Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) was born in Odessa in the Russian Empire (now in the Ukraine), but settled in England with his family when he was eight. He became one of the twentieth century’s truly great pianists, and his selfless contribution to his adopted country in the two World Wars went far beyond the call of duty.
AT fifteen, budding pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch inquired at the Royal Academy of Music in London about continuing studies that had begun in his birthplace, Odessa, and had brought him the Anton Rubinstein Prize when he was nine. His prospective tutors confessed frankly that they did not know what they could teach him.
Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna was more exacting, and in 1908 eighteen-year-old Benno returned to England, where his parents now lived, an accomplished performer. A whirlwind career followed, taking him to concert halls in Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific Islands. He had grace, touch and effortless virtuosity, and passion beneath his British reserve. The music of his friends and fellow-Russians Sergei Rachmaninoff and Nikolai Medtner figured prominently in his repertoire, though his avowed favourite was Schumann.*
Moiseiwitsch became a British subject in 1937. During the Second World War, he gave over eight hundred concerts to servicemen and charities, undermining his health in the effort, a sacrifice recognised in 1946 with the CBE.**
* A year after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff and his wife Natalia emigrated to the USA; Medtner and his wife Anna settled in England in 1936, where his music was much admired.
** In 1914, Moiseiwitsch married Australian violinist Daisy Kennedy; their daughter Tanya designed the iconic Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. They divorced, and in 1929 he married Anita Gensburger.
Interview with Benno Moiseiwitsch
An extract from the documentary ‘The Art of the Piano’, a look at the great pianists of the twentieth century. It features Benno Moiseiwitsch talking about his friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the Prelude that brought them together.