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Svyatoslav Richter’s 100th anniversary

The virtuoso pianist was born in Zhitomir, spent his youth in Odessa, drew pictures and was excluded from the conservatory twice for poor results

In the summer of 1937 the pianist and teacher at the Moscow conservatory Heinrich Neuhaus rushed to hear an audition by a 23-year-old man from Odessa. Svyatoslav Richter was his name, and he had come to enroll in the class of the legendary teacher. Neuhaus had already been told that Svyatoslav had not studied at music school and did not have a musical education at all. Neuhaus became very interested to see this brave man.

And so he turned up, a lean man with a lively, attractive face,” Heinrich Neuhaus recalled. “He sat down at the piano and played Beethoven, Chopin and a few of his own works. I whispered to the pupils: I think he’s a brilliant musician.”

Neuhaus was right. Richter became one of the great pianists of the 20th century – a virtuoso who played an enormous range of the world piano repertoire. On 20 March, the world celebrated his 100th birthday.


Geniuses can often be eccentric, cranky, sometimes crazy, or at least strange. Svyatoslav Richter always remained highly-cultured, modest, principled in his relations with others and deeply devoted to art – but he also had his own musical quirks.

Any pianist understands how important scales, studies and exercises are in becoming a professional musician. Richter probably also understood this – but did not accept it. This formal side of pianism was alien to him. Incidentally, Svyatoslav’s father Teofil – a pianist, organist and composer – could not accept this. His son preferred playing the great composers, Friedrich Chopin and Richard Wagner, to playing exercises and scales. You can only be astounded at Richter’s virtuosity. The gift that he inherited from his father probably played a role. And Svyatoslav’s grandfather Daniil Richter was also involved with music – he repaired and tuned pianos. These “musical genes” were an ideal foundation for a brilliant pianist.

From his childhood, Svyatoslav Richter was not especially interested in any knowledge that did not concern music and art. At school Svyatoslav’s class leader cursed her pupils: “You’re all idlers, every one of you! But especially Richter, he just stinks of laziness!” Later Svyatoslav was excluded from the conservatory twice because of poor results in general subjects. But he greedily devoured all knowledge in the field of art and even learnt to draw.

Since the time of Franz Liszt, it has been considered good form to play works of music off by heart. But Richter did not consider this to be an obligatory rule – and not because he had a bad memory. The pianist had a superb memory, although he often complained about it, because he remembered various unnecessary details and everyday trifles. And in the second half of his concert activity, Richter played from sheet music. In interviews he said that not counting chamber music, his repertoire encompassed 80 concert programs, which he had once played off by heart, but that playing from sheet music was more honest, as you could see everything and really play pieces the way that they were written.

One of the conditions for Richter’s concerts was special lighting in the hall. The light was supposed to be only directed at the music stand, and the rest of the stage was to be in darkness. Richter thought that this helped to concentrate listeners’ attention on the piece of music and the composer’s intention.

On the Jewish question

Svyatoslav Richter was very unlucky with his surname – the maestro’s father could easily have been killed by the Nazis because of it, but by bitter irony he was executed at the department of the Odessa NKVD as a “German spy” in October 1941. People also came for Svyatoslav, and asked: “Lichter?” “I’m not Lichter,” Richter replied, and without delay he moved to a new address on a different street. In this way, someone’s mistake saved the life of the future virtuoso.

Richter lived in Jewish cities, Zhitomir and Odessa, and many articles have been written about his friendship with such outstanding Jews as David Oistrakh, Natalya Gutman and Boris Messerer. But Richter did not consider himself to be a Jew, and the ancestors on his father’s side were Germans. The maestro’s wife was Jewish: the opera singer Nina Dorliak, daughter of the financier Lev Dorliak and the singer Kseniya Feleizen. Once Svyatoslav got terribly offended with the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, when he said to him: “I’m German”, to which Karajan replied: “Then I’m Chinese!” But more on Richter’s grievances later.

Frederic Chopin, etude in C minor. Concert in London, 1989

Concert activity

Richter’s fame as a pianist began to grow after he moved to Moscow: he had many successful performances, he met Prokofiev and played his piano works, won first prize at the third All-Union pianists’ competition, and played a huge number of concerts around the Soviet Union.

Finally the pianist’s fame also spread abroad. “When is Richter coming to play here?” people asked musicians from Russia. “Why doesn’t he perform at our concert halls?” they asked in Europe and America. After the death of Stalin, the pianist was able to travel abroad more freely. And he began to tour – America, Canada, France, England, Italy, Germany… Richter played in Ukraine many times, visiting Kiev, Lviv and Zhitomir – the city where he was born.

These visits always caused excitement over ticket sales and drew crowds by the venues where the concerts were to be held. Once in April 1985, people tried to get into a concert through the windows and fire escape of the Kiev philharmonia – and all just to hear the living legend. Tickets to Richter could often only be bought through acquaintances, and audiences knew the maestro was coming long before playbills were hung up in the city.

How did Richter enchant his listeners? His flawless professional performance, concentration on the music and his profound immersion in the composer’s concept – perhaps this was his main secret. This topic was also discussed by a contemporary of Richter’s, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, Glenn Gould.

“I thought I was witnessing the union of two seemingly irreconcilable qualities: precise calculation and spontaneity, bordering on improvisation” (Glenn Gould on Svyatoslav Richter’s playing).

Richter and his women

It is commonly believed among music historians that Richter only truly loved himself. He was even said to be homosexual. People said that the musician only married Nina Dorliak because of her apartment. There were grounds for these rumors: before he married, Richter did not have an apartment in Moscow, and for a long time he slept under the grand piano in the room of his teacher Heinrich Neuhaus. And few people know that throughout his life, there was just one woman who was always by Richter’s side, physically and spiritually – Vera Prokhorova, who fell in love with the maestro at the age of 19 and remained faithful to him up until her death. Another muse of Richter’s was the poetess Bella Akhmadulina.
Richter’s grievances

In the 1970s-1980s, at the height of his fame, the musician could organize his touring schedules based on the principle of where he had been offended. And Richter was often offended.

When he was already a world-famous celebrity, in his daily life Richter often encountered the “janitor syndrome”. Once the maestro, immersed in thought, was walking down the corridors of the Lviv conservatory and ran into a nameless guard.

“Who are you then?” the keeper of the keys asked threateningly.

“I…” the musician said, at a loss for words. “I’m Richter.”

“So what? I’m the janitor!” the guard replied.

Richter was forced to beat a hasty retreat.

After the incident with the janitor, the musician became more demanding about his reception in Lviv. He explained to the organizers that he liked to walk around musical institutes by himself, sit down at the piano and play. But he had to be driven by car to the conservatory, as stars did not travel in trams. Incidentally, he also had to be met at the airport in a “Volga” car. This was a modest rider, but in the Soviet era even this was not always observed. In Lviv, Richter was once met by a member of the concert administration and his driver. According to Richter, the men were drunk and constantly distracted the musician with unnecessary questions. “It was the worst trip of my life,” Richter admitted.

Once a functionary at the Kiev philharmonia did not permit Svyatoslav to rehearse in his office. Richter remembered the insult for a long time, excluding the Kiev philharmonia from his tours for two years.

In 1970, Svyatoslav Richter gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York with his close friend, the outstanding violinist David Oistrakh. The performance was disrupted by people shouting protests against the persecution of Soviet Jews. Richter was very saddened by the incident: how could you support Jews on the one hand, but on the other disrupt concerts they played at? Afterwards, the pianist was reluctant to return to the States, despite all the pleas of American promoters.

Cinema and Richter

Guess who plays the role of pianist Franz Liszt in the film about the composer Glinka? This is probably a rare case when the cameraman did not have to film the hands of a “stand-in” pianist and the performer separately. The musician is shown in full, and Richter improvises brilliantly, performing Chernomor’s march from Mikhail Glinka’s opera “Ruslan and Lyudmila”.

Excerpt from the film “Composer Glinka”

There were many tragic and comic episodes in Svyatoslav Richter’s life, which he discussed himself in television interviews. But the main thing was his music, which has been preserved in recordings. It moves the heart and wins over new generations of listeners.


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