José Iturbi
Part 3: Velvet Fingers, Steel Wrists

(Flame-Broiled Temper)

Iturbi was not forgotten over the next ten months. In July 1930 a syndicated column called “This is Paris” quoted Iturbi as saying he loved the “land of tall buildings,” but he wished there were sidewalk cafés like those in Europe, where a weary traveler could take a break after a hard day’s touring. “Sitting,” Iturbi pointed out correctly, “is the great European diversion.”

   (Eventually, the worth of this idea would be recognized…in at least one city I know of, an entire shopping center has been designed to resemble a Paris street, complete with cobblestone parking lots and walkways, and littered with an abundance of sidewalk cafés.)


“This is Paris,” July 22, 1930.
The Syracuse Herald, “Gianini and Iturbi will Appear in Recitals Here” October 26, 1930.
The Syracuse Herald, “Iturbi Plays Host,” November 9, 1930.

The New York Times, “Music,” November 1, 1930.
The New York Evening Journal, “José Iturbi, Spanish Pianist, Crowds Carnegie Hall,” November 1, 1930.
The Syracuse Herald, “Iturbi Displays Pianistic Strength in Varied Program,” November 12, 1930.
September Child, by Jean Dalrymple. Published by Dodd, Mead & Co, ©1963.
The New York Times, “Iturbi Stops Capital Society Concert,” December 11, 1930.
The Etude, “Outline and Atmosphere in Piano Music,” February 1932.
The New York Times, April 20, 1932.
The Syracuse Herald, “Spanish Virtuoso to Play Here March 15,” February 26, 1935.
The Barnard Bulletin, “Music-Iturbi,” April 5, 1932.
The New York Times, “Music in Review,” April 25, 1932.
The New York Times, “Music in Review,” December 1, 1932.
The Barnard Bulletin, “The Musicians Symphony Recital,” April 22, 1932.
The New York Times, “Concerts-Iturbi Plays Superbly,” March 22, 1932.

Mr. Iturbi has, very rarely, the aptitude for 18th century style…more pianists should play these sonatas, but to do so they must have at least the crispness, the polite animation, the fine-mannered sentiment that Mr. Iturbi brought to the music…

…those arpeggios which seemed to glow and melt in the atmosphere like clouds of golden incense…this beauty and reverie were conveyed by Mr. Iturbi with such an intelligence, proportion, objectivity which achieved…and revealed (the composer’s) thought…

…There were fine black shadows in the piece and the melodies were sensuously sung. The audience was rapturous.

Portion of a New York Times review, 1932.
Iturbi on tour, 1931. (From the private collection of Bruce Sutherland.)

The New York Evening Journal, not to be outdone, declared “a year ago he was still caviar to the many but last night, at his first appearance this season, people all-but fought their way into Carnegie Hall to hear him play…exceptional quality in his art which reveals itself peculiarly in its gentler and more delicate aspect. He is almost unique among pianists for this velvet-fingered softness of expression.”

 Both newspapers were in agreement over his performance of Balakireff’s “Islamey.” Downes raved about “breath-taking speed, clarity, and virtuosity rampant.” The Evening Journal augmented: “We have never heard it played with greater brilliance. At times Mr. Iturbi’s fingers seemed to be moving more swiftly than was credible, even though one was watching them. This performance brought down the house.”

 In Syracuse they wrapped up the observations with, “if any doubt remained as to the ability of Iturbi to repeat his astonishing triumphs of last season it was swept away.”

It was not pure and simple talent, however, that made Iturbi a sensation. Neither arrogant nor falsely modest, Iturbi observed that he was “not the greatest pianist alive, nor by any means the worst.”  The Evening Journal declared, “He has a rarely engaging personality in which the rather fussy airs and graces of the virtuoso play no part. Indeed, his stage manner—when he is not involved in the heat of performance—is delightfully informal.”

 Over the years it was this “more human” quality that surprised and delighted people who met Iturbi. “Why, there’s nothing long-hair about him at all,” said Dick Watts of the New York Herald-Tribune when he became acquainted with Iturbi. Watts had been initially unenthusiastic about meeting the classical pianist. 

 Blessed with a refreshing sense of humor and a lack of pretentiousness, as well as what Jean Dalrymple called “the most ravishing smile,” Iturbi made friends wherever he went. He stayed until April of 1931 and played more than 70 concerts all over the United States, traveling as far as the Pacific Coast, and wowing people everywhere. His concerts included one whose proceeds went entirely to benefit unemployed musicians.

Iturbi & daughter Maria, probably en route to America from Paris, 1932. Exact date unknown. (Photo from the private collection of Jos é Doménech-Part.)

It was also in 1930, however, that the soon-to-be-famous Iturbi temper began to surface. At a morning concert in Washington DC in which the wife of President Hoover was in attendance, Iturbi stopped dead in the middle of a Mozart sonata and waited to proceed until a woman who had been coughing incessantly left the room. After she left, he went back to his playing. He made his irritation further known by showing up forty-five minutes late for the luncheon in his honor. The attendees were fairly split, half in admiration for his playing and half in horror at his “exhibition of temperament unique in the experience of Washington music lovers.”

Iturbi returned to America in early 1932. In February that year his face graced the cover of The Etude, along with a detailed article expressing many of his musical views. For example, Iturbi said, Bach contained just as much emotion as Chopin or Schumann, but since Bach had written for the harpsichord rather than the piano, Bach’s music could not be played the same way Chopin’s music was played.

Although Iturbi added the disclaimer that in music there was no right and wrong, and that his opinions were only opinions, he was an expert harpsichordist as well as pianist, so his thoughts carried some weight.

Iturbi introduced the harpsichord into his concerts that year, and Downes said, “His performance was a marvel of clarity, polish, and sparkle.” From there he had played Liszt’s “Concerto in E-flat” which received screams and demands for an encore that finally had to be met. “How many pianists,” Downes wondered, “could have played the harpsichord concerto of Haydn and the thunder and lightning of Liszt?”

Haydn, Liszt...the list (pun unintended) goes on. In Chicago they raved about his Chopin. California couldn’t get enough of his Beethoven. And in New York, there was Haydn and Liszt…and Mozart. Especially Mozart. Iturbi waved an impatient hand at all of this, refusing to be branded a “specialist” at any composer. He heartily disliked the term “specialist” and disliked even more the musicians who regarded themselves as such.

 On the other hand, it seems that by now Iturbi had become commonplace enough to receive less-than-perfect reviews. A newspaper from Barnard College at Columbia University referred to “over-pedaled, over-fluid, over-subjective Bach”  (apparently they hadn’t read the Etude article). One New York Times review found no fault with Iturbi’s playing but said he and the orchestra “were not in complete rapport.”  The Times printed on December 1 of that year that some of the pieces Iturbi had played that night were “not up to his usual standard.”  

Most of his reviews, however, were still glowing. A different reviewer for the Barnard Bulletin wrote of his performance as soloist with Sir Thomas Beecham as conductor that “In his performance there lived again the Haydn of old.”  Downes wrote of Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasia,” opened by a D-minor scale, “it became not a scale, but a rainbow…we have heard no more poetical interpretation of this music in years.”

In May Iturbi returned again to Paris, taking U.S. citizenship papers along. He returned again at the end of 1932, this time to put down roots. He brought his daughter along.

In October the city of Syracuse, New York, was already anxiously awaiting Iturbi’s return, and with good reason—Syracuse was to be one of his tour stops this time out.

 Iturbi opened at Carnegie Hall on October 31, 1930. The Hall’s normal seating capacity of 3,000 proved inadequate; people climbed all over each other to get in, and several hundred chairs had to be placed directly on the stage. In fact, some people sat so close they could have reached out and touched him, according to the Syracuse Herald’s report of the event—and also, according to the Herald, many wanted to, “for you must know that Iturbi has stirred more than one fair heart since his debut last winter.”

 The next day Olin Downes, who had the previous year raved about Iturbi’s “marvelously supple and strong as steel wrists,” was just as effusive in his praise. “Mr. Iturbi, returning graciously to his instrument, ran his fingers noiselessly over the keys, performing ghostly arpeggios in the manner that has enraptured his following…”