Byron Janis Receives Honorary Doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), awarded Byron Janis, Internationally Renowned Pianist and Humanitarian, with the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, on Thursday, May 2, 2013 at HUC-JIR’s Graduation Ceremonies at Congregation Emanu-El in the City of New York.

Rabbi Ellenson stated, “Byron Janis is an internationally renowned pianist and humanitarian who has blended music and dedication to human rights to create bonds of brotherhood to triumph over historic antagonisms."

Byron Janis is internationally renowned as one of the world's greatest pianists. He made his orchestral debut at age 15 with Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra and the following year was chosen by Vladimir Horowitz as his first student. At 18, he became the youngest artist ever signed to a contract by RCA Victor Records. Two years later, in 1948, he made his Carnegie Hall debut which was hailed as an unparalleled success. He has played with every major symphony orchestra in both the U.S and abroad.

Mr. Janis was the first American artist chosen to participate in the 1960 Cultural Exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. He returned in 1962 at the invitation of the Soviet government and played a six- week tour which ended with a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Benny Goodman – this was its first performance in the Soviet Union. In 1988, he performed a special concert in Moscow at the residence of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Included in the audience were all the members of the Politburo and the Soviet Academy of Sciences – the first time all three groups had ever been in the same room together. His many honors and awards include the Commander des Arts et Lettres, the Grand Prix du Disque, the Harriet Cohen International Music Award, the Distinguished Pennsylvania Artists Award (past recipients include James Michener, Marion Anderson, and James Stewart), and, most recently, the gold medal from the French Society for the Encouragement of Progress, the first musician to receive this honor since its inception in 1906. He accidentally discovered two previously unknown manuscripts of Chopin waltzes at Chateau Thoiry, near Paris. Remarkably, five years later, he uncovered two other unknown versions of the same waltzes at Yale University. Subsequently, the French asked him to make a television film about the life of Chopin entitled "Frederic Chopin: A Voyage with Byron Janis," which has been shown around the world.

Mr. Janis served as Chairman of the Culture Committee for the Global Forum on Human Survival, the organization that allowed world artists to meet with other leadership groups in a Global Forum – legislators, spiritual leaders, business leaders, scientists, academicians – attempting to help broaden their approach to the global crises.

In 1984, Mr. Janis celebrated the 40th anniversary of his orchestral debut with gala performances throughout the world, highlighted by an invitation from President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan to perform at a state dinner at the White House.

Mr. Janis' recordings include compositions by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. His recordings appear on the RCA and Mercury Phillips labels. His two latest recordings for EMI are "Byron Janis Plays Chopin" which received National Public Radio's "Performance Today Critics Choice Award" and the Chopin/Liszt CD "Byron Janis True Romantic." In recent years, he has been concentrating on writing music for stage and screen as well as a cycle of art songs. He has composed the score for a major musical production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and has written the score for The True Gen, a feature film documentary on the 20-year friendship between Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway.

His television appearances include, amongst many others, the Tonight Show, Good Morning America, the Today Show, Entertainment Tonight, 20/20 with Barbara Walters, CNN, and CBS Sunday Morning.

In 1973 he was first diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis in both hands and wrists but he continued his remarkable pianistic career and told no one about his arthritic condition as well as the accident at the age of 11 that almost severed his left little finger causing permanent damage to the nerves and tendons. To this day, it is completely numb and cannot bend. It wasn’t until 1985, during a special performance at The White House, that it was announced by Nancy Reagan that he would become a spokesman for the Arthritis Foundation as their National Ambassador for the Arts. Since then, Mr. Janis has appeared on behalf of the Foundation at many local and national events to increase awareness and encourage support of research and services to improve the quality of life for all people, young and old, who are affected by arthritis and to prove what passion and perseverance can accomplish. Recently he has become a Yamaha Artist and has been appointed as the first Presidential Advisor to the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute. He has recently launched the extraordinary new technology of Yamaha’s Disklavier CFX Piano.

He has been given a Sanford Fellowship from Yale University and an Honorary Doctorate from Trinity College. He heads the Friends of Tel Aviv University as Faculty Chairman for Visual and Performing Arts in the United States and has been made an Honorary Governor. He has been made a life-member of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Pension Fund and has also received an Honorary Master Scholar of Humanities award from New York University School of Medicine. He is a longstanding board member of Pro Musicis Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing the careers of young artists who also perform community service concerts. A TV documentary on his life, The Byron Janis Story, is now being aired nationally on PBS and his memoirs, Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal, published by J. Wiley, was released in November 2010.

He was recently written into the Congressional Record of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, honoring him as a musician, diplomat and inspirational figure.    

He is married to Maria Cooper, daughter of Gary Cooper, and they have a son, Stefan.

Click here to view the National Graduation and Ordination press release.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu