Byron Janis

One of the Greatest Concert Pianists of the 20th Century

Byron Janis, a student of Vladimir Horowitz, is one of the greatest concert pianists of the 20th century.  He is one of the “Grand Tradition” American pianists born in the 1920s that includes Van Cliburn, Gary Graffman, and William Kapell.  His recordings are featured in the acclaimed Philips Series "Great Pianists of the 20th Century."  Janis expanded repertoire of his signature composer Chopin by discovering four of Chopin’s lost manuscripts.  He also specialized in the big romantic concertos of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.  His acclaimed recordings have been released on RCA, Mercury, Sony, BMG, Phillips and other labels.  He has been awarded numerous international music awards including: Commander of the French Legion d'Honneur for Arts and Letters, the Grand Prix du Disque, the Distinguished Pennsylvania Artists Award, and the gold medal from the French Society for the Encouragement of Progress.

A child prodigy he appeared on radio at age 5, made his first recital at Carnegie Hall in Oakland at age 7, and made his professional debut at age 15 in 1943 performing with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.  Vladimir Horowitz, who heard the 16 year old Bryon perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony, asked Bryon to be his first of only three students.  Completing his studies with Horowith, Janis at age 20 went on the first of his international tours in 1948.  In 1960, he was the first American artist to appear in Soviet Union opening the USSR/US Cultural Exchange program.  He performed on the Ed Sullivan shown in 1965.  In 1978 French television filmed special with Janis on the life of Frederic Chopin, that was shown on PBS and networks around the world.  At a performance at the White House in 1984 Bryon revealed that he was loosing his ability to play due to severe bursitis and debilitating arthritis.  He continued to perform until 1990, when he turned to composition and teaching.

Byron Janis was born in 1928 as Byron Yanks in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.  “Yanks” was the Americanized name for his Russian-Polish-Jewish parent’s original family name Yankilevich.  His family moved to Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood where his father owned a store.  Bryon’s natural talent was "discovered" at age 4 by his pre-kindergarten teachers, Ms. Sweetring and Ms. McSweeney, at Colfax Elementary.  Ms. Sweeney played a song on the piano and Bryon played it back to her by ear on a xylophone and on the piano.  The teachers went to Bryon’s house telling his parents that the boy had a musical ear and should take piano lessons.  Byron started piano lessons at age 4 studying with Abraham Litgow, who was a graduate of the prestigious in Leningrad Music Conservatory.  After only 6 months of lessons at age 5 Byron played on WJAS radio.  In 1937 at age 7 Bryon gave a solo recital at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh.  Litgow then told Bryon’s mother:  "I have nothing left to teach him."

Litgow telephoned New York to arrange Bryon’s audition with the great pianists and Julliard teachers Josef Lhévinne and his wife Rosina.  Byron performed the first movement of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto for the Lhévinnes who accepted him as their student.  He moved to New York at age 8 with his mother and sister, while his father stayed in Pittsburgh to run the family store.  The Lhévinnes taught him the music of Rachmaninoff and Alfred Cortot for one year before they went on a concert tour.  He studied with Dorothea Anderson La Follette for eight months, before his began six years of study with Adele Marcus.  A student of Josef Lhévinne, .  Adele Marcus was a teacher of many famous pianists.  She was a teacher at the Chatham Square Music School that was founded by New York Post music critic Samuel Chotzinoff.  At age ten Janis, with Chorzinoff’s help, landed a performance on the radio show the Magic Key Hour. 

Bryon had a tragic accident at age ten.  Chasing his sister he put his hand through a glass door cutting his left pinky to the pone.   The doctors told him as the pinky would be permanently numb and not move at the distal joint that he would never play piano again.  But Byron with the help of r Adele Marcus learned how to use his peripheral vision to sense where the pinky was.  He was able to perform Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in New York under conductor Frank Black .

Samuel Chotzinoff, who was a consultant for NBC, helped to arrange Byron’s professional debut in 1943 with Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 when he was fifteen.  Choosing the stage name of Janis he returned to Pittsburgh in 1944 to perform Rachmaninov's Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony under the direction of Lorin Maazel who was only 14.  Vladimir Horowitz, who was in the Pittsburgh for a performance, attended the concert.  He invited Bryon to study with him in New York.  Janis became the first of only three students ever instructed by Horowitz.  The others were Gary Graffman and Ronald Turnii.  Horowitz’s conditions were that Janis would only study with him and not play for anyone during his first year of study.  Philanthropist William Rosenwald paid for Byron’s music lessons Marcus and Horowitz. Bryon took weekly lesson for three years, going on tour with Horowitz and his wife.  During his time with the master Janis gave fifty concerts and toured Brazil.  When Horowitz stopped giving him lessons when he was twenty, In 1948 Byron Janis gave his debut at New York City's Carnegie Hall Bryon embarked on his touring virtuoso career with tours of South America in 1948 and Europe in 1952.  He played with the greatest orchestras and conductors of the time including frequent appears with the London Symphony Orchestra.  By the 1960s Janis performed almost one hundred concerts per year.

In 1960, Janis was the first American artist to perform in the Soviet Union opening the Cultural Exchange between the USSR and the United States.  While in the USSR, Janis recorded the Rachmaninov First and the Prokofiev Third concertos that were released on the Mercury “Living Presence” album. The Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26 performance, regarded by many connoisseurs as the work's finest recording, won a Grand Prix du Disque award in 1961 and the Cannes Award for Best Reissue in 1995.  Janis discovered the manuscripts of two unknown Chopin waltzes in Paris in 1967 along with two variations of them in 1973 at the Yale Library. The 1978 French television documentary, “Frédéric Chopin: A Voyage with Byron Janis” portrayed Janis’s efforts in authenticating those pieces.

Janis In 1973 developed psoriatic arthritis in both hands and wrists.  He continued to perform throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s without telling his audience about his difficulties.  After a bought of depression resulting from his struggle to continue to play, he spoke publicly in 1985 about his severe arthritis and became Ambassador for the Arts for the Arthritis Foundation.  He continued to perform until surgery in 1990 left him with a shortened left thumb.  He then turned to composing writing the music for an off-Broadway musical, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."  He serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, and works on the Board and Music Advisory Committee for Pro Musicus, an international organization devoted to helping young artists.  Janis wrote an auto biography titled Byron “Chopin and Beyond My Extraordinary Life in Music”.