Sergey Rachmaninov

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Rachmaninov and the appreciation of his music have come a long way since 1954, when the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary confidently predicted that ‘the enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last’. In the intervening years, not only have those few works maintained their place in the repertory, but also many others previously disregarded or unknown have gained a wide and keen following.

During the last 25 years of his life, following the family’s emigration from Russia after the 1917 October Revolution, Rachmaninov’s reputation as a composer fell victim to his success as a pianist. 1917 was as much a watershed in his own career as it was for Russia as a whole. Between 1890 and 1917 Rachmaninov composed the bulk of his music – the first two symphonies and his tone poem The Isle of the Dead; the three operas Aleko, The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini, and the beginnings of another one, Monna Vanna; the major choral works, including Spring, The Bells and the All-night Vigil; the first three piano concertos (and parts of the fourth); all his solo piano preludes and Ètudes-tableaux; all his 80 or so songs.

Rachmaninov had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in piano in 1891, then in composition the following year. But he always considered himself as a composer first and a pianist second, and in the decades before he left Russia, that is how the public principally viewed him too. Afterwards, the emphasis shifted sharply towards life as a travelling pianist, with only a handful of new works to show for the years 1918 to 1943.

His experiences in Britain reflect the split of his career into two parts. When Rachmaninov first came to London in 1899, it was to conduct his orchestral fantasy The Rock, with the additional lure of hearing him play the already wildly popular Prelude in C sharp minor, together with the Elégie from the same Op. 3 set of pieces. He had to overcome the English critical establishment’s suspicion of anything and anybody Russian – Russian music was then deemed a ‘fad’ or ‘vogue’. But, to judge from contemporary reviews, his music was taken seriously. Gradually, the Second and Third Concertos were introduced, either with Rachmaninov or other pianists playing them, and in 1910, when he performed the Second Concerto and conducted the Second Symphony at the Leeds Festival, the notices were as extensive as those for Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, also being premiered.

For composition Rachmaninov needed peace and quiet. In Russia, he found it at Ivanovka, the estate set deep in the countryside, about 500 kilometres to the south-east of Moscow. Ivanovka is scarcely any easier to get to today than it must have been in Rachmaninov’s time, but its very remoteness had provided a haven from the noise and irritations of Moscow. Practically all the music he wrote in Russia had some association with Ivanovka, be it the preliminary thinking, the actual composition, the orchestration or proof-reading. From 1890 to 1917, Rachmaninov spent almost every summer there.

Even before the Revolution, his talents as a pianist were being recognised, so when he made his decision to leave Russia in 1917, the transition from composition to keyboard was not a severe problem. It was, in fact, a dire necessity. He and his family had had to abandon their property and money in Russia; his treasured country estate at Ivanovka had been razed to the ground. And from the time he sailed across the Atlantic on 1 November 1918 until his final recital at Knoxville, Tennessee, on 17 February 1943, the need to earn a living forced him to push composition to one side. As some recompense, he was lionised throughout Europe and the United States as one of the finest and most sought-after pianists the world had ever known. This was all the more remarkable considering Rachmaninov had an unshakeable aversion to performing on the wireless and, more than once, refused to allow his concerts to be broadcast.

The rebuilding and opening up of the Ivanovka estate from the 1970s onwards have been among the most important developments for any student of Rachmaninov’s music. Ivanovka helps one understand the nature of the intense stillness in which he worked – soundless save for the rustling of trees, limitless in the flat expanses of the surrounding steppe. His peripatetic life after 1917 meant he could rarely find such tranquillity in which to write music, nor indeed the time to do so amid incessant concert tours and practice. On occasion, the family rented a holiday villa in France, where he wrote the Corelli Variations; then in the 1930s Rachmaninov built a villa overlooking Lake Lucerne, where again he could surround himself with silence: the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was a result.

The Romantic strengths of his music have always struck a particular chord in Russian hearts. In the United States, the great leap forward in Rachmaninov studies came with the 1956 publication of Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda’s classic Sergei Rachmaninov: a Lifetime in Music. In Britain, however, the grudging views expressed in 1954 by Grove suggested a widespread indifference, a general misapprehension of Rachmaninov as a pianist who happened to have written some music. Performances concentrated on the same few works that had become popular and it wasn’t until the run-up to his 1973 centenary year that the climate changed – Vladimir Ashkenazy gave a complete cycle of the works for piano and orchestra in 1968, and André Previn championed the symphonies with the LSO in the 1970s.

Nowadays, there is scarcely a single work of Rachmaninov’s that is not on disc, while research on him is carried out worldwide. Whole academic conferences are devoted to him, and performances of his work seek out perspectives that are hidden within a musical personality long misunderstood. 

Geoffrey Norris