Byron Janis, renowned American classical pianist who overcame debilitating arthritis, dies at 95

Mar 17, 2024, 12:59 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Byron Janis, a renowned American concert pianist and composer who broke barriers as a Cold War era culture ambassador and later overcame severe arthritis that nearly robbed him of his playing abilities, has died. He was 95.

Janis passed away Thursday evening at a hospital in New York City, according to his wife, Maria Cooper Janis. In a statement, she described her husband as “an exceptional human being who took his talents to their highest pinnacle.”

A childhood prodigy who studied under Vladimir Horowitz, Janis emerged in the late 1940s as one of the most celebrated virtuosos of a new generation of talented American pianists.

In 1960, he was selected as the first musician to tour the then-Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program organized by the U.S. State Department. His recitals of Chopin and Mozart awed Russian audiences and were described by the New York Times as helping to break “the musical iron curtain.”

Seven years later, while visiting a friend in France, Janis discovered a pair of long-lost Chopin scores in a trunk of old clothing. He performed the waltzes frequently over the ensuing years, eventually releasing a widely hailed compilation featuring those performances.

But his storied career, which spanned more than eight decades, was also marked by physical adversity, including a freak childhood accident that left his left pinky permanently numb and convinced doctors he would never play again.

He suffered an even greater setback as an adult. At age 45, he was diagnosed with a severe form of psoriatic arthritis in his hands and wrists. Janis kept the condition secret for over a decade, often playing through excruciating pain.

“It was a life-and-death struggle for me every day for years,” Janis later told the Chicago Tribune. “At every point, I thought of not being able to continue performing, and it terrified me. Music, after all, was my life, my world, my passion.”

He revealed his diagnosis publicly in 1985 following a performance at the Reagan White House, where he was announced as a spokesperson for the Arthritis Foundation.

The condition required multiple surgeries and temporarily slowed his career. However, he was able to resume performing after making adjustments to his playing technique that eased pressure on his swollen fingers.

Janis remained active in his later years, composing scores for television shows and musicals, while putting out a series of unreleased live performances. His wife, Cooper Janis, said her husband continued to create music until his final days.

“In spite of adverse physical challenges throughout his career, he overcame them and it did not diminish his artistry,” she added. “Music is Byron’s soul, not a ticket to stardom and his passion for and love of creating music, informed every day of his life of 95 years.

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Byron Janis, renowned American classical pianist who overcame debilitating arthritis, dies at 95