Nikolai Sergeyevich Zverev (1832-1893) was born in the Volokolamsky District of Moscow Oblast, Russia, located on the Gorodenka River. He was a pianist and a teacher, his most notable pupil being Sergei Rachmaninov.
Zverev was born into an aristocratic family of land owners, whose money and property had drifted away. It was originally planned that he would receive training for a military career, but he insisted on attending the Moscow University. There he began to study mathematics and physics, while at the same time taking piano lessons from Alexandre Dubuque (1812-1898). Zverev did not graduate as a result of coming into a large fortune. What happened to this wealth, remains unclear. Seeing that there was no point in continuing with his education, he abandoned his university studies, and went to St. Petersburg to become a civil servant. While there, he pursued further piano studies with Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889), a virtuoso admired even by Liszt. Henselt was a fanatical practicer, working at the keyboard many hours every day. He provided the basis of Zverev's strict methods that he would later apply on his pupils.
Zverev did not remain in St. Petersburg for a long time. He found that civil service life was unsatisfying for him. He realized that with such a strong musical potential, he could achieve much more, if he only put in the effort. As a result, when in 1867 it was suggested by Dubuque that he should return to Moscow and set up as a piano teacher, he gladly agreed. Dubuque, his former teacher, ensured that Zverev would get plenty of rich pupils. Soon after his arrival to Moscow, Zverev could afford himself a comfortable living, and a steady income. Besides this, in 1870 Nikolai Rubinstein (1835-1831) asked him to teach junior students at Moscow Conservatoire (which Rubinstein had founded in 1866). Besides teaching at the Conservatoire he continued to give many private lessons at his pupil's homes. In addition he taught free a few poor but highly gifted students. His attitude towards them being a mix of generosity and severity.
He took them into his house, and, besides giving them piano lessons, supervised their entire lives and directed all their interests. As well as board and lodging, their clothes were provided and there was a ready supply of places at concerts, operas and plays, which Zverev insisted they attend to enrich their cultural awareness. In return the boys had to obey all his commands and recognize no other authority. Separation from their families was deemed essential, yet this was seen as a fair exchange for Zverev's lessons and the rich cultural life that was their background. Being well versed in the social graces, Zverev had many friends in Moscow's artistic and intellectual circles, whose leading figures came regularly to his house, as did prominent visitors from St. Petersburg. Because of this, his "cubs", as he called his pupils, had many rare chances to demonstrate their playing abilities to important musicians of that age, such as Tchaikovsky.
The following is a list of Zverev's most gifted pupils:
Each of the boys practiced for three hours daily. Their lessons started at 6 am, with each taking turns to rise that early in the morning. What pianistic qualities did he demand of them? Above all Zverev was concerned with beauty of the tone and ease of movement. He discouraged tense wrists and stiff arms, stressing that they should avoid unnecessary movements of the hand and arm. To arrive at complete relaxation, his pupils had to work at many exercises and études. He never allowed his students to perform unrhythmically. He believed that a clear rhythmic framework was the basis of all musical structures. It is curious to note though, that Zverev never demonstrated the point he was trying to make at the keyboard himself. Instead he taught only by exhortation. However there do exist accounts of his playing ability. His earlier students were quoted as saying that he had been "a very elegant and musical pianist with an unusually beautiful tone."
Zverev continued to give piano lessons for the rest of his life. He died in Moscow at the age of 61, and was buried at the Danilovsky cemetery. There will always be a place for him in history as a teacher of great pianists and composers.