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A secret love affair of Vladimir Horowitz: An interview with Lea Singer and Elisabeth Lauffer

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In 1996, German author Lea Singer read that a man named Nico Kaufmann had, before his recent death, donated a bundle of letters from his teacher, Vladimir Horowitz, to a Swiss archive. Singer had heard Horowitz perform in Berlin ten years earlier and was struck by a certain sadness in his shy smile. But when she checked a biography of Horowitz, not a word was mentioned about a student in Europe. Many more years passed before Singer got the idea to research these mysterious letters.

What Singer found in those letters forms the basis of her novel, “The Piano Student” (New Vessel Press, 2020), which depicts the passionate but hopeless love affair between Horowitz and Kaufmann in the 1930s. Although Horowitz was married to Wanda Toscanini, the daughter of the famous conductor, Arturo Toscanini, “It was not a marriage, it was a deal,” Singer says in this Zoom interview with Intermezzo host Leora Zeitlin, along with the book’s translator from German, Elisabeth Lauffer. “He didn’t marry Wanda, he married the daughter of Toscanini. And Wanda did not marry Horowitz, she married the most celebrated pianist of the world.”

Singer says, “And it was for me a breathtaking adventure to read these documents, these letters, of longing and jealousy and of sexual desire and anguish. Letters talking about that inner power struggle. And an artist in the midst of upheavals and dangers as a Jew and as a homosexual.”

[A partial transcript of the interview appears below. The sound quality of the Zoom recording is not always clear in the sections recorded from Germany, where Singer was during the interview.]

Elisabeth Lauffer reads two passages from the novel in the interview and also discusses how she came to translate it, challenges in the translation process, and how Nico Kaufmann is depicted in the novel.

Listen to the full interview here:

Partial transcript [below pictures]

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Horowitz at the piano. Photo provided by the author.

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Kaufmann at the piano. Photo provided by author.

Partial transcrip of  interview with author Lea Singer and translator Elisabeth Lauffer, by Leora Zeitlin. The interview aired on KRWG Public Media on October 21, 2021. Numbers denote the minutes elapsed in the recording. Musical clips are listed in the transcript.

Leora: You’re tuned to 90.7 KRWG Las Cruces, I’m Leora Zeitlin.

In the 20th century, maybe the greatest, most famous, pianist of the century was Vladimir Horowitz. One didn’t even need to say the first name; everyone knew who Horowitz was. We’re going to be talking about Horowitz today. He was married to Wanda Toscanini, the daughter of the most famous conductor of that part of the century. Wanda Toscanini, the daughter of Arturo Toscanini. A musical power couple in certain senses, but a marriage that masked the homosexuality of Horowitz – which was somewhat of an open secret in the music world, but maybe not to the full public. And my guest today, Lea Singer, an author calling in on a Zoom call from Munich, Germany, wrote a novel called “The Piano Student” that depicts a love affair that went on for a number of years in the 1930s between Horowitz and a young Swiss pianist named Nico Kaufmann. And also on our Zoom call is the translator of the novel into English, Elisabeth Lauffer. So welcome to you both, Lea Singer and Elisabeth Lauffer.

Leora: I’m going to start with the author, Lea Singer. You’re a cultural historian and a biographer of Chopin and Mozart, so clearly a great love of music. How did you come to write this particular book, though, which was based on a series of letters that were, I think, supposed to be destroyed and never were?

1:38, Lea Singer: It’s a long story, and I’ll make it short. The story began 35 years ago [1986], when I was very young, and experienced Horowitz for the first and last time in the famous concert in Berlin. And getting a ticket to the concert seemed to be only possible with a lot of relationships or money, and I didn’t have either. But I just borrowed some money and I only needed a single ticket – has good points to having a non-musical boyfriend – and I saw Horowitz to close range, to very close range.

Leora: At the concert?

2:26: At the concert. And what I saw I hadn’t expected. Horowitz, then 83 years old, came to the stage – tidy and awkward, a shy penguin, and he grinned like a little child, but in the grin was a great sadness. And when he played the Traumerei of Schumann as an encore, he seemed to be crying.

[Musical clip: Vladimir Horowitz plays “Traumerei,” from Kinderszenen, or “Scenes from Childhood,” by Robert Schumann, from the cd “Horowitz in Moscow,” recorded in concert, April 20, 1986. Deustsche Grammophon cd #419499.]

His eyes were wet and I couldn’t forget the scene. And I asked, why did Horowitz cry? Where does this sadness come from? And years, I think, ten years after the Berlin concert, in December 1996, I tore a tiny, tiny text from the NZZ [Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a major German language journal], the great Swiss journal, and the text concerned the donation of a recently deceased Nico Kaufmann. He had left about 50 letters to a Swiss archive, letters from his former teacher: Horowitz. And he left it to the Zentralbibliothek Zurich, a famous archive.

At home, I checked if the great [Horowitz] biography of [Glen] Plaskin had a Nico Kaufmann, but no word, not a single word about Kaufmann, not a single student in Europe was mentioned. I put the clipping in the book and forgot it.

4:33: In 2014, I think ‘14, I bought a brand new cd with Horowitz playing different pieces, and also the “Scenes from Childhood,” by Schumann. And I remembered the scene with the encore in Berlin, and I looked for the clipping, found it, and I checked down that nothing – nothing – had been written about these letters since I had found the little text, the tiny text, in the NZZ. And this, I think, was the initial spark.

Leora: Wow, it’s so interesting how just a little something in a magazine leads you on a path. So, yes, I neglected to say this. Nico Kaufmann was his student, and Horowitz was sort of also famous in that he didn’t really teach. So many of the great musicians had teaching positions, or do today. But he didn’t really teach, so there was this student-teacher relationship. There was about 12 years difference in age, so there wasn’t a huge difference, but they weren’t peers, either. And these were love letters. And letters of how to connect when Horowitz was traveling in Europe. So how did you get to those letters, and how did the novel unfold from that?

5:58: Singer: I checked the situation, what was with Horowitz when he met Kaufmann. He was then married some three, four years, and he experienced a deep crisis. It was the first of three ones. For months, for years, he was incapable of performing in public.

6:10, Leora: Yes, he suffered from terrible stage fright during these years.

Singer: Only by thinking about it he had panic attacks, and reports circulated that Horowitz was very ill, and that he was not even touching a piano. His career really had ended. And I asked, “what happened that he was able to return to the stage in Zurich in 1983? Very suddenly. And that he was able to pursue the recital in Paris in the following year? The known biography left me without having answered the question. These letters solved the riddle. Horowitz’ experience that was an erotic and sexual relationship with a young man, 12 years younger than himself, and he made him into his first piano student. And there are a few passages in the letters where it goes into sexual details, but I don’t mention them. I am a little bit old-fashioned concerning this problem. But I allow discretion, and I wouldn’t damage the great name of Horowitz. But I would also narrate the truth, and to tell there was import in the letters. And Horowitz presents himself in the letters as a teacher, but I think, in fact, he was not made to be one.

7:47, Leora: Let’s turn to your translator, Elisabeth Lauffer, a translator from German. You’ve picked a couple of passages and this might be a good moment to read a passage that depicts their relationship as teacher and student.

8:03: Elisabeth Lauffer: Sure, absolutely. [Reads passage.]

[Musical clip: Vladimir Horowitz plays Etude, Op. 25, No. 7 by Frederic Chopin; from “Horowitz plays Chopin, Vol. 1,” RCA cd #7752.]

[Leora and Lauffer talk about the book, how she came to translate it, and some of her own background as a translator and musician.]

14:38, Leora: Lea, let’s go back to you. Clearly you had to immerse yourself in the world of Horowitz. You had heard him live, and as I mentioned at the beginning, he casts a long shadow over all the pianists that have come since and who were alive during his lifetime. And you are telling a story that even his biographers either purposefully or not, never included. So this is a daring book in a lot of ways. But the way you frame it, as a narrative in the voice of Nico Kaufmann, who had clearly been a pianist of great promise, but was too distracted, maybe, by life and by his need to be – he says this about himself, his need to be loved and get attention – to put in that serious work that Horowitz was demanding of him. And right at the beginning, we see a picture of him in Nico Kaufmann’s house, of Horowitz, with a kind of devastating inscription to this young man. Devastating because it basically says, if you don’t work hard as a pianist – I’m paraphrasing – you consign yourself to a life of brilliant mediocrity. And in many ways, that’s how we see Nico Kaufmann. But in the telling of this story, of course, his full humanity comes out as well. And I would just like to hear your thoughts about Kaufmann, as you came to know him writing this book.

16:11, Singer: Well, my picture of Kauffmann changed during the book. He was the son of a known, established Swiss family, very bourgeois and conservative. And Horowitz may have felt at home in this atmosphere of the villa of Nico’s parents – because of the furniture and silver, and the crystal and porcelain, and somewhat as his parent’s house in Russia. And the father of Nico was a well-recommended doctor and a great admirer of Horowitz. And Nico was very charming, he was handsome, I sent you some photographs –

Leora: Oh yes, very handsome.

Singer: And in the photos he was posing like a pin-up. He was really like, I would dare say, an adoration addict. And that was a great problem. I told the story as a travel through the original places in the year, an important year for me because it was my first experience with Horowitz, 1986. In these hotels, luxury hotels with great amenities, they got together and Nico enjoyed the wonderful places. But he thought – because the lessons didn’t come complementary – but  Nico thought the lessons would be only the “admission fee” for the erotic afternoon. Only an admission fee. Only an alibi, a kind of alibi.

18:07:  And he wasn’t only very handsome, he knew it very well. That he was. And his feelings toward Horowitz changed. And that’s for me touching, to a really mature, deep, and sympathetic love. And Horowitz wasn’t an attractive man. He was pale. He was not muscular. He was strained and he was a king of nervosity, and really a classical house-mouse. And Nico, I think he felt that Horowitz had problems to confess his identity, his sexual identity. And it was for me a breathtaking adventure to read these documents, these letters, of longing and jealousy and of sexual desire and anguish. Letters talking about that inner power struggle. And an artist in the midst of upheavals and dangers as a Jew and as a homosexual.

19: 18: These letters reveal a conflict of which nothing previously was known, and Nico was part of this conflict.

19:24 Leora: You know, we, we live in a very different time now, but of course, to be a homosexual then, and to be so famous, and Horowitz was a man who lived in exile in so many different ways. He left the Soviet Union, and then he had to leave Europe because of World War II and the rise of the Nazis. And he was a kind of eternal exile sexually in not being able to be open. And you feel the tremendous fear that they lived with if this becomes known – and they were not alone in that fear of course. And you even touch on the fact, in a letter that is quoted in the story, about the Nazi vilification not just of Jews but of homosexuals. So to be both was particularly dangerous. I’m also curious -- you mention when you saw him in concert he had this child-like smile, but the sadness. And when you watch videos of him, there is this kind of nervousness. I was watching a video, part of the great return concert to Moscow in 1986 – which this novel, “The Piano Student,” is just a few months before. It sort of starts right before, and the concert in Moscow is broadcast during the book. Which was legendary now, we hear about the “Horowitz in Moscow” concert and how people stayed up all night in the rain. Well, that was several times because Horowitz had this penchant for, sort of, retiring— for many years sometimes – and then making a return engagement.

But that childlike smile and the sadness. You also touch on that in the book where you have Nico Kaufmann show a photograph to Robert Donati, who’s the other man that he’s talking to throughout the book. Where if you cover the eyes, his mouth is a childlike smile. And if you cover – is that a photograph you saw?

21:30, Singer: Yeah, that’s a photograph I saw. And this photograph with the lines of Horowitz really exists. I have a copy.

21:38, Leora: Yeah, a tortured man Horowitz was. And yet he was this god in the music world. People just adored him. And he lived with both these realities. You also are not afraid to point out that people of that stature and who live in that sort of rarified world of the height of accomplishment in music, can be very difficult. The temper, the violent temper sometimes, and moodiness, and fastidiousness. He was a man who insisted that his piano be brought to every concert. And he had his own cook because he couldn’t stand the food that was everywhere else, and in hotels and whatnot. Do you want to say a few things about that –  the quirks of this human being, Horowitz?

22:29, Singer: I think, for me, he was a little -- excuse me, a little bit a coward. Politically and privately. His own diagnosis was different. “I am an artist,” he said, “and an artist must not care about politics.” But his father-in-law Toscanini was a passionate opponent of Mussolini, you know, and also of Hitler, and he cancelled all contracts with Bayreuth and Salzburg when Hitler was there. Horowitz took freedom, as we often take it, for granted. And to jeopardize his career by confessing to his sexual identity would have never come into his mind. He knew what happened in 1957, the great Dmitry Mitropoulos, lost his position as principal conductor of the Met because he was quietly known as queer, and felt no need to cover the truth with a decorated marriage. But the price Horowitz paid was also high. I think everyone who reads the memoir is aware of his vulnerability. The daring of despair and self-denial. Suppressing the sexual identity can lead to depressions to be followed by un-ableness to perform. That was the reason Horowitz was asking for help from a psychiatrist in the United States. He looked back to his past with anguish he felt about his never publishing of knowledge of his homosexuality, and the preciousness of his private life. And that’s why he wanted so-called conversion therapy, and that’s really cruel.

24:30, Leora: Yes, the conversion therapy is terrible. You have a heartbreaking scene in the book where Horowitz and Nico Kaufmann, he has Kaufmann drive him to the villa of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff who was his senior, and who he very much loved, and they shared, rather famously, these episodes of depression. And Kaufmann is excited that he’s going to get to meet Rachmaninoff and that’s going to sort of be presented to Rachmaninoff. And Horowitz has him move the car where it’s invisible from anywhere in the house, and he’s not invited into the house, and it becomes clear that Horowitz was too afraid to bring him in and blow his cover. So, as you said, he was a bit cowardly, and one understands for that time, and with his relationship with Rachmaninoff, but very heartbreaking for Kaufmann.

25:31, Singer: I think the problem was also that Rachmaninoff was a kind of father for Horowitz. It was instead of Toscanini, his father-in-law, who couldn’t be a father figure. Horowitz’ relationship with Nico was a great risk also to Arturo Toscanini, among the mightiest personalities in classical music worldwide. Because Toscanini despised homosexuals. And Horowitz could calculate that he would have to emigrate to the United States sooner or later and there could be only a chance to continue his career as a protégé of Toscanini, of his father in law.

And Toscanini gave a great performance as a pious Catholic, and he condemned divorce and he condemned infidelity, but he had always affairs with other women, and it was inevitable that his wife was informed about it, because the scandals went to the public. Rosina Storchio, for example, famous opera singer, was acting on stage as Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, when a gust of wind from backstage blew into her kimono, and there was a big cry, “Oh, she’s pregnant by Toscanini!”

Leora: Oh gosh!

And she wasn’t the only singer he was supposed to have knocked up. And the musicians of the orchestra said he is conducting with a conducting baton in one hand, and a pistol in the other. And there was an extreme personality. And Horowitz didn’t feel any kind of love, any kind of affection for his father-in-law. And therefore Rachmaninoff was more important, not only as a famous pianist. In fact, Horowitz was playing his concertos better than – the famous 3rd concerto, better than he himself.

[Musical clip: Horowitz playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the New York Philharmonic, recorded in concert in 1978. RCA cd #63681.]

28:02, Leora: And you even mention at one point that Wanda Toscanini, she’s a “professional daughter,” I think are the words, the way it’s translated, and you know, she was the daughter of the most famous conductor, she marries the most famous pianist, and all these appearances had to be maintained, otherwise the whole, you know, the house of cards could fall so quickly.

28:26, Singer: It was not a marriage, it was a deal. He didn’t marry Wanda, he married the daughter of Toscanini. And Wanda did not marry Horowitz, she married the most celebrated pianist of the world. This gave her the opportunity to show her father that even she was able to get famous. She could be more than being the daughter of a famous man. She was able to conquer one. One’s marriage to Volodiya [nickname of “Vladimir”] was an exchange, a transaction. The essence of ”Gentlemen Prefer Blonds,” the Harcourt classic [novel from 1925 by Anita Loos], is “beauty among”. And there was fame and the best connections.

Leora: Yeah, and of course to build a career like that, those mattered. And people did marry for convenience, or for, or for reasons of ambition, let’s put it that way.

29:30, Singer: But she was also a victim of her father. There was a deadly coldness at home, Toscanini’s home. A silent mother and a father who gave no credit, no praise, no encouragement to the children, really nothing. They didn’t learn to be insightful. They didn’t learn any kind of loving devotion.

Leora: And also, the public persona of conductors in the 20th century, probably in the 19th century as well, was that they could get away with anything and did. And were unbelievably cruel to their musicians, as well. There are famous stories of George Szell and others, you know, summarily firing a musician in the middle of a rehearsal in an orchestra because they missed a note – you know, “leave right now!” – and humiliating them in front of the whole orchestra. This was not uncommon, sad to say. And yet they were so revered by the public.

I want to turn back to Elisabeth. Let’s read another passage about the Toscanini family. I think you had chosen one to illustrate this.

30:40, Lauffer: Elisabeth Lauffer reads from “The Piano Student.”

[Musical clip: Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the “Siegfried Idyll,” by Richard Wagner, recorded 1952. RCA Victor cd #60264.]

34:42: Lauffer talks about the challenges and process of translating the book. She discusses Nico Kaufmann’s personality and voice, his levity and sassiness, and also the sadness and hardship he experiences, as well as the challenge of translating Horowitz’ flawed German into English.

39:21, Leora: Let’s just touch on one more short thing, which is there’s a beautiful photo that you sent me, Lea, which I’ll post on the internet, of Nico Kaufmann at the piano, and Horowitz at the piano, and the similarity of their posture and their long hands. Horowitz was known for the economy of movement; he also had a hand position that was very unusual, much flatter than most pianists, and he was known for both the tenderness of the intimate pieces and the power of the powerful pieces, he did everything. I’m curious, are there any recordings – I could not find any – of Nico Kaufman playing? And if so, do we hear any similarity in the tone and the sound that he had, compared to Horowitz?

40:15, Singer: There are only left documents of his own playing in the Swiss radio, and he was accompanying a singer, with songs he composed. He was not a famous composer, not a very good composer, but he was a composer. Later he changed to produce music for ballets and for cabarets, and he was very successful, and this -- a special scene, not only in Switzerland but also in traveling to the United States. But in the beginning he was not so bad. And Horowitz was mad as hell when Nico played too fast. And Kaufmann did well together with his teacher. But after Horowitz had left Europe in 1945, Kaufmann won the very recommended competition, the Concours de Geneve. And you can look at the list of the winners, there are a lot of very great names. For example, Gulda –

LZ: Friedrich Gulda?

Singer: Friedrich Gulda. And other really famous names. And he was in very good company. But then he decided to finish his professional career, and I think he made a completely other decision as Horowitz. Because he stood to what he was; he confessed to his sexual identity. And he had no risk, okay, not a risk like Horowitz. But he decided that happiness is more important than career, and that his identity is the secret to a good life.

42:18: Well, that’s a beautiful way to wrap up this fascinating almost hour that we’ve spent talking about Horowitz and his student and lover, Nico Kaufmann, depicted in the book, “The Piano Student,” by Lea Singer, who’s been my guest today on a Zoom call from Munich, and the translator, Elisabeth Lauffer, from Vermont.

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