Sergei Rachmaninoff: the rise and the wreck of youthful idealism

To some extent, Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff may be called the “Russian Chopin”. In both, a tender soul was suffering and pining. However, Chopin’s genius was cherished in the “glasshouse” conditions of the liberal Kingdom of Poland, whereas Rachmaninoff’s genius was forged in the harsh conditions of the autocratic Russia.

He was born on April 1st, 1873, at his parents’ estate near the city of Novgorod the Great, in the north-west of the Russian Empire. His father was a descendant of a noble family going back to ancient Moldavian tsars. His mother was a general’s daughter.

The Rachmaninoff family was musical. Both parents had a good command of the piano. His paternal grandfather was a pupil of John Field. The little Seryozha’s first music teacher was his mother. When the boy turned 9, she was replaced by her female friend, a professional musical teacher from Saint-Petersburg.

SeryozhRachm.childa would often visit Novgorod, where he would stay at his maternal grandmother’s house. There, he was indelibly impressed by the city’s mighty cathedrals with their many-voiced bells and ancient chants ringing in their interiors.

In 1882, Rachmaninoff’s estate was sold to pay off debts, and the family moved to S.-Petersburg to take shelter in their relative’s house. There, Seryozha enrolled in the S.-Petersburg Conservatoire’s junior department.

In St.-Petersburg, many trials were lying in wait for him. His two beloved sisters died one after the other. His parents divorced. As a result, the boy was, in fact, left to his own devices. Moreover, a big city was fraught with too many temptations for the fragile adolescent. The young musician would often play truant from his lessons, and preferred to spend most of his time on the streets.

No one knows what the end of it would have been, if Seryozha’s celebrated cousin, Liszt’s pupil, A. I. Siloti had not stepped in. He suggested sending the unruly young prodigy to Moscow, to the boarding school owned by the well-known music teacher N. S. Zverev, where he himself had once been brought up.

Strict disciplRchman-12ine prevailed at Zverev’s school. Piano studies started sometimes at 6 o’clock in the morning. In the day, boys attended general classes at the Moscow Conservatoire. In the evening, the company, in full strength, would visit concert halls or opera houses. There was a rich library at Zverev’s house; he encouraged his pupils’ interest in reading and would often arrange discussions on the books read. Indeed, Seryozha read much. If some book fascinated him, he could hardly tear himself away from it and would sometimes read all night through. Among his favourite authors there were Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Leo Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Byron, Shelly, and Heine.

On Sundays, guests would gather at Zverev’s house. First and foremost, these were musicians, among them, Pyotr Tchaikovky, Sergei Taneyev, and Antony Arensky. University professors, lawyers, painters, and actors would also look in. Certainly, Zverev would ask his pupils to play something for the guests.

Together with Rachmaninoff, studying at the school were promising young pianists, among whom there was, in particular, a great composer and philosopher tSergei Rakhmaninov with teachero be, Alexander Skriabin. But the boy, whom Seryozha chummed up with most, was Matvei Pressman, who would later place himself at the head of Moscow’s Ippolitov-Ivanov School of Music. On the photo given to his friend, he wrote: “To my good, dear, nice, and kind Motya Pressman from S. Rachmaninoff, February 26th, at 8½ o’clock in the evening”. Those tender feelings, evoked by friendship, would soon find expression in his music.

In the meZverev-2antime, artistic execution alone could no longer saturate his soul. An irresistible wish to compose music was increasingly taking possession of him. He now felt cramped and stifled in Zverev’s “star factory” designed to produce only virtuoso pianists. Soon the youth had to stand a hard and painful explanation with the teacher. As a result, he was ignominiously expelled from the school. What a contrast it was to Chopin, whose heedful tutors had showed complete understanding towards his composer’s gift!

In 1888, Sergei moved to his Moscow relatives’ house and continued his studies, but this time at the Conservatoire proper. His piano teacher there was A. I. Siloti, while he took composition lessons from S. I. Taneyev and A. S. Arensky.

It was as early as before graduating from the Conservatoire that the 18-year-old Rachmaninoff submitted to the public judgement his 1st piano concerto, which he dedicated to A. I. Siloti. The author himself performed as a soloist, with the Conservatoire’s director, V. I. Safonov conducting. Rachmaninoff’s first large opus breathes the spirit of virginity. You can find here neither “adultness” nor “childness”. Making itself known in all its vigour here is an unchallenged reign of youthfulness. The persona appears here as now thoughtful, now ardent, and now light-hearted. And yet, he unchangeably remains chaste in all his impulses and intentions. It is a rare occurrence, when the author manages to not only nourish those feelings inside of him, but also express the same in an artwork. One may say that Rachmaninoff thus repeated the exploit of Chopin, who had at the age of 19 performed his two, as whole-heartedly youthful, piano concertos. And we love both these men of genius, first and foremost, for the chastity that they glorified in their music and tried to observe in their lives.

During his studies at the Conservatoire, Rachmaninoff, apart from 1st piano concerto, wrote a number of pieces, including the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, which amazed the listener with the powerful bell-tolling sound in the beginning and closing parts, and an impetuous middle movement.

In 1892, Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatoire with the gold medal. That same year, the Conservatoire’s another two brilliant gold medalists came into being, Alexander Skriabin and Josef Lhévinne (the latter soon married his fellow-student in V. I. Safonov’s piano class, Rosina, who, many year later, in the United States, would become the “music mother” of the 1st Tchaikovsky competition’s winner, Van Cliburn).

Rachmaninoff presented his opera “Aleko” as his graduation work, for which one of the examining board members, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, gave him a “five” with four plus marks (actually, it was just a “five plus”, since the great composer would give ordinary “fives”, without pluses, to all).

After graduating from the Conservatoire, Rachmaninoff continued composing music. Also, he taught and gave recitals. Interestingly, he preferred performing his own compositions and avoided playing those written by others, and he would feel ill at ease, should he happen to do so.

His financial position remained shaky, but his popularity was growing. His opera was staged at the Bolshoi Theatre, and critics would call his compositions “masterpieces”. Certainly, this could not but turn the young man’s head. He was intending to bring about a “revolution” in music. In 1897, Rachmaninoff presented to the public his 1st symphony, which was meant to create a new dawn for the Russian symphonic style. Surely, he had better to wait a little with a “new dawn”, and honour the tradition instead. That was the way Mozart and Beethoven did. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, with a “new dawn” starting to show somewhere in the area of the 45th. Far and by, the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s 1st symphony ended in ignominious failure, after which the author fell into depression and could not compose music for several years.

Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff eagerly accepted an invitation from a well-known entrepreneur and art patron, Savva Mamontov, to work as a conductor in his private opera company. Rachmaninoff had long dreamed of learning to conduct properly, the more so that the failure with his 1st symphony was also accounted for by A. K. Glazunov’s careless conducting. In Mamontov’s opera company, Rachmaninoff became friends with another music giant, Feodor Shaliapin. The great singer was noted for his cheerful disposition. Being a master of pranks, he would distract Rachmaninoff from his gloomy thoughts and in no small measure contributed to his return to creativity.

Rachmaninoff’s friendship with Shaliapin, treatment from the heedful psychotherapist V. I. Dahl, as well as his youth that was still there, did their work. Now he felt so confident that he decided to appear on stage with his 2nd piano concerto, which was rapturously received by the public. The concerto came as an “account” of the work done by his soul in the time of trouble. The 1st movement, starting with a “bell-tolling” sound, so loved by the author, immerses the listener into the atmosphere of grave meditations. Gradually, the clouds dissipate, and we find ourselves in the embrace of the heart-warming and dreamy second theme. It occurs and reoccurs, each time exposing its new facets. It ends in an amazingly poetic duet, after which soars to celestial heights. The image of youth crowned by friendship is conveyed here with renewed vigour. The second theme’s atmosphere is reborn in the concerto’s 2nd movement. Tinged with the images of Russian nature, it evokes the feeling of unshadowed happiness. The serenity of the “springtime’s noon” would only be broken here by the wind, which would spring up at times, swaying the foliage and veiling the sun with light clouds.

Helping to express the feelings experienced by Rachmaninoff, there emerges an Oriental colour, which is organically entwined in his thoroughly European musical palette. It is especially pronounced in his 2nd piano concerto. Other European composers would also use Oriental melodies, when they wanted to convey the exoticism of the Orient. Rachmaninoff was, perhaps, the first to manage to adjust the Oriental colour for expressing the emotional state. Western European music, despite all the heights reached and kept, still lacks this fascinating flavour.

So, the crisis was over. Rachmaninoff could again compose music and perform as a pianist and conductor both in Russia and abroad. In 1902, he married his cousin, Natalia Satina, whom he had known since he had first arrived in Moscow. Their wedding journey’s route ran across European countries. At the time, Rachmaninoff was most strongly impressed by Wagner’s operas that they could listen to while in Bayreuth.

From 1904 on, Rachmaninoff’s conducting career continued, now at the Bolshoi. Here, his conducting talent manifested itself in full. Moreover, this position prompted him to compose his own new operas. Neither stopped he performing as a pianist, and his playing would be compared to the plasticity of antique sculptures.

The 1st Russian revolution of 1905–1907 and the unrest accompanying it disarranged the musician’s life that had just started to turn around. The December armed revolt made the most dismaying impression on Rachmaninoff. He flounced between Italy and his estate in the Tambov Province. Finally, he found relative rest and seclusion in Dresden. There, he wrote, among other things, his 2nd symphony with a highly poetical Adagio, which echoed the middle movement of his 2nd piano concerto. A hymn to friendship and chastity sounded for the last time. Rachmaninoff was saying fare-well to his youth. The main idea of this particular movement, as well as of the entire symphony, could be verbalized as follows: “Although my youth is gone irretrievably, but Nature will always have its springtime!”

In the meantime, the situation in Russia returned to normal. But Rachmaninoff still felt disquieted. The nostalgia for a bygone youth took hold of him. Doesn’t it have a continuation? Certainly, it partly continues in creativity. But it is only partly. Youth is sure to have some other, innermost continuation. But what exactly? For if youth doesn’t have a continuation, life doesn’t have a meaning. It was not without reason that Tolstoy gave up his idea of creating a tetralogy and did not complement his trilogy “Childhood. Adolescence. Youth”. with “Early Manhood”. Something stopped him. He felt that “early manhood” and, the more so, “maturity” was a dead-end, and that the true growth went some other way, which was unknown to him.

At first sight, comparing Rachmaninoff with Chopin may seem controversial. But, given a deeper insight into those composers’ creative work, it becomes clear that, at bottom, their message was just the same. Chopin once noted that the gist of his music could be conveyed by the Polish word żal (feeling pity, or sorry). As for Rachmaninoff, he expressed it in his own way. He even wrote a piece, where the above feeling was communicated quite outright. It is his song for a poem by G. Galina, “How Painful”, which ends with the following lines:

  • Wish I were just an old man now,
    That white-frost glittered in my curls
    That the nightingale did not sing for me
    That the forest did not murmur for me,
  • That a song did not break from my breast
    Through the lilacs to endless expanse,
    That there’s nothing in what is around
    That I was so tormentingly sorry for!

And, surely, it was the concern for death that made both men of genius closely related to each other. This peculiarity prompted the one to persistently turn to the genre of funeral march, and the other, to the medieval chant Dies irae.

In 1909, Rachmaninoff wrote his 3d piano concerto, which, again, became his soul’s another “activity report”. The concerto is highly dramatic and reaches its highest intensity in the 1st movement’s cadenza. Never had desperation been expressed in music so passionately and acutely, as it was here. Following the logic of musical form, Rachmaninoff concluded the concerto with a quite life-asserting finale, which, however, offered no answer to the questions that tormented him.

The 35 yerachmaninoff-bwar-old Rachmaninoff’s thoughts would increasingly run into the thought of death. He found similar attitudes in E. Poe’s poem “The Bells” translated into Russian by K. Balmont, which he set to music. But that was rather a presentation of the problem, not its solution.

Rachmaninoff tried to solve the problem of death by turning to the conventional religion and, respectively, to the traditional church music forms. In this way, his choral canvasses, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” and “The All-Night Vigil” appeared. But, whereas for J. S. Bach, turning to sacred music had been a natural expression of his faith, Rachmaninoff’s church music, despite all its indisputable artistic merits, sounds not so convincing and fails to bring peace to your soul. By then, Rachmaninoff had found the certainty of death, but had not yet gained the faith in immortality.

Then, Rachmaninoff sought to pour out his emotional discord in his piano pieces. Now one can no more hear in them lyrical confessions so typical of the youthful perception of the world. On the other hand, the ominous Gregorian chant “Dies Irae” was becoming more and more persistent in them. Yes, it was that very theme of Death that had quite recently appeared, although in a modified form, in” The Black Mass” by another Russian man of genius, A. N. Scriabin.

Rachmaninoff and Scriabin had been classmates at the Moscow Conservatoire. They had known each other well, but never had they been close, and would treat each other rather critically. Scriabin would be sickened by Rachmaninoff’s “earthiness”, while Rachmaninoff would chuckle over Scriabin’s “heavenliness”. However, Scriabin’s sudden death in 1915 laid bare the profound affinity between the two artists. Rachmaninoff gave a series of recitals consisting exclusively of pieces composed by his late brother-in-art.

By that time, Rachmaninoff had become a world celebrity, both as a composer and a pianist, and also as a conductor.
He was happy in his family life. He was preoccupied with the improvement of his “Ivanovka” estate in the Tambov Region. But under the cover of this apparent prosperity his restless soul was pining. As one of Leo Tolstoy’s characters put it, he “would hide the rope so as not to hang himself, and a gun, so as not to shoot himself”. Rachmaninoff felt that the so called “family happiness” was not exactly what Man was meant to accomplish.

And indeed, not everything in Rachmaninoff’s everyday life was running smoothly. The First World War was in full swing, and Russia, slowly but surely, was slipping into the abyss. Class conflicts were being exacerbated. Socially, Rachmaninoff was a feudal landlord, and the legitimacy of his ownership was increasingly challenged by the surrounding peasants, while the profitability of his farmstead caused envy. The standoff was mounting. Drunken villagers would pelt Rachmaninoff’s automobile with dirt, and “the red cock” once took a good walk through his estate. So, the place was getting literally too hot for the well-to-do noble landowner.

The February 1917 revolution in Russia brought along some hopes for establishing order in the country. But Russia had not used to living in conditions of freedom. “Democratic forces” that had come to power could in no way make terms with each other. To pull the country out of chaos, extraordinary measures were needed. As a result, Russia found itself in the arms of the Bolsheviks who were impatient to put their precocious, fanatical beliefs into practice.

After the October 1917 revolution, Rachmaninoff, having availed himself of an invitation to go on tour to Sweden, left Russia together with his family. Before long, his estate was looted, and some of his relatives, who stayed in Russia, were killed. Returning to his homeland was out of the question. Now, hatred towards Russia’s unwelcome rulers became his prevailing sentiment. Should he learn that any of Russia’s newly-made officials were present among the audience, he would refuse to walk onto the concert platform until those walked out.

In 1918, the Rachmaninoffs moved to New York City. In the USA, Rachmaninoff embarked on heavy concertizing as a pianist, which was largely accounted for by his intention to strengthen his financial footing. And he managed it quite well. Strange as it may seem, the Americans came to love this outwardly retrained, but whole-souled, and still a bit enigmatic Russian. They especially took to one of Rachmaninoff’s youth pieces, his prelude in C sharp minor. It would be referred to as just “this one”, and asked to be played at his almost every performance. Besides, Rachmaninoff made friends with the owner of a piano factory F. Steinway, which also helped him consolidate his position in a new place.

In 1926, Rachmaninoff resumed composing music. He finalized his 4th piano concerto, which he had started as early as in 1914. Compared to the three previous concertos, that was rather a “souvenir concerto”. Everything seems to be in place there, and the author is recognizable from the very first cords. But all those characteristic features largely appear in a generalized form. One cannot find here neither deep reflections, nor passionate confessions, nor chaste enjoyments, nor even a howl of despair. This concerto might as well be called “The Variations on a Theme of Rachmaninoff”. Perhaps, the only place where his soul opens up for a moment is the 1st movement’s collateral part. Here, a painfully familiar, charming, oriental-like intonation can be heard… But no, this distorted tune is just a moan uttered by a man broken-down by an unbearable distress of soul.

In 1928, Rachmaninoff made the acquaintance of yet another giant of Russian pianism and also “defector”,
Vladimir Horowitz. Rachmaninoff immediately felt spiritual affinity with him and offered Horowitz to make a stab at his 3d piano concerto. Horowitz was ineffably happy, the more so that Rachmaninoff had always been his idol. Their acquaintance soon turned into a lasting friendship. On the same occasion, a tradition emerged of their ensemble playing, which would make an indelible impression on the listeners at home concerts.

In 1931, Rachmaninoff built himself a villa in Switzerland, so as to be closer to Russia, at least, geographically. That very year, his piano cycle “Variations on a Theme of Corelli” came out. The late-period Rachmaninoff’s ability to compose music was dying away. He was largely preoccupied with making new editions of his earlier works or arranging other composers’ pieces, mostly popular ones, which he would include in his concert programmes. The unpretentious theme of Corelli could hardly be rated among “hits”. Still, it contains a certain potential enabling Rachmaninoff to employ a wide set of pianistic techniques and express with renewed vigour nearly the entire range of his emotional experience.

In 1934, “The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” was written, which would otherwise be called “Rachmaninoff’s 5th piano concerto”. A lashing and resilient theme of the 24th caprice by the Italian demon violinist has repeatedly urged various composers to make its various arrangements. After Rachmaninoff’s version had emerged, it became clear that not only Paganini’s bones would never find their final burial place, but his spirit would never gain its eternal rest, either. With Rachmaninoff, this theme almost instantly gets intertwined with the notorious Dies Irae. It now laughs, now weeps, now dances “kazachok”, now turns out to be just the noise of a big city. Then it plunges into mysterious depths, but suddenly soars upwards and becomes fondly nostalgic. Finally, after a while of wandering, it pours itself into a hymn to the triumphant Death.

In 1936, Rachmaninoff completed his 3d symphony, which somewhat resembled his ill-starred 1st symphony. Perhaps, only the beginning of its 2nd movement awakens in our souls some vague memories of what we love so much in Rachmaninoff. The 3d symphony was received cooly both by critics and audiences, although the author was confident that he had written a masterpiece.

In 1939, Rachmaninoff, driven by the impending 2nd World War, returned to the USA. The last thing the composer Rachmaninoff left behind was his “Symphonic Dances”, which he wrote in his countryside house near New York. At first, he had wanted to name them “Fantastic Dances”. In reality, however, it turned out to be like a cross between H. Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” on the one hand and M. P. Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” and “The Night on Bald Mountain”, on the other.

The dominating image of Death is contrasted here by the image of Innocent Suffering. To express these two “Principles”, Rachmaninoff seems to resort to Russian fairy-tale characters. Representing Death, there appear the furious evil spirits of the forest, while Innocent Suffering is represented by the painter V. M. Vasnetsov’s “Alyonushka”, doomed to die in an unequal battle. Only in the end of the 1st dance, the music soars somewhere high into the air, and, wafting from there, one can hear something painfully familiar, something very personal – this is the how Rachmaninoff sends us his last farewell, using a modified quotation from his 1st symphony. The “Dances” are culminated with the unchallenged triumph of Death and the merciless overthrow and profanation of whatever is holy.

Instantly, images of folk tales had earlier been employed by Rachmaninoff to express some poignant human emotions. For example, one of his piano Études-Tableaux had jokingly been subtitled “The Little Red Riding Hood and Grey Wolf”. As the saying goes, “many a true word can be spoken in jest”.

After Nazi Germany and its allies attacked the Soviet Union, Rachmaninoff’s heart shivered. In his stance towards Russia, he, at last, tempered hatred with pity. A hefty share of his concert proceeds now would be donated to support Russia’s embattled Army. Incidentally, Rachmaninoff was always noted for outstanding responsiveness. Having achieved material well-being, he would seek to help his needy friends and acquaintances at all times. And his “alms” were done in secret, as far as possible.

But Rachmaninoff’s days were already numbered. He developed severe back pains, his coughing intensified, and he started spitting blood. Doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer. Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff smoked heavily in his declining years. Besides, exposure to excessive solar radiation (he lived in Los Angeles then) was hardly healthy for a native of northern latitudes. Moreover, his final months were, again, spent in the conditions of the approaching war – almost everybody on the USA’s West Coast lived in fear of Japanese bombardments, which would be the subject of his last, dismal jokes.

A few days before death, he lapsed into a coma. But even then he still seemed to hear music. Slightly opening his eyes, he would ask: “Who’s playing this?”

Rachmaninoff died on March 28th, 1943, just a few days before turning 70. He had wanted to be buried in his Swiss estate. But, in the end, a cemetery near New York City became his final resting place.

Who then was Rachmaninoff from the viewpoint of Truth? Certainly, first of all, he was an Artist. But not a “classical” artist who will reveal the beauty and perfection of the Universe. He was a romantic artist who exposed the world perception not of a Human, but, rather of God’s Child, Who has known happiness, Who was plunged into suffering, and Who is awaiting death. The one who reaches such a state will be inevitably gripped by desperation over the senselessness of everything going on. Rachmaninoff once confessed that he felt like a “phantom, who wanders alone in a world which is alien to him”. It is exactly this situation that has been expertly described by existentialist philosophers.


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