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Feltsman and his “small orchestra”

Today the brilliant composer would have turned 94

The national artist of Russia Oskar Feltsman was born into an ordinary Jewish family in 1921. Of course, in Odessa on Malaya Arnautskaya Street. The spirit of optimism and humor that the artist received from his native city lasted throughout his long life. The years of the campaign against rootless cosmopolitans, the deprivations of war, hunger, the persecution of his son – he endured all these hardships with a smile and with brilliant music. “I believe, friends”, “Lilies of the Valley”, “Beloved Eyes”, “The Wreath of the Danube”, his songs are known and loved by millions of people. And he generously delighted us with premiere after premiere. Today is the birthday of the brilliant composer Oskar Feltsman.

“I want to play sitting down…”

People in Odessa said that Boris Feltsman, Oskar’s father, was the best pianist among surgeons and the best surgeon among pianists. “My father was a wonderful person with a rare musical gift. Until his last days he brilliantly played Chopin and Bach on the piano,” Oskar recalled. “He studied music seriously, properly, before the revolution,” Later Boris Feltsman became a renowned orthopedist, a Mozart in his field. However, while remaining a practicing doctor, he continued to compose melodies. Oskar Feldman often recalled his “Revolutionary March” and “Cradle Song”, adding that he inherited his musical talent from his father.

But the decision to take Oskar to Stolyarsky himself was taken by his mother, who followed the fashion of the time. Odessa lived by music. Leonid Utesov himself called Stolyarsky “the inventor of a conveyor belt of talents”. Pyotr Solomonovich Stolyarsky’s only failure was Isaak Babel, who became a famous writer instead of a musician.

Stolyarsky heard Oskar and said: “Doctor Feltsman, I will teach your son, he’s a good boy. Buy him a “quarter-size” violin and come back in two weeks. But two weeks later the young genius refused to study with Stolyarsky. His parents were horrified, and how could they tell such a respected person this news?” “I don’t want to play standing up, but sitting own,” the young Oskar explained his decision himself to the great teacher. Stolyarsky thought for a while and decided to send the rebellious boy to Berta Mikhailovna Reingbald. This was a professor who taught the finest pianists, such as Emil Gilels, Tanya Goldfarb, Isidor Zak and Berta Marants. Oskar Borisovich remembered this episode all his life and liked to recount it, adding: “A great deal depends on God, of course, but no less depends on us. I was just five years old when I felt that the violin was too narrow for me. It’s just an instrument, but a piano is a small orchestra, and if I had become a violinist I wouldn’t have become a composer.” At the age of six he wrote his first piano piece, “Autumn”. Feltsman graduated from Stolyarsky’s school in two classes: piano with Berta Reingbald and composition with Nikolai Vilinsky.

The infection of formalism from Shostakovich

Dmitry Shostakovich loved Odessa. Here he “recovered” from the attacks of the press and colleagues, breathed the sea air and enjoyed universal admiration. Odessans invited him to lunches and dinners. Once Oskar’s father approached him and asked him to hear his boy. Shostakovich asked: “When could I visit him?” The six-year-old boy played the composer his first piece, “Autumn”. “I’m still not ashamed of it today,” Feltsman recalled. After hearing the work, Shostakovich told Feltsman senior: “Over time your son may become a true composer, but music must be in first place in his life. I hope to meet him again.” And they began to meet regularly.

Another story is connected to this friendship. Under the impression of the war in Spain, the atmosphere of the Odessa port, where ships arrived carrying oranges, dates, fruits from the south, where Spanish sailors walked, Oskar wrote the piece “Spanish Carnival.” At this time, Stolayrsky’s school went to Kiev on tour. In the capital of Ukraine, Feltsman played his “Carnival”. The next morning, an article was published in the central press, stating that the “infection of formalism has been passed on through Shostakovich to the child Feltsman, who has written a formalist work.” Oskar and his mother went home to Odessa, quickly and quietly.

A Stalin grant to the only Jew

In 1939, Oskar Feltsman enrolled at the composing faculty of the Moscow conservatory in the class of the renowned composer Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin. Amazed by his high level of preparation, on behalf of the Moscow conservatory Shebalin sent his Odessan teacher Nikolai Vilinsky a letter of gratitude.

“I was the only Jew there,” Feltsman recalled the years of study at the conservatory. And he added that his name and surname had never presented any obstacles. In the second year, he was the only pupil to receive a Stalin grant – 500 rubles. The conservatory teachers realized that they were no longer teaching Oskar, but rather giving him master classes. In the first year Oskar wrote a sonata for cello and showed it to the renowned cellist Semyon Kozolupov, who performed it at the Small hall of the conservatory, with Oskar accompanying him on piano. Shebalin told Feltsman: “I walked past the conservatory and saw a huge playbill with your name on it. You’ve only studied for a year, and look at you now… I don’t play with Kozolupov very often myself… well done!”

The virus of Kalman

Oskar associated the war with hunger, cold, the fear of landing in prison, marriage and a new love… for the operetta. After the war began, the talented student was evacuated to Novosibirsk, where he became the secretary of the Siberian composers’ union. He wrote serious works for the Alexandriinsky Theater in Leningrad and the Jewish Theater of Belarussia, but at the same time he dreamed of bread and butter.

Feltsman recalled that one morning as he went to work in the theater, he was afraid to be late, as according to Stalin’s order this meant going to jail. But evacuation had two surprises for Feltsman. Firstly, he got married, to a student from the conducting and choral faculty of the Moscow conservatory Yevgenia Kaidnakovskaya. The second surprise involved music. The head of musical institutions of the USSR visited in Novosibirsk, and was informed about a talented young composer who could also write light music. But Oskar refused to write operettas. The official didn’t argue, but simply took the composer to the town of Stalinsk, where the Moscow theater of operetta had been evacuated. There for the first time, Feltsman heard Kalman’s operetta “Silva”, and fell in love with the genre. In 1948 Feltsman’s first operetta was premiered in Moscow, “The Castle in the Air”.

“Lilies of the Valley”

The next stage in Oskar’s career was song-writing. His first work in this genre was the song “Motor Boat” to a poem by V. Dragunsky and L. Davidovich. His friends advised him to show the song to Utesov. Feltsman did so, and when Utesov heard the song, he said: “Oskar, in two weeks you’ll hear it on the radio.” The song immediately became incredibly popular.

Then came “Lilies of the Valley” to a poem by Olga Fadeeva. After Oskar wrote this song, he went on holiday for the first time in his life. And two weeks later he received a telegram: “Come to Moscow. ‘Lilies of the Valley’ has become a popular song.” When Feltsman returned to the capital, “Lilies of the Valley” was heard everywhere, it was played on the radio and people sang along with. But suddenly there was an order “from the top” that “Lilies of the Valley” was a vulgar song which corrupted the tastes of the young. It was anti-Soviet. “I was terribly criticized,” the composer recalled. He was criticized for 23 years. Although in the Moscow-Leningrad car race, in which famous musicians took part, one of the heads of the Composers’ Union asked Feltsman to sing “Lilies of the Valley”. “A request of the secretary of the Oblast committee,” he said. And Feltsman sang “Lilies of the Valley” in all the towns that they visited during the race. He was glad that “Lilies of the Valley” had been rehabilitated, but in Moscow persecution began with new force.

A brilliant son

He wrote hundreds of songs beloved by the people, hundreds of musical works, but the maestro’s greatest creation is still is his son Vladimir Feltsman, a world-famous pianist. “When Vova was four years old he sat down at the piano and never left it. I even had to buy him another piano and put it in another room so my son didn’t bother me,” Oskar said proudly.

In 1971 Vladimir won first prize in the Marguerite Long International Pianists’ Competition in Paris. In 1979 he applied to emigrate from the USSR – the young performer wanted to play freely all over the world. But he ended up in a cage, and could not leave the country for eight years. “The only place where I could play in Moscow was the residence of the American ambassador, Spaso House. It was a very elegant building. And it had a goo hall. They gave me a piano. And one of the concerts was recorded,” said Vladimir Feltsman. And Oskar recalls that his son was only allowed to play at kindergartens. Feltsman considered his son to be one of the most outstanding pianists in the world.

Since 1987 Vladimir Feltsman has lived in the USA. He is a world-famous pianist, a professor of the New York University, and teaches at Mannes College. He is the founder and artistic director of the International Festival-Institute Piano Summer in New Paltz.

Oskar Feltsman always returned to Odessa, and walked the streets of his native city: Pushkinskaya, Grecheskaya, Malaya Arnautskaya, Yevreiskaya…

He performed, met people and remembered the past. He wrote a musical about Odessa, “Old Houses”, which played successfully in dozens of theaters in the USSR. He wrote over 10 songs about his native city. In 2010 he was awarded the badge of honor of Odessa.

Oskar Feltsman died on 3 February 2003, just short of his 92nd birthday. He is buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. And in Odessa in the courtyard of the house where the brilliant composer was born, the Jewish community center “Migdal” is now located, where hundreds of Odessa children study music.

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