Magazine article Russian Life

Tsar David

Magazine article Russian Life

Tsar David

Article excerpt

For the Soviet Union, 1937 was not merely the year of the Great Terror and the centennial of Pushkin's death. It was also a significant year for Soviet music, a year of unprecedented achievements for two of its sons. Dmitry Shostakovich, who had fallen into disfavor for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and for his ballet The Bright Stream, received public acclaim for his Fifth Symphony, one of his best works. Leaders praised it as "the artist's constructive reply to just criticism," yet arguments rage to this day about the work's multiplicative meanings. The poet Boris Pasternak, according to legend, said about the Fifth Symphony and its author: "He went and said everything, and no one did anything to him for it."


Six months earlier, David Oistrakh, who would later become the leading interpreter of Shostakovich's music, won first prize at the Ysaye Competition (now known as the Queen Elizabeth Competition), in Brussels.

"Things are brilliant! I received first prize!! It feels like I am living in a dream and I am tormented by the fear that I will wake up ... But I survived yesterday! When they assembled us 12 finalists on stage, the hall, filled to capacity, fell dead silent.. I felt my legs shaking, and began to compulsively wring my hands as I awaited the verdict ... Then there was an ovation louder than any I had ever heard, and I felt like I might faint. My jaw dropped and I could not even bow."

The Ysaye victory, the first international violin competition of its kind, turned Oistrakh - born into a modest Jewish family in Odessa - into an internationally renowned musician, a star, at the age of 29.

David Oistrakh was born September 17 (September 30, new style), 1908, in Odessa, into a merchant's family of the second guild. At that time, Odessa was one of the most culturally developed cities in provincial Russia. Its musical life was only surpassed by Moscow and Petersburg. Glazunov conducted in Odessa, Shalyapin and Caruso sang there, Anna Pavlova and Isadora Duncan danced there. So it is no surprise that the city gave birth to great musicians like Svyatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and David Oistrakh.

The violinist's father was not a professional musician, yet he did play the violin and several wind instruments. His mother, Isabella Stefanovna, regularly took young David to the Opera Theater. Soon, Oistrakh began putting on his own theater at home. He would obtain a piano arrangement of one of his favorite operas and sing the entirety of Carmen or Prince Igor along with the choir, soloists and orchestra, conducting imaginary musicians.

Oistrakh began taking violin and viola lessons at age five from Pyotr Stolyarsky. "No matter how much I wrack my brains," Oistrakh later wrote. "I cannot recall a time in my childhood when I was without my violin." Yet, at first, he was far from a model student, once even cutting the strings of his first violin.

He began to perform in 1914, first playing as soloist with an orchestra in 1923. In 1926, he finished his studies with Stolyarsky, having amassed a large number of concertos in his repertoire. He debuted in Leningrad in 1928, moving soon thereafter to Moscow. In 1935, he took second place at the Venyavsky Competition in Warsaw, which brought him just one step short of becoming an international star.

TODAY IT IS FREQUENTLY SAID THAT performers of the "older generation" - for example Svyatoslav Richter - were not subjected to the fast-paced life which today oppresses young and old stars alike, which does not allow them any opportunity to stop and ruminate about what is going on around them. In reality, 70 years ago, the advertising, recording and media industries did not have the capacity for creating stars that they do today; today there are so many bright, technically proficient performers competing for the limited limelight (thus the rushing about), yet so few new Richters and Oistrakhs. …

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