Byron Janis

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Byron Janis
Byron Janis 1962.JPG
Janis in 1962.
Born Byron Yanks
(1928-03-24) March 24, 1928 (age 87)
McKeesport, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Education Juilliard School
Occupation American classical pianist
Years active 1960–present
  • * June Dickson Wright (-1965; divorced)
    • Maria Cooper (1966–present)
Children 1

Byron Janis (born March 24, 1928) is an American classical pianist. He made several recordings for RCA Victor and Mercury Records, and occupies two volumes of the Philips series Great Pianists of the 20th Century. His discography covers repertoire from Beethoven to David W. Guion and includes major piano concertos from Mozart to Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. His pianism has been described as combining a Horowitzian technique with a sublime musicality akin to Cortot's. He has a special affinity for Chopin and made a French film on him that was shown around the world.


Janis was born Byron Yanks (a shortened form of his family's name, Yankilevich)[1] in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, to Russian-Polish Jewish parents. He had his first piano lesson at age 4 with Abraham Litow, who had studied at the prestigious Music Conservatory in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Janis studied with Litow until he was 7.[2] The pedagogue Selmar Janson had offered Janis a scholarship at Carnegie-Tech University in Pittsburgh, where he had many relatives, but his mother insisted, over the objections of the rest of his family, that he be sent to New York.[3]

Later, he studied at the Juilliard School with Josef and Rosina Lhévinne, and received musical influences from Rachmaninoff and Alfred Cortot. At 10, Janis lost sensation in a finger due to an accident but this did not prevent his debut under Frank Black playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in New York. When Janis was 16, Vladimir Horowitz heard his performance of the same concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by 15-year-old Lorin Maazel and invited Janis to work with him. Janis studied with Horowitz for four years. He remained a close friend and one of only three students ever acknowledged by Horowitz—the other two being Gary Graffman and Ronald Turini.

In 1960, he was chosen as the first American to be sent to the Soviet Union, and his performance opened the successful exchange between the cold war adversaries. This was the first of his many world tours, on which he premiered many works and performed breathtakingly challenging piano-concerto programs. In 1967, he accidentally unearthed two previously unknown manuscripts of Chopin waltzes in France — this was considered "the most dramatic musical discovery of our age".[4] For these achievements, he appeared on the front page of the New York Times many times. He also published an edition of Chopin waltzes.

He was honored by several U.S. Presidents and in 1984, at a State Dinner at the White House in his honor at the invitation of President Ronald Reagan, he revealed that he had been suffering from severe arthritis throughout much of his decades-long career. The painful and crippling condition eventually required surgery on his hands. However, he recovered sufficiently to resume performing and recording commercially and continues to do so today.

He received a host of the most prestigious honors each of which had not previously been conferred on an American, including the Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (France’s highest decorations), the Grand Prix du Disque and Cannes Classical Award (both for his Mercury Records recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 accompanied by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin), and the Harriet Cohen International Music Award and Beethoven Medal (for his performance of Beethoven sonatas).

In 2008, Byron Janis had the great honor of being written into the Congressional Record of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, honoring him as a musician, a diplomat and an inspiration.

Byron Janis continues his journey as a performer as well as mentoring, composing, and educating. His focus recently has been on children suffering with Juvenile Arthritis, an aspect of the disease that has until now commanded less public awareness. Mr. Janis’ work in the field of arthritis advocacy complements the activities of the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute which is committed to bridging the gap between music and medicine on both scientific and educational levels. Young and old can appreciate the healing power of music. Mr. Janis also serves as the International Ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation and the Presidential Advisor to the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute. The YMWI has merged with the Cleveland Clinic to develop further research on the scientific findings revealing that playing a musical instrument can play a significant role in healing.

The Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute, with the support of Yamaha Artist Services, Inc., presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Maestro Byron Janis, on May 30, 2012 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.

A letter of honor from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was presented and in the letter he stated, “For a remarkable 69 years, your tremendous talent has thrilled audiences around the world, and your consistent presence on New York’s performing arts scene has made you a fixture of our City’s thriving cultural life.”

Byron Janis is the first pianist to receive the V.E.R.A. (Voice Education Research Award) Award on June 1, 2012, for his contribution to the field of voice communication. The program honored Mr. Janis and Metropolitan Opera star and recording artist, Frederica Von Stade. The annual Voices of Summer Gala is one of The Voice Foundation’s premiere events. The sell-out black tie fundraiser is an event where the voice care community comes together to recognize winners of these prestigious awards. Past V.E.R.A. Award Recipients have included Dame Julie Andrews, Walter Cronkite, and Dan Rather to name a few.

Mr. Janis served as the first mentor at the Very Special Arts (VSA) International Young Soloists Awards in June 2012. Started by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith in 1984, Byron Janis shared his experience and wisdom with the four award recipients. VSA is the international organization on arts and disability and an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts. Since 1984, the VSA International Young Soloists Award Program has annually recognized young artists with disabilities from all over the world who demonstrate exceptional music talent. Mr. Janis will serve as personal mentor to the four artists who received the awards.

Byron Janis received two more prestigious awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Arts Club on September 12, 2012 and the Breukelein Institute Gaudium Award on November 12, 2012, not only for his extraordinary career as a concert pianist but his dedication to the arts and public service.

Other honors include the Classical CD Critics Choice (for his recording of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3), the National Public Radio Critics' Choice Award (for his all-Chopin CD), and the Distinguished Pennsylvania Artist Award. He is recipient of honorary doctorates and the Sanford Fellowship (the highest honor of Yale University). He is the National Ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation, Chairman of the Global Forum Arts and Culture Committee, head of the Visual and Performing Arts in America, and member on the Board and the Music Advisory Committee for Pro Musicis.

Mr. Janis released the digitally re-mastered compilation CD entitled, The Chopin Collection, in April 2012. This new release is a combination of Byron Janis Plays Chopin, which was released in 1996 and Byron Janis True Romantic, which was released in 1998, both with stellar reviews. The Chopin Collection brings together for the first time on a single CD both recordings of the two previously unknown versions of Chopin waltzes which he discovered: the ‘Grande Valse Brilliante’ in E♭ major (Op. 18) and the Waltz in G♭ major (Op. 70, No.1).

He has written an autobiography, Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal. A DVD, entitled The Byron Janis Story, directed by Peter Rosen, includes interviews with conductor Lorin Maazel and pianist Emanuel Ax, also chronicles his life and is currently airing across the United States on PBS.

He is scheduled to release the unearthed Live From Leningrad album in summer 2012, which has never before been heard in the United States. This newly discovered historical recording includes selections of Mozart, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Copland, and deFalla.

Personal life[edit]

Janis and his first wife, June Dickson Wright (sister of Clarissa Dickson Wright), by whom he had a son, Stefan, were divorced in 1965, after eleven years of marriage. He remarried on April 11, 1966,[5] to painter Maria Cooper, daughter of actors Veronica Cooper and Gary Cooper; the couple resides in New York City.


  1. ^ John Ardoin, Great Pianists of the 20th Century, Philips, 1999, Set I on Byron Janis
  2. ^ "Nurturing Creativity in the Next Generation", Byron Janis, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 8, 2010, page D7
  3. ^ Byron Janis, Maria Cooper Janis, Chopin and Beyond: My extraordinary life in music and the paranormal
  4. ^ "Music and 'the Man'". 6 March 2008. Retrieved 18 December 2008. 
  5. ^ "Gary Cooper's Daughter Wed To Byron Janis, the Pianist" New York Times, April 1966. Retrieved August 22, 2012

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