Remembering the Inspirational Russian Violinist and Pedagogue Nelli Shkolnikova
After fleeing the Soviet bloc, Shkolnikova made a new life in Australia and the United States
When violinist Nelli Shkolnikova, 82, died of cancer in February, the world lost not only a renowned pedagogue beloved by former students throughout the United States, Australia, and Russia, but also a legend.
As a pupil of Moscow Conservatory’s Yuri Yankelevich (who went on to train Vladimir Spivakov, Viktor Tretyakov, and Albert Markov), Shkolnikova won the Grand Prix at the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris in 1953 at age 25. Shortly afterward, she made recordings of virtuoso works by Paganini, Ysaÿe, and many others, in which her unfailing beauty of sound and sheer power can be heard today. "She was a great fiddle player, no question," says Royal College of Music violin and viola professor Grigori Zhislin, who had also studied under Yankelevich. "The three greatest women violinists? Ginette Neveu, Ida Haendel, and Nelli Shkolnikova. She had brilliant technique, brilliant intonation, and a very beautiful sound. She was really a top-class performer—I admired her musicianship."
Her recordings of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Moscow Symphony led by Kirill Kondrashin in 1959, and the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Eugene Ormandy in 1967, bear testament to a first-class concert artist. At times her gutsy yet sensitive style of playing recalls that of Yulian Sitkovetsky, whom she is said to have admired greatly. With the looks of a matinee idol, she also brought a touch of glamour to the music scene long before the strapless gowns of German-born virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter.
As one of the first female Russian violin soloists to defect to the West, following a concert in West Berlin in 1982, Shkolnikova relied on her iron will to get her past the Iron Curtain. Trailed by the KGB, the former Soviet secret police and intelligence agency, she left behind her belongings, husband, and whole life—everything but her violin.
She never looked back.
At the invitation of conductor John Hopkins, she moved to Melbourne, Australia, where she gave concerts and taught violin at the Victoria College of the Arts.
In 1987, she joined the faculty at the Indiana University School of Music after receiving a recommendation from Isaac Stern, who had seen her play when she was a student in Moscow more than 30 years earlier. By all accounts she was a strict teacher but moved beyond that role by feeding her students (she was an accomplished cook) and helping them find accommodations. "We were all her children," Texas Christian University associate professor of violin Curt Thompson says. "Perhaps without recognizing it, we benefited from the fact that she had no children of her own."
New York Philharmonic first violinist Yulia Ziskel recalls Shkolnikova saying, "Tomorrow we will go have a picnic, and you can come, but only if you get up at 7 AM and practice for three hours before."
Teaching alongside Josef Gingold, Franco Gulli, and Luba Edlina-Dubinsky, Shkolnikova emphasized in her studio classes hard work in building strong technical foundations and faithful interpretations of scores. She insisted on perfection, the same exacting standards she expected of herself.
In 2005, she retired and moved back to Melbourne, where she spent her final days living with cancer. Though she is gone, students say her dedication to the violin, her love of great music, and her big "mamochka" heart will live on through all of them.