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TALK: MARIA YUDINA (1899-1970) – PIANIST FROM THE CATACOMBS

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This talk by Elizabeth Wilson touches on the extraordinary circumstances of Maria Yudina’s life, which despite the odds allowed her to pursue a career as renowned pianist within the Soviet Union against the background of continuous communist repression. Her achievement was the greater for her total lack of compromise. She never hid her religious beliefs and actively supported the persecuted, whether victims of the intellectual and religious purges of the 1920s or of the Great Stalinist Terror of the 1930s. Chaired by Rosamund Bartlett.

Her friendships with the luminaries of the day from many different walks of life give testimony to Yudina’s own formidable intellectual powers. The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, of whose circle she was a member from the age of 18, recognised in her a” true philosopher”, while the poet, Boris Pasternak acknowledged her as his most discerning reader. Yudina was influenced by a huge range of people, but confessed to owing most to the extraordinary figure of Pavel Florensky, priest and polymath whom she regarded as her spiritual mentor.

In concert, Yudina seemed more prophet than interpreter; her authoritative and profound performances reached for truths far beyond the letter of the score. Her active propagation of contemporary music was a lifelong mission, which led to friendships with composers of the stature of Hindemith, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Although she never travelled or performed in the West she met such avant-garde figures as Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono and corresponded with Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Her passionate response to life meant she dreamed of other professions, to become an historian, architect or nurse. It was during WWII that she felt best able to fulfil her social function, bringing comfort through radio broadcasts and her concerts for the troops and the people of besieged Leningrad.

An inspired teacher, Yudina was dismissed from all Institutions where she taught, both in Leningrad and Moscow for “perverting Soviet Youth”. She never owned her own piano and died in debt. Only after her death did she become known in the West through recordings, and the legendary story of producing an LP overnight of Mozart ‘s concerto K 488 at Stalin’s specific request.

The talk will in particular examine Yudina‘s role in the pre-WWII period when her position oscillated between disgrace and fame. As a member of the persecuted Josephite branch of Orthodox Church and of the Circle Resurrection she sought to help the arrested, travelling to the GULAG, and interceding through playing for Maxim Gorky, Aleksei Tolstoy, and storming into offices of GPU Investigators.

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Elizabeth Wilson has spent most of her life engaged in the study of Russian music and culture, both as a performer, lecturer and writer. After studying cello at the Moscow Conservatoire under Mstislav Rostropovich, she pursued a career in performing and teaching with particular emphasis on chamber music and contemporary music. She is author of biographies of Jacqueline du Pré and Mstislav Rostropovich as well as the award-winning Shostakovich- A Life Remembered, and has edited a volume of Shostakovich’s correspondence published in Italy.  She is currently engaged in writing a biography of the Russian pianist Maria Yudina.


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Rosamund Bartlett is a cultural historian with expertise in Russian literature, music, and art. Her books include Wagner and Russia and biographies of Chekhov and Tolstoy, whose works she has also translated for Oxford World’s Classics.

TALK: MARIA YUDINA (STANDARD)
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