UCLA Spotlight


Vitaly Margulis, Music

  • By Cynthia Lee, Irene Fertik
  • Published Apr 1, 2003 8:00 AM

Once his busy schedule of classes at Schoenberg Hall had ended for spring break, he flew off to Berlin and Budapest for some of the 10 to 12 concert appearances he makes each year all over the world. Margulis also holds summer master classes in Europe, the United States and Japan.

“I play concerts, I teach students, I write books. I live like a young boy,” says Margulis in English liberally flavored with his native Russian. “But a young boy is young for 24 hours,” he says, smiling. “I am young for two, three hours a day,” when he’s practicing the piano or at work.

Music has kept him relatively healthy and active, he says, and brought him back to health after he had a heart attack at age 37.

“Before my heart attack, I was considered a pianist with an intense, highly emotional, romantic repertoire. After, I found I couldn’t play the same music,” he says, tapping his heart. “Too much pain.” But he found he could play the healing music of Bach comfortably. So for five years, he played nothing else.

“That changed my whole concert life. Today, I am back. I can play it all.” The insights he gained into the spirituality of Bach’s music inspired him to write a book.

“It may sound sentimental,” says Margulis, “but I cannot find better words: Music can bring us closer to God. It can make our souls richer, deeper, more tolerant of others.”

Raised in the city of Charkov in the Ukraine, he took his first piano lesson from his father. “It is a tradition we are loyal to,” says the piano professor, who raised four children, three of them professional musicians.

In World War II, the young Margulis and his family fled from the invading Nazi army to what is now Uzbekistan in central Asia. At 13, he volunteered for the Russian Air Force and entertained in military hospitals until his commander sent him to study at the Leningrad Conservatory.

The renowned school became his musical home for years as he studied, taught and performed throughout Europe until the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany, offered him a teaching position. Two decades later, in 1994, Margulis joined UCLA’s music department. Seeing his students garner more than 100 prizes at competitions worldwide has brought him his greatest happiness, he says.

To celebrate his 75th birthday, the music department is hosting a gala concert where Margulis’ long-held dream will play out: Three of his children will alternately share the spotlight at the event.