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Byron Janis (Piano)

Born: March 24, 1928 - McKeesport, Pennsylvania

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 Robert 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 studyinwith 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 Frédéric 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 F. 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 F. 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 F. 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.

Recordings, TV

Byron Janis has made many recordings, including several recordings for RCA Victor and Mercury Records, and two volumes of the Philips Great Pianists series. His discography covers repertoire from L.v. Beethoven to David Guion and includes renditions of major piano concertos from Mozart to S. Rachmaninov and Prokofiev.

Some of Byron Janis’s earliest recordings have recently been reissued on two volumes in the Philips Great Pianists Series. Tracks from his first recital disc for RCA/Victor from 1952 and even earlier have been issued, together with some F. Liszt pieces recorded in 1957 that were never issued at the time. His most impressive recordings were made for RCA in the late 1950’s. With Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Janis recorded F. Liszt’s Totentanz, the Burleske by Richard Strauss and S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 1. The concerto, recorded in March 1957, is particularly fine with Fritz Reiner matching Janis all the way for excitement and virtuosity. S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 30 was recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Charles Munch in the same year.

Byron Janis’s main series of recordings was made for Mercury in the early 1960’s. This consists mainly of concertos, where Janis recorded again those he had recorded for RCA. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major Op. 26 and S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 1 were recorded in Moscow with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Kirill Kondrashin, and on his return visit in 1962 both F. Liszt’s concertos were recorded with the same forces. With Antal Doráti and the London Symphony Orchestra he again recorded S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30, whilst with the same conductor and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra he recorded S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18. Also with the London Symphony Orchestra Janis recorded Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with Herbert Menges conducting, and Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. The only major solo work recorded by Mercury, but not issued until 1994, was of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

In 1996 Janis recorded a F. Chopin recital for EMI/Angel of waltzes, nocturnes and mazurkas and in 1998 recorded a disc of F. Chopin and F. Liszt including F. Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

Byron Janis pianism has been described as combining a Hotechnique with a sublime musicality akin to Alfred Cortot's. He has a special affinity for F. Chopin. In 1978 he was asked by the French to make a television special on the life of Frédéric Chopin. This was shown on PBS in the USA, as well as in different countries around the world. He has been featured many times on major television interview and talk programs.


Byron Janis is also a composer. He composed the musical theme for the Global Forum on Human Survival in Oxford, England, held April 1988. With lyrics by Sammy Cahn, it became the song The One World. Janis's music is primarily in the Pop style, and includes the music for a musical theater production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the score for Turner Network Television's 1989 major film documentary on Gary Cooper: The True Gen: Cooper and Hemingway - a 20 Year Friendship.


Byron Janis was honoured by several USA Presidents. In 1985, he was honoured by President Ronald Reagan at a State Dinner at the White House marking the 40th anniversary of his highly acclaimed debut at Carnegie Hall that launched his brilliant career. Janis received a host of the most prestigious honours each of which had not previously been conferred on an American, including the Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (France’s highest decorations), the Grand Prix du Disque and Cannes Classical Award (both for his Mercury Records recording of S. Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 accompanied by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin), and the Harriet Cohen International Music Award and Beethoven Medal (for his performance of L.v. Beethoven sonatas).

Other honours include the Classical CD Critics Choice (for his recording of the S. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3), the National Public Radio Critics' Choice Award (for his all-F. Chopin CD), and the Distinguished Pennsylvania Artist Award (past recipients include James Michener, Marion Anderson, James Stewart and Bill Cosby). He is recipient of honorary doctorates and the Sanford Fellowship (the highest honour of Yale University). He received an honorary doctorate at Trinity College and recently, the gold medal from the French Society for the Encouragement of Progress, the first musician to receive this honor since its inception in 1906. He is the National Ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation, Chairman of the Global Forum Arts and Culture Committee, head of the Visual and Performing Arts in America, and member on the Board and the Music Advisory Committee for Pro Musicis.

Personal Life

In 1953 Byron Janis married June Dickinson Wright (sister of Clarissa Dickson Wright), by whom he had a son, Stefan; they were divorced in 1965. 1966 he married the painter Maria Veronica Cooper, the daughter of the movie star Gary Cooper. They reside in New York City.

"Byron Janis [was] dazzling. The most exalting pianist of our age. If there is a pianist that merits being called a 'magician,' it is surely Byron Janis." - Pierre Petit, Le Figaro
"One of the greatest pianists of our time." - NY Times (December 11, 1994)

More Photos

1. Byron Janis Website
2. Wikipedia Website (October 2011)
3. All Music Guide (Author: Joseph Stevenson)
4. Naxos Website
5. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (November 2011)

Byron Janis: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works

Links to other Sites

Byron Janis (Official Website)
Byeon Janis - Biography (AMG)
Byron Janis - Bio (Naxos)

Byron Janis: A career in music built in spite of adversity (Post Gazette)
Byron Janis (Wikipedia)

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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