By Inge Kjemtrup | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Leopold Auer died in 1930, but the name of the Hungarian-born violin teacher is still well known today. In his nearly 50 years of teaching in St. Petersburg and, after the Russian Revolution, the United States, he taught a procession of 20th-century greats, including Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Toscha Seidel, and Efrem Zimbalist. His book Violin Playing as I Teach It is still in print and studied today.
But there is another teacher whose impact on Russian violin playing was nearly as important as Auer’s: Pyotr Stolyarsky, born 150 years ago. Stolyarsky’s pupils included Nathan Milstein (1904–92), David Oistrakh (1908–74) and his son, Igor Oistrakh (1931–2021), Boris Goldstein (1922–87), Elizabeth Gilels (1919–2008), and Budapest Quartet second violinist Josef Roisman (1900–74).
David Oistrakh was his prize pupil, whose talent Stolyarsky recognized and nurtured from when Oistrakh came to him at age five until he left Odessa to begin his stellar career at the age of 18. Oistrakh revered his only teacher throughout his life.
Milstein, however, was less enchanted. “I am always asked about Stolyarsky. I reply that his reputation was exaggerated and that much of it was the result of successful public relations,” he sniffs in his biography, From Russia to the West.
Why did these two Russian giants of the violin hold such different views of their mutual teacher? What kind of legacy did Stolyarsky, who died in 1944, leave?
Pyotr Solomonovich Stolyarsky was born in 1871 in Lipovets (also spelled Lypovets), a provincial town some 130 miles from Kiev. He first studied violin with his father, a village musician. He went on to study with the Polish violinist Stanisław Barcewicz, and then with Emil Młynarski and Y. Karbulko at the Odessa Imperial Musical Society School. After graduating in 1898, Stolyarsky joined the Odessa Opera House orchestra. He began giving private lessons, and, by 1920, was teaching at the city’s conservatory.
Odessa was founded in 1794 under the patronage of Catherine the Great. “The Pearl of the Black Sea” boasts grand boulevards and expansive buildings, many dating from the 19th century. The famous steps filmed for Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin are a favored site for visitors even today.
The Odessa of Stolyarsky’s era was a multi-ethnic city where speakers of Russian, Greek, Italian, Yiddish, and other languages lived side by side. Jewish residents of the city, who comprised one-third of the population by the 1890s, were able to participate more fully in the larger society than elsewhere in imperial Russia. In The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History, 1794–1881, Steven J. Zipperstein traces this to “Odessa’s newness, its multinational character, and, in particular, its remarkable commercial growth.”
Music was important from Odessa’s earliest days, and its opera house attracted distinguished performers like Enrico Caruso and an audience made up of all strata of society. The reasons for the popularity of the violin, especially among the Jewish residents, some living in the city’s Moldavanka ghetto, are varied.
Aaron Boyd, director of chamber music and professor of practice in violin at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, points to the well-known success of Auer pupil Mischa Elman (1891–1967): “Mischa Elman in some ways forged the path where Jewish mothers and fathers could look and say, ‘Ah, this is a possible means of escaping the ghetto.’ It was seen as a vehicle for escaping of the crushing poverty, the pogroms, and all the ugliness of anti-Semitism in Russia.”
Some of those eager parents brought their young talents to Stolyarsky. In 1933, he opened a school for gifted young musicians in Odessa, the first of its kind in the Soviet Union. The success of students like Oistrakh must have been the best advertisement for the school.
In 1935, Oistrakh, age 27, and Boris Goldstein, age 13, the two Soviet competitors at the First Henryk Wieniawski International Competition in Warsaw, took second and fourth prizes (the extraordinary French violinist Ginette Neveu won first). Two years later, Oistrakh received the gold medal at the International Eugène Ysaÿe Competition (now the Queen Elisabeth Competition) in Brussels, with Stolyarsky students Elizabeth Gilels, Boris Goldstein, and Mikhail Fichtenholz winning prizes as well. Stolyarsky’s reputation as a formidable pedagogue was sealed.
The Stolyarsky School of Music still exists in Odessa. An overview of the school’s history on its website by Marina Perepelitsa describes the “incredible expectations” of the school, inspired by its founder: “He laid down a rigorous musical audition process that is still used to this day. Before attending the school, exceptional children have to obtain professional music instruction and play at a perfect pitch. If they are accepted to the school, their musical education would provide them with further developmental skills. The end goal was to get any child to captivate a concert hall. While some might say it may be too rigorous for a child, the hard work allowed his students to lead fulfilling and illustrious careers in music.”
“You have to play like a delicious borscht, which has everything—salt, pepper, and garlic.”Pyotr Stolyarsky
The entrance exam was just as demanding when violinist Mark Peskanov, now based in New York City where he is artistic director of Bargemusic, attended the school in the late Soviet era. He was six years old when he auditioned, and was one of 30 accepted out of a field of 800.
To the students of Peskanov’s era, Stolyarsky was “an icon of sorts.” After a successful exam, it was a great compliment to Peskanov to be told by a teacher who had been an assistant to Stolyarsky, “How I wish the old man could hear you now.”
What was the secret of Stolyarsky’s success as a teacher? Henry Roth, in The Way They Play, talks about “the excellent Stolyarsky system, which, while taking great care to emphasize fundamentals, abstained from boring young pupils with dry exercises. The pedagogue won their good will and interest by introducing them to group and orchestral playing as quickly as possible.”
Milstein recalls Stolyarsky bringing the students together to play in unison, “not only because it was easier for him to control the horde but because it was good for us; by playing together we learned from each other.”
Peskanov remembers the camaraderie and competitions, as “people would stand and play in corridors, even in a violin ensemble.”
Stolyarsky rarely demonstrated for his students, preferring instead to teach by explanation. “He talked a lot and showed practically nothing,” says pianist Nina Kogan, whose mother, Elizabeth Gilels, studied with Stolyarsky (Kogan’s father was the well-known violinist Leonid Kogan). She continues: “But he spoke very figuratively: ‘Move the bow slowly, as if it were a salary that should be spread over a month, and not spent right away.’
“‘Why are you standing like a cow? Move!’
“‘You have to play like a delicious borscht, which has everything—salt, pepper, and garlic.’”
Stolyarsky was not one for scales, Kogan explains, but “in 1934, he brought Liza [Gilels] and Misha [Fichtenholz] to St. Petersburg to audition for Heifetz, who immediately demanded scales. And they played! I think this was laid down in the learning process.”
“From the very beginning, he instilled in us the need for perseverance and showed us how to enjoy the pleasures of the creative side of music. His incredible enthusiasm was contagious and we were all affected by it,” said Oistrakh.
But if Oistrakh cherished what he had learned from Stolyarsky, why was Milstein, who went on to study with Leopold Auer in St. Petersburg, so dismissive?
“When Milstein went to Auer, he was already incredibly accomplished,” says Aaron Boyd, who has extensively studied golden-age violinists. “So there’s no way that Stolyarsky could have been a haphazard, unimportant, or unthinking teacher and yet have produced two geniuses of the level of Milstein and Oistrakh.”
There is also the fact that Odessa, while an important city, was not Moscow or St. Petersburg, the cities where a career in the Soviet Union had to be forged. “Even Oistrakh had to go to Moscow,” says Peskanov.
Indeed, it was Stolyarsky who sent Milstein to Auer in 1916. Stolyarsky’s focus on teaching younger students meant he was feeding into a “cultural pipeline,” as Boyd puts it. But even Auer must have recognized the solid violinist foundation Stolyarsky had created. Milstein writes, “All the boys at Stolyarsky’s school practically prayed by saying ‘Auer, Auer!’ He was our god.” Still, when Milstein first played in Auer’s class in St. Petersburg, Auer turned to the class and said, “How do you like the Black Sea technique?”
Is there a connection between the playing styles of those most famous Stolyarsky students, Oistrakh and Milstein? Boyd doesn’t think so, and says, “The plushness of Oistrakh’s tonal profile is very different from the silvery elegance of Milstein’s more aristocratic and somewhat urbane and a little bit cool presentation. They’re very, very different artists.”
Peskanov says, “On a very deep level, they are very different. Oistrakh stayed and Milstein left. They had different approaches to the violin, but share a certain warmth—the warmth of Odessa on the Black Sea.”
During the Second World War, Stolyarsky and his family were evacuated to Sverdlovsk, in the country’s far east, after turning down Oistrakh’s offer to go to Moscow. In Sverdlovsk he set up a children’s music school, but illness and the death, in 1942, of his wife took their toll. Stolyarsky died in April 1944, in despair, some say, over the news of the Nazi destruction of his Odessa school.
His school was eventually rebuilt by his devoted family members, friends, and former students, not least one David Oistrakh. However, it is the individuality of the extraordinary violinists he taught that may be his greatest legacy.