My mother’s letters. Raisa Glezer


Eagle Lake, the picturesque village in the Pennsylvania mountains where I spend my summer, still doesn’t have the Internet, which seems strange for America.  I feel its lack when I’m there, but I console myself with the question: what did we do without it fifteen years ago? With regard to our ancestors, they got around without the internet by writing letters, which I think is actually better than what we do now.  So I decided it was high time to reread my mother’s old letters, which I managed to take out of Russia after her sudden death in 1985.

My mother, Raisa Vladimirovna Glezer, started her concert career early on as a piano prodigy.  She lived in the city Orenburg in the Urals, and near the end of the 20s went to study music under Sophia Nikolaevna Rostropovich, Mstislav Rostropovich’s mother.  Anatoly Lunacharskii, the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, present at one of her concerts in Orenburg, wrote her a flattering letter of recommendation for admission to the Moscow Conservatory.  My mother was 15 years old when accompanied by her mother, she went to Moscow to sit the entrance exams.  Evidently, Lunacharsky’s letter did its job, because, despite her young age, they put her into a class taught by Alexander Goldenveizer and his assistant, Gregory Ginzburg.  Both were famous, outstanding piano teachers and have done much to create the Russian piano school.

Until that point, my mother had never been away from her parents, and my grandmother didn’t want to let her go for a long time.  Fortunately, once in Moscow, she found a good, childless family by the name of Sheftel who agreed to “rent her a corner” as the Muscovites used to say, and they took care of the lonely student.  My mother would later call the Sheftels her second parents.  They would take me down to their house not far from the Patriarch Ponds as their grandson, and I, as I got closer to them, learned to recognize true intellectuals.  Their in-depth knowledge in the art field can be somewhat explained by their close relationship with the prominent artists and architects Vsevolozhsky and Vereshchagin.  Elizaveta Sheftel’s uncle was academic Shchuko, by whose plans several iconic buildings in Moscow and Saint Petersburg were built, including my favorite, the Lenin Library on Mohovaya Street (I hope that they renamed the building).  In her youth, Elizaveta had a beautiful voice, but even in her old age, she loved to sing.  Mother happily accompanied, so over many years they had an extensive vocal repertoire and performed in private concerts.

Before leaving Orenburg, Grandmother made Mom swear to write every other day.  My mother convinced her that it was better to write once a week, but they would be more detailed letters.  And here in front of me, there is a thick packet of letters from a sixteen-year-old written in pencil on thick paper yellowed with age, almost always written at night because the busy Moscow life didn’t give her any other free time.  She didn’t care about style and just spilled everything that happened to her that week onto the page.  She wrote the way she talked — I caught myself hearing her voice directly, jumping about from one topic to another with the exclamations and interjections typical of her enthusiastic nature.  For a young provincial girl brought up with strict rules who still put a white ribbon in her long black braid, everything about the capital seemed wonderful: the manners, clothes, a variety of people, and, of course, the theaters, concerts and museums that she couldn’t have even dreamed of in Orenburg.  In almost every letter she notes how welcoming all of her new friends’ families were, which is not surprising: she was talented, charming, and beautiful; had vivid, luminous, almond-shaped brown eyes; a long, thin neck; a gentle smile; and a soft, sincere voice.  The latter, of course, probably contributed to her becoming one of the foremost lecturers in Moscow on musicology.

Mom’s letters are for the most part upbeat, though in the background the harsh order and hard life of Moscow are always present, as the Soviets had come to power by then.  In the excerpts of her letters below, in addition to interesting testimony about studying under Goldenveiser and Ginzburg, one can see evidence that even in 1930 there were clear signs of the oncoming Great Terror.


(September 1930)

In our group there are about 20 people; we’re the vanguard.  The conservatory declared martial law.  For one single absence without good reason, you were expelled. In class, the doors were locked five minutes after the start and no one was let in or out.

…There supposed to be a lesson today with G.R. (Ginzburg), but because of the rally “Protest Against Sabotage”, the lesson was lost.  (It is known that in that year the Soviet press launched a fiery campaign against the so-called pests associated with the first open trials of engineers and experts who stayed in Russia after the Civil War.  Writers and composers were supposed to create works condemning the pests.  In a letter to Maxim Gorky on Capri, Stalin, in 1930, emphasized: “They say that you are writing a new play about the pests and need new material.  I have some, and will send it to you” — A.M.)   G.R.  told me that in place of my missed lesson, he’d definitely work with me in a few days.  Today, by the way, he is playing for the Turkish ambassador.  Besides all my lessons, I have already been mobilized to help stop illiteracy, and they mostly stressed the importance of that in connection with a pedagogical bias, which they imposed on me…

Without my knowledge, I was signed up for the State loan “5-year plan in 4 years” where I had to pay 20 roubles a year.  That was the minimum— many were signed up for 50 roubles.  I complained, of course, and said that I was not even very politically conscious.

Yesterday I only had two lessons for two hours each: harmony and polyphony.  I didn’t have the political economy or German since nearly everyone in Moscow is ailing from the flu.  It’s very cold, but they’ll only turn on central heating after the 1st of October.  Since I’ve gotten the flu I’ve been dressing like this: a brown dress with a sweater on top, a velvet coat, a jacket, and finally a cloak.  Some people are already walking around in fur coats, which I can’t buy for anything.

I stood in line for four days for boots and didn’t get them.  I was terribly upset and didn’t know how I’d walk about in such dirt.  Elizaveta Vladimirovna saved me and gave me her shoes with galoshes, which were also incredibly difficult to get.  I got Dad’s package: three pairs of stockings, two pairs of breeches and seven bars of soap, three of which I gave to very grateful friends.  At Suharevka (the biggest second-hand market in Moscow – A.M.) I wanted to buy Boris (her brother – А.М.) a penknife as a gift, but I can’t afford 4 roubles right now.


(October 1930)

We have a saying: “‘When do I have time to play?’ asks one student.  Another one answers, ‘Why would you want to play? You joined the conservatory to not play!’”  It’s true: they spend so much time teaching us things that we have no time for lessons in our specialties and our professors only pity us.  Take, for example, my class on current politics.  Yesterday they sent us a complete idiot, although he’s educated and teaches at the Plekhanov Institute.  And yet he tried to sum up the “material base” under musical literature.  With difficulty, I sat and listened for two hours as he butchered the Russian language. I, along with other students, asked a question: given that we are not an elementary school but a university, why don’t we get competent professors? We were told that there is such a demand for social sciences teachers that there was little choice.

In political economy, I can’t help having rather unpleasant thoughts and doubts.  We’re engaged in team methods.  This means that in each team one person is working, and everyone else signs their name on at the end.  Our team has several obvious freeloaders.  Laura Smirnova, for instance, lives like a parasite at my expense: I have to explain everything to her yet not only does she not listen, she still gets credit.  However, our political economy professor, Dodik Rabinovich, identifies me as very capable and often asks me what I think about the current topic.  He’s known across the universities as a rare lecturer.  I liked how he told us, “Liszt’s ‘Campanella’ is a very distinctive and profitable commodity, and so by teaching the virtuoso passages, you can calculate the profit beforehand”. 

            The fate of the “rare lecturer” was very predictable.  He was arrested in 1937 and ended up in the camp Abez, near Vorkuta, where Prokofiev’s wife languished.  There, in his free time away from hard labor, he participated in amateur performances by playing the accordion.  (“Lina Prokofiev’s XX Century, Moscow, 2008, p 247)А.М.


(November 1930)

            Life problems, the large workload from useless classes, cold, and poverty — none of it discouraged Mother.  The main thing, for her, was that she got the opportunity to enjoy musical concerts, managing to sneak into the gallery of the Great Hall of the ConservatoryА.М.

I heard “The Resurrection” performed by Katchalov in concert.  Listening to it is pure bliss.  His voice is purely musical.  And there wasn’t a shadow of tautness just artistry.  They applauded without end and shouted, “Thank you Katchalov!”   We climbed down to the ground floor and I looked into his eyes.  He’s no longer young but he’s such a wonderful person that I wish that he’d live forever.  One of these days Neuhaus will have a concert, and then after that Gedike will play Bach on the organ in the Great Hall…

… After Sofronitsky’s concert, I was so lost in thought that I didn’t notice that I went home via a different street and so I walked for a long time, like a sleepwalker, before I found my way home.  He is the best pianist that I’ve ever heard in my life.  The other day I was at a concert of Rachmaninoff works.  Igumnov played his 2nd concert, and Oborin played his 3rd.  Then Igumnov, Neuhaus, and Shirinsky played as a trio.  I had a lot of fun, but you can’t compare Oborin, Neuhaus or Ginzburg to Sofronitsky.  Looking at Oborin smugly playing, you could say, “that’s great”, but to Sofronitsky it’s unacceptable.  He’s an artist.

… Persimfans, despite being famous, has not made much of an impression on me: in the orchestra of over 80 musicians, the best in the Soviet Union, without a conductor there wasn’t good range because the attention of the musicians was largely directed toward staying together.  But at the last concert, I again experienced the bliss of meeting the great Katchalov.  He read Goethe’s “Egmont” as the orchestra played Beethoven.  Katchalov only had to utter the first sentence: “It’s over and decided — I have to die,” and the whole audience was mesmerized.  He is the ideal actor to me, it is just a pity that he is so old.

… Ginzburg played with the orchestra yesterday.  The success was nothing short of meteoric.  And on the second of December he’s giving a concert in Königsberg, so he has a lot of preparation to do and won’t be bothering with us.  He’s handing us over to “grandfather”, that is, A.B.  Goldenweiser.


Sofiya Nikolaevna FedotovaRostropovich with Raisa Glezer


(December 1930)

When I came for my lesson, I still didn’t know who would be working with us, and we all watched the door with bated breath.  A.B. Goldenweiser walked in the door and I confess I was happy in that moment; I have mixed feelings for him and still can’t tell whether I prefer to learn from him or Ginzburg.  He is a rare specimen: you cannot even imagine how clever he is.  I will try to describe my first lesson with him.

I sat down at the piano and forgot to lower the music stand.  He immediately said, “A small preface: I want to tell you something that you need to remember for a lifetime.  When the pianist sits at the piano, the music stand must be lowered.  But when he sits to work, the music stand should be up and the notes in front of his eyes at all times.  I, without listening to you, can say that you have no idea what work is.  You play, but you don’t work.  I’m warning you now that working as a pianist is no different than working as a mason, a blacksmith, and so on.   It is daily hard work.  So get ready to work hard all your life, and you, Glezer, should know that work isn’t fun, there is little fun here.  Know all of that before talking about the art.  You have to work a lot, and if you “play” and don’t work, you will not get far.”

I went to play Bach’s Prelude, which I had already played several times for Ginzburg.  He asked me, “at home, do you play with each hand separately?” I did not respond.  Only before my first lesson, when I didn’t know the piece, did I play each hand separately.  Then he said, “Let me continue my little preface.  I have seen this very interesting phenomenon: having learned a piece, it is not static; it either worsens or improves.  It is improved when you work on it and worsens if you forget about it or just ‘play’ it.  Your prelude is two minutes long, and you spend a half an hour on it and play it fifteen times.  And now I am telling you: it’s better to just walk around in the fresh air for a while than to engage in such nonsense.  You can play the piece you are learning once a day, and it should be a great event for you.  That way, when you lower the music stand, adjust yourself, and start to play it it’s a relief after working all day and looking forward to this event for hours.  But for you right now it is not an event because you play it 100 times a day.”

Then I calmly played everything and wasn’t even as bad as I expected.  When I finished the first piece, he said, “You can play well, but carelessly, because you don’t have a system and don’t know how to work.  It’s a shame that you didn’t spend another year or two in a good technical school, because it is only now that you are beginning to have to really work here at the conservatory, and soon they will tell you to graduate.”

Thus he immediately revealed the essence of my nature, and really gave me guidance for my life.  I had felt all of this before, and it’s great that I came across a school focused on perfection where I will be able to overcome my previous amateurishness.  After A.B’s lecture, I came home and for the first time in my life, I really thought hard.  I sat for over an hour on already-learned pages, worked only with my left hand, and right away could sense results.

There are, of course, very difficult moments in A.B’s class.  He can listen once without saying anything, then smile at you.  That smile pierces you like a needle.  He usually never smiles, and when he does it indicates that he’s about to mock you.  The entire conservatory is afraid of his witty and caustic words.  Then you have to see how he’s listening:  it’s obvious that he has heard the piece a thousand times and knows it all by heart down to the tiniest detail.  Therefore, it can seem like he’s yawning and nearly asleep, but if you so much as think about hitting a wrong note, in a sleepy voice, without looking at you, he’ll say, “In Bach there is an F sharp, but perhaps you like F better?” Everyone trembles.  In class, there will be dead silence, and everyone will feel depressed, which is only augmented by his sharp remarks.  It’s not even just the class and the conservatory; all of Moscow admires his mind.  Yes, now I know that I don’t know how to work and never have had to work hard.

At my next lesson with A.B., I played without much worry.  I played Bach with each hand separately.  He’s such a perfectionist that if you are uncertain of a single note, he says, “Show me that you are deliberately playing legato or staccato, and then I’ll have the impression that you are doing more than being successful by pure accident.”  How right he is!  I understand perfectly what he requires of me and I’ve done a lot to measure up.  But of course, it’s very difficult.  Today he said himself, “I understand you: you’ve left one bank of a river and haven’t arrived at the other yet.  No wonder you’re lost.  You’re playing whatever comes to mind, but I’m telling you — play what is written.”  He is harsh, but overall a good teacher.  I gladly spend three hours in his class.  He was in a mood and often cited sayings of famous people.  Ginzburg’s success was good for A.B.  He attends his best student’s concerts, and walks, as the students say, like the birthday boy…

… What a joy it is to play with A.B.  on two pianos, two lovely Bechsteins! I’ve gotten used to him, even more than I ever did with Ginzburg, and I regret that this is only temporary.  I began to learn how to seriously work.  This realization was inevitable, but, unfortunately, it came a little late— to truly shine, you have to do the commonplace work.  I’m getting better, but it’s still difficult to sit for unending periods of time to learn every little detail.  And A.B.  makes me play Chopin without a pedal very, very slowly.  I managed to do it, of course, and his lessons, contrary to my expectations, actually calm me.  He says that he doesn’t subscribe to a particular school of thought; he only has guidelines, and chief among them is to involve his students in musical culture, to make them respect the representatives of that culture and his work, and to make them love their hard craft.  And I sit and try to understand every word, trying, as with a lemon, to squeeze out the entirety of it.


(January 1931)

I’m studying with Grisha again — they still call him that, since he’s still young and looks like a student.  He only became a professor last year.  He plays very well, and most importantly he can immediately play all the difficult parts himself and show us the right phrasing on a different piano.  Before I had even decided to ask, he said to me that as soon as I had free time, I should come to his classroom and listen to the older students.  And so I heard his students play.  It had such an effect on me, that I don’t want to go anywhere anymore, I just want to sit and work.  Yesterday after class I worked for five hours.  I especially liked how he showed his students Chopin’s mazurkas, Bach’s organ fugues, Beethoven’s sonatas, and Liszt’s main “Spanish Rhapsody”.  When student playing incorrectly, Grisha imitated a character from the Satire Theater: “Please, no rudeness.”

The weather has fortunately changed for the better.  Here’s pure joy: members of the piano circle were offered leggings for eight roubles.  I bought two pairs and am now set for the whole winter.  Alas, the most ordinary shoes cost 150 roubles, and mine already look pathetic.  I enjoy reading Dickens and try, like his heroes, to take everything with humor — they, too, didn’t have enough money for a good pair of shoes.  I got, and hopefully I’m not about to jinx it, lucky with social work: I have a shift at the library for three hours a week.  They wanted to shove me into a group for the elimination of illiteracy of seasonal workers, but I’ve managed to escape that for now.  If you have the money, please send me 15 pounds of butter for Ginzburg and I.  I’ll refund you immediately.

For the past two months they haven’t given anyone in Moscow a salary, and you can imagine the mood of the employees.  Things are tense.  We are also scared of the requisition of apartments. The Sheftels comfort me: “don’t worry, we’ll still take you behind some screen — wherever we go, you will come with us.” (When I began to visit Sheftel at the end of the war they only had two rooms left, and neighbors lived in two other rooms in their apartment, counting “mother’s.”   — A.M.)

Felix Blumenfeld, a great musician, died.  I was at his funeral in the Great Hall.  16 cellists played to the accompaniment of the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theater, and it was something undefinable.  Yes, the best are dying and to replace them are we, the “proletariat generation”, are coming.

*      *


Included in the legacy from my mother I got photos with autographs from famous musicians with whom she had close contact: Goldenweiser, Ginzburg, Gnesin, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Oistrakh, Khachaturian, Kabalevsky, Richter, Gilels, Rostropovich, and others.  She wrote articles and monographs about some of them.  I especially like Prokofiev’s autograph: “To dear Raisa I give this photo, taken in Paris 15 years ago back when I was young and handsome.  Prkfv.”

Mother is long gone, but I continue to share thoughts with those she most cherished.  How I would love to tell her the following story related to her teacher Grigory Ginzburg:

I went to a concert featuring the excellent American pianist Daniel Berman, who played transcriptions on themes from the great composers in Steinway Hall in New York.  The most prominent among them was a transcription of Grigory Ginzburg’s work on Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”.  I went to the pianist after the concert and said that I have a photograph autographed by Ginzburg, my mother’s teacher, hanging above my piano.

“I think that his transcription is not inferior even to Liszt’s”, said Berman, “My dream is to create a concert program purely from his transcriptions, but I don’t know where to get his notes.”  I volunteered to help him, remembering that in my childhood I knew Ginzburg’s daughter, Lisa.  I studied French with her, and I take pride in the fact that for over 40 years our tutor had taught the great Russian princes.  How she came to Russia and survived I do not know — I was five years old and didn’t ask such questions.  I was just amazed that she, over 80 years old, climbed to our sixth-floor apartment without an elevator.  However, it is true that she’d then flop into a chair and take a long time to catch her breath.

A year passed before I finally managed to get the phone number for Elizabeth Ginzburg, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory.  When I phoned her and introduced myself, I told her that as a child I hadn’t liked her because the old Frenchwoman always held her as an example for me as a more diligent student.  She laughed and said that the Frenchwoman also held me as an example for her.  Elizabeth Ginzburg kindly complied with my request and sent her father’s transcriptions to New York, some of which were later played for the first time in America.  My mother probably would have said, “That’s wonderful!”


Translated by Anna Patricia Billiard

Edited by Boris Pevzner