The Life Story of Emil Gilels

In this article, delve into the captivating life of Emil Gilels, one of the 20th century’s most esteemed pianists.

From his prodigious beginnings in Odessa to his legendary international acclaim, discover how his exceptional talent and dedication left an indelible mark on the world of classical music.

The Life Story of Emil Gilels​
Table of Contents

Emil Gilels, born on October 19, 1916, in Odessa, Ukraine, remains one of the most revered pianists of the 20th century. His journey from a child prodigy in the Soviet Union to an internationally acclaimed artist is a tale of exceptional talent, dedication, and profound musical insight.

Early Life and Education

Emil Gilels displayed his musical prowess from a very young age. He began his piano studies under Yakov Tkach and gave his first public performance at the tender age of 12. Recognizing his extraordinary talent, his family supported his musical education, leading to his admission to the Odessa Conservatory. There, he studied under Berta Reingbald, whose rigorous training helped shape his formidable technique and expressive range.

Rise to Fame

Gilels’ rise to international prominence began with his triumph at the Ysaÿe International Competition in Brussels in 1938. This victory not only established him as a leading pianist of his generation but also opened doors to international stages. His success in Brussels was a precursor to his influential role in Soviet and global music scenes.

Career Highlights

Gilels’ career was marked by numerous milestones. He was one of the first Soviet artists permitted to travel and perform in the West after World War II, a significant achievement given the political climate of the time. His American debut in 1955, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, was a sensational success. This performance was followed by a series of acclaimed concerts across the United States and Europe.

In addition to his solo performances, Gilels was an accomplished chamber musician. He formed a notable trio with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist Leonid Kogan, performing and recording works by Haydn, Beethoven, and Schumann, among others. His collaborations with these artists are still celebrated for their interpretative depth and technical precision.

Recordings and Repertoire

Gilels’ extensive discography spans from Baroque to contemporary works, reflecting his versatile artistry. He was particularly renowned for his interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. His recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas, including the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, are considered benchmarks of classical piano performance. These recordings, characterized by their technical brilliance and emotional intensity, continue to inspire pianists and music lovers worldwide.

His work with various recording labels, including Melodiya, RCA, Columbia, EMI, and Deutsche Grammophon, has left an indelible mark on the classical music landscape. Notably, Gilels was in the process of recording the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas when he passed away, leaving five sonatas unrecorded.

Personal Life and Challenges

Despite his public success, Gilels faced personal challenges, particularly concerning his health. In 1981, he suffered a heart attack after a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which marked the beginning of his declining health. He continued to perform, but his health issues eventually led to his untimely death on October 14, 1985, during a medical procedure in Moscow.

Gilels was married twice. His first marriage was to pianist Rosa Tamarkina in 1940, but the marriage ended in divorce. In 1947, he married Fariset (Lala) Hutsistova, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatoire. They had a daughter, Elena, who followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a pianist and often performing with him.


Emil Gilels’ legacy is preserved not only through his recordings but also through the memories of his live performances, which were celebrated for their technical mastery and expressive power. His interpretations continue to be a source of inspiration and admiration in the classical music world. Gilels’ ability to combine technical precision with profound emotional depth has cemented his place as one of the greatest pianists in history.

His influence extends beyond his recordings; his role as a cultural ambassador during the Cold War era helped bridge the divide between the Soviet Union and the West, showcasing the power of music as a universal language. Gilels’ contributions to classical music are commemorated through various awards and recognitions, ensuring that his artistry continues to resonate with future generations.

In summary, Emil Gilels’ life story is a testament to the enduring power of music and the extraordinary talent required to achieve greatness in the world of classical piano. His journey from a young prodigy in Odessa to an internationally acclaimed pianist remains an inspiring narrative of dedication, skill, and artistic excellence.


In conclusion, Emil Gilels’ remarkable journey from a young prodigy in Odessa to one of the most esteemed pianists of the 20th century exemplifies exceptional talent, dedication, and profound musical insight. His rigorous early training and international breakthrough paved the way for a career filled with monumental achievements. Despite personal and health challenges, Gilels’ extensive and influential recordings, as well as his role in bridging cultural divides during the Cold War, have left an indelible mark on the world of classical music. His legacy continues to inspire and resonate, cementing his place among the greatest pianists in history.

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