Famous Pianists: Emil Gilels

I am excited to introduce a new feature, Famous Pianists, on The Teaching Studio! 
In college, during a master class one evening, our professor asked us each to take a piece of paper and write down all of the famous pianists we could think of. He gave us probably five minutes or so, and in those five minutes I came up with {embarrassingly} hardly anything. I don’t think that I was the only one who {sadly} was not familiar with many famous pianists, but I was the lucky one chosen to read my list aloud 🙂 
That experience definitely made me think, and gave me the desire to really get to know the great pianists out there. While I have definitely learned about and become familiar with many great and legendary pianists since that day, I still feel that my knowledge is greatly lacking in that area (is there anyone who feels this same way?). As pianists and teachers, we must be familiar with the legendary pianists and the great pianists of our own day, for there is so much to learn from their performances and technique. We need to familiarize our students with these famous pianists as well – in fact, there is a great article in the Clavier Companion about using DVD’s and YouTube videos of historical performances in our teaching.
So, with that said, I will be posting a feature about a famous pianist every couple of weeks or so, in the hopes that I (and my readers, as well!) will become much more familiar with these important pianists! I am so excited! I will be getting a lot of my information from the wonderful book by Harold Schonberg, The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the Present, and will also be sharing some great videos of performances. I hope you enjoy!

Today’s pianist: Emil Gilels

Born: October 19, 1916 in Odessa, Ukraine (which may be why I chose to begin with him, as we share the same birthday!)

Died: October 14, 1985 in Moscow, Russia

About the man: Gilels won the first All-Union Contest of Musicians and Performers in 1933 at the age of 17, and then attended the Moscow Conservatory. Known as “The Little Giant,” he was hailed as a “master pianist” after his first appearance in the West in 1955.

Characteristics of his playing: His playing was strong, clear, objective, steady, logical, unaffected. Schonberg calls him “a thinking man’s pianist.” He, as well as other Russian pianists of his time, concentrated on “tone, on phrase, on the cantabile quality of the instrument.” (Schonberg, 464.) His technique was brilliant.

Repertoire: Gilels played a “steady diet” of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and Brahms. I love his recordings of Rachminoff; Schonberg mentions his “incredible octaves” in Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody.


Jennifer Boster

3 Responses to “Famous Pianists: Emil Gilels

  • What a great idea! My knowledge of the great pianists is certainly not as thorough as I would like it to be, though I did read the Harold Schonberg book a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I am also trying to make sure that my students know more that I did when I was their age! I look forward to seeing more of your posts. Thank you!

  • Wonderful idea! I was so fortunate as a student to have a teacher who regularly hauled me into his back room to listen to recordings of great pianists playing "my" pieces. When I ask my own older students about any pianists they know, they generally come up blank, although every now and then, I learn about new pianists from them! Many resources are only a few keystrokes away.
    Thanks for the inspiration to pass this on.

  • What a great idea! Although I've studied piano for nearly my entire life, my main focus throughout college was oboe & orchestral repertoire/performers. Now that I'm making my primary living teaching piano lessons, I find this type of thing super important–researching & listening to as many pianists as possible. Though I'm familiar with the lot of "big" names in the piano world, my knowledge across-the-board is a little lacking. I'll be looking forward to more of these posts!