On October 24, 1974, the great Russian-Jewish violinist David Oistrakh died at the age of 66. Oistrakh is recognized as one of the 20th century’s finest violinists, but he is remembered for being that rare Soviet Jewish artist who was able to survive – not to mention continue working and performing – during the reign of Stalin, and beyond.
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By all accounts, he was a modest, gentle and witty man, who survived not by being a manipulator, but rather by virtue of his total devotion to his work.
David Fyodorovich Oistrakh was born on October 20, 1908, in Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the czarist empire. His mother was Isabelle Beyle Stepanovsky, an actress and a singer in the Odessa Opera chorus. His birth father was named Kolker, but Oistrakh took the name of his mother’s second husband (apparently named “Fyodor Oistrakh,” although sources are vague on this point), whom he regarded as his father.
The stepfather, a bookkeeper and an amateur violinist, gave David a toy violin when the boy was three-and-a-half. Years later he described to an interviewer how, playing that toy instrument, “I imagined I was a street violinist I could not imagine any greater happiness.”
Two years later, the boy received a real violin, though one-eighth the standard size, and he progressively moved up in size until, within a few years, he was playing a full-sized instrument.
Oistrakh’s only teacher was Pavel Stolyarsky, who began working with him when he five and later accepted Oistrakh into his masterclass at the Odessa Conservatory. According to his biographer Margaret Campbell, Oistrakh was not a child prodigy, and it was to Stolyarsky’s credit that “he was wise enough to allow his talent to ripen slowly.”
Playing in besieged Leningrad
In 1926, at the end of his studies and broke, Oistrakh became an itinerant violinist, traveling around the Soviet Union and performing. “I played with good conductors and bad. But it was all a great school for me,” he later said. The exposure led to increasingly prestigious assignments, leading in 1928 to an invitation to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
Oistrakh married Tamara Rotareva, a professional pianist, in 1927, and their only son, Igor, was born in 1931. The family moved to Moscow where, in 1934, Oistrakh began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, which named him a full professor three years later.
During World War II, he played frequently for soldiers at the front; during the winter of 1942, he is said to have appeared in sub-zero temperatures in besieged Leningrad.
For his contributions to the Soviet Union, Oistrakh was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1942. In his words, “I remain loyal to Russia, to the country, irrespective of who is in power.” This made him a Soviet symbol, and he remained a Jew when that was an extreme liability.
Asked years later, when he was permitted to tour the United States, about his known propensity for speaking a forbidden Jewish dialect, he could only suggest that, “Maybe, when I speak in German, I think in Yiddish.” Ironically, during a Carnegie Hall performance in 1964 with pianist Sviatoslav Richter, he found himself on the receiving end of angry protests from members of the Jewish Defense League, because of Soviet policy toward Jews.
Oistrakh’s first appearance in New York, in 1955, only came after the death of Stalin; thereafter he was constantly travelling as a goodwill ambassador. His son, Igor, also became a world-class violinist (in 1993, an asteroid, “42516 Oistrach,” was named after the two of them by a German astronomer), as did his second son, Valeri.
David Oistrakh died of a heart attack while touring in Amsterdam on October 24, 1974. He was mourned widely, as much for his generous, if melancholy, spirit as for his enormous talent. As the British impresario Victor Hochhauser told biographer Campell: “He was a character who combined the sense of tragedy of the Russian and the Jewish people. He just wanted to be left alone to play the violin, to teach and to give pleasure to the masses.”