How do you solve a problem like Maria?

How do you solve a problem like Maria?


norman lebrecht

November 20, 2020

Memories are flooding in of the marvellous Maria Yudina who died 50 yars ago this week. One of the most original pianists that ever lived, she was fired by two Soviet conservatoires and was sidelined by concert organisations, hovering in the shadow of Richter and Gilels. When Stalin sent her a gift of 20,000 rubles for a Mozart concerto she had recorded, Yudina gave the money to the Russian Orthodox church and told the Great Leader: ‘I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country.’

VAN magazine has a new profile of her here.

She was a philosopher, a scientist, a friend of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Here’s an excerpt from an interview she gave to Solomon Volkov three weeks before her death:

When we talk about art (and music is only a part of it, though a beautiful one, in the same way as art itself is only a beautiful part of something miraculous and all-embracing), we anyway run into imperfection of our definitions and poverty of our speech. Yes, we are the poor ones, who want to describe unbelievable riches. And yet we speak (and some people, like me, even write) about it, because we hope to approach towards the understanding of the perfect laws of art and to try to let others approach it, if possible. The understanding of art is being achieved not only in the creative activity, but also in our thoughts and judgements about it. The imperfection here, as I already said, is unavoidable, but it shouldn’t become a barrier and a detention, the living-through of the opinion may serve as an excuse for the imperfection. The opinion should be expressed if it born from a thoughtful, modest and vainless desire to help creativity as we understand it.

I always used an opportunity to address the youth whenever I had it. I’m disturbed with lots of things. For instance, with the fact, that performers wither already at the very beginning of their musical career. They have nothing to say, they are headless horsemen. You’ll always be able to recognize it in their performance – some kind of smoothness, roundness, togetherness – but not the entirety, no – only gloss. But how far is all this from the main thing, which Boleslav Leopoldovich Yavorsky, whom I owe a lot, penetratingly called an “inspired symbolism”, a thing, which (opposes) stays in contrary towards the “score photography”, the thing, which he always despised and pursued.

translation: Denis Plutalov

Formidable as she was in the classics, she had eclectic tastes and a strong interest in modernism.

UPDATE: Marvellous article here (in Polish).


  • An impressive woman, and the Krenek is impeccably played (also a great piece!).Thanks for reminding us of this great artist!

    • Hive Eater says:

      Oh come on Moritz.
      There’s no need to be so thankful for Norman’s lenient commenting policy.

      He’s not blocking every 2nd comment, such as you do at your own blog. Says a lot, really!

  • Allardyce says:

    Really great piece, had no idea Krenek wrote such good music. Another one I discovered recently is Franz Shreker, namely his opera Irrelohe. This music should be better known.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    Sviatoslav Richter said of her playing:
    “She was immensely talented and a keen advocate of the music of her own time: she played Stravinsky, whom she adored, Hindemith, Krenek and Bartók at a time when these composers were not only unknown in the Soviet Union but effectively banned. And when she played Romantic music, it was impressive—except that she didn’t play what was written. Liszt’s Weinen und Klagen was phenomenal, but Schubert’s B-flat major Sonata, while arresting as an interpretation, was the exact opposite of what it should have been, and I remember a performance of the Second Chopin Nocturne that was so heroic that it no longer sounded like a piano but a trumpet. It was no longer Schubert or Chopin, but Yudina.”
    On May 12/1957 Glenn Gould gave a recital in Moscow that featured music of Berg, Webern, Schoenberg and Krenek (Sonata No3). He later wrote: “When I first announced what I was going to do -that I was going to play the sort of music that has not been officially recognized in the U.S.S.R. since the artistic crises in the mid thirties, there was a rather alarming and temporarily uncontrollable murmuring from the audience (…) and the only people who did walk out were a couple of elderly professors who probably felt that I was attempting to pervert the taste of the young.”
    Maria Yudina must have been one of the very few pianists who dared to play contemporary music in the then politically controlled scene in Russia.

    • Novagerio says:

      “She often entered the stage as if she was walking under the rain.
      Once she played one Bach Fugue very agressively, fottissimo and staccato. I asked her why she played like that. She answered: “We are at war, aren’t we?!” – She was an original, and often mistaken for a vagabond.

      On stage she would always cross herself. Goodness, there’s nothing wrong with that, but in
      Soviet Russia?…

      Once they asked her what she thought about me;
      pejoratively she answered: “He’s just another Rachmaninoff-pianist!”
      – Then they asked me to play at her funeral.
      And do you know what I played? (chuckle)…

      Sviatoslav Richter to Bruno Monsaingeon, in the documentary “Richter, the Enigma”.

    • Occamsrazor says:

      Daniel, I fail to understand what artistic crisis of the 1930’s Gould is talking about. That time was the artistic apex when Yudina, Sofronitsky, Gilels, Richter, Kogan, Oistrach and many others were playing, Shostakovich and Prokofiev composing, Bulgakov writing etc. As for the so called modern music not allowed, if one uses the classical standards to define what music is then modern music is not music. You see, one can use classical instruments and titles like sonata etc and concoct something that is neither classical nor popular music but an exercise in ugliness sold as classical. It’s nothing but a scam and an attempt to undermine the definition of what classical is. It may not seem very important but it creates a precedent of accepting destruction of a standard akin to forcing people to buy gold that acid tests as 10K but hallmarked 18K as genuine 18K. I bet you would object to purchasing such artistically free gold. Such things have led to our present masked condition when people have to engage in denying objective reality and scientific facts to be able to buy food, ride buses and enter workplace. Poor Glenn, he couldn’t see much beyond his staggering dexterity and Valium prescription. Stalin on the other hand, could see the entire paradigm and think centuries back and ahead. He knew that allowing criminality masquerading as artistic freedom was nothing but a nefarious attempt to undermine our belief that 2+2 can only be 4 and that we’ll never wake up and discover that it can also be 5 in some cases. As for artistic crises , when do you suppose the real artistic crisis was happening, in the 1930’s or today when we haven’t had a musical performance, a book written or a movie created worth a damn in 30 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the classical world we can only produce Matsuev and a few others equally revolting but we have a shitload of artistic freedom to console us and be happy that we aren’t like those Stalinist biorobots.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Do we know what Ernst Krenek thought of Maria Yudina? She was a year older and predeceased him by two decades.

  • Ed B says:

    Some readers may be interested to know that Maria Yudina is also depicted in the movie “The Death of Stalin” (her note to Stalin forming an important plot point).

  • esfir ross says:

    There a book of memoires of MY contempories: “Remember Yudina”. How come Solomon Volkov memoires’re not there. Only once MY mention his name when she visited St.Petersburg and ask SV to get scores of composers. SV must concoct interview with MY as with D.Shostakovich.

  • Zenaida says:

    The Bavarian Radio – BRKlassik – has done a lovely portrait on her life and work on Nov. 19, 2020. Alas, in German And here’s the link to her obit on Nov. 19, 1970

  • John says:

    So the story in Testimony is true?

  • Occamsrazor says:

    Isn’t it interesting that she wasn’t afraid to effectively charge Stalin with some undefined sins against the country? This story proves that Stalin may not have been the senseless cannibal that the mainstream media portrays him. He ignored her prayers and continued to listen to her recordings. It’s strange that he didn’t torture and work her to death the way he did with 100 million other Russians, ( yes, some sources give this number. The overall prewar population was 190 million minus the additional 27 million of ww2 dead which left about 63 million alive at the end of the war according to this math). How the Soviet Union managed to increase the population to 280 million in 1989 cannot be explained and should be politely ignored.

    • fliszt says:

      The soviet population explosion can easily be explained! When you live in a country that has no television, no bowling alleys, very little entertainment options, people… they… well… you know…

  • Occamsrazor says:

    I can easily explain Yudina’s case. The only way to begin making sense of the prayer for Stalin story is for a moment to abandon the version of Stalin accepted in the West. In the case you are capable of doing that fast, I’ll start telling you my Yudina theory. If you can’t do that you should stop reading here because it’ll be a waste of your time. Yudina was a unique soul and having grown up among many people who knew her personally I would bet that suicidal was the farthest from being one of her quirks. She was immensely gifted, deeply religious and had many close friends. Such people do not commit suicide for any reason including trying to remove a particular tyrant by assassination, let alone risking their lives for a momentary pleasure of an empty gesture that is akin to a mosquito trying to impress an elephant. My theory is that she sent her prayer to Stalin without any fear at all. She was intelligent enough to be able to play double and triple games. Her prayer was a not so subtle gift to Stalin after which all he had to do was absolutely nothing except listen to her recordings as usual. To this day this story causes a dent in the official Stalin story that 70% of Russians presently consider to be a scam. The liberal intelligentsia tries to explain his behavior by his being unpredictable. Both Stalin and Yudina seem unpredictable but they were both guided by logics not immediately apparent to most people. Don’t mistake Yudina with most Soviet dissidents who were clinically mad and completely atheist. They were asking to be destroyed and often got what they wanted. Stalin had many genuine fans among the great figures of Russian culture including Bulgakov and Pasternak who openly expressed their admiration for him. Yudina was most likely one of his most subtle and secret fans. When you are a dictator you also need those.

  • Elizabeth Wilson says:

    I am currently finishing a biography of Maria Yudina, which has taken me years to write. I hope to be able to correct some of the statements in the short introduction. The words quoted from the interview with Solomon Volkov are very beautiful and most definitely in character, but need to be understood in their full context! Hopefully you can read about this when the book is published -later in 2021 if Covid doesn’t push back publication date still further!!

  • Edgar Self says:

    That is very good news, Elizabeth Wilson, that you are writing a biography of Maria Yudina.

    For late-comers, Elizabeth Wilson wrote “Shostakovich Remembered”, is a cellist who studied with Rostropovich, and is the daughter of a British ambassador to Moscow.

  • Occamsrazor says:

    I sincerely doubt that Testimony has much basis in reality. To suggest that Shostakovich was a dissident completely broken in spirit by his paranoia and finding oblivion in cognac as the only way of surviving another day spent in indescribable fear of Stalin is to hope that the reader is unable to do simple math. If you google the amount of money he received from Stalin in the form of prizes and compare it to the average Soviet salary at the time, you’ll see that his lifestyle was similar to that of someone who has about 50 million dollars today. Also keep in mind his many official titles and positions plus a couple of luxury apartments and a country house. If Stalin tortured him, it had to be the most unusual torture in history. Volkov wants us to believe that he kept him in some sort of never ending suspense, waiting every night to be arrested. Quite a few innocent people were arrested and jailed or even shot at that time but that was due to them being framed by their relatives or friends who wrote reports to the local authorities which were often entirely fake. Those countless snitches were motivated by hatred or greed, anticipating ownership of the victim’s apartment which was the case of the snitches being the victim’s roommates. Needless to say, their fate wasn’t decided by Stalin personally but by some dumb local detective because many thousands of such victims were regular invisible people who had no chance of ever having an honest trial. Their fate was sealed by brainless and heartless local detectives. Shostakovich could never be even looked at in a wrong way by anyone, let alone arrested at night like some poor factory worker, without direct orders from Stalin. It’s like suggesting someone of Bernstein caliber was shaking in fear at night expecting cops busting through his front door. One must never forget that people who were important enough to be arrested upon direct Stalin’s orders were few in number. Their cases should never be lumped together with those of regular people. It’s like comparing Harvey Weinstein case to some Joe Shmoe getting framed by a revengeful ex-girlfriend. So, we have established that Shostakovich wasn’t some Joe Shmoe which removes the possibility of him worrying about meeting the fate that occasionally befalls regular people. The only thing left is to consider the chance of him doing something so against Stalin’s tastes that he would do the unthinkable and arrest one of the most famous art figures in the world at the time. Unlike some Russian writers who were destroyed by Stalin because of their treasonous ways that were gaining traction inside the country and completely unknown outside, famous Russian musicians were in the opposite situation where they were well-known in the West and no music can equal words in terms of either being dangerous or useful to any state. Classical music affects a microscopic number of people in any way but sometimes earns musicians international fame among the elites. This situation effectively shielded Soviet musicians of high caliber from any contact with the justice system. They were both harmless and extremely difficult to kill without the political fallout large enough to negate the benefits of shooting even the most dissonant and modern of them. I’m sure that Shostakovich knew these obvious facts. In the hypothetical case that he didn’t due to him being incapable of sustaining logical thought for a few minutes, which happens sometimes to great artists who are helpless in every area other than their art, I’m sure that someone of lesser talent in his circle and capable of thinking for a few minutes had to have told him that he had nothing to worry about except his chain-smoking. I think the former case is way more likely because Shostakovich never gave an impression of being an idiot-savant.