Reconsidering Rachmaninoff


The composer seated at his Steinway, ca. 1915-1920 (Library of Congress)

The composer seated at his Steinway, ca. 1915-1920 (Library of Congress)

Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile by Fiona Maddocks; Pegasus Books, 384 pp., $29.95

The biggest recent find in classical music was the discovery that in 1940, Sergei Rachmaninoff was privately recorded by the conductor Eugene Ormandy. Seated at Ormandy’s piano, he played through his new Symphonic Dances, which Ormandy would soon premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Singularly, Rachmaninoff never permitted his public performances to be broadcast—so this surreptitious home recording is the best evidence we have of what Rachmaninoff’s legendary pianism sounded like outside the confines of recording studios sucked clean of the oxygen a body of listeners can activate.

Rachmaninoff’s RCA recordings are justly famous. They document his imperious, interpretive mastery, embellished with miracles of color and texture. But they are also emotionally controlled. When we eavesdrop on Rachmaninoff playing privately for Ormandy, the cork is out of the bottle: his keyboard presence surges with cataracts of feeling and sound. (It’s all documented in a three-CD set, Rachmaninoff Plays Symphonic Dances, issued in 2018 on the Marston label.)

Rachmaninoff’s demonstration was wasted on Ormandy, who was never demonic. But, thanks to Fiona Maddocks’s Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile, I have become aware of a 1940s recording of the Symphonic Dances overwhelming in sustained intensity. The conductor is Nikolai Golovanov, and the orchestra is that of Radio Moscow. As chief conductor of the Bolshoi Opera, Golovanov (1891–1953) needed no instructions from Rachmaninoff (whom he once knew), a world away in Philadelphia. His interpretation of the Symphonic Dances is no carbon copy of Rachmaninoff’s private performance. But the earmarks are in place. The cascading flux of pulse and the extreme range of dynamics ignite a convulsive ebb and flow by turns seething and achingly poignant. And it’s all channeled by a hundred musicians feeling as one. In short, Golovanov’s recording, made in Soviet Russia a quarter century after the composer abandoned his homeland, searingly documents what Rachmaninoff left behind.

In Maddocks’s gentle recounting, Rachmaninoff—a livid presence in absentia in Soviet Russia—was by 1940 celebrated but passe in the United States. With his severe crewcut and gimlet eyes, he was increasingly perceived as spent, a pianist constricted in repertoire, a composer marginalized in the shadow of Igor Stravinsky and other fashionable modernists.

He had been born, in 1873, to a landed aristocratic family. The violence of the Russian Revolution drove him into exile in 1918 with whatever the family could pack; their estate had already been confiscated. He settled in New York City and in 1932 acquired a summer villa in Lucerne. In 1942, in declining health, he moved to Beverly Hills, where he died a year later. In Russia, he initially acquired fame as a composer and conductor; as a pianist, he mainly played his own music. In order to generate an income in the New World, he laboriously reconstituted his musical genius and became a touring piano virtuoso purveying classical and Romantic repertoire.

Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of a life in exile complicated by bouts of depression and self-doubt, Rachmaninoff’s personal life was wondrously stable, focused on a loving family and loving friends, assisted by servants, a chef, and a chauffeur, all of them Russian. His fabulous earnings were depleted by his fabulous generosity, the beneficiaries of which included needy émigrés and overseas causes. His friends Alexander and Katherine Swann, in a much-quoted reminiscence, perceived him as “alone in spirit and everlastingly homesick for Russia. The Russian spirit and habits were all-powerful in him.” They also reported that they “practically never saw him annoyed, displeased, fussing, or excited.” And that “he did everything quietly and firmly; hesitation was alien to his nature.”

To this familiar overview, Maddocks adds a trove of anecdotes and documents. The picture that emerges of Rachmaninoff in exile is by no means insular. He was no snob. He adored driving motorcars and piloting motorboats. The sleek design of his Lucerne retreat was modernist. He was fascinated by the bandleader Paul Whiteman, who “made a lady out of jazz.” Like so many musical émigrés, he recognized George Gershwin’s genius more readily than did native-born American classical musicians. Though Maddocks finds no evidence of Rachmaninoff in Harlem, he was smitten by the virtuosity of Art Tatum. He considered scoring the most bewitching tune in his Symphonic Dances for contralto—as a vocalise for Marian Anderson—but wound up handing it to a solo saxophone. He believed that “the seed of the future music of America lies in a true Negro music.” And he (belatedly) took American citizenship in 1943.

That said: he was never fluent in English (a shortcoming he called “disgraceful” in 1934). He yearned for “real and sincere” New World musical colleagues. “I dislike my occupation intensely,” he wrote in 1922. “I only play the piano and give a great many concerts. … I practice, practice.” Three years later, the husband of his daughter Irina committed suicide; she and her own daughter lived near her parents ever after, with her father the family’s sole earner. Over time, his concerts were perceived by some as stale: an “icicles personality,” reported the Utah Evening Herald in 1938.

Mainly, and famously, Rachmaninoff’s American life and career were shrouded by a pall of retrospection both painful and poetic. A writer for The New Yorker visited his five-story Riverside Drive home in 1926 and reported: “While waiting for the appearance of one of his daughters, who were always his emissaries, the caller became conscious of a suzerainty of order; of punctilious nobility, of a fair, natural elegance that livened into magnificent and to tender gloom as the sunlight eddied in and withdrew through the heavy plated windows.” Rachmaninoff tested the notion of visiting Soviet Russia. He listened to broadcasts of Russian music with agitation. He mourned Russia’s fate during World War II.

By the time he gave what proved his final concert—a program of Bach, Chopin (the “Funeral March” Sonata), Schumann, Wagner, and Rachmaninoff, in a gymnasium-auditorium in Knoxville, Tennessee—Rachmaninoff was terminally ill but did not know it. He canceled three concerts and returned to Los Angeles. He died on March 28, 1943—some five weeks after his Knoxville recital. Maddocks here appends, in full, two lengthy medical reports, both newly translated, both memorable. The first is from Rachmaninoff’s Russian physician, who records:

Following a small operation … the diagnosis of his [cancer] was confirmed and the family was informed. … The patient himself was, however, not told. It was not that Sergei Vasilievich feared death, or at least not more so than any person in a terminal condition, but his was a life so exceptionally rich in content, he so loved life, the light, his family, that the very thought of death would have been insupportable to him. … Despite suffering such a painful illness, Sergei Vasilievich was invariably cordial and affectionate.

The second medical report, by Rachmaninoff’s nurse, reads in part:

I was always deeply impressed by Sergei Vasilievich’s strength of will and his refusal to submit to the pain he was subjected to, no matter how grievous. He could never get out of his mind the sufferings of the fighting forces of his motherland, sharing and enduring them alongside his compatriots. Every day he would ask … for the latest news from the front.

Goodbye Russia ends, shrewdly, with a flashback to Ivanovka, the family estate Rachmaninoff supervised before the Revolution—two houses, a park in the English style, orchards, a dairy, a stud farm. Here he would swim, skate, and ride his horses. He knew winnowing machines, ploughs, and binders, sowing, weeding, and threshing. Maddocks excerpts the diary of 15-year-old Vera Dmitrievna Skalon, Rachmaninoff’s teenage sweetheart, recounting the summer of 1890. It proceeds to this vignette:

As soon as tea is finished, [everyone] heads outside. The older generation sits on the long bench while we young ones make great strides to the summerhouse, or maybe to the park. … A special kind of stillness and content descends … one’s soul feels light and consoled. The gaiety of our mood is transformed into seriousness, and our conversations become loving and intimate. We go out on to the balcony and gaze our fill at the sky and the stars, carrying on talking and laughing, until at long last tiredness takes over and forces us to sleep.

That Rachmaninoff’s music never lost popularity became a kind of curse: he was dismissed as the confectioner of the C-sharp minor Prelude and Second Concerto. A curt entry in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 11 years after his death, marked an absurd nadir: “His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of [his] works had in his lifetime is not likely to last and musicians never regarded it with much favour.” With the waning of modernism, Rachmaninoff’s stock began to rise; for the first time, he became an object of serious scholarly inquiry. Today, he ranks with Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Serge Prokofiev as one of four great Russian composers populating the interwar period and after.

Stravinsky not only left Russia but also rejected her: an act of denial anchoring a new aesthetic direction. Once praised as a happy chameleon, he today increasingly seems a survivor coping as best he can (in my recent study of the cultural Cold War, The Propaganda of Freedom, I observe Stravinsky in Hollywood enduring “a freedom not to matter”). Shostakovich embodied a different kind of resilience: he stuck it out, a beneficiary and victim of Soviet policies that honored and reviled him. Prokofiev abandoned Russia only to return—and compose music tamer and more popular than what he had last produced abroad.

In this company, Rachmaninoff is the one who left Russia yet stayed Russian. At first, he seemed creatively stranded. He might indeed have virtually stopped composing in the face of new fashions—as happened, more or less, with Edward Elgar, Jean Sibelius, Manuel de Falla, and Charles Ives. Eventually, he produced a pair of big works of variable reputation: a Fourth Piano Concerto, a Third Symphony. Then, miraculously, came two late masterpieces. The first, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, is concise and ingenious, witty and warm. It also somewhat feeds on the smart syncopations and wicked virtuosity of Harlem piano. The second is the Symphonic Dances he so memorably sampled for Eugene Ormandy. Summoning his waning energies, he fashioned a musical testament. The dances originally bore titles: “Midday,” Twilight,” “Midnight.” These are stations of life. The finale ends in a blaze of glory; near the close, Rachmaninoff inscribed: “Alliluya.”

We are drawing a new musical map. Looking back, the 20th no longer seems the century of Stravinsky. Prokofiev once eclipsed Shostakovich—but no longer. And Sergei Rachmaninoff stands apart from the turmoil that enveloped him, a pillar of implacable poise and sovereign humanity.

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