Hard on her recent anniversary, we are delighted to publish a major study by the Polish scholar Aleksander Hanslik:
A PIANIST “d’execution transcendante”
Remembrance of Maria Yudina on the 50th anniversary of her death
It is November 19, 1961, concert hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic. On the stage comes a petite woman with dark hair, strong features, dressed in a black coat of an orthodox nun. She plays a great recital; in the program, among others, Beethoven’s 32 variations in C minor, Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata, pieces of Ernst Křenek and Anton Webern. The hall reacts with enthusiasm and expects encores. The pianist stands in front of the piano and reads the poetry of her friend Boris Pasternak.
After that, Maria Yudina, one of the greatest personalities of 20th century pianists, never played at the Leningrad Philharmonic.
In a letter to Konstantin Fiedin (1926) Maxim Gorki writes: “From physical suffering we are healed by doctors, with increasing success, from moral sufferings by Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and others…”. He calls them “village healers”. Maria Yudina decided to be just such a soul-healer.
Writing about Yudina is therefore writing of both of her phenomenal pianistic art and as well as of her moral (religious) mission, to which she subordinated her musical activity.
The life stories of even the greatest performers are mostly reduced to a list of the most important recordings and a short biographical note. In the case of Maria Yudina, we have not only a wealth of recordings, but also an yet analytically unprocessed legacy of correspondence, articles, essays, testimonies of witnesses of her musical-social-religious activity. Her correspondence itself (Perepiski) with great figures of Russian and Western culture and ideas, including Pasternak, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Bachtin, Stockhausen, Serocki, Florensky, Adorno, N. Mandelstam, are seven volumes released in Russia between 2006 and 2013.
The story of Maria Yudina is a touch on two phenomena of Russian culture of 20th century: virtuosity and mysticism embedded in her case in the orthodox messianism. The cosmos of Maria Yudina is therefore a world of music, religion and literature – she called this world “Theme with variations”, in which the theme is a man passing through life (variations) – aiming for eternity (M. Drozdova).
Choosing such a path in the worst possible times for the freedom of the individual (in the times of Stalin, and even later, until the death of the pianist) had, of course, its price, which she was willing to pay at any time. The price were repressions “as usual”, such as expulsion from the music conservatory or prohibition of concerts, although she avoided the worst fate of those times, despite her steadfast and intrepid attitude as a musician, and as a “preacher”.
Writing about Yudina requires portraying her great musical personality and her social and-religious mission, reaching beyond the attractive myths – such as in the film Death of Stalin (Iannucci, 2017) or in a note about Yudina in the album The Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century (Philips/Steinway). These myths boil down to attractive but unproven associations such as “Maria Yudina – Joseph Stalin’s favorite pianist” or a film image, in which we see a scene replaying her recording over and over again of Mozart’s Piano Concert A-dur KV 488 at the time the dead Stalin was found, a bloody dictator and otherwise a lover of music.
Yudina’s youth is an archetype of a biography of the great revolutionaries women in Russia in the early 20th century, or, as Hanna Krall, who described their fate, says: “distraught, fevered Jewish women” (after Simone Weil).
Her fervor was closer to a missionary than to a revolutionary.
So we have a child prodigy, born (as the fourth) on September 9, 1899 in Newel (Vitebsk district), in the family of the respected land doctor Benjamin Gavrilovitch Judin. Newel was a town of deep periphery, but at the same time the tower of Babel of religions, nations, customs (70 percent were Jews, the rest are Belarusians, Lithuanians, Poles). Father of Maria, who was a strong personality, managed to graduate as a poor Jew from medical studies and was a model of service to the society, for which he was awarded in Tsarist Russia by the Order of St. Anne. The family was not strongly associated with the Jewish religion, moreover, the father very much regretted that his beloved daughter had become a religious person; the very choice of faith did not matter to him.
In such a house, little Marusia, as she was called, had contact with a great Russian pianist – her first teacher was Frieda Lewinson, a student of Anton Rubinstein. Carefree childhood ended when, as a thirteen-year-old, she went to St. Petersburg, where her father decided to put her in a conservatory in the class of Anna Yesipowa, who was a student and wife of Theodore Leschetytski. In St. Petersburg (Petrograd) in 1917, Yudina met Eugenia O. Otten (a religious, intelligence-related literary woman, later sentenced to nineteen years of exile), who introduced her to her religious-philosophical circle (“Resurrection”). This circle was increasing constantly (M.M. Bachtin, M.I. Kagan among others joined it), acted in the most turbulent times for Russia and was of course subject of severe repressions. In 1919, Yudina was baptized into the Orthodox Council, her godfather was the well-known literary critic Leo (Leib) Pumlianski. Since then, the artist’s priorities have changed radically – she devoted herself to religious service through music and began to wear long black robes.
After a break caused by First World War, revolution and health problems, Yudina completed her education at the Petersburg Conservatory in 1920 in the class of Professor Leonid W. Nikolaev. She studied, among others, with Dimitri Shostakovich and Vladimir Sofronitsky. Aleksander Glazunov, director of the Conservatory, wrote in his assessment of the diploma concert of Maria Yudina, comprising of works by Bach, Beethoven, Glazunov, Liszt: “Huge and virtuoso talent… Forte sometimes exaggerated… Rating: Very good+”. Excessive forte as an expression of rebellion will return more than once in the pianist’s renditions, which Svyatoslav Richter beautifully describes, mentioning Henryk Neuhaus, who after Yudina’s concert during the war, having heard her excessive fortissimo, asked why is it like that. Yudina replied, “We are at war now !”.
In the 1920s, the pianist threw herself into the philosophy by studying the works of St. Augustine (“hard to read, but I want and I can”) and orthodox theology, mainly in the works of Solovyov and Pavel Florensky, with whom she became friends in 1927. This friendship and Florensky’s death as a victim of Stalinism was of great importance for her spiritual formation and artistic mission. The issues of ethics of Judaism and Christianity were closest to her and led to an attitude full of asceticism and zeal in serving the people – mainly by means of the language of music. She was described as “a pianist of extremes for whom there was no golden mean.” The second most important area of her interest was literature and theatre (from antiquity to contemporary Russian literature of the turbulent 20s years, then already banned.
Yudina’s solo concert activities began in 1921 with concerts with the orchestra, including Beethoven’s 4th and 5th Piano Concerto, Medtner’s Piano Concerto, Křenek’s and Hindemith’s works. Her extraordinary talent and personality bore the first fruits – on June 25, 1923, she received the position of Professor of the Petersburg (Petrograd) Conservatory.
An important event in Yudina’s life was the conviction and shooting in 1922 of Petrograd Metropolitan along with other clergy. At that time, she decided to always act openly, being aware of the consequences. One of her letters was signed: “Your faithful and dedicated Moscow madwoman, M. Yudina”. “Moscow”, because then she then went to Moscow, fighting for the release of the patriarch Tichon. Since then, she has become an increasing threat to herself. In 1925, in a questionnaire for conservatory pedagogues, when asked about membership and support for the Communist Party, she wrote: “Agreeing on many issues with the Russian Communist Party – I cannot belong to it because of my ideological and religious views.”
Yudina’s historical recital took place on March 9, 1930, in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic. In the program were: Beethoven’s Lunar Sonata, and intermezzi Brahms, Chopin’s B minor Sonata, Prokofiev’s IV Sonata and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition. As witnesses (including Anna Artobolewska) recall, the crowd stood from Nevsky Prospect to the entrance of the philharmonic hall. The concert was received euphorically – alongside the flowers small Russian orthodox icons were passed to Yudina from the hall.
Two days later, the artist was to answer questions from the director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Her answers, along with comments stigmatizing Yudina, were included in the article titled Nuns’s Habit in the Conservatory in the “Red Newspaper”. At the end of the article, the question was asked: “What is a Soviet high school for today, protesting together with the working class against russian Orthodox and catholic priests, mullahs, and pastors?”. Yudina lost her job at the Leningrad Conservatory on May 6, 1930.
Fortunately for the pianist, friends from Tbilisi helped her secure her life and position at the music conservatory there. She performed in this city with great success, also playing duets with her friend Wladimir Sofronitsky.
Andrei Tarkovsky said that for Russian artists, creativity has always been something of a mission, an ethical duty – it was never about empathizing with virtuosity, formal tricks. And so it was with Maria Yudina – endowed with phenomenal pianistic technique, she used it to paint, as she used to say, “musical icons” at the time of the great human trial. In 1931, she wrote to her spiritual guide, Father Paul Florensky: “I do not understand, why do your respect, Father, my playing, since it is only an endless, screaming sign of despair”.
Maria Yudina belongs to the last generation of absolutely recognizable pianists, it is impossible to confuse her performances of Beethoven’s Sonata “Hammerklavier” or Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor with other interpretations. Often described as building the architecture of music (architecture alongside poetry was her passion), she said of herself: “Here is a column, there are arches, here is the rhythm and development in time and space”.
After returning to Moscow in 1933, she began touring again, with great conductors like Dimitri Mitropoulos and Georges Sébastian. She often performed the new works of Soviet composers, for example Prokofiev’s second Piano Concert (1935) with the orchestra conducted by Jascha Horenstein. After this concert the composer gave her, along with thanks, his piece Things in themselves, which Yudina later repeatedly played. This piano concert was performed again in 1935 in the Column Hall of the House of Unions, conducted by Leo Ginzburg and on 28.10.1938 under the direction of Prokofiev in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory which was acclaimed as “triumphant”.
Despite the repressions for promoting contemporary music, this repertoire was an important chapter in her performances. We can mention, among others, Alban Berg sonatas, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky or Yuri Shaporin. This fascination is most revealed in the relations and correspondence with Shostakovich and Stravinsky, whom she admired and was the artist who gave the first performances of their works in Russia. After listening to Shostakovich’s XIII Symphony “Babi Yar” she wrote: “We all burn on the pages of this score”.
The 1930s and 1940s, especially the years of war, were a period of her extraordinary artistic activity. Like other great artists, she performed music on The All-Union Radio broadcasted for soldiers on the front lines or factories. After one of the broadcasts, she received a letter:
“We heard Beethoven’s Fantasy in your performance. We are strengthened. Thank you. We allow ourselves to ensure that we will protect Soviet culture, including you. Snipers Antonov and Terentiev”.
Maria Yudina went to her beloved Leningrad during the blockade to give concerts to the besieged population – on the radio and on the front. She wrote: “The muses are not silent in Leningrad”. In 1947, the famous night recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major KV 488 took place with an orchestra conducted by Alexander Gauk. The registration was made upon the instructions of Stalin’s entourage, who, having heard a performance of Mozart’s concerto by Yudina on the radio, wanted the vinyl record. The mystery of this recording becomes increasingly distant, but it is necessary to remember the words of Berdayev: “A myth does not mean the opposite of reality, on the contrary: it reveals a deep reality”. Maybe this recording saved the pianist’s life?
Back in the 1920s, Yudina dreamed of going to Western Europe to get to know the contemporary music that was radiating there, which she so vigorously promoted and paid for another expulsion from the conservatory. This plan failed – the artist only twice received permission to go abroad: in 1950 for the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death to East Germany and in 1954 to Poland to celebrate the anniversary of Soviet-Polish friendship. All subsequent attempts to go to concerts, despite many invitations from all over the world, ended with the silence of ” culture officials”.
Maria Yudina writes about Poland in 1954: ” […] fabulously beautiful journey. Yours from the homeland of Copernicus! Everything very interesting, beautiful, joyful”. The concert program included, among others, Beethoven’s V Concert, performed with the Silesian’s Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Václav Smetáček. Recently, Yudina recordings made in Polish Radio were found and include Shostakovich Preludes and Fugue and Lutoslawski among others. They will be soon published in Russia.
The Soviet authorities never allowed for the film recordings of her concerts – although there are still a lot of sound recordings left, available e.g. on YouTube, a lot of her heritage found in Russian archives is being released by the old Russian label Melodya, to the amazement and delight of the listeners. Amazement – by the scale of the repertoire: from Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven (including “Hammerklavier”), Liszt to Shostakovich, Szymanowski, Hindemith or Webern; admiration – by the extraordinary strength of spirit and exceptional technical freedom.
In the Melodya anniversary release of Maria Yudina’s recordings a note was included – Shostakovich’s famous statement after her performance of his Preludes and Fugues: “This is not what I wrote at all, but please: play it like that. Please – just play it like that !”. Shostakovich’s reaction is the shortest introduction to the description of Maria Yudina’s piano art – metaphysical art, her own and coherent vision of the piece, at the same time full of opposites.
Yudina, according to Dostoyevsky’s saying that “beauty will save the world”, considered her music to be a struggle against evil and a way to salvation. That’s why she often emphasized the “importance of expression” – what can be heard in her immense proportions of sound, pulse and “life of musical form”.
The years 1930-1960 were musically and literally turbulent for the pianist, when she joined the most “dangerous” milieu of Russian poets. As she recalls: “In summer 1940, going to N. Zabolotsky to work with him on translating the lyrics of Schubert’s songs, I met Henryk Neuhaus on the subway, who asked: “Are you also heading to Pasternak?“. “No, I say, not now”. As I’m about to walk up to the subway, Neuhaus grabs my sleeve: “My dear – it is important! Do they pay well for it? Do you know that Tsvetaeva has arrived and is without work ? Give her a job – give her your translation». After two days I was with Tsvetaeva – a dark mansard, […] an atmosphere of an imminent disaster […]”.
The preparations for a concert, in addition to the piano practicing, was complemented by Yudina’s comments – religious – philosophical texts, handwritten in her music sheet, for example, in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, already on the front page of the aria (theme) is her commentary – the words of The Psalm of David (“O how amiable are thy dwellings”).
She expressed a pious attitude towards Bach’s work during the first (and penultimate) concert trip abroad – in 1950 to Leipzig for the Bach jubilee. She then walked barefoot through half of the city to her master’s grave to pay tribute to him. And it wasn’t just a gesture.
A question that will go unanswered – how Maria Yudina survived the time of terror – being a defiant servant of music and people – ready to pay any price for her activity, including being expelled from the conservatory, which she described as “being petty”. If it was a sophisticated revenge of the regime, then it was a successful one – Yudina was prepared for the worst, which she often calmly wrote about, while suffering for the rest of her life, seeing her friends walking away – who were steadfast as herself.
On June, 1, 1960, Yudina was expelled from the Gnesinych Academy in Moscow for „religiousness not conforming with communist morality and for openly propagating the anti-Soviet art such as the works of Stravinsky”. The meeting with the composer – with whom she had only correspondence so far – took place on 6 October of the following year. It was one of the happiest moments of her life.
Yudina’s musical passions are an extremely broad performing spectrum and legacy of recordings: from Bach, Through Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin to Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok, Webern, Lutoslawski, Serocki, Jolivet. In her last years before death she focused on contemporary and classical composers. She gave concerts with the greatest conductors of that era – Russian and visiting Russia, such as: Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Georges Sébastian, Kurt Sanderling, Hermann Scherchen, Grzegorz Fitelberg, Otto Klemperer and many others.
Her interpretations are often considered as “masculine” and demonic, although they remain within the framework of intellectual self-discipline and artistic asceticism.
Yudina’s intellectualism was often incomprehensible to contemporaries – her renditions was described as too “rational”. At the same time, she was accused of losing proportions and “playing for herself”. When assessing her interpretations from the point of view of interpretation canons, one can see the defiant and conscious abandonment of traditional patterns. She wrote: “When the master strives for expressiveness, he does not think about correctness” – but puts together things that do not fit together, sculpts, emphasizes inconsistencies and thus achieves the intended effect”.
Swiatoslav Richter wrote about Yudina: “She had a huge talent … Her performances of romantic music were thrilling… Weinen und Klagen of Liszt sounded unparalleled, but Schubert’s Sonata in B major D 960, which was breathtaking, was played totally “awry”.
The unique combination of the monumental scale and laconism of Yudina’s means of expression remains a mystery. The performance of Beethoven’s Sonata op. 111 is considered one of the most poignant performances of the work in general, and the work itself has become the subject of Yudina’s deep philosophical delving and dispute with Adorno.
Stockhausen wrote of Yudina: “She had a phenomenal sense of the future”. Brodski said that Tsvetaeva is a biblical poet. It can be said of Yudina that she was a biblical pianist, although she did not like, being called a “pianist” – she considered herself a musician “at the service of God”. She often referred in her texts to the Old Testament figure of Tobias and his archangel guardian.
Maria Yudina’s last solo performance took place on March 12, 1968 in the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow and was the culmination of her love for the ancient world and the music of the beloved Stravinsky – she played a piano version of his ballet Orpheus.
In the late 1960s ,Yudina, without the opportunity to tour with her gigantic repertoire, “from Bach to Berg” as she wrote, was looking for work in libraries, cemeteries and post office – “in the telegraph”. Of the job interview in “telegraph”, she writes: “Everyone here wants me, but the human resources department cannot accept me as a retired woman. I will write to the minister”.
She passed away on November 19, 1970 in Moscow.
The announcement of her death, the date and place of the funeral written handwritten on a small piece of paper was pinned to the poster on the door of the Chamber Hall of the Moscow Conservatory . Permission for the mourning ceremony at the Conservatory could only be obtained through Shostakovich’s intercession. It took place in the foyer of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Richter, Grinberg, Gornostajewa, among others played at the coffin.
Due to the non-payment of the piano rental, a few days after the funeral at the block where she lived, a crane appeared, with the help of which the old, black, out of key Bechstein piano was raised. Yudina’s piano has been sold a long time ago to help needy friends.
In difficult moments, and there were many of them, she referred to the poem of her friend Boris Pasternak, ‘To be notable is not fit’:
Others follow in your fresh footsteps
They will cross, know, your trail carefully.
But it’s not proper for you
To distinguish between victories and defeats
The motto of Maria Yudina’s life was: “I know only one way to God – through art. I’m not saying my way is universal, I know there are other ways. For me, however, only this is available”.
In drafting this text, I was helped by Marina Anatolevna Drozdova, a student of Maria Yudina in the 1960s, now a professor at the Russian Academy of Music Gnesinych, as well as Marina Drozdova’s book “Maria Yudina – Religious Fate” (Religioznaja sudba) Moscow 2016. I remain deeply grateful for her boundless patience and help.
I also used the published collection of correspondence of Maria Yudina Perepiski (7 volumes), ed. Rosspen, Moscow 2006-2013, and available sources in the public domain.
I would like to thank Hanna Krall, Alexei B, Lubimov and Krzysztof Meyer for their valuable content and editorial suggestions.
Published by permission of PWM- Ruch Muzyczn