SERGEI RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Matthew Taylor has chosen to kick off his ambitious series on the Concerto, covering the period from 1900 to 1950, with Rachmaninov. Like Elgar he was a man of the 19th century although, in his case, only just. Still most of us on first acquaintance with his music perceived a lush romanticism of a distinctly nineteenth century flavour owing more to Tchaikovsky than to his nearer contemporaries, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Funnily enough, although he did not write film music there seemed to be a Hollywoodian association rather than a Russian one, not forgetting either the thawing effect his second piano concerto would have on the stiff upper lips of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. His music was regarded as predominantly pianistic and, speaking for myself, it took to the 1980’s with a little help from André Previn to realise just what a wonderful orchestrator he was.
Rachmaninov’s music was in this country distinctly popular during and following the second world war. It was particularly listenable to for the new emerging young audiences who had no time for all this new fangled modern stuff. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, especially the 18th variation became a no 1 pot boiler. Here was music with a decent tune played not only in the concert halls but also by Sunday night at the Palladium TV artistes such as the pianist, Winifred Attwell, under the title of The Story of Three Loves . It is wrong however to think of Rachmaninov as a Russian emigré remoulded in America. Rachmaninov was an established Russian composer emerging in the early 1890’s whose main output was composed in his years in Russia. He left that country in 1917 and settled in America but in all the time he lived there he found little time to compose producing only six works in twenty six years, albeit very fine ones. His career had by financial necessity become one of a virtuoso pianist always on the road. How different to the life and expectation which lay before him when he was born in1873, the second son to Vasily Rachmaninov an army officer married to his general’s daughter, Lyubov Butakova
Vasily was an amateur musician as well as a military man. His father had learned the piano under John Field, the Irish composer who spent a large part of his life in Russia. The family had a long aristocratic history but no longer any money to go with it. Still Lyubov had brought into the marriage as a dowry five estates. Within a few years Vasily had spent, drunk, gambled, invested disastrously and lost four of the estates leaving just the family home, Oneg. He also had a reputation as an inveterate liar and a lady’s man. Apart from that there was little to complain about.
Sergei’s first encounter with the piano was as a result of being made to sit under it as a punishment. Lyubov was a proficient pianist who gave Sergei his first lessons. He displayed an early musical aptitude and when he was six one Anna Ornatskaya, was engaged from St Petersburg to give him lessons and would remain for three years. Unfortunately in those three years Vasily had not improved and Oneg, the family home had to be auctioned off and the family forced to move to a small flat in St Petersburg. Separate arrangements had to be made for each of the children and in the case of Sergei, just ten years old, Ornatskaya arranged for his admission to St Petersburg Conservatory. The family break up was inevitable with the feckless Vasily leaving and never to return. Lyubov’s mother stepped into the breach to take care of the religious side of the children’s development. Matters became worse when three of the children including Sergei contracted diphtheria. Sergei and his brother recovered but their sister, Sophia succumbed. Fate struck another blow. His elder sister, Yelena, also musical with a fine contralto voice obtained a place in the Bolshoi opera but at age 18 she contracted and died of severe anaemia. On the plus side for Sergei he was taken to the Russian Orthodox churches of Moscow where the chant and the bells would leave a legacy in his music. The problem now was that there was little discipline exercised over Sergei who for three years began missing classes but covering his reports by falsifying the marks such as changing a mark of 1 for that of a 4. Ultimately he was to fail his exams and the family informed that he could lose his place. Urgent steps had to be taken. Alexander Siloti, a cousin who had made a successful piano career and was finishing a course with Lizst recommended that Sergei be shifted from St Petersburg to the Moscow Conservatory and referred Sergei to his own former tutor, the pianist, Nicolai Zverev.
Zverev took on private pupils but offered the three best pupils the opportunity to board at his flat. He did not charge where the pupil’s family could not afford it. He was a control freak who would brook no dissent. Rachmaninov shared a room with two other thirteen year olds living en famille with the sixty year old Zverev and his sister. Besides daily attendance at the conservatoire there was also vigorous piano practice at the flat for at least three hours a day starting at 6 o’clock in the morning. Zverev encouraged and paid for the boys to broaden their minds by visiting exhibitions, theatre and opera. Amongst his lessons were the playing piano reductions of orchestral works for four six hands or even, on occasion, eight hands with a fourth person joining them. I am not certain I would have liked to have been a neighbour, particularly at 6 am. Zverev would invite well known celebrities whom the boys would meet, one of whom was Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninov had recently heard his Manfred symphony and had then transcribed for two hands. Tchaikovsky is said to have been impressed but there is no extant record of it by which it can now be judged. It was from the study of piano reductions that Rachmaninov could learn much of the orchestral repertoire and learned his harmony. His first year had been successful and he had benefitted from the discipline. His second year at conservatoire would be studying harmony under Arensky and his success was such that he was taken under the wing of the principal, Tanyev (a dry as dust composer if ever there was one) to study counterpoint. This discipline is very much apparent in the first movement of Rachmaninov’s first symphony.
It became clear that Rachmaninov was bursting to compose but he was discouraged in this by Zverev which led to the ultimate rift between them. Rachmaninov was writing his first compositions, mainly piano preludes where Chopin was the inspiration but the style already recognizably Rachmaninov. His various preludes were written at different times and ultimately packaged as a set such as his five opus 3’s containing the C sharp minor. This became his universal trademark work. Other early works included a number of songs. It was Tchaikovsky who recommended Rachmaninov to his own publishers and it was they who approached Rachmaninov. Tchaikovsky also advised him not to ask a figure but to leave it to them to name one. Their first commission was 500 roubles, not bad when when he was otherwise only earning 15 roubles a month from odd pupils.
The rift with Zverev worsened with Rachmaninov more or less expelled from the flat after four years. By now Rachmaninov was no longer the fun loving adolescent but a serious minded individual. He moved in with a fellow student where he had a room of his own giving him the space to compose. Siloti by this time was teaching at the conservatory and introduced Rachmaninov to the Skalons, an aunt and cousins, who lived in a country estate, Ivanovka. Here he was happy to visit particularly Vera, the youngest of three daughters. He was 15 and she 17 but her mother was not going to have any of that, and he was forbidden to write to her. Instead he corresponded with her eldest daughter, Natalia, who herself was no mean pianist. They corresponded about his early compositions including a number of love songs seemingly composed with a nod in Natalia’s direction.
In 1891, he entered his name a year early at short notice for the final examinations at the Moscow Conservatory. This included the submission of a one act opera. Aleko was composed in 16 days, a vibrant gypsy opera which was successfully produced at the Bolshoi. It not only made the reputation of Rachmaninov but also that of the young Chaliapin. Not only did he pass his examination but he was awarded the Great Gold Medal. He then with Siloti moved to Ivanovka where he began his first piano concerto, his actual opus 1. He also wrote an unnumbered symphony in one movement known as the Youth Symphony; a one-movement symphonic poem, Prince Rotsislav and the Rock, a very haunting orchestral piece somewhat like Sibelius who was also at the beginning of his career in Finland.
As the early works were beginning to roll out new commissions followed including one to adapt Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty for two pianos followed in turn by his first Piano trio, Elégiaque. His publishers had now bought outright his five opus 3 preludes for 200 roubles equating to 40 roubles per prelude. One of them was of course the prelude in C sharp minor which would become a pianistic blockbuster. So though it became played all round the world; including on countless occasions by Rachmaninov himself; he was never to receive a kopek for it in royalties.
Rachmaninov was to receive a hammer blow towards the end of 1893 with the news of Tchaikovsky’s death caused by his drinking a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. The effect on Rachmaninov was immense and he poured his grief into his second piano trio mindful perhaps that it was a piano trio that Tchaikovsky wrote following the death of Nicholas Rubinstein.
Soon afterwards there followed the funeral of Zverev. The old boy had gone over the top in the first place; and had continued by putting a stop to another of his pupils performing in a first performance of the Rachmaninov first trio. Nevertheless a healing process did duly come about with Zverev sending pupils to Rachmaninov who was deeply sorrowful at the master’s passing.
Rachmaninov’s career from there on continued both as a composer and as a pianist performing both in Russia and other European centres. In 1896 he started on his first symphony working swiftly but intermittently between his playing commitments. Eventually the symphony was ready for performance and Alexander Glazunov had agreed to conduct. The symphony was cast in four movements and is very much a combination of classical structure owing something to Tchaikovsky and at the same time containing the sounds of Russian nationalism of the Mussorgsky/Borodin order. Its opening could be from the Night on the Bare Mountain but Mussorgsky himself could never have turned this theme into a fugue as Rachmaninov did in the development section. The opening of the last movement became widely known in the 1960’s as the signature tune of the television programme “What The Papers Say”. The work is powerful and over 65 minutes long. It may have needed a trim here or there but disaster was to occur. Glazunov, known for completing the unfinished works of others, famously Borodin’s Prince Igor, decided to make cuts to the score and changes to some of the instrumentation. It was also said that he was drunk during its ill prepared first performance. Rachmaninov had to escape from the concert hall. There can be nothing worse imaginable for a composer in seeing himself and all the hard work of months of inspirational ideas thrown to the lions by the ill thought caustic comments of critics. In the case of the Rachmaninov the critic in question – there were others – was César Cui, the least known composer of The Five, the Mighty Handful, and whose works are hardly known today. I cannot say if posterity has been unfair to Cui as a composer any more than I can comment on his ability as an engineer in the Russian army but one can say that critics owe a duty of responsibility to the subjects about whom they write, a responsibility that Cui lacked in likening the symphony to the ten plagues of Egypt and declaring it would be admired by the inmates of a music conservatory in hell, a brutal panning if ever there were one. The immediate result was that Rachmaninov withdrew the symphony ordering all copies to be burned; secondly it sent him into a composing block over two years. César Cui has something to answer for. Fortunately Rachmaninov was offered an assistant conductorship at the Bolshoi and so instead began his career at the podium. The symphony was never played again in his lifetime but it was unearthed in its Glazunov incarnation and later in the 1970’s Rachmaninov’s original sketches came to light. So how good a symphony is it? It ought to enjoy the performances given to its successors but here is what Robert Simpson wrote-:
“It is a powerful work in its own right, …., convinced, individual, finely constructed, and achieving a genuinely tragic and heroic expression – an artistic whole – created naturally and without strain it leaves little to be desired. At no time is it ever less than personal, strongly compelling. All four movements are genuinely thematically integrated”
During the period of composition Rachmaninov had been involved emotionally in a relationship which fell apart. His relationship with his cousin Natalia had however become closer and ultimately they became engaged. It took them three years to be able to marry because marriage between cousins, was opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church and his family. Eventually they were married by a military chaplain and their marriage was a happy one with two daughters following. Interestingly, there are two other instances which come to mind of marriages between cousins. Stravinsky had to overcome the same problem in marrying his first wife, Katya. The other composer to marry his first cousin was Grieg but he was Norwegian and for him the Russian Orthodox Church not an issue.
Following the catastrophe surrounding his first symphony Rachmaninov had a nervous breakdown descending into clinical depression and a creative block. In January 1900 Dr Nicolai Dahl treated him over three months, using novel methods of hypnotherapy to encourage the recovery . This encouraged the restoration of the creative muse and led to the writing and completion of the piano concerto no 2, the most famous of his concertos and which Rachmaninov dedicated to Dr Dahl. In later years Dr Dahl moved to Beirut. He played the viola in the orchestra of the orchestra of the American University there. On one occasion when Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto was performed the audience were informed that the dedicatee of the concerto, Dr Dahl, was a member of the viola section of the orchestra, and they demanded he rise and take a bow!
In 1904 Rachmaninoff became appointed chief conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre, a position from which he resigned following political upheaval of the failed 1905 uprising. He spent the following three winters composing in Dresden, and returning to the family estate, Ivanovka, each summer. In 1907 he tackled his second symphony and at the same time was writing his tone poem, The Isle of the Dead. In its early days the symphony was considerably cut by conductors so that it only lasted for 35 minutes. Nowadays it is very popular and performances last an hour. The Isle of the Dead is a haunting tone poem based on four paintings by the Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin and in one article described as four good bad paintings. That may be but the Rachmaninov is for sure one certain good masterpiece.
In 1909, he composed a third piano concerto for his visit to the USA. This concerto is undoubtedly the most powerful of the four he wrote and contains a scherzo section in the middle of the slow movement, a device he used again later on in his third symphony. The tour was a great success and he was offered the permanent conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Rachmaninov declined it.
A close friend of Rachmaninov was the composer Alexander Scriabin who had been a friend of his since their days together as students at the Moscow Conservatory. Scriabin’s death in 1915 affected Rachmaninoff so deeply that he went on a tour giving concerts entirely devoted to Scriabin’s music. When asked to play some of his own music, he would reply: “Only Scriabin tonight”.
The October Revolution of 1917 brought to an end the Russia as Rachmaninov had known it. As he saw it, the Revolution had led to the loss of his estate and threatened the loss of his livelihood. On 22 December 1917, he left Petrograd with his wife and two daughters on an open sled, having gathered some sketches and two scores of his own compositions and two orchestral scores and Rimsky’s opera, The Golden Cockerel. His only route out with the First World War in the west was to Helsinki. He spent a year performing in Scandinavia. He received three offers of lucrative American contracts which he declined before deciding that the solution to his financial concerns might lie in America. He left for New York on 1 November 1918. How different it might have turned out had the armistice come first? On arrival he was snatched up by an agent, given a piano by Steinway, and signed up with a contract by the Victor Talking Machine Company. He was now on a roller coaster of a concert career travelling non-stop by rail from one place to another. .
He was a sad man with a lugubrious face and now added to his torment was a deep seated homesickness for the Russia he had known and lost. He was described by his friend Stravinsky as a “six-foot scowl.” Between 1918 and his death in 1943, he completed only six compositions and his ability to create those lay in the fact that in 1932 he had bought and built Senar, a new summer home over Lake Lucerne. It is in classic Bauhaus design and it was there that he began writing again. He attributed his blockage to his heavy workload of concerts but in reality it was America itself that was the cause. It was as if he had left his inspiration behind when he left Russia. His revival only came about once he was living at Senar where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939. It reminded him of his old family estate, Ivanovka. Here it was as in his later home in Beverley Hills that the visitors were Russian, the staff Russian and Russian traditions practised. It was here that Rachmaninov composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934. His comment on finishing it was “This is one for my Agent”. He went on to compose here his third symphony in 1936 which is pure Mother Russia. The Symphonic Dances, his last completed work in 1940, could be described as his Fourth Symphony. They are more symphonic than dance. The idea was suggested by Michel Fokine allowing these two old stalwarts from the Tchaikovsky days to combine in the twilight of their careers. It reminds me of “The Sunshine Boys” or “The Odd Couple”. A dead pan Walter Matthau to play the lugubrious looking Rachmaninov with Jack Lemon playing Fokine. The collaboration didn’t happen. Fokine died in 1942 and Rachmaninov followed him wherever a year later. In many ways it is a summation of Rachmaninov’s achievement as a composer, quoting from his long forgotten first symphony; from the ‘dies irae’ which he returned to time and again; and also Rimsky’s Golden Cockerel, the score of which he brought out with him from Russia. In this work his orchestration has become more modern with the use of a solo saxophone reminiscent of Ravel and the instrumentation more brittle and spiky. There was now a distinct nod towards those two other war horses of the Diaghileff years, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Just a nod mind you, not a conversion. It is as if after nearly thirty years the kopek might have dropped.
In late 1940 he was approached to write a short concerto-like piece for use in the British film, Dangerous Moonlight, but he declined. Instead it was offered to Richard Adinsell who came up with the Warsaw Concerto. I have often thought how Rachmaninovian that work sounds. I little knew how close that connection was.
Rachmaninov died in America in 1943. He was buried in Beverley Hills. He would have liked to have been buried at Senar but the war prevented that. He never returned to Russia. I started at the outset by saying his music was once viewed as luscious late 19th century romanticism. Much like Elgar in many ways, he did not appear to follow the trends of the twentieth century but simply continued writing his way, nostalgic, romantic, melodic, deeply Russian and attached to an old world; a brilliant orchestrator and pianistic composer whose own music remained always formally structured. A brilliant concert pianist without doubt but I would forgo any recordings or piano rolls he left if only, if only, he had not gone to the States and between 1918 and 1943, there had been available to him a more accommodating environment for him to compose, as Senar turned out to be, which would have then undoubtedly have allowed him to bequeath an even greater legacy to the world.
* Since 2013, the Russian government has been negotiating to purchase Senar together with its many Rachmaninov relics. Rachmaninoff’s grandson who died in 2012 had taken steps to prevent the opening up of the house. I have not heard that the negotiations have yet been concluded. The Russian Ministry of Culture aim to turn it into a Rachmaninov museum and to restore Rachmaninov’s reputation as a composer as opposed to a performer. Could it also, I wonder, should the circumstances arise, turn out to be a Plan B bolthole for Vladimir Putin himself?