A Conversation with Byron and Maria Janis

Tamami Honma, Julian Brown and Cindy Ho | October 2017 | New York

In March 2019, renowned American pianist Byron Janis will reach his 91st birthday. He made his first orchestral debut at the age of 15 playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. At 16 Byron Janis was the very first student whom Vladimir Horowitz chose to work with. Byron Janis made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 20 and went on to pursue an international career as a concert and recording artist. He has been acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest pianists. In 2010, he and his wife Maria Cooper Janis (daughter of the late multiple Academy Award winning actor Gary Cooper) wrote his autobiography “Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal.” In this conversation recorded in October 2017, Byron and Maria Janis were interviewed by Vantage Music’s US correspondent and pianist Tamami Honma, who was herself a student of Byron Janis. They were also joined by violinist, Julian Brown, and Vantage Music’s artistic director and pianist Cindy Ho.


(B: Mr. Byron Janis; M: Mrs. Maria Janis; T: Ms. Tamami Honma; J: Mr. Julian Brown; C: Ms. Cindy Ho)

T: Having read your book “Chopin and Beyond” and watched your DVD “The Byron Janis Story” made by Peter Rosen, we have numerous questions we would like to ask you. You’ve travelled around the world, performed in the greatest concert halls and the White House, made many recordings and had a very successful musical career, but what keeps bringing you back to music despite developing potentially debilitating problems with arthritis in your hands and wrists?

B: I’m passionate about music and the piano. Passion and perseverance are necessary. When I was eleven, doctors said I would never play again.

C: We read in your book about the numbness in your little finger that you developed after an accident where you cut yourself badly on glass?

B: It’s still totally numb.

C: And you adjusted the way you played?

B: That’s true. I sat a little differently. I also learned to use my eyes differently – if I couldn’t see my little finger, I would need to look again as I had to guide it. It was very difficult but passion and perseverance rescued me.

T: After the accident, when did you resume performance?

B: Two months later, I had a radio appearance.

T: Do you remember what you played?

B: I think pieces by Mozart, Bach and one of Chopin’s Waltzes– it might have been the B minor Waltz.

T: Did you ever have surgery for the problem?

B: Yes, after 10 years, I had surgery at a hospital.

T: But it was unfixable?

B: Exactly. That hand surgeon was the greatest hand surgeon in the world. I also had arthritic surgery in the 90s, 2000 and 2005. I continue to work with the Arthritis Foundation to set up benefit programs to raise money for research. Over 300,000 U.S. children have juvenile arthritis and I am working on mentoring programs with them.

Byron Janis was first diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis in his hands and wrists in 1973 when he was 45. He was told there was nothing that could be done to cure the condition, which causes severe pain and gradual degradation of the joints. Janis immediately realised that this was a condition that would eventually prevent him from playing the piano. Despite the pain in his hands he nevertheless carried on performing for another 12 years before revealing to the world that he was afflicted by this debilitating condition. In 1985 he became the First Ambassador for the Arts for the Arthritis Foundation and continued to perform after this despite the need for surgery and decreasing mobility of his hands. The story of his struggle and torment with this condition is movingly described in his book.

Chopin’s Death Mask

At this point in the conversation Maria walked into the room with a death mask of Frédéric Chopin. This mask was one of just a few that were created from an impression of Chopin’s face taken shortly after his death in 1849. The mask is the subject of a chapter in Byron Janis’s book “Chopin And Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal”, where he describes a strange incident that occurred when his friend Uri Geller was present.

B: The word “paranormal” can be very misunderstood – I prefer to call it the “unknown normal” and it has actually played a great part in my life. Some of these events were so strange and powerful that I asked Lady Abbess, the founder of the Benedictine Monastery of Regina Laudis, whether I was having hallucinations. She asked me to sit down and said: one, these are not hallucinations; these are real; two, keep your feet on the ground; three, it’s through your music that you affect people and that you communicate these feelings of another world. The following event with Chopin’s mask is an example of such a phenomenon. There was a time when Uri Geller, the Israeli psychic, Maria, Stefan [Byron’s son] and I were together holding the Chopin mask, and fluid suddenly started coming out of the eye for about thirty seconds though it was only a little amount. I put my finger in and tasted it: it was salty. It seemed like those were tears. Bubbles also surfaced from its mouth. We put it down on the piano again and it stopped. What happened to the mask was inexplicable!

But let me tell you something: when Chopin died, he was still only 39. They still don’t know whether it was tuberculosis that killed him. Doctors at the time didn’t think so but they didn’t know what it was.

Death mask of Chopin.

T: What do you think was the cause of his death?

B: His friends said he died from a broken heart. The relationship with George Sand [male pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, the French novelist] was a physical one for only about a year and a half; the rest of the time they were just like mother and son! The doctor told her not to overdo sex with him because of his tuberculosis. She stopped completely and he wasn’t very happy about that. His friends said Chopin left but it was really Sand who let go because he didn’t agree with her daughter’s marriage to Auguste Clésinger. She said, “You have no right to interfere, you are not family.” Chopin then just left and never came back.

His original mask looked horrible because he really looked terrible when he died. Chopin’s sister saw it and said, “Don’t you ever release this mask. I don’t want Chopin to look like that.” So, a new one was made and as you can see, it looks very well.

M: They made a mould. Chopin suffered so much just before he died so Clésinger had to fix it little by little – it was horrific.

B: He still had strong feelings about Sand. It was not easy for Chopin, especially for someone like him, as he was unbelievably sensitive. Just to illustrate, there was an incident when he was playing in a small concert and he started out with his B-flat minor Scherzo and bam, he terrified himself with what he had written – as he recalled his thoughts when he wrote the piece. He got up, left the room and didn’t come back.

There’s another aspect to this story though. In 1955, the year my son was born, I went to visit Nohant [George Sand’s house where Chopin had lived for eight summers]. As we were leaving this extraordinary house filled with such musical history, I saw a painting on the wall at the bottom of the staircase: it was a wonderful portrait but I couldn’t figure out who the woman was. I asked the docent, “Who is that in the portrait?” “Ah, that’s Madame Aurore Sand, the granddaughter of George Sand, who took the same name Aurore.” I then said to him, “I must see her. Just for 5 minutes.” But the immediate answer was no! But as you know, what happened was that she stayed for the whole afternoon to chat with us. She told me stories nobody knew including how Chopin had been her grandmother’s man for many years but there was still a question over whether Solange [George Sand’s daughter] and Chopin had an affair. He was teaching her four hands and she was passionate about that. But we don’t know.

Discovery of Chopin’s Manuscripts

In 1967 Byron Janis discovered previously unknown manuscripts for two Chopin Waltzes, written in 1833. These were the Waltz in G-flat Op. 70 No. 1 and the Grande Valse Brillante in E-flat, Op. 18. Extraordinarily, he discovered manuscripts of the very same two Waltzes again in 1973.

B: My first discovery of Chopin’s manuscripts of the two Waltzes was in a trunk of old clothes, in Château de Thoiry, thirty miles west of Paris. It’s a well-known huge botanical and zoological park. We became very good friends with its owner Viscount Paul de la Panouse. The discovery of these manuscripts of two Chopin waltzes put me on the front page of the New York Times. The amazing thing was that six years later, I was on the front-page story of the New York Times again. I went to Yale University to give a masterclass and visited their collection of musical manuscripts. I was pointing to a music file, on top of a high shelf. I asked, “What’s that?” The head librarian said, “We don’t know.” So, he took a ladder, climbed on it and checked. He said, “It’s marked Chopin.” I said, “Oh, wonderful, can I see it?” Of course, we sat down. I thought I was going crazy – it was a later version of the same two Waltzes!

C: The same two Waltzes but different markings?

B: Yes. The ones at Yale were an earlier version dating from 1832. They were the first two relevant manuscripts discovered. They helped me to understand the changes between the different versions.

J: So what were the differences between these two versions?

B: The versions came with different markings: articulations, slurring, and staccato. But I was able to tell from the handwriting that they were definitely by Chopin.

M: He found the original manuscripts. In one case, the only version was a posthumous one dictated by Jules Fontana and not in Chopin’s hand.

Mrs. Maria Janis.

On Young Musicians Today

T: Having now just passed your 90th birthday, when you look back over your life and career, what single lesson would you consider to be the most important to offer young musicians and their teachers today?

B: Don’t think of yourself as a pianist, think of yourself as a singer. One thing about young players that I hear today is that they don’t use enough colour. Colour is terribly important: it helps you with the interpretation of the piece. When I first played for Horowitz, he said to me, “You know musically, you paint beautifully in watercolours. When I work with you, you must paint with oil as well.”

J: What’s missing in their way of playing? Are they not being told how to introduce colour?

B: I don’t know what they are told, but they all play the same using very little colour. I gave a lecture (in 2015) at Oxford in the U.K. to very talented people from different places, but what I heard was colourless.

M: What I observed, in listening to the masterclasses, was that they didn’t read the score: they didn’t read what was in front of them or it didn’t penetrate.

B: They didn’t play softly or piano; most were playing mezzo-forte.

T: That’s why you said, “No one here plays softly anymore.”

B: They don’t.

T: I do!

B: Good! I’ve told people who’ve worked with me, take the score away from the piano, sit down and look at the dynamic markings. Okay if there is something that you honestly feel has to be changed then do it, but that is rare. First, you’ve got to look at what the composer was doing. A lot of young pianists work about eight hours a day on their technique, but they lose their sense of music – their musicality disappears because they are so focused on playing the right notes. Musically, if it’s always the same, it’s not “perfect”. If it isn’t different every time, you aren’t human, and these composers were very human. Chopin changed things all the time. The danger is, with too much freedom, people begin to do anything with it, good or bad. But “perfection” is a dead state. I once had a piano tuner who used a stroboscope instead of his ears. I don’t remember where it was, but the piano was tuned too “perfectly.” During sound check, I sat down to play it and I couldn’t play three notes. Let’s take the A note, with this A and the upper A: the two were tuned exactly the same.

T: So, what happens when they are the same?

B: What a great tuner does is to make this A, a little different from the other A, so it can sing. If they are exactly the same, you can’t make music. It’s an interesting concept – technically the stroboscope makes no “mistakes.” The point I’m making is like good rubato: the idea is not to play the notes at exactly the same strict tempo, only the left hand is played rhythmically.

M: Well, having said that, the human ear is imperfect. There are many variations of hearing, perfect or normal pitches. The illusion is part of the mystery, just like the visual perspective. You like to illustrate perfection using the Parthenon. It looks perfectly beautiful from certain visual perspectives; but it’s actually built imperfectly while still conveying the impression of being perfectly parallel.

On Cultural Exchange with the Soviet Union

B: I opened the cultural exchange with the Soviet Union in 1960. Richter opened it in New York shortly thereafter. During the first concert in Moscow, when I came on stage, there was no applause but shouting, “U-2, U-2, U-2!”: the US had a spy plane called the U-2. It was supposed to be flown so high that it couldn’t be shot down. Well, the Russians managed to shoot it down and put the pilot, Gary Powers, in prison. So, at that time, Russians were quite hostile towards the Americans. But what I did was important because it showed how music could change people’s feelings.

By intermission, the audience was on their feet applauding. By the end of the concert, they came to the stage and some of them were weeping. I felt they wept because they realised that their “enemy” was a human being, just like them. It was unbelievable to see the change from hostility to admiration.

“Byron Janis Live from Leningrad 1960”

T: I hear you have a new CD coming out based on audio actually secretly recorded during this visit?

B: Yes, it’s called “Byron Janis Live from Leningrad 1960”. I was at first dismayed that this concert recording had been made and sold in the USSR without my knowledge. But now, I am grateful a unique moment in musical history was captured.

[The CD was recently chosen as one of the top classical recordings of 2018 by The Chicago Tribune]

T: What are the works on the recordings?

B: A Mozart Sonata, Schumann Arabesque, Chopin B-flat minor Sonata, a couple of pieces by Liszt, and a Piano Sonata by Aaron Copland which I introduced specifically for the cultural exchange. I heard about the piece but had never played it before. As I knew Copland well, I called him and said, “May I come and play it for you?” He replied, “Ok, of course, that would be very nice.” Then I met him and he was quite happy about what I planned to do. Before I left, he started playing a little bit of sonata. “I have to interrupt you”, I said, “You are playing that passage piano, Mr. Copland, but you wrote forte.” He looked at me with a wry smile and said, “But that was twenty years ago!”

T: That reminds me of another story about Horowitz playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto for and with Rachmaninoff at the 2nd piano. Horowitz played some opposite dynamics to those written.

B: After they finished, Rachmaninoff said, “It’s not what I meant but I like it!” Rachmaninoff was both composer and performer. I love his recordings but if he were to play the concerto today, I bet it would be different!

Stefan Janis

T: There is a presence here that we haven’t really talked about. Since your book came out ten years ago, you have taken another direction in your life, kind of in the steps of Chopin, in that you have been composing. You wrote the music for two musicals, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. You’ve also written some other songs, one of which is David’s Star for which your son, Stefan wrote the lyrics.

Yes. First of all, we are very sorry to hear of your son’s death.

B: He passed away in February 2017.

M: You were connected with him via Facebook, right?

T: Yes. I knew he hadn’t been well, but this was totally unexpected.

M: At that point of time, though, he was as well as he had been in years. And he was with his fiancée.

B: The fact is that he died of a heart attack in his sleep. It’s very difficult for everybody when somebody whom you love dies but when you are the parents – well usually it works the other way round: the parents die before the kids.

T: Sometimes there’s animosity between parents and children. On that DVD though and, I know in person too, Stefan would talk about his great dad.

B: Really?

T: Of course, he loved Maria as well.

M: We were very close.

T: So it was like 30% of the time we’d be talking about you.

B: That’s something I never heard from him.

T: You never heard him say this?

B: No, he never really complimented me like that.

M: The last year he did.

B: Yes, the last year he started.

M: I think he had to work through being under the shadow of his famous father: as the son, he had to find his way.

B: He was a music critic for the Newark Star Ledger. He also came to New York to cover concerts here. He had good taste.

M: He had excellent taste: his mother gave him a good sense of taste. I think June exposed him to quality and to value judgements in painting, arts, sculpture and music. She helped give him that sense of discernment.

T: I think that it was a given that you played really well, but what he talked to me about was compliments about you as a dad.

B: Well, Maria became his mother really.

T: He was super sensitive.

B: Oh yes. He was like his dad! It’s good to be super sensitive but it has its drawbacks: he could get really upset about things.

C: Did he play much?

M: No. He got a quick burst of wanting to play the guitar!

T: He was a writer after all.

M: He wrote about the visual and performing arts – he covered theatre, a little bit of film but mostly music – everything from heavy metal, rock to all the classics.

On Composing

T: Are you continuing with composition now?

M: He’s on his second show.

B: I’m writing popular music.

T: I was around for the Hunchback of Notre-Dame and saw it off-Broadway when it was there for two weeks. But you’ve done another one?

B: I’ve done another one now.

T: It’s coming out?

M: Well, we are working on it.

B: The problem is Hunchback suffered with timing. It was rehearsed in Havana, Cuba because it was less expensive to develop it there but mainly because they had really great dancers and artists.

M: They were supposed to do a presentation at the annual convention of American theatre producers in Havana in 2001. They asked for a 45-minute condensed version of Hunchback to entertain everybody who came. So that’s what we were working on. We came back from the last series of rehearsals on September 9 and then September 11 happened: no travel, nobody was coming from New York, so the whole event was wiped out.

Mr. Byron Janis.

B: Everything was cancelled. I said let’s forget about it for a while, which I did. But then I started listening to it again three years ago and thought we really need to get this out!

J: So, what happened to it? What’s the status now?

M: Well, the status is that we have a couple of demo records and some producers want to come over and hear them.

B: We are doing a demo record for my new show also.

M: This other show is very much a family story and entertainment.

B: Did you ever read a book called Hans Brinker and The Silver Skates? It’s an American classic. We were all encouraged to read it in school. It’s a beautiful story.

M: It’s a coming of age story about a child of fourteen or fifteen and then there’s the mother and father’s story so it deals with both ends of the family.

J: So, you wrote all the music for this and for Hunchback?

B: Yes, I wrote twenty-two songs for Hunchback. Frank Military was then the vice president of Warner Chappell Music in New York. He’d said let me come over and hear some of your songs for Hunchback. I was terrified and said, “Look, Frank, I’ve never written a musical before at all. I’m not sure if I know how to do this.” “Do it!” he replied and was very excited about it.

T: Is Frank still around?

M: No. His wife died and he moved back to Los Angeles, moved in with his son, then he got Parkinson’s. The disease progressed, he was really ill and died about 4 years ago.

B: He was a very close friend of Frank Sinatra.

M: And the whole gang: Sammy Davis Jr., Sinatra, The Rat Pack – Frank was part of the whole thing.

On Heifetz

B: Tell you a little story about Sinatra. We knew him. He always had marvellous phrasing. That was the difference between him and other singers – he knew how to phrase. So, I asked him, “Hey, Frank. Where did you get that great phrasing from?” He said, “I listened to recordings of Jascha Heifetz.”

T: Interesting!

B: I knew Heifetz very well. I lived with his family for a while many years ago. I knew Chotzi [Samuel Chotzinoff] who married his sister. Chotzi was the musical director at NBC, National Broadcasting Company.

M: Did you ever see the Peter Rosen’s documentary about Heifetz? [God’s Fiddler]

J: Yes, I saw that.

M: Didn’t you find it very sad?

J: Yes, it was sad but I also found it very inspirational because it made him seem more three-dimensional than from the books and videos I’ve seen before, which have usually portrayed him as a very cold person. What did you make of him? Did you find him agreeable to talk to?

B: We got along very well. I played some things for him. And the saddest thing in my life was that, unknown to me at the time, he asked that I come to California and become part of his trio. A man who became Head of RCA, George Marek was the one Jascha called and asked, “When is Byron Janis free?” Marek replied, “Oh, he is not free, he has many, many, many concerts.” “Oh”, Jascha said. “I see, because I wanted him to come to play.” “No, he can’t do that!”

T: How awful!

B: I didn’t know anything about it until Jascha told me himself a few years later.

J: Did you play together with Heifetz?

B: Just at home. He played the piano too. He had a great sense of humour. I was with Jascha in the country at his sister’s house. He said, “Would you do me a favour, would you play the left hand of Chopin’s Black Key Étude?” “The left hand?” “Yeah, just that hand.” Then I started the notes. He took an orange out of his pocket, put it on the black keys, and started rolling it around, and approximated the notes of the Étude! It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. He sounded incredibly well!

C: When was that?

B: Around fifty-one years ago.

J: Why didn’t he just call you up directly and say come play with us?

M: These people went through agents and managers – that was the protocol. But what did he say to you later when you saw him?

B: He said, “So you had no time to come play chamber music with us?” I said, “What do you mean?” “George Marek said that”, Jascha replied. I exclaimed, “That was a goddamn lie!” Then silence. I’d never said anything of the kind. He was shocked and obviously very upset with Mr. Marek.

M: Oh, you said, he turned to Florence, his wife at the time, and said, “See? I told you: always go to the source!”

B: Yes, you are right. That was what he said.

M: That was such a lesson, but too late.

From left to right: Byron Janis, Tamami Honma and Maria Janis.

On Teaching

J: One question comes to mind given your close affinity with Chopin: I just wonder what you thought about Chopin’s relationship with Beethoven, because Chopin was somewhat dismissive of Beethoven.

B: He was pretty much dismissive of most composers. The ones he liked were Mozart and Bach. This is interesting because he was a Romantic and in a sense everything is Romantic except Toccatas and pieces of that nature. Bach has a lot of romantic feeling if you listen to some of the Sarabandes – they’re beautiful. That’s why I try telling people the word “Classical” scares audiences away. You don’t have to know anything about the music – you just have to feel it.

T: Well, at one point, it wasn’t “classical” – it was the cool, popular music of its day.

B: Exactly. I had a Chinese student about eight years ago: she was a terrific pianist technically, but her music didn’t speak. Nothing seemed to work. I was about to give up. One day, after the lesson, I said, “How do you go home?” “Oh, I walk.” I said, “How do you walk?” “Oh, I always go the same way”, she told me. I don’t know why this came to me but I said, “Would you try walking home another way?” “Oh,” she said, “it’s very far.” I said, “Just do it for me. Walk home another way.” In one month, she was another person. That came out in her playing. It’s a crazy thing. You never know what works – what will bring somebody out. I knew it was there.

T: You once said students are like locks and to teach them something, you need to try different keys, sometimes many keys, to get that lock open. With me, you were very patient, because you said, “Teaching is the art of repetition!” I heard before I came to you that you had a reputation for sending students home after 15 minutes if the student wasn’t prepared. So, I didn’t want to be one of those people! I was very lucky to have long lessons.

B: How old were you when you came?

T: I just turned seventeen. My birthday is in August and school started in August.

B: They say, never lose the child in you – never lose that.

T: I feel you still haven’t.

B: No, I haven’t. When people lose their inner child, they become so boring. You know the word sophisticated? I was in London and, luckily, I met Osbert Sitwell [The English writer Sir Francis Osbert Sitwell]. I remember he said the word “sophisticated” originally meant spoiled. That’s exactly what I think it is – especially when people say “Oh I’ve heard that before. Oh, I’ve seen that before.”

M: How did you handle your nerves, when you came to play for Byron?

T: Yes, so I had déjà vu walking here. I told the others I feel like I’m not quite ready for my lesson yet. This came from a feeling that was programmed into me, walking that last distance to this address! Every week I had new works to learn and to memorise. But one time it wasn’t fully memorised. You said you wanted the Beethoven C minor Variations. I tried to work through the Diabelli Variations and they were so long that I thought I can’t do this! But I brought in what I could and you said, “This is not the piece I meant!” (general laughter) But you said it was okay because you could tell I’d worked on it. I was very relieved at that! But this speaks to a larger point. I liked being here. I felt like I was part of a family because I got so much.

Dionysian scribbles by the artist: Byron Janis, Maria Janis and Pablo Picasso in Mougins, France (1967).


B: Yes, absolutely you were part of our family.

M: We felt you were and still are!

T: Compared with other teachers I had, you taught me differently. Having won a lot of competitions before, you didn’t want me to enter any more. You asked me, “Do you want a one-year, a five-year, a ten-year career or a career for a lifetime?”

B: This is something that Horowitz had asked me too when I studied with him. A lifetime career was the obvious answer. “Then you must go slowly,” was Horowitz’s reply. After my lessons with you, I made a point of saying, if there was something I told you, when you go home, that does not feel right, don’t do it. I didn’t want my students to just copy me. Horowitz at first never played a note for me. But when he eventually did, I came to realise that he was a greater artist at home because he wasn’t trying to seduce the public. Sometimes in concerts he was exaggerating things that he never exaggerated at home – that was the great Horowitz for me. But it took me about three years to get comfortable with his influence because no matter how hard you try, it takes time to become yourself. Sometimes, he would say “something’s not right, take it home and bring it to me next week”. He wouldn’t say a word about what to do and that was good. Sometimes he would play for his students the work they were studying and then listen to them play. Horowitz would then say, “No, no, no, you’re still not playing it right.” Then he would play it again and it was totally different!

[Everyone laughed]

B: He said, “I always play differently.” This is the mark of a great artist, because it’s another day.