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Like so many great musical talents, Feinberg was born in Odessa. His father (whose ancestors originally came from Yurburg—now Jurbarkas—in Lithuania) had passed his legal examinations there in 1888 (the year his daughter Bella was born), having served a prison sentence for possession of forbidden revolutionary writings. Following the birth of their son, the family initially tried to make a fresh start in Łódź, but in 1894 they moved to Moscow, where in 1896—by which time Samuil was already eagerly playing for himself whatever music his sister was practising—their second son Leonid was born.
It was soon recognized that Samuil needed systematic training, and so at the age of ten he began taking lessons with Alexander Jensen, who was clearly a very good teacher of the old school. After four years, he changed to the still-youthful Alexander Goldenweiser, who became Feinberg’s formative teacher and later a friend during his subsequent period at the Conservatory (1906–11).
For his final examination, in addition to a whole series of solo works, Feinberg also studied such a novelty as Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto (1909) in the short time allotted, and amazed the board of examiners by learning the complete Well-tempered Clavier by heart. Plans for him to study counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev foundered because Feinberg was not willing to show his attempts at composition to his prospective teacher, who was known to be very conservative. This made his composition lessons with Nikolai Shilyaev—a student of Taneyev with whom Feinberg soon became friendly—all the more fruitful.
Bella introduced her brothers to the circle surrounding Maximilian Voloshin, where Feinberg found the creative inspiration for his first songs. Another regular guest at Voloshin’s country house in Koktebel (Crimea) was the young Marina Tsvetaeva, whose sister-in-law Vera Efron exerted a great attraction on him. In the end this love remained unfulfilled.
In Berlin the aspiring concert pianist introduced himself to two authorities: Artur Schnabel and Frederic Lamond. Schnabel criticized the nervous tension of his playing. With this remark in mind, it is not surprising that Feinberg received words of praise from Scriabin for a performance of one of his sonatas. He was drafted into the army, but fell ill before reaching the front and was discharged from military service in 1915.
‘Here began the composer’s career’, wrote Victor Belyaev in a monographic sketch published bilingually in Russian and German in 1927. ‘Feinberg embarked upon it as a completely mature and distinctive personality, fully conscious of himself and of his creative ideals, which hitherto had not been completely clear to him.’
from notes by Nicolo-Alexander Figowy © 2020
English: Charles Johnston