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

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

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

A childhood prodigy who studied with 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. Department of State. His recitals of Chopin and Mozart impressed 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 some long-lost Chopin scores in a suitcase of old clothes. He performed the waltzes regularly over the next few years, eventually releasing a critically acclaimed compilation of those performances.

But his storied career, which spanned more than eighty years, was also marked by physical setbacks, including a freak childhood accident that left his left little finger permanently numb and convinced doctors he would never play again.

As an adult he suffered an even greater setback. At the age of 45, he was diagnosed with a severe form of psoriatic arthritis in his hands and wrists. Janis kept the condition a secret for more than 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. “Every moment I thought about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to perform anymore, and that terrified me. After all, music was my life, my world, my passion.”

He publicly announced his diagnosis in 1985 after an appearance at the Reagan White House, where he was announced as spokesman for the Arthritis Foundation.

The condition required multiple surgeries and temporarily delayed his career. However, he was able to resume performing after adjusting his playing technique, which relieved pressure on his swollen fingers.

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

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