At the origins of the “Ukrainian genius” in classical music

What is the link between Nathan Milstein, David Oïstrakh, Emil Guilels and Shura Cherkassky? Two of the five or six greatest violinists of the XXand century and two pianists of close eminence were all born in Odessa. The list is much longer and suggests the existence of a Ukrainian musical genius. But beware of jumping to conclusions…

Ukraine, Europe’s breadbasket, is it also a land of truly extraordinary performers of genius? Since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, many have not failed to notice this fertility. The latest to date is the excellent French pianist Philippe Cassard, who is also a presenter on France Musique and a contributor to the New Obswho, in his article From David Oistrakh and Vadym Kholodenko, the great orchestra from Ukraine », appeared in The Obs of March 25, took the time to put together an impressive list.

To the aforementioned names are added, natives of Odessa, Maria Grinberg, Vladimir de Pachmann, Iakov Zak, Simon Barere, Samouïl Feinberg for the piano and Gregor Piatigorsky for the cello. Vladimir Horowitz and Alexander Brailowsky as well as conductors Igor Markevitch and Jascha Horenstein were born in kyiv, while Sviatoslav Richter comes from Zhytomyr, Mischa Elman from Talnoye, Heinrich Neuhaus from Elisavetgrad and Leonid Kogan from Yekaterinoslav.

“Most of these musicians dispersed around the world, either because of the October Revolution in 1917 or after Stalin’s death in 1953, when exit permits from the Eastern bloc were a bit more numerous”, writes Cassard, who certainly does not speak in any way of Ukrainian genius. But to notice this confluence, there is reason to ask the question.

Going back in time, we see that there is nevertheless a very solid historical explanation for all this. It has everything to do with anti-Semitism in Russia. It is to Catherine II and to the year 1791 that we must refer. It was the famous Empress who decided to create “residential zones” in which the Jews could settle. Government, aristocracy and clergy did not want them in centers such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg. They were therefore quartered and confined to the west, in specific areas then conquered by the Russian Empire to the detriment of the Republic of the Two Nations (Poland and Lithuania) and the Principality of Moldavia.

In the 19thand century, certain territories of Ukraine and Lithuania therefore concentrate a Jewish population which has previously refused conversion and which does not have the right to live elsewhere in Russia. In the Ukrainian areas, the open cities of Poltava, Odessa and Kishinev see the opening of Jewish quarters (shtetl) very important. Of all these, Odessa becomes a cosmopolitan artistic center, and therefore brings together Jewish artistic talents that cannot live elsewhere in Russia.

As for “dispersal after 1917”, it is more than natural, because the principle of residential areas, a kind of giant open-air ghettos, was abolished during the October Revolution.

On the non-musical level, alas, the zone of residence will have particularly disastrous consequences since it will bring together within easy reach of the Nazis a population of five million Jews, the largest concentration on the planet. The Babi Yar massacre, a ravine in kyiv, on September 29 and 30, 1941, claimed 33,771 victims. He is commemorated by Shostakovich in his 13and Symphony.

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