b. Cossack settlement, nr. Itsyursk, Terek, Caucasus, February 6, 1852
d. Kislovodsk, Caucasus, February 27, 1918
Wassily Safonoff’s father was a Cossack general who had settled in St. Petersburg. As a youth, Safonoff studied piano with Theodore Leschitizky. He eventually taught for a time at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and the Moscow Conservatory, ultimately replacing the composer Alexander Taneyev as the latter’s director.
In 1903, Safonoff was invited to be one of several guest conductors with the New York Philharmonic Society. His fiery style — he often conducted without a baton — made him a favorite with ensemble and audience alike, especially in the music of Dvorák and Tchaikovsky. After several seasons without a permanent conductor, the Orchestra asked Safonoff to be their sole director in 1906. Safonoff brought a foreign cachet and renewed energy to the Philharmonic’s enterprises. More concerts were added to the season and ticket revenues increased, only to gradually decline again by the end of Safonoff’s third year. The allure of the virtuoso conductor — preferably foreign — was no longer enough to compensate for the organizational shortcomings that had limited the orchestra’s growth to this point.
In 1909, Safonoff returned to Russia and resumed his career as a pianist. He wrote a book on piano technique and counted among his pupils Alexander Scriabin, Nicholas Medtner, and Josef Lhevinne.