A Lost World

Classic Arts Features   A Lost World
Serge Rachmaninoff's music provides a link to 19th-century Russia and his mentor, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky.


Serge Rachmaninoff was blessed with extraordinarily large hands that he employed with incredible dexterity. He wrote for those hands, his Piano Concerto No. 3 calling for rapid and wide-spread chords that many pianists would not even bother to attempt. One fan described shaking hands with the virtuoso: "His hands, which appeared bony and hard from a distance, were so large and soft that when I shook hands with him I lost mine in the cushions of his."

And he wrote for audiences. When Rachmaninoff prepared the awesomely difficult and dazzlingly musical Third Concerto for his first United States tour, in 1919, he said that he wanted something with which to impress "the dollar princess." The Beverly Hills address that would become his exile in paradise until the end of his life, in 1943, tells how impressive he was. Among his fellow _migr_s in his neighborhood: Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Jean Renoir, Bruno Walter, Alma Mahler, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler: ah, those Hollywood nights in those Hollywood hills.

"I shall never forget the admiration I felt when I first heard Rachmaninoff play," said pianist Artur Schnabel. "His sovereign style, a combination of grandeur and daring, his naturalness and the giving of his whole self: all this was absolutely inimitable."

Rachmaninoff exhibited an inviolate demeanor in the concert hall. He displayed few physical gestures at the keyboard or at the podium. (He was also a much sought-after conductor, his interpretations of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 were legendary.) Audiences felt as if they were in the presence of a great man. The pianist Cyril Smith wrote, "...those who were fortunate enough to hear him play will almost certainly remember this very tall, melancholy figure, with his graying hair in a crew cut and his deeply-lined face set in a somber expression, walking unwillingly to the piano as though he hated the very sight of it. Slowly he would take his seat, gazing round at the audience with his gimlet eyes... Such was the power of his personality that I have seen members of the audience cower down in their seats as his glance passed over them...."

Rachmaninoff gave audiences the image and sounds of what classical music was and should be. He was a living connection to Tchaikovsky, who had served as his mentor and friend. Rachmaninoff had studied at the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky served in an emeritus position during the young pianist/composer's education. Rachmaninoff studied the master's "Manfred" Symphony so closely that he created a piano transcription for four hands of the work, and performed it for Tchaikovsky. As musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky observed, Rachmaninoff's link to Tchaikovsky as a lyrical artist was very strong, especially in Rachmaninoff's early work, in which, like Tchaikovsky, "melancholy moods prevail and minor keys predominate."

Rachmaninoff revered the memory of Tchaikovsky throughout his life, and would recall their first meeting: "Tchaikovsky at that time was already world famous, and honored by everybody, but he remained unspoiled. He was one of the most charming artists and men I ever met. He had an unequaled delicacy of mind. He was modest, as all really great people are, and simple, as very few are. (I met only one other man who at all resembled him, and that was Chekhov.)"

It is not overstating the case to designate Rachmaninoff as the symbolic endpoint to the 19th century Russian Romantic tradition. And the glory of that tradition would bring him fame: both his Second Symphony and Second Piano Concerto are two of the most popular works of the 20th century: and remain a staple of the concert hall today. "Music must first and foremost be loved," Rachmaninoff proclaimed, "it must come from the heart and it must be directed to the heart. Otherwise it cannot hope to be lasting, indestructible art."

One cannot imagine two other European composer _migr_s, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, agreeing with such a statement (who both happened to be residing in southern California at the same time as Rachmaninoff). And it was Rachmaninoff's hold to tradition that would result in his diminished ranking as a modern composer. For example, a critic dismissed his Piano Concerto No. 4, in 1927, saying the work "remains as essentially 19th century as if Tchaikovsky would have signed it": which were the same reasons that the majority of audiences found Rachmaninoff so popular.

Rachmaninoff remained rooted to Russian Romantic traditions and disdained modernism. "His sympathies and life-style linked him to a vanished age," wrote biographer Barrie Martyn. Rachmaninoff paid a price for his convictions. "I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien," he said in 1939. "I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me. Unlike Madame Butterfly with her quick religious conversions [an allusion to Stravinsky] I cannot cast out my musical gods in a moment and bend the knee to new ones."

He produced only five major works from 1917 to his death. His isolation was more than a matter of reluctance to conform to contemporary fashions. In 1933 he admitted, "...since I lost my country, I have felt unable to compose. When I was on my farm in Russia during the summers, I had joy in my work. Certainly I still write music: but it does not mean the same to me now."

Alex Ross has observed that in the music of many composers who harbored strong national ties in the 20th century: Elgar's Cello Concerto, for example: is heard "lamentations for a lost world." The Russian soil and air, the Russian people, his home: of these Rachmaninoff was bereft. Rachmaninoff publically denounced the Soviet state, and so had no hope of return. He worked those massive hands magically in international concerts halls, but they never again worked the garden of his native land.

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