Svetik, My Hair and I

Svetik: A Family Memoir of Sviatoslav Richter

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My contribution to Svetik – the opening section, ‘Three Sisters’ – deals with Sviatoslav Richter’s relationship to his mother and her sister (Dagmar von Reincke, called ‘Meri’ within the family), who was his and my favourite aunt as well as my godmother. In writing ‘Three Sisters’, I drew on all my encounters with Richter except the one that took place in July 1976 in Tours at the festival he had founded in 1964. For me that meeting was quite memorable, but it did not seem relevant to the main theme I was developing in my contribution to the book, and so I omitted it. But it deserves to be told, and that is what you are about to read.

Connecting with my cousin Sviatoslav in an age before the internet or mobile phone was not easy, although it would not have been any easier now, as he detested technology. I knew that his festival, the Fêtes Musicales en Touraine, ran from around the end of June to early July, but I asked Aunt Meri, who was in frequent contact with Svetik1, to inquire about the precise dates of the festival and tell him that I planned to be there. There was some miscommunication, for she thought I was in touch with him, and I, assuming (wrongly) that he was already on tour, did not know where to direct a letter. She did eventually write to Svetik, but not until 20 May:

Oh, I almost forgot. Did you get a letter from Shmotzka?2 He will soon again be travelling to Spain, and then to France, and he would very much like to see you in Tours. Are you going to be there, and when? Please tell me.

By the time this letter caught up with him in Cambrai in early June, I was already on my way.

That year my wife Barbara was in Madrid doing research in early-mediaeval art and I intended to meet her there in June. We had made hotel reservations in Tours, where we would also be joined by our good Pittsburgh friend Shu-Wei (‘Neil’) Lien, a music-lover and Richter enthusiast. The plan was to snake our way around northern Spain so as to visit all the important mediaeval sites along the route to Santiago de Compostela and then continue into France, aiming to arrive in Tours around 1 July. Thus, as we retraced the steps of pilgims, we were also on a pilgrimage of our own, although in the relative comfort of a rented bright-red Opel sedan – unfortunately not air-conditioned, because that summer a prolonged heat wave had smothered most of France with temperatures that regularly hit 40º C (104º F) by noon and did not abate much at night. Drenched in perspiration, exhausted and hungry, we arrived in Tours by nightfall, found our hotel and even managed get in touch with Neil, who had arrived earlier.

Sviatoslav Richter

Svetik’s first reaction on seeing me

We had no idea where we might find Svetik and only knew that the festival was held near Tours at the Grange de Meslay, which we located with the help of a detailed Michelin map. But once there, the magic name of ‘Richter’ brought immediate results. Apparently he had told them to expect us and a nice lady showed us the way to his hotel3 near the Loire in Rochecorbon, a few miles from the centre of Tours. Nina4 came out to welcome us and immediately told us that Svetik’s concert had been the night before, and that he was unhappy with how it had gone. She took us to the back of the hotel where Svetik sat at a table partly shaded by an umbrella. He looked up at me with a wry smile, as if disappointed in what he saw. I was puzzled by such a first reaction, and only many years later, after having read his correspondence with Aunt Meri, did I realise what had prompted it – my hair! And here I must digress to explain how my hair became a hot topic in the Richter-Reincke correspondence.

It all seems to have started when Aunt Meri, in a letter of 17 August 1974 to Svetik, enclosed a photo of me, identified as ‘the tramp Shmotzka’, and one of Michael, a young handiman who helped her around the house and garden, whom she had dubbed ‘Mishka’ and jokingly called her ‘boyfriend’. Like Michael, I had let my hair grow long and will have looked as in the photo below (taken in 1974). Svetik’s reaction to the photo Aunt Meri had sent was swift and stern (13–14 September 1974):

Shmotzka absolutely must cut off his mane. It is terribly unflattering [triple and quintuple underlined]. As the elder cousin I am simply ordering him to do so!!!!! I hope that he respects me, even if only a little, and will carry out my order. On the other hand, long locks very much become your ‘boy friend’ who is altogether quite charming.

And two weeks later he wrote from Ischia (28 September 1974): ‘Tell Shmotzka once more that long hair does not suit him at all. Why ruin his looks that used to be quite pleasing (is it indeed only because this is now the fashion?)’. Aunt Meri told me about that command from my elder cousin, which I found quite amusing, and I quipped that he must be jealous because he was bald. I did not expect my dear godmother pass that on to Svetik, but she kept no secrets from him (8 November 1974):
Walter Moskalew

I conveyed to Shmotzka your command that he cut off his locks, but he laughed and said the same thing as Fritz, namely that you, being bald, are simply envious. I was quite indignant on behalf of my Reginald5, and I said there was a Russian saying that rather suited Shmotzka: ‘long hair, short brain’.

Three weeks later Svetik responded (29 November 1974):

Your Shmotzka has unfortunately turned out to be no different from the petit bourgeois who like a herd follow whatever the fashion and lose their own individuality. His retort about my being envious completely missed the mark, because I am impudent enough even to believe that my bald pate rather suits me very much (in fact that is not just my own opinion).

The Letter

The letter

Perhaps Aunt Meri was beginning to feel a bit sorry for me or perhaps I had indeed taken the (rather heavy) hint and got a haircut. On 18 January 1975 she writes: ‘Walter came to visit [… .] By the way, he had trimmed his locks a little and looks much better. He really does have nice hair’. At any rate, I must have done something right, for she no longer called me ‘Shmotzka’ – but it did not last, for hair grows back. A few months later my mother Yelena, known as Lena (bless her heart, for she always accepted me as I was, hirsute or not), sent Svetik a photo of me, and my hair again failed to pass muster:

I got a letter from Aunt Lena with a photograph: she is sitting on the sofa together with Walter – how that long hair of his really does not suit him at all! And I know why – his eyes are closely spaced and the long hair makes them seem even closer. A pity! Before he used to look so nice, but there is nothing to be done when one has no taste. And yet some people do look very good with long hair. In my opinion the blind pursuit of fashion is a most obvious manifestation of the herd instinct and petit bourgeois attitudes [July 1976].

Svetik had analysed the topography of my face and hair with the eye of an artist assessing the composition of a painting, and what he saw offended his artistic sensibilities. I was in trouble. And now both he and Aunt Meri were back to calling me ‘Shmotzka’: ‘Did you get a letter from Shmotzka?’ (Meri, 20 May 1976) – ‘And of course I didn’t get a letter from Shmotzka (Svetik, 11 June 1976). And then Svetik delivers the coup de grâce: ‘With respect to your Shmotzka (just between you and me) I have already some time ago discerned an absence of good taste’ (16 June 1976). Now I am definitely finished and condemned to languish in a petit bourgeois hell, but wait – like a dea ex machina Meri, my beloved godmother, suddenly intercedes on 21 June 1976:

Regarding Shmotzka having no taste, I do not entirely agree with you, but only a little. After all, Shmotska is really – OK. He is so full of life and it is interesting to talk with him and so – don’t hurt his feelings, because I love him. That his clothes are a bit bizarre is not important. And that he has let his hair grow long – well, I don’t like that either.

Now back to Svetik’s hotel in Rochecorbon. We joined him at the table on the lawn and Nina, vivacious as always, plied us with questions. She and I did much of the talking, mostly in Russian, and I would translate for Barbara and Neil. Svetik, quiet but not unfriendly, would flash an occasional smile, but was mostly engaged in his own thoughts. Resting my pre-focussed camera on the table I surreptitiously took a few pictures, but then stopped, not wanting to annoy. We were still so exhausted from our trip that even sitting up required an effort, and the oppressive heat further increased our general lassitude, which countless glasses of cold Badoit mineral water were not able to banish.
Grange de Meslay
That evening Radu Lupu was to perform at the Grange de Meslay, the thirteenth-century barn in the fortified farm once run by the monks of Marmoutier Abbey. It was still light as we approached the imposing gate-tower flying the flag of Tours and flanked by poles with the French and various international flags. It looked quite festive, and people had already started arriving. Passing through the big arched gate we found ourselves in a large grassy courtyard that was pleasantly rustic. Ducks and geese cavorted in the pond on the right, while facing us was the massive Grange at the back of the patch of grass yellowed by the drought. Built for the ages and with a main portal huge enough to accommodate a fully loaded hay wagon, it was an honest and functional edifice, entirely unpretentious though impressive by virtue of its size, and it acquired a special charm when the floodlights came on at nightfall. Equally unadorned was the vast interior with its plain oak pillars and wood framework dating from the fifteenth century. I could see why Svetik would have liked this place from the moment he first saw it back in 1963.
Grange de MeslayAfter four decades my recollection of the actual concert is somewhat spotty. I remember liking Lupu’s rendition of the Brahms Op. 119 pieces and being quite taken by his Schubert G major Sonata, which I had not heard before in concert. As we were leaving, I asked Svetik what he thought of the recital, and he gave me a flippant response that told me little, and perhaps was intended to deflect my question. When I probed further, he said that he felt there had been too much fussing over individual notes at the expense of spontaneity, especially in the Schubert, a work of which he happened to be especially fond.

Grange de MeslayThe following day Stanislav Neuhaus, the son of Svetik’s teacher Heinrich Neuhaus, played a programme of Chopin, Skryabin and Prokofiev. Hoping to hear some of the father in the son’s playing, I had looked forward to this concert, but was disappointed. His playing that night, especially in the Chopin, struck me as self-indulgent. And this time I did not have to prompt Svetik for his opinion. So upset was he that at the intermission he quickly made for the exit and stormed out into the adjacent field far from the rest of the people to vent his anger and disappointment at what he had heard: ‘How could Stasik play like this? He who once when he was barely eighteen had given a most sublime performance of Chopin’s E minor Concerto – the best I have ever heard!’

Grange de MeslayWe attended no other concerts, but did spend a fair amount of time with Svetik and Nina. Often musician friends and acquaintances would also stop by, and there were lunches and dinners to which Svetik would insist on taking everyone. It was a kaleidoscope of experiences and impressions, and I wish I had kept a diary just as my aunt had done the following year when she travelled with Svetik. Barbara and Neil, to afford me more time with Svetik, would often take advantage of our rented car and explore the many attractions of the area, while Svetik and I would go off on foot to various destinations. Svetik loved walking and once we walked along the Loire all the way to Tours (some three miles). We admired the Cathédrale St Gatien and then went on to the old city with its half-timbered houses, charming alleys and picturesque squares. On Place Plumerau (I believe) we enjoyed a very leisurely dinner at a restaurant whose name I no longer recall, and then walked back to his hotel in Rochecorbon. Another day we made an excursion by car to Château Azay-le-Rideau. He had already seen the interior and I did not want to wait for the guided tour to begin. Instead we walked around the beautifully landscaped park, and eventually sat down on one of the benches that offered a stunning view of the château. Svetik was quite talkative, relating various experiences in his many travels and even indulging in several off-colour jokes.

My last photo of Svetik

My last photo of Svetik

I am quite sure I had my camera with me on all these trips, but I refrained from using it, not because Svetik might have objected (he was used to having me photograph him and liked many of the results), but because it would have intruded on our conversation. One cannot talk and listen attentively while also watching for the optimum moment to press the shutter. But on one of our walks, it may have been near the Grange de Meslay, I did photograph Svetik on a path leading towards a wooded area. His face is still in profile but his back is turned and he seems to be at the point of walking away. I did not realise then that this was to be the last picture I would take of him.

The Fêtes Musicales were ending. Svetik was scheduled to play in Cognac on 8 July and be in Vienna two days later. Neil was going to join Barbara and me as we travelled to Brittany and Normandy. Towards the end of July Svetik sent off a letter (25 July 1976) to Aunt Meri in which he recounted his latest travels, including the following account of his meeting with me in Tours:

And here also took place the historic encounter with my cousin (behold > Shmotzka!). We spent 3–4 days together and it was quite interesting (for me, I don’t how it was for him). We walked and drove around (without Barbie). He got here too late for my concert (arrived the following day), but I don’t think he missed anything, because my concert was not very good.

And later in the letter he added: ‘About Walter I have already written and I hope he will tell you more (and perhaps not be overly flattering with regard to me)’. What remarkable modesty! I had travelled several thousand miles just to be with him, yet he still wondered if it had been ‘interesting’ for me, if it had been worth my while? I had witnessed similar modesty back in December of 1960 in Boston, when I had come to his hotel to take him to Aunt Meri’s house. He was not ready, for he needed a few more hours to work on three major concerti, and he apologised profusely for having to make me wait. But I was thrilled at having a chance to see how he worked and asked if I could observe him. ‘Of course, but it will be boring for you,’ he said screwing up his face 6. Svetik never thought of himself as being a star, a celebrity or a destination worth three Michelin asterisks. He strove to be a medium, preferably invisible, that on a good day might succeed in having the music issue with such clarity and conviction as to allow a glimpse of what may have inspired the composer. The day before I arrived had not been such a day, and perhaps he was wondering whether I had come to see the medium or the man. If so, he should have known better.

  1. Sviatoslav’s nickname within the family.
  2. When I was child, Aunt Meri had two nicknames for me: if I was a ‘good little boy’ she called me Lyubochka (from lyubov, ‘love’), otherwise I was Shmotzka (probably from German Schmutz/ Yiddish shmuts, ‘dirt’). Once I ceased being a cute little boy Lyubochka somehow fell by the wayside.
  3. Now Hôtel les Fontaines, which may have been its name then.
  4. Nina Lvovna Dorliak, lyric soprano and teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire. She was for fifty years Richter’s constant companion and they were regarded as husband and wife.
  5. One of the many aliases Svetik used in his correspondence with Aunt Meri.
  6. Svetik: A Family Memoir of Sviatoslav Richter, p. 124, and see also pp. 120–25 for a fuller description of that encounter (with numerous photographs).