José Iturbi was born in Valencia, Spain, to Ricardo Iturbi and Teresa Báguena. Ricardo worked two jobs: by day he was a bill collector for a French company called, “Gas LeBon.” In the evenings he was a piano repairman. His wife Teresa loved listening to opera. On that particular night—November 28th of 1895—they went to see Carmen, but Teresa went into labor during the performance. She barely made it home before baby José arrived. He was the third of the four Iturbi children; sister Amparo followed in 1898.
At the age of three, José discovered the piano and soon was banging out little tunes. Ricardo encouraged his son’s interest. When José was five, he began lessons with Maria Jordán, the neighborhood piano teacher. It wasn’t long before Jordán found she had an unusual child on her hands: José refused to play one passage as written, instead substituting his own version. Intrigued, Jordán wrote to the museum which housed the original manuscript, and found out the child had played the passage the way Mozart himself had written it.
By the time José was seven he was a major family breadwinner, playing 12-14 hours a day at Valencia’s first silent movie theater, Cinema Turia. He further augmented his earnings by taking on piano students of his own—students twice his age and sometimes older.
José’s sister Amparo shared his love of music, and used to sing with him while he played. However, she eventually shed her notions of being an opera singer as the piano fever took her as well. (José would later tease that it was better for the world if she played rather than sang.) José was Amparo’s first piano teacher—if not formally, then by example. “I watched him and did everything he did,” she explained years later.
José graduated from Valencia’s conservatory at the age of 14, and went to Barcelona—briefly—to continue his musical studies. After three months working with Joaquin Malats he had to go home and take another job.
Iturbi’s mentor was Professor Eduardo López-Chavarri Marco, who taught at the Valencia Conservatory. He was also a journalist, pianist, composer, and critic for Las Provincias daily newspaper. It was he who put Iturbi up for a scholarship sponsored by the Provincial Government of Valencia that could send him to the prestigious Paris Conservatory of Music. Only two non-French students were accepted at the conservatory each year. In 1911 Iturbi was one of them. His father took him to Paris, where they stayed at a boarding house near the school until José found a job playing in a café to support himself.
He became a student of Victor Staub at the Conservatory—and studied with the great harpsichordist and pianist Wanda Landowska on the side. Landowska had a special technique that involved using each joint of each finger individually to achieve differences in sound. Iturbi learned her technique and modified it to fit his own needs. It paid off: he graduated from the Conservatory in 1913 at the age of 17, with top honors.
Iturbi went home when World War One broke out, but after the color and light of Paris, Valencia was dull. He began giving piano lessons. One of his pupils was the beautiful Maria Giner, and although she was a promising pianist, before long the two were more fascinated with each other than with their pianos. They were married in 1916.
Iturbi traveled with his wife and infant daughter to Switzerland. Someone from Geneva’s conservatory heard Iturbi play in a café, and offered him a job, a position once held by Franz Liszt, as head of the Department of Piano Virtuosity. A strict and critical teacher, Iturbi’s students nicknamed him “The Spanish Inquisition.”
After four years of teaching at the conservatory and giving concerts on the side, Iturbi’s concert schedule became too demanding to do both. He and Maria took an apartment in Paris, and from this headquarters Iturbi toured Europe and South America. But Maria Iturbi died suddenly in 1928.
Throughout Iturbi’s life, it seemed that triumph and tragedy were often closely linked. The following year, possibly attempting to escape his sad memories, he journeyed to the United States. He arrived in New York in October of 1929—the same time as the Wall Street Stock Market crash. His United States debut was in Philadelphia on October 11th of 1929, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski, to “thunderous ovations.” Esquire Magazine reported:
…Before he had played many bars, the orchestra musicians were whispering to their partners and the audience had settled into a death-like quiet. When he arose the deafening uproar assured him he had run neck-to-neck with the winged steed Pegasus….
Olin Downes, for many years the New York Times’ chief music critic, wrote of Iturbi’s New York debut:
“…In the light of a single concert, Mr. Iturbi appears as the one new and significant figure among visiting virtuosi to have reached these shores this season.”
Another critic from a different newspaper referred to his “feathery pianissimi—like a column of smoke passing over the keys,” and all agreed that his taste was infallible, his style dynamic and “free from romantic nonsense.”
Eleven days later came his Carnegie Hall recital debut. The report the following morning carried the headlines “Cries of ‘Bravo’ Halt José Iturbi—Crash of Applause Delays Spanish Pianist’s Recital…Practically no Phase of Piano Music Outside his Ken.”
Iturbi left the United States to return to Paris on January 30th, 1930. Esquire reported that the music critic from the New York Herald-Tribune waved him off with “the most stirring praise any artist has ever known. Nor was there one less enthusiastic voice in New York’s usually astringent corps of musical arbiters. Not even Horowitz had commanded such immediate and universal respect.”