Byron Janis, One of the Great Pianists of the 20th Century, Dies at 95

Byron Janis, the celebrated classical pianist who studied with Vladimir Horowitz, recorded previously unknown Chopin waltzes from manuscripts he unearthed and became a cultural hero in the U.S. after performing in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, has died. He was 95.

Janis died Thursday (March 14) at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, his wife, Maria Cooper Janis, daughter of two-time Oscar-winning actor Gary Cooper, announced.

“I have been blessed with the privilege for 58 years of loving and being loved by not only one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but by an exceptional human being who took his talents to their highest pinnacle,” she said in a statement.

During his 85-year career, Janis covered composers from Bach to David W. Guion and performed major piano concertos from Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Prokofiev. He occupied two volumes of the 1999 Mercury Philips series Great Pianists of the 20th Century and recorded for Philips, EMI, Sony and Universal as well.

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In 1944, Janis became Horowitz’s first student and made his orchestral debut with conductor Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. At 18, he was signed by RCA Victor Records as its youngest artist.

He performed at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 29, 1948, and Olin Downes in The New York Times wrote: “Not for a long time had this writer heard such a talent allied with the musicianship, the feeling, the intelligence and artistic balance shown by the twenty-year-old pianist, Byron Janis … Whatever he touched, he made significant and fascinating by the most legitimate and expressive means.”

During the Cold War, Janis became the first American artist chosen to participate in the 1960 Cultural Exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Later, he was the first American concert pianist to be asked back to Cuba, 40 years after his previous performance there.

Byron Yanks (shortened from Yankilevich) was born on March 24, 1928, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. His father, Samuel, owned several Army-Navy stores in the area but lost all but one of them during the Depression.

Janis started out playing the xylophone before moving with his mother, Hattie, and sister in 1936 to New York to study piano with Josef and Rosina Lhévinne and then Adele Marcus.

Horowitz saw Janis perform Rachmaninoff’s “Concerto No. 2” at a concert in Pittsburgh and went on to give him lessons at his home on the Upper East Side in New York for three years. “Can you imagine how exciting it was? I was the very first person he worked with,” Janis recalled in the 2009 PBS documentary The Byron Janis Story.

“He said something very interesting to me: ‘You play a bit in watercolors, but you could play more in oils.’ What he was saying was, you could be a bigger, romantic, virtuoso concert pianist.”

(Only two other pianists, Gary Graffman and Ronald Turini, were ever acknowledged by Horowitz as his students.)

In 1967, Janis accidentally discovered two previously unknown manuscripts of Chopin waltzes in France and later found two others while teaching at Yale University. The discoveries provided new insight into Chopin’s creative process, and EMI would release his Chopin Collection in 2012.

Janis performed six times by four sitting presidents at the White House, and among his awards were the Commander of the French Legion d’Honneur for Arts and Letters, the Grand Prix du Disque, the Stanford Fellowship from Yale and the gold medal from the French Society for the Encouragement of Progress (he was the first musician to receive that honor since its inception in 1906).

He composed the scores for major musical productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates and wrote one for The True Gen, a 2013 documentary on the 20-year friendship between Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway.

His trip to the Soviet Union was important, he noted, “because the Russians were saying America can only produce cars. The total propaganda was we were totally uncultured.” He impressed the audience there and returned home a hero. (Watch him perform in 1965 on The Ed Sullivan Show here.)

Another performance that year was released in 2018 as Live From Leningrad, 1960.

“According to Janis,” John Von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “he was unaware a recording had been made until a vinyl disc transfer sent by an anonymous source turned up in a mailbox of his sound engineer. The pianist is in peak form (his Chopin ‘Funeral March’ sonata is positively hair-raising), and the restoration captures the frisson of a live performance the Russian audience obviously savored.”

A selection of original compositions from Janis will be released this year.

He published his memoirs, Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal, in 2010.

His son, Stefan, whom he had with his first wife, June Dickson Wright, died in 2017.

When he was 11, Janis tore tendons when he accidentally put his left hand through a glass door, forcing him to alter his playing. “I had to learn a way of using my eye instead of my finger so I knew where I was going,” he once told Barbara Walters. “People thought I was finished.”

And in 1973, he developed painful psoriatic arthritis in both hands but kept it secret until 1985 when, after a performance at the White House, Nancy Reagan made his condition public when she announced his role as spokesperson for the Arthritis Foundation. He underwent several surgeries to fix the problem.

“In spite of adverse physical challenges throughout his career, he overcame them, and it did not diminish his artistry,” Maria Cooper Janis, 86, wrote. “Music is Byron’s soul, not a ticket to stardom, and his passion for and love of creating music informed every day of his life of 95 years.

“The music world, if it knows how to listen, will be constantly enriched and educated by the music created by Byron Janis, my best friend, companion, LOVE — what gratitude I have lived with every day and shall continue to do so all the rest of my days.”

This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.

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