Playing with Fire - The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin's Russia
by Elizabeth Wilson
Published February 2022
Yale University Press
Billed as the “first full biography of the fearless and brilliant Maria Yudina”, this book will be warmly welcomed by devotees of the pianist, and more widely by those who have a more extensive appreciation and knowledge of Russian pianism. The author, Elizabeth Wilson, is well-placed for the task. She lived in Russia for a long period, studied cello at the Moscow Conservatoire with Mstislav Rostropovich, and can be credited with biographies of Dmitri Shostakovich, Jacqueline du Pré and Rostropovich. So, she’s certainly very much at home with her subject.
Maria Yudina (1899-1970) hailed from Nevel, in what is now Belarus. Her father was a doctor, from whom she inherited decisiveness, courage, impulsiveness and a capacity for hard work. Her musical gifts came from her mother. Yudina’s life was lived against the backdrop of the repressive Stalinist years. Her failure to conform to the precepts of social realism, her dogged determination to perform unsanctioned avant-garde piano works in her recitals and her religious beliefs resulted in her being dismissed from three institutions where she taught. Life was a truly uphill struggle.
She was born into a Jewish family, but in her teens, on 2 May 1919, she converted to Christianity and was baptized in Petrograd into the Russian Orthodox faith. Her ‘unbending father', an atheist, opposed it. Adopting a brave stance, she never attempted to hide her religious beliefs, and openly professed them in an aggressively atheistic state. Throughout the religious purges of the 1920s and the Great Stalinist Terror of the 1930s, she stood firm and steadfast in giving support to the persecuted. As a symbol of her devotedness, in performance she would dress simply in black and wear a crucifix.
Her eccentricities are a recurrent theme in the book. From early on she dressed in black. The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin observed her, as a young girl, having “the aspect of a nun”, and throughout her life she adopted this monastic simplicity to her attire. Her living quarters were no less austere. Her living room contained a wooden park bench, on which visitors were invited to sit.
Her intellectual curiosity manifested itself in the wide spectrum of friendships she cultivated. There was the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin and the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. Composers included Hindemith, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. She performed contemporary music frequently, programming works by Bartók, Stravinsky and composers of the Second Vienna School.
Yudina’s repertoire favorites were Bach, Beethoven and Schubert and she performed many concerts. A programme for a concert would more than likely be huge, and she wasn’t averse to performing three concertos in a single programme. Some of her interpretations could be wilful, and Schubert’s B flat major Piano Sonata, D960 is cited by Wilson as one example. She made many radio broadcasts, and played frequently for the troops, especially for wounded soldiers, during the Second World War. Amazingly she never owned her own piano and practised in cold rooms, braving physical discomforts, with fingers bleeding at the end of these mammoth sessions.
Unlucky in love, Wilson narrates a series of unfulfilled love affairs, beginning with the philologist and polymath Lev Vasilyevich Pumpyansky, who entered Yudina’s life stimulating her “literary and spiritual interests”. In the summer of 1918 she turned down his proposal of marriage. In 1933 she met the architect Vyacheslav Vladimirov. They became attached and things seemed to be going well. They even went to choose a piano for their new home. Then in 1935 Vladimirov suddenly married another woman “leaving the unsuspecting Yudina humiliated and grief-stricken”.
Yudina’s religious beliefs characterized her everyday life. She embodied a profound moral and religious sense. She was generous with her money, she cared for the sick and was an advocate for the oppressed. Her life was marked by much physical suffering and misfortune. She was frequently afflicted with inflammation of the hands which “hampered her piano playing”. At various times she suffered a shoulder injury, contracted dysentery and came down with typhoid, which weakened her heart. All of this she bore courageously.
I’ve long been an admirer of Maria Yudina. This most satisfying biography and appreciation of one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists, brims over with facts, anecdotes and observations. It’s both an invaluable document and an absorbing and stimulating read. Not only is it a meticulously researched contribution to the musical history of Russia in the 20th century, but it also illuminates the life of a significant pianist with generosity and affection, set against a backdrop of, at times, appalling situations and circumstances. It is surely definitive.