vladimir horowitz

Horowitz’ Voicing

Horowitz’ Voicing


Here’s a curious paradox for you:  often playing the melody with a more percussive, less beautiful, sound creates a more persuasive, beautiful effect.  Horowitz was hands-down the greatest orchestrator-pianist of the 20th century.  One of the main reasons for this is his understanding and embracing of percussive colors and effects.  His language is largely defined by the way he re-defined the piano as a Percussion-inclusive instrument. 

His approach to Percussion is so embedded in his pianistic language that he forces us to reconsider the nature of pianistic sound and of phrasing itself.  Yet contrary to most Horowitz imitators, his Percussion is rarely percussive or heavy – it rings out and soars weightlessly.



Horowitz uses what I call a slap-and-caress approach, both vertically and horizontally.

The best way to get a feel for Horowitz’ technique is to flatten out the hand and fingers and slightly hold the forearms with an expressive resistance.  Don’t be concerned with whether your knuckles collapse – encourage them to.  Show some wrinkles!

Feel an expressive pressure in your finger tips.  They will feel heavier.  And imagine that they are coated in a thin layer of metal, glass, or ice.  Think of your entire finger as a lever, rather than as three joints. 

Horowitz cuts the sound, slicing it like sushi.  He doesn’t force; the shimmer of his tone, especially in the melody, is razor-sharp.  It pierces the texture.  The most common mistake in imitating Horowitz is to force through the texture with a dull mallet.  His touch is much more refined than that; its power comes from its sharpness.

He usually uses the softest part of his fingertip, the fleshy part, to produce sound.  Logically, this would have the opposite effect; it should soften and round the sound.  And it does - it gives the body of the tone a softer, silkier core and a rounded quality.  The cutting quality comes from the speed of the attack, its slapped quality, and the way he compresses his finger and especially fingertip.  As his emotional energy centers in his fingers, they harden expressively, the blood rushing into them, they become heavier, and hyper-sensitive.  They long to cut and sing. 

Remember that touch has three parts – the attack { with a glossy or matte finish }; the body or substance, which is the general quality of the tone, be it water, earth, sand, wood, soft metal; and the release or after-touch, how you release the sound with the finger and with the pedal { separate aspects of after-touch }.

Try the first page of our Prelude or any excerpt you like using these techniques to imitate Horowitz’ sound.  Although at first you’ll feel a need to expressively hold the forearm, don’t tighten or over-do it.  After a couple days, these resisting-and-releasing muscles will have become alive again and you won’t need to consciously hold them.  Also, remember that Horowitz’ is a non legato approach.  He once spent two years playing exclusively non legato – not a single finger-legato!  This can mean anything from staccatissimo to a 99% connection.  Try to be disciplined in this if you desire to unravel some of Horowitz’ great secrets. 

You can spend days or weeks or months on this before reading on if you like …


Continuing with the idea of Slap-and-Caress, Horowitz likes to tease the listener {see Essay on Horowitz in Part III}.  He will often slap a few notes in a phrase to throw out a bunch of provocative energy, often mangling part of a phrase, then retreats subito into a gentle caress, apologizing as it were for his misbehavior.  He doesn’t often punch the keys or force them – he generally either pressures his way in, directly or slitheringly, or slaps from the finger or hand (wrist). 

Slapping implies a quick in-and-out, unforced, open palm approach.  The energy passes through electrically, leaving the hand and arm relaxed and energized.  At the piano, there’s an up quality to it.  Nothing of Arrau’s sinking weight.  When Horowitz wants a pesante effect, he does so with a full-arm expressive pressure-attack.

He also uses slap-and-caress vertically.  His voicings are unlike any other pianist in recorded history.  When you hear a Horowitz recording on the radio, you know immediately that it’s him from his unique phrasing patterns and inimitable voicings.  He generally chooses one note in each hand to center his weight over, often turning the hand slightly in that direction.  These two notes he will either slap or pressure in.  They’re usually not only louder, but also brighter than the rest.  He then grades each of the remaining notes in order of importance.  (This is not new to us.)

He takes particular pleasure in searching out the dissonances, the irregularities, the potential contrasts.  If there is harmonic dissonance within the chord, you can be sure that he’ll zero in on it and point it up for heightened effect.  He will also point up the note that the dissonant note is most dissonant against within the chord, making the dissonant interval hit the ear with greater impact.  While doing this he hides notes of lesser import, caressing them lovingly but peripherally, so that the texture never becomes thick or unfocused.  Horowitz loves transparency. 

What’s fascinating through this approach to voicing is that without necessarily playing any louder, it sounds louder and more electric.  The dissonances and contrasts jump out at the ear with absolute vividness!



In 1928, The Musician published an enlightening article about Horowitz’s approach to practicing voicing.  The following excerpt speaks for itself:


"At first thought, it would appear extremely difficult to sound a chord of three or even five notes with the five fingers on one hand in such a manner that one or even two notes are heard above the others and act as a melody while the other notes act as an accompaniment to that melody.  If one were to do it as Horowitz does it, the difficulty would disappear into thin air.
There are two correct, though diametrically opposite, methods of attacking the mastery of this necessary accomplishment for perfect piano artistry.  To avoid confusion, only one method will be explained at this time.  Experience has shown, however, that when one has become a master of this accomplishment by one method, he is also a master by the other even without practice.
To accent a melody note within a chord or octave: raise the whole arm with as little muscular effort as possible, until the fingers are between three and five inches above the key.  During the up and down movements of the arm, prepare the fingers by placing them in position for the depression of the next group of notes and by holding the finger which is to play the melody-note a trifle lower and firmer than the other fingers which are to depress the remaining keys of the chord.  In first attempting this exercise, there is a feeling of stiffened muscular action.  Such a condition is always present in the early stage of mastering this problem and should not cause discouragement.  Continued practice will remove this feeling, leaving a relaxed though firm muscular action.  Continued development will also remove the necessity for raising the hand so high above the keys.
Without ceasing to retain firm though supple joints at the wrists and knuckles, release all tension from the shoulder muscles, permitting the arm to fall with its full weight upon the predetermined keys, the points of contact being the balls of the fingers { the soft, fleshy part }.
The finger which is held a trifle lower and much firmer naturally strikes the key a much firmer blow than do the more relaxed fingers which do not overcome the resistance of the key as easily as does the more firmly held finger. The tone produced by the key so depressed is therefore stronger than the others. Thus, it is plainly seen that in striking a chord, in which a single note is to be accented, the effect can be produced by holding the finger which is to play the melody note a trifle lower and much firmer than the fingers which are to play the unaccented notes. The reason for holding the finger a trifle lower is only psychological in effect; in actual practice, it isn't altogether necessary. Experience shows that in the beginning it is almost impossible to get a student to hold one finger more firmly than the others unless he is also permitted to hold it in a somewhat different position from the others. Holding it a little lower does not change the quality or quantity of tone produced and does not affect the playing in any way but it does put the student's mind at greater ease.  { Not entirely so: playing the note slightly earlier sets it in a different time dimension, making the effect more orchestral. }
There is one more point of vital importance in mastering this problem. In the beginning the super-firmness with which the lowered finger is held will cause a hard tone to be produced. The hardness of tone will disappear with progress in its mastery and freedom of movement in depressing the keys, leaving as a final result a beautiful, sonorous and velvety tone of the desired carrying power."

Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz


Creativity is always from the beyond.

~ Osho



If I could go back in time, there are two red-letter dates in the history of 20th century pianism that I wouldn’t miss, both involving Rachmaninoff and his Third Piano Concerto.  The first is around the beginning of the century when Rachmaninoff debuted his new Concerto in NYC with none other than Gustav Mahler at the podium conducting – what a concert that must have been!  The greatest conductor perhaps in the history of conducting accompanying the greatest pianist of the first half of the 20th century!

The second was a much more private affair.  The young Horowitz had just landed off the boat in NYC and with all the sights the New World had to offer, his first stop was Rachmaninoff’s Manhattan apartment.  The next day they met at the now famed basement of Steinway Hall so that Rachmaninoff could hear what the young artist could do with his colossal Third Concerto.  They played through the entire work at two pianos.  Can you imagine what that must have sounded like - these twin giants of 20th century pianism - their languages blending and playing off each other! 


Horowitz is a complex beast.  He always forces you to love him or hate him, often simultaneously.

I remember the day my allegiance switched from Rubinstein to Horowitz – it happened in all of a couple minutes.  I was sixteen, living with my uncle not far from the University.  One afternoon I came home from school and raided his LP collection.  I found Horowitz’ recording of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto and Second Sonata.

I knew of Horowitz from before I ever began lessons but my first teacher was a big Rubinstein fan and it naturally rubbed off on me.  When I was eleven or twelve, I went to a lecture about competitions for aspiring pianists.  One comment struck me – If Horowitz were to ever enter a modern competition, he wouldn’t make it past the first round.

I’m sure that the lecturer was making some important point about the futility of competitions, how individuality rarely wins out and how you don’t compete to win, but rather not to be eliminated.  What remained with me instead was simply, What’s wrong with Horowitz if he can’t even pass the first round of a competition?

Horowitz died when I was thirteen and I didn’t even notice …

I didn’t buy his LP’s or go out of my way to listen to them.

And then I put on the Sonata.

No single event in my musical life has impacted me as much as that moment.  From the first crashing, cascading arpeggio followed by electric, deeply penetrating chords full of passion and sheer color, I knew that I was hearing absolute mastery and artistry.  Others have said it before – The first time I heard Horowitz, it’s as if I were hearing the piano for the first time, as if my ears never had never known what the piano was capable of…   Such was his impact on me that afternoon.


I devoured all of his recordings and took up Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, imitating every nuance of Horowitz’ legendary interpretations of it.  After a few months, I reached my first Horowitz saturation point – I simply couldn’t take any more.  Everything I loved about it started getting on my nerves.  Then I would come back, over and over again, the cycle always repeating itself.

I simply couldn’t figure out Horowitz, and that bothered me and captivated me.  All artists can be defined and categorized, but Horowitz is an Enigma: as soon as you have him briefly pinned down, he morphs into another entity and contradicts you.  His strengths are as many as his weaknesses.  But he never ceases to fascinate.  No other pianist has been written about and analyzed so extensively, so I’ll leave you to their commentaries, but there are two extremely important aspects about Horowitz’ language that are usually glossed over or misunderstood: his willfulness and his acceptance of Brass and Percussion as an integral part of orchestration.


The most common argument about Horowitz’ approach is –  He would be great if only he didn’t do such-and-such, if only he didn’t do such-and-such.  I used to approach him like that, trying to imitate only Horowitz’ proper qualities, excising what shouldn’t be there.  But what I was left with was often meaningless babble.

And this is so often true – take away what you don’t like about something, and you may be removing the very reason why you like it so much. 

Horowitz will sometimes willfully mangle part of a phrase, making you sit on edge and gnaw your teeth, close your ears and cringe.  You want to scream out, Why do you have to do that!  And then the next moment, he’ll play the most beautiful, dissolving, nostalgic phrase, and you’ll swear that you’ve never heard such a beautiful passage.  You’ll love him again and know him for the poet and seducer he is.

Yet take away the first part, and what’s left?  Dribbling nonsense.  Horowitz never gives you anything important without somehow making you want it first.  This is part of his genius.  He knows how to balance love and hate, creating the most romantic, extreme contrasts.  And it becomes addictive.  You want him to bend the phrases against your own design so that he can then apologize and set everything right again.

Horowitz’ least successful, least personal playing, are his recordings with Toscanini.  Yes, they’re fantastic recordings nonetheless, but these two giants of interpretation were simply not meant to make music together.  It’s as if they’re speaking to each other in Chinese, one in Mandarin, the other in Cantonese.

Horowitz is the weaker Artist in the meeting.  He was intimidated by his Father-in-law and wanted to please him and be accepted by him.  He plays the Emperor and Tchaikovsky’s First in a quite normal, proper way.  You still hear Horowitz underneath but he’s in a straitjacket, smothered.  Listening, you long for him to break free, but he doesn’t.   It’s disingenuous playing, masterful but false. 

Later in his life, Horowitz could often become a caricature of himself, taking things a step too far.  But even this was at least Horowitz.  His sin was loving opium.  Take his late recording of the Liszt Sonata.  It’s like a series of character pieces, broken up and torn down at every opportunity.  But what colors!  What poetic hallucinations!  Contrary to common opinion, this is for me far superior to his earlier recording, which is full of momentum and verve and holds together architecturally much better, but lacks the tonal imagination and attention to detail.  When he plays Liszt, the devil and angel in him meet in the most perfect balance.  He is Liszt incarnate.

He has a similar chemistry with several composers, Rachmaninoff for example.  The composer admitted that Horowitz played many of his works – the Third Concerto, for instance – better than himself.

And Scriabin!  And Scarlatti!  The list goes on and on.  But let’s move on to the second important feature of Horowitz style, indirectly related to the first and usually overlooked or misunderstood – his percussiveness.

Horowitz imitators are the noisiest pianists around.  It’s not nearly as common as it was thirty or forty years ago when every Conservatory pianist was trying to play as fast and loud as Horowitz.  Students pick up on his power without understanding its source or being able to define its substance and think they can capture it by simply flailing away at the keyboard.

I myself admit to having occasionally fallen victim to this trap.  Inspired by a Horowitz recording, I go to the piano and try to recapture its magic; after a couple days I think I’ve managed somehow.  Then I listen again.  It’s not nearly as percussive or loud or heavy as it seemed in my memory.  It simply rings with a golden shimmer.  The weight doesn’t stay in the sound; it passes through it like electricity.  The effects often seem much greater than they actually are because of the way he places them in time and constrasts them against opposite colors, or against silence.  In his phrasing and in his voicings, he pinpoints the exact notes to point up for maximum effect.  He searches out the dissonant intervals, melodically and harmonically, and heightens them.  He doesn’t smear colors or effects over groups of notes – he crafts each note individually.

Unlike most pianists, Horowitz isn’t afraid of Percussion and Brass – he embraces them as friends.  He uses them sparingly but always at just the right moment for maximum effect.  Only in Horowitz do you think he’s reached a triple forte only to be suddenly hit with a chord twice as loud and powerful!  Yet he rarely actually offends the ear as many of his imitators do.  He punches you in the gut and sends you reeling.  And you stand up smiling and come back for more! 

Gilels is another pianist that embraces Percussion and Brass, but he does so in a much more muscular, bulky way.  Horowitz slaps much more often than he punches; he plays with you and provokes you, but he saves real punches for maximum effect.    Magic is not a heavy entity – it floats and can never quite be pinned down, and Horowitz is the ultimate Magician.

Horowitz’ Percussion is very rarely percussive; he embraces Percussion as a light, singing force.  He uses it as a great orchestrator does - to highlight phrases, to create contrast, to clarify structure.  And among the Greats, he is absolutely unique in his acceptance of Percussion.  None of the Golden Age pianists understood Percussion like Horowitz – they all shied away from it, searching for the ever-elusive golden tone.  Oddly, that ideal generally possessed little gold or polish; it has more of a matte finish.  Listen to the entire Leschetizky School, for example – all possess an almost identical sound, singing, round and translucent.  Horowitz’ sound, at least in the melody, is rarely as beautiful or pure – he leaves a certain edge in it that gently attracts the ear to it.  Horowitz does possess the Leschetizky sound, but he usually hides it from view.

Why conceal beauty?  This is a mystifying feature of his language – Horowitz often veils his most beautiful sounds underneath the surface, lending the overall effect a complexity and beauty that often surpasses the greatest of the Golden Age pianists. 

The conundrum for a pianist wishing to experiment with percussive effects is – where do you use them?  If you put them in the melody, the tone-color of the melody becomes less beautiful.  If you put them underneath the melody, they distract the listener’s ear from the melody and generally destroy the effect.

Horowitz deliberately uses brighter, less beautiful colors in the melody, against common logic.  And this is revolutionary!  The proof of its effectiveness lies in his recordings.  An added bonus of this approach is that the melody naturally has more carrying power in a large hall.  Brighter sounds ring more and often carry better. 

Remember also, brightness in a small space never sounds as bright in a larger space.  The larger the space, the duller the effect, and the greater the need to increase the scope of everything.

Finally, Horowitz’ embracing of Percussion and Brass is one of the features that sets him off as Modern against the previous generation of pianists. 

In Horowitz, fire sings through metal, glass, water and ice.


The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.

Albert Einstein