“My sincerest wish is that when I strike my last note, my last chord, the instrument will be — a Steinway!”
Anton Rubinstein first heard the then seven-year-old Josef Hofmann (b. 1876-1957) play Beethoven's C minor Piano Concerto in Warsaw and declared him to be an unprecedented talent. At Rubinstein's suggestion, German impresario Hermann Wolff offered career management and offered to send the boy on a European tour, but Hofmann's father refused to let the boy travel until he was nine years old. At that age, Hofmann gave concerts in Germany, France, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Great Britain.
In 1892, Rubinstein accepted Hofmann as his only private pupil, the two meeting for 42 sessions in Dresden's Hotel d'Europe. Initial lessons, a week apart, included ten Bach Preludes and Fugues and two Beethoven. Rubinstein eventually arranged Hofmann's adult debut on March 14, 1894, in Hamburg's Symphonic Assembly Hall, where Hofmann played Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, with the composer himself conducting. After the concert, Rubinstein told Hofmann there would be no more lessons, and they never saw each other again. Rubinstein returned to Russia and died later that year. In later years Hofmann referred to his relationship with the titanic Russian master as the "most important event in my life."
By the early 1930s, Hofmann had become an alcoholic but still retained exceptional pianistic command. Rudolf Serkin and a young Glenn Gould have recounted magical impressions created on them by Hofmann's concerts in mid-and-late 1930s. After his departure from the Curtis Institute in 1938, a combination of his drinking, marital problems and a loss of interest in performing caused a rapid deterioration in his artistic abilities. Commenting on Hofmann's sharp decline, Sergei Rachmaninoff said, "Hofmann is still sky high ... the greatest pianist alive if he is sober and in form. Otherwise, it is impossible to recognize the Hofmann of old". Oscar Levant wrote, "one of the terrible tragedies of music was the disintegration of Josef Hofmann as an artist. In his latter days, he became an alcoholic. …[H]is last public concert … was an ordeal for all of us".
Hofmann had small but exceptionally strong hands. Steinway actually built custom keyboards for him with slightly narrower keys, giving Hofmann a more mechanical understanding of the Steinway piano action and thus setting him apart from all other pianists. His concert instruments had subtle action changes for faster repetition, and two pedals rather than three because he preferred the older Steinway trap work geometry. He was accompanied on tours by his own recital chair, built with a short folding back and a inch and a half slope from rear to front. After playing Hofmann's special concert instrument in the Steinway New York basement, pianist Gunnar Johansen reported that the piano had the biggest sonority of any he had ever played.
Hofmann's approach and style can be summarized by his motto "an aristocrat never hurries.” He often stated that Rubinstein and Moriz Rosenthal were the only pianists that influenced his art. He put spontaneity rather than structure foremost and admitted to Rachmaninoff that "I do not know how to build a composition ... occasionally, it happens to sound well.” Schonberg wrote that among Hofmann's contemporaries, only Godowsky had the finish and refinement of Hofmann but still lacked Hofmann's color, fire, and "red blood,” while only Ferruccio Busoni and Rachmaninoff were ever mentioned by contemporaries as Hofmann's equals. After hearing a performance of Chopin's B minor Sonata by Hofmann, Rachmaninoff cut that piece from his own repertoire saying, "not since Anton Rubinstein have I heard such titanic playing.”