"Everything is permissible if it sounds beautiful, if it is justified artistically." –Daniil Shafran

Happy Birthday, Daniil Shafran!

Daniil Borisovich Shafran (January 13, 1923–February 7, 1997) was a Russian cellist known for his incredible range and technique, which allowed him to play violin pieces on the cello at original pitch, and often transcribed works meant for other instruments. Shafran was raised in a musical family where he was instilled with a great attention to detail and taught to be "mercilessly strict" about practicing. His drive for perfection served him well, as he gained national renown for his performance at the 1937 USSR All-Union Competition for Violinists and Cellists, when he was 14. Shafran was below the qualifying age limit, but was allowed to enter as an "unofficial" contestant, and won first prize. From this competition, he was awarded an Antonio Amati cello, which would become the only instrument he played for the rest of his life.

daniil2Daniil Shafran began playing the cello when he was eight and a half, after begging his father for lessons. Boris Shafran, who became the principal cellist of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, taught his son the importance of diligence and persistent practice, and pushed him to overcome technical obstacles by playing beyond the requirements of the piece at hand, such as playing at twice the speed required while still maintaining all technical elements. Throughout his life, Shafran was incredibly scrupulous about achieving mastery over his music, and credited his father with instilling his commitment as a musician. Still, Shafran saw technical mastery as a means, not an end. Most important to Shafran was always his own ability to bring sincerity to his music, and to enjoy every piece he performed. If he found a piece dull, he would try to look for hidden depth, or figure out a way to make it more expressive and satisfying.

Although Shafran performed in concerts frequently and recorded prolifically, his international presence was quite small because he rarely toured outside of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Around the age of 10, Shafran became a pupil of Alexander Shtrimer at the Leningrad Conservatory, and would study with him for over a decade. Shafran made his orchestral debut playing with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations under the visiting conductor Albert Coates.

rostropovichAs a young musician, Daniil Shafran often faced another fresh-faced prodigy, Mstislav Rostropovich, four years his junior. At Shafran's next All-Union competition in 1945, he lost to Rostropovich. In 1949, both competed in the Festival of Democratic Youth, Budapest, and tied for first place. David Oistrakh, a member of the jury, wrote that "both cellists are complete masters of cello sound. Their light virtuosity and elegant technique should be the envy of many violinists". Again in 1950, they tied for first place at the Wihan contest in Prague.

The two musicians, however, were noted as having very different temperaments which would lead them to different careers. Of the two, Shafran was noted for his "poetic sensibility and the remarkable palette of tone colours he had at his disposal [which] suit him to romantic and impressionistic repertoire".

Mstislav Rostropovich, 1965. Credit: Erich Auerbach—Hulton Archive/Getty Images


In 1960, Shrafan made his American debut in Carnegie Hall, and then his British debut in 1964. Shrafran was noted for his unusual preparation for performances: he rehearsed in full concert dress, perched at the front of an unusually high chair, positioned on a little raised platform, and played with his eyes closed.

Most of all, Daniil Shafran is known for his deeply passionate performances, born out of his impeccable technical expertise. In order to play a piece at the peak of his ability, Shafran saw the absolute necessity of practice: "I must work and persevere without pause. And if there comes a time when I feel some element of my instrumental control is slipping, I immediately start exercises to rectify the situation. For the left hand... I execute great leaps over the fingerboard with all fingers, striving for exactness of intonation and purity of sound."


Daniil Shafran in rehearsal with Arnold Katz, via Novosibirsk Philharmonic Society

David Oistrakh advised Shafran "to include a virtuoso piece in your daily dozen: the audience likes them as a reward" as well as telling him "old bravura works for those who aspire to attain the heights of cello technique", Shafran sought to make all his music as meaningful as possible. In addition to poring over his pieces in order to highlight what made them profound, Shafran challenged the limits of musicianship by developing unusual technical features like his "revolutionary fingerings, making "every finger well-trained and obedient". 

Because his own Amati was slightly smaller than a full-sized cello, Shafran was able to make very large stretches and play octaves with greater ease, and used the thumb and fourth finger throughout the compass of the cello. Shafran's range of vibrato was known to be unusually wide, and his staccato and spiccato very light. His command over the bow was light and intense at the same time, much like a violinist.


Daniil Shafran with his wife, Svetlana via Classicus


Daniil Shafran and Anton Ginsburg relax with Yoritoyo Inoue, Japanese cellist and Japanese hosts, via Classicus


The cellist Steven Isserlis described Daniil Shafran's mastery and love for the craft thusly: "as a cellist and musician, Shafran was unlike anyone else. At a time in which, thanks to various media, musical styles are converging, Shafran's voice remained apart. His vibrato, his phrasing, his rhythm all belonged to a unique whole; his astounding virtuosity conveyed a musical personality that retained the passion, the simplicity and the poetry of a great Russian folk singer. He was incapable of playing one note insincerely; his music spoke from the soul".


The video is in Russian, but some YouTube users have generously translated much of the the monologue:

From "grey5646":

He said he worried before every concert, whether to pass the audience his feelings and intentions of the composer. And looking at the past years, he sees how much more needs to be done, how much great music to play. Also he is very attached to his instrument, and did not like to leave it in the studio, even for a few days.

From "Alexey Lavrov": 

He also said that long time ago, when he was nine, him [sic] and his father were going to the cello lesson. his father carried the cello (he called it "little amat") in cloth case, instantly, he slipped on the ice and cello slivered into little pieces. Daniil was very happy about it, actually: he knew that it would be no cello-practice for 3 or more days.


Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Monday, 13 January 2014
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