet and greet, and maybe get autographs. As Horowitz emerged from behind a door one woman clapped her hands and told Horowitz how incredible his concert was, saying she’d been a fan for a long time and this a great day for her.

Horowitz’s response? He grabbed her by the face, pushed her aside, and left the room, leaving the other onlookers dumbstruck.

Another account of Horowitz’s character came from my conservatory piano professor, who related the tale of a former student of his who had the rare opportunity to study with the great master. Horowitz took very few students so this was considered an honor for the young pianist.

Lessons seemed to go well enough at first, with the student basically doing as told. But when the student attempted to open a dialogue with the teacher, suggesting that maybe he could interpret a passage differently than Horowitz prescribed, that was it. The lesson ended. Horowitz told the student to leave, and he never saw Horowitz again.

These anecdotes might pass as hearsay or even gossip, but I consider the sources credible. I only recount them to affirm just how incredible it was to get this letter.

I’ve also never encountered anyone who shared a similar story involving Horowitz reaching out to an admirer, but that sort of thing could well be off my radar.

This came up in conversation tonight. I would hate to see my letter to Horowitz today. It must have been horribly sycophantic.

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