The Personality of Eugene Istomin

The path of the man is undoubtedly even more singular than that of the musician. He considered himself, like Casals, to be a man before to be an artist, though art was for him the greatest possible achievement of the human being. Passionate about literature, history and painting, curious about science, he was not only an artist and an intellectual, he also became involved in political life and occasionally proved to be a visionary organizer of musical events.
It is difficult to imagine anyone who has been exposed to so many contradictory influences, and has managed to assimilate them, overcome them, and draw such a richness from them. His mother tongue and initial culture were Russian. However, from an early age, he was so eager to integrate into the country that had welcomed his parents that he developed a passion for the most American of sports, baseball. After a first Russian musical education with Siloti, based on freedom and pleasure, he studied with Serkin in the most rigorous Germanic tradition. Of Alsatian ancestry dating back to Napoleon, he had inherited the love of France and its language. His parents, of such different characters and origins, in continuous dispute, were one Orthodox and the other Jewish. Istomin would distance from any religious observance.
Confronted with the upheavals of history and the profound changes in the musical world, Istomin built his own path, based on his instinct, his intellectual and moral requirement, and the high idea he had of the role of an artist.

A Beethovenian temperament

In the profile he wrote in The New York Times, James Gruen confessed his confusion. He believed that if Istomin showed ‘’masterful and dazzling control’’ on stage, he was in fact a tortured and enigmatic being. Gruen was struck by his ‘’brooding Beethovenesque disposition’’, and many people who were familiar with him noticed it too. His grouchiness, his reluctance to smile, his sudden, rare but violent fits of anger  remind of Beethoven. But above all, there was a common need for solitude, the same intense pain following disappointments, which would be swept away by the strength of will, the desire to live, the faith in humanity, the certainty that good will eventually prevail. The Waldstein Sonata is the ideal expression of this spirit and it was Istomin’s emblematic piece.

His certainties made him look arrogant, but there was a lot of doubt, humility and self-derision in him. At first sight, he seemed quite cold and distant, even intimidating, but, very quickly, one discovered warmth and humanity behind his modesty. It was very difficult for him to hide what he was feeling, and he couldn’t help but say what he was thinking. This sincerity harmed his career but, even if he became a little more careful with age, he never gave it up. After getting angry, he was quickly forgetting and held no grudges, as evidenced by his many disputes with Stern, which never jeopardized their brotherhood.

Whether in terms of musical probity, or career and life ethic, Istomin absolutely refused to make any concessions, whatever the consequences: he never played a piece in which he had nothing personal to say, never attempted to seduce the audiences, did not solicit people who could push his career, did not hesitate to speak out against injustice or get involved in politics.

His curiosity was always aroused and his mind could bubble at any moment: “I can’t go without knowing” was one of his favorite expressions. He kept a childlike enthusiasm, ready to get excited about a project or an idea. In this process there was a paradoxical association of intuition (according to Plato, the immediate awareness of the truth of an idea by the soul) and the desire for knowledge and intellectualization.

On the material level, he was quite detached from the sense of ownership. He had never bought a house or apartment before moving to Washington with Marta, and he never had a car. All his money went into books and works of art, and generally into things which gave him pleasure, such as great restaurants or wines. He wanted his comfort and standing, especially for travel (flights on Concorde!) and hotels. He found that this suited his status as an artist and compensated for the obligations of his itinerant life.

His mistrust for managers and the music business made him exacting on his fees. He could not bear to be exploited, but he was always willing to adapt his conditions when he felt it was justified. He also showed great generosity in giving benefit concerts, or in offering his fees. He was just as generous with his friends in trouble, so much so that Marta sometimes had to ask him to be more careful!

There was an openness to others, a benevolence, an ability to listen, which are rarely met. Pianists were never rivals, and he enjoyed to be friendly with very simple people. There was a lot of delicacy and fidelity in his friendship, as they appear in the organization of Clara Haskil’s American tour in 1956, or in Horszowski’s invitation to make his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1978.

The search for God

His mother being Jewish, he could consider himself a Jew, but he refused his Bar Mitzvah and remained very far from the Jewish religion. If he faithfully and generously supported Israel, it was with the idea of a secular state and a deep distrust of religious parties.

Istomin had read and researched extensively on all religions. He agreed to marry Marta in the Roman Catholic religion. In his later years, he got increasingly closer to this religion, but it was inconceivable that he would adhere to it, because he would have felt as if he was betraying his mother.

Istomin’s interest in the great theories of physics was also a spiritual quest, as was his interest in astronomy, which allowed him to grasp the sublime beauty of the universe. Like Casals, Istomin marveled at what is divine in each of us, the unexplainable miracle of the life and uniqueness of every human being.

However, for Istomin, the most convincing evidence of God’s existence is art! He told Jacobson: “To me, art is the highest activity possible. Whether it is painting or poetry, music or dance, this the very best thing that we are capable of – also the most demanding.

Art has to do with the mind and the spirit, the reaching beyond the physical and material, even the explicable. You can’t really describe a phrase of Mozart or Beethoven or a line in a great drawing. It proves the existence of a dimension that‘s more dense and yet simpler. If you have for even a moment experienced that reality, you have felt an aspect of God.’’

He was aware that he was an artist, a part of music, an infinitesimal part but a part! He should not take any pride of this, but rather a feeling of responsibility, that of developing the gifts he had received as much as he could.

The place of music and the other passions

“Every morning, after breakfast, I play the piano. These are the most efficient hours for working. But music is in my head 24 hours a day, it’s obsessing, it can even be overwhelming, but it’s the way it is… And it’s certainly the case for all musicians! At the moment I have a Mozart sonata, Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau, an impromptu by Chopin, a symphony by Beethoven. It’s always spinning in my head, it’s like cut-outs, cubist collages!’’

His musical sensitivity was so exacerbated that all music, even when he only heard it and did not play it, haunted him for a long time. At night, when he had no concert to give or to attend, he would refrain from listening to any music, knowing that it would be difficult for him to fall asleep afterwards.

He fad to protect himself from music, which invaded him too much. He also needed to escape from the confined environment of the musical community where he would have suffocated in the end. He had a very cordial and supportive relationship with other pianists and musicians, but he had few real music friends, except those with whom he had discussions and shared interests other than musical.

Turning to other interests was a necessity for his equilibrium, a need for his curiosity of mind and brought him a lot of enjoyment. Moreover, Istomin was persuaded that cultural richness nurtures musicality, not directly but through the development of sensitivity and intelligence.

When the artist changed into a manager

Istomin proved to be an outstanding organizer on several occasions, managing very different events. He took up the challenge of taking over the artistic direction for the 1953 Prades Festival, taking care of everything, even fund raising. He did the same in Mexico in 1976, with a constant concern that the festival would boost Mexican musical life. In 1986, he set up an idealistic piano competition, named after his friend William Kapell. Even more surprisingly, he led the Committee of Artists and Writers supporting Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate for the 1968 presidential elections, so effectively that Humphrey would have liked to make him his advisor for culture.

Each time, he did not accept to be involved for too long, for fear that it would be at the expense of his essential mission as a musician.


After Beethoven, the other great figure, literary this one, to whom we could refer is Montaigne, whom he adored. In Istomin there were a similar combination of curiosity and skepticism, of introspection and openness to the world, of humility and pride, the cult of friendship and passion for books.

The adventure of Istomin as a man is even more fascinating than as a musician. He is the symbol of man torn between different cultures and shaken by the great tragedies and changes of the 20th century. He drew from this a richness, an appetite for life, a mixture of realism and optimism, managing to preserve his freedom and moral requirement to follow his own path.

He was a musician of the old days in a “modern” musical world. He was too much of an artist for the politicians, and too interested in the course of the world and in the other arts for musicians to really consider him as one of theirs. The Americans thought he was too European, the Europeans too American. He didn’t belong anywhere, and he belonged everywhere! Fond of the great literary and artistic traditions, he was passionate about science and cutting edge technology. He loved baseball and B movies but championed the need for elitism in culture. He had a desire to grasp everything, to know everything, to embrace everything, to go ahead, as far and high as possible! In January 1989, he told Patrick Ferla: “Every day when I get up, I wonder what I would like to do better today. And the answer is: Everything!’’