Vladimir Horowitz à son piano en Angleterre
Vladimir Horowitz à son piano en Angleterre © Getty  /  Bettmann / Contributeur

The whims of Vladimir Horowitz, as told by Steinway's master piano technician

Franz Mohr worked with the twentieth century's greatest pianists, listening to their wants, their peeves and, most importantly, their pianos. In a long interview, he talks about his eventful experience with the pianist Vladimir Horowitz.

For an insight into Vladimir Horowitz's complex personality, just talk to the man who worked at his side, Franz Mohr. Steinway's chief piano technician accompanied the pianist for 24 years, during which time he got to know the man that was Horowitz and tell a few choice stories to the people he met, such as the American journalist Bruce Duffie.

In a long interview, the journalist talks to Franz Mohr about the pianos and especially the pianists he worked with over his career. Before becoming Steinway's chief technician, Franz Mohr lived in Germany. After a brief career as a violinist, brought to a halt by health problems, he started learning to service pianos. Then, in 1962, he went to New York to join one of the greatest piano firms, Steinway and Sons. In barely three years, he was able to take over from his boss, Bill Hupfer.

This sudden promotion gave him an opportunity to work with the twentieth century's greatest pianists, including Arthur Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin, Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz.

Before becoming friends with the latter, the technician learnt to understand the pianist's personality. "He was difficult and had a very complex personality," confided the technician.

You never really knew when he was going to explode and start shouting. It took us a long time to become good friends.

They first met when Franz Mohr was still Bill Hupfer's assistant. He accompanied Bill to tune the musician's piano. It was during a period when Horowitz was very much in seclusion, although he still did recordings. After quite a few months, when Franz went to tune Horowitz's piano, the latter decided to come out of his seclusion and came down to see the technician. That was when Franz Mohr knew that the pianist respected and liked him.

But once Horowitz took a liking to someone, it was powerful and unreserved - like his own personality. Franz Mohr had become "the most important person in his eyes".

Not without reason: the technician took care of Horowitz's most valuable possession, his piano. Though in fact Horowitz had more than one piano: "He must have played at least six," said Franz Mohr. The pianist was extremely particular about his piano: it had to sound exactly the way he wanted it to and he allowed no-one (except Franz Mohr) to play it.

In his whole career, only one other person played Horowitz's piano. That was Murray Perahia. He was so flattered that Horowitz let him play it. But after the first piece, Horowitz came up to me and said: 'I'm sorry, Franz, but I just can't handle it'.

The pianist followed a strict routine. He gave one concert a week, on Sunday, and never practised on the day of a concert. During the concert, his favourite technician had to stay backstage. Franz Mohr remembers one occasion when Horowitz allowed him to go and sit in the first row during a concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

After the first piece, a Haydn sonata, the pianist went backstage and asked for his technician. Franz Mohr left the hall and hurried to the musician's side. Horowitz was furious. "I played so many wrong notes! Somebody touched my stool! It’s much too high, it’s much too high!", he said.

Franz Mohr had no choice but to walk out onstage and lower the stool. From that time on, he never ever went into the audience during Horowitz's concerts.

In 1992, three years after Horowitz's death, Franz Mohr retired. He published a book in 1996: "My Life with the Great Pianists" in which he tells all of his anecdotes about concerts and what went on backstage among the twentieth century's most renowned musicians.

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