1900 – 1914


Jacob "Jascha" Spivakovsky was discovered as a piano prodigy in a small town near Kiev at the age of three. By the age of six he had greatly impressed the Russian master pianist Josef Hofmann, who spread the word about "the remarkable talent of this young pianist" and the imposing Director of the Moscow Conservatory Vasily Safonov, who provided the "strange, outstanding talent" with a written endorsement to study as his pupil.

However quotas on the number of Jews allowed in Moscow prevented Spivakovsky moving there and instead his parents took him to Odessa, where he sold out concerts and became famous across the Russian Empire. After a packed recital in the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre, where he was forced to perform without pedal as he was too young for the adult-sized piano chair, the Governor of Odessa presented him with a magnificent grand piano of which he was very proud.

This piano was smashed to pieces a few months later by a racist mob, which massacred the Jewish community in Odessa with unbelievable degrees of violence. When this mob stormed their apartment block and murdered the ground-floor tenant, the Spivakovsky family ran to the roof where they saw the approach of Cossack royal guards on horseback. But instead of quelling the violence, the Cossacks opened fire on them and a desperate shove from his sister saved Jascha by a split-second from a bullet aimed at his head. The family hid under straw in the cellar of their Polish Catholic landlord for five days, then emerged to find all their belongings had been looted and the prized piano thrown from their fifth-floor balcony.

As soon as circumstances permitted, they moved to Berlin where Spivakovsky had been offered pupillage by the internationally renowned Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatorium. Privileged there to learn from direct students of the immortals Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, he combined the performance secrets of their great lineages with his innate gifts to create a thrilling new playing style. He was quickly recognised by his professors and Berlin critics as “the most outstanding young pianist” of his generation.

At thirteen he won the coveted Blüthner Prize after outclassing an adult field. In order that his youth should not influence the three famous judges Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Leopold Godowsky and Ferrucio Busoni, they were screened off for the duration of the competition. He was awarded a magnificent gold-engraved grand piano and commenced his full-time career as a concert pianist. As the location for his professional debut, he fearlessly selected Leipzig due to its reputation for the most discerning critics in Europe. After his performance these critics proclaimed him "the heir of Anton Rubinstein."

Now a famous wunderkind, he performed across Europe with renowned conductors and was summoned to palace performances, where he astonished the German and other European royal families with his artistic virtuosity and interpretive maturity. Celebrity postcards with his photo circulated Europe and his name appeared in publications on the great pianists of the time. In 1913 he made his London debut at Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall, performing a demanding Romantics programme including Islamey by Balakirev, arguably the most technically difficult pianoforte work ever written. After the concert The Standard declared: "He is a King of the Keyboard, reminiscent of Paderewski and Carreño. The interpretations were those of a master." His fame spread to the farthest reaches of the British Empire and to the United States.

By the age of sixteen Spivakovsky was internationally recognised as a brilliant exponent of the finest traditions of the golden age of Romantic pianism. He was booked to perform a season of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London and engaged for a royal performance by Queen Alexandra of Russia, Empress Consort and granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Then his career temporarily froze, when the Great War engulfed Europe and like other expatriate Russians living in Germany, he was imprisoned in a civilian detention camp. He was not granted parole until all the Professors from the Conservatorium prevailed upon the German authorities and the palace favourably remembered his performance for the Kaiser years earlier. Even then he remained under strict military supervision until the end of the War.