Emil Gilels was born on October 19, 1916 in Odessa. His parents were not musicians, but their modest flat in the poor area of the well-known Moldavanka neighbourhood housed a piano. Times were difficult, yet particular attention was given to musically gifted children. At the early age of two, Emil tried out the keys of the instrument at home, listening carefully to the sounds it produced.
It soon became obvious that the boy had perfect pitch; it extended to notes that were not necessarily made by instruments. When he was five years old, he was taken to Yakov Tkach, a famous piano teacher in Odessa.
The young boy completed the first stage of his studies with exceptional facility. There was no need to position his hands, so naturally did they move over the keyboard. His extraordinary ear and memory enabled him to absorb all the rudiments of music and of its grammar with great speed, and after only a few months he was playing sonatinas by Clementi and Mozart. By the age of eleven, he had mastered etudes by Chopin and Liszt. He was also strongly drawn to the theatre, began composing a little and loved to imagine himself as a conductor.
In May 1929, at the age of twelve, Gilels gave his first public concert. Sophisticated critics at the performance were awed not only by his great facility and virtuosity, but by the profundity of his interpretation, his beautiful tone and his style, devoid of carelessness and triviality. Over the course of the epic artistic journey that Gilels took, these characteristics remained central features of his art.