Bane of the Pianist’s Existence: Sergei Rachmaninov

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This post, we will explore the life and times of every pianist’s worst nightmare, Sergei Rachmaninov.

Серге́й Васи́льевич Рахма́нинов, a.k.a. Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov, was born April 1st, 1873 in Semyonovo Russia (picture a suburb of its parent city, Novgorod). A boy from aristocracy, young Sergei was not the kind to suffer want. Both Rachmaninov’s father, Vasily, and mother, Lubov, were amateur pianists; however, it was Mom who gave Sergei his earliest lessons (age 4ish).  Granddaddy Arkady Alexandrovich Rachmaninoff recognized Sergei’s talent and contributed to his education by bringing in the famous Anna Ornatskaya to formally teach the piano to Sergei at the tender age of 9 years old. She remained with the Rachmaninov’s until they moved to Saint Petersburg where Sergei began lessons at the conservatory. This move marks an unfortunate time for the family. In addition to the humiliation of losing their estate in Semyonovo (due to Dad’s poor spending habits), a diphtheria epidemic killed his sister, Sofia. His parents separated shortly afterwards, leaving their three remaining children in Lubov’s custody.  Sergei struggled as a result of these domestic trials and upon failing his exams in 1885 it was suggested to his mother that he be sent away to Moscow to study.

In 1885 Sergei made the move to study at the Moscow Imperial Conservatory under the tutelage of Nikolai Zverev. Rachmaninov would later credit his teacher, Zverev, for turning his ways around and instilling the disciplined work habits which would serve him for life. Despite this reverence for his teacher, Sergei’s studies at Moscow led him to discover a greater passion for composition. His shift in focus on composition angered Zverev and led Rachmaninov to finish his studies with Alexander Ziloti (Sergei’s cousin and a former pupil of Franz Liszt). Rachmaninov studied theory under the great Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev.  Around this time Rachmaninov was also introduced to Tchaikovsky, who would serve as a profound influence in Sergei’s compositional style.  Tchaikovsky commissioned the teenage Rachmaninov to arrange a piano transcription of the suite from his ballet “The Sleeping Beauty”. This commission had first been offered to Siloti, who declined, but suggested instead that Rachmaninov would be more than capable. Siloti supervised the arrangement which became the first of many brilliant and effective transcriptions Rachmaninov would write over the course of his career. On top of all these powerful influences, Sergei learned alongside brilliant classmates including the (now) famous Alexander Scriabin (the early death in 1915 of Alexander Scriabin, who had been his good friend, affected Rachmaninov so deeply that he went on a tour giving concerts entirely devoted to Scriabin’s music). Rachmaninov was a stellar student, completing his piano studies in 1891, one year early. He used his last year to finish his composition course with Arensky by writing the one-act opera Aleko (based on Pushkin’s The Gypsies), which premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1893 (the opera remains a staple of the operatic repertoire). For this achievement, Rachmaninov accepted the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Gold Medal as only the third person to ever receive the honor.

The period between 1890 and his emigration in 1917 proved both fruitful and disastrous for Rachmaninov. Frequent summer residencies at the Ivanonka estate (with Auntie Vavara Satina) became a vehicle of inspiration from the endless rolling fields and the solitude he received. Rachmaninov completed many pieces including his First Piano Concerto Opus 1 (1891) and Prelude in C# Minor which was one of the five Morceaux de Fantaisies Opus 3 (1892). The aforementioned Prelude in C# Minor is often referenced to be the composition that put Rachmaninov on the map, both in Russia and abroad. Rachmaninov would (possibly in jest?) exclaim a distaste for his famous prelude since it was so often demanded as an encore at his recitals. In later years he sometimes teased an expectant audience by asking, “Oh, must I?” or claiming an inability to remember it. Despite this, he later wrote two further sets of 10 and 13 preludes respectively, completing the full complement of 24 preludes all in different keys. In 1893 Rachmaninov slipped into a phase of deep depression in response to the death of both Tchaikovsky and Zverev, prompting him to compose the commemorative Trio Elegiaque Opus 9. In 1896 Sergei attempted his First Symphony (Op. 13) and the work was premièred on 28 March 1897 in one of a long-running series of “Russian Symphony Concerts”.  Symphony No. 1 was brutally rejected by critics, most notably the nationalist composer César Cui (member of the mighty handful) who likened it to a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt, suggesting it would be admired by the “inmates” of a music conservatory in hell. P.S. Cesar Cui is the only member of the “Russian Five” whose works are no longer regularly performed… hm. Alexander Ossovsky (side note:  he was the cousin of young Ksenia Derzhinskaia (1889–1951) whose successful operatic career as prima donna of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow was initiated by Rachmaninov) in his memoir about Rachmaninov makes the claim that Glazunov, as a conductor who disliked the work, made poor use of rehearsal time. Other witnesses suggested that Glazunov (widely believed to be an alcoholic) may have been drunk at the event. Regardless of these purported reasons, the premier was a failure and did nothing to help quell Sergei’s dwindling confidence/mental health. One stroke of good fortune came from Savva Mamontov, a famous Russian industrialist and patron of the arts, who two years earlier had founded the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He offered Rachmaninov the post of assistant conductor for the 1897–8 season and the cash-strapped composer accepted. During this period he became engaged to fellow pianist Natalia Satina whom he had known since childhood and who was his first cousin. The Russian Orthodox Church and the girl’s parents both opposed their marriage, thus putting a halt to the couple’s plans and adding up to a complete mental breakdown. In 1900, Rachmaninov began autosuggestive therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl, himself an amateur musician. Soon after, Sergei reentered the world of compositional renown with the premier of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (Op. 18, 1900–01), dedicated to Dr. Dahl. The piece was very well received at its premiere, at which Rachmaninov was soloist. To top it all off, Sergei found a way to marry Natalia, using the family’s military background to circumvent the church. They were married in a suburb of Moscow by an army priest on 29 April 1902 and his and Natalia’s union lasted until the composer’s death (despite a brief affair with the 22-year-old singer Nina Koshetz in 1916 but we will dismiss such a messy detail).  Their happy marriage resulted in the birth of two daughters, Irina (later Princess Wolkonsky (1903-1969)… cool) and Tatiana Conus (1907-1961). After several successful appearances as a conductor, Rachmaninov was offered a job as conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904. Political reasons led to his resignation in March 1906, after which he chose a cosmopolitan route and stayed in Italy until July. He spent the following three winters in Dresden, Germany, intensively composing, and returning to his old haven “Ivanovka” every summer. The connection to America began when Rachmaninov made his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909. For this event Rachmaninov composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (Op. 30, 1909) as a show piece. These successful concerts made him a popular artist; however, he was unhappy on the tour and declined requests for future American concerts until after he emigrated from Russia in 1917. P.S. this included an offer to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

As was the situation for many, the 1917 revolution marked an end of Russian life as Rachmaninov had known it and on December 22nd, 1917 he fled St. Petersburg for Helsinki with his wife and two daughters on an open sled (he carried only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions as well as two orchestral scores including his unfinished opera “Monna Vanna” and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Golden Cockerel”). For about a year he hung around Scandinavia performing odd jobs and laboring over new types of repertoire; however, near the end of 1918, he received three offers of lucrative American contracts. Although he declined all three, he began to think that the United States might offer a solution to his financial concerns. Upon arrival in New York on November 1st, 1918, Sergei fast chose an agent, Charles Ellis, and accepted the gift of a piano from Steinway before playing 40 concerts in a four-month period. At the end of the 1919–20 season, he also signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1921, the Rachmaninov family bought a house in the United States, where they consciously recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka, entertaining Russian guests, employing Russian servants, and observing Russian customs. One of Rachmaninov’s regular visitors was the famous pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. Arranged by Steinway artist representative Alexander Greiner, their meeting took place in the basement of New York’s Steinway Hall, on 8 January 1928, four days prior to Horowitz’s debut at Carnegie Hall playing the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. Referring to his own Third Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff said to Greiner he heard that “Mr. Horowitz plays my Concerto very well. I would like to accompany him.” For Horowitz, it was a dream come true to meet Rachmaninoff, to whom he referred as “the musical God of my youth … To think that this great man should accompany me in his own Third Concerto … This was the most unforgettable impression of my life! This was my real debut!” Rachmaninoff was impressed by his younger colleague and a bromance was forged of two who were quite supportive of each other’s careers and greatly admired each other’s work. With his many performing engagements, Rachmaninov’s output as composer slowed tremendously. Between 1918 and his death in 1943, while living in the U.S. and Europe, he completed only six compositions. Another, perhaps greater, cause for this drought may have been a timeless case of homesickness. His revival as a composer seemed possible only after he had built himself a new home, Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939. There, in the comfort of his own villa which reminded him of his old family estate, Rachmaninov composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (one of his best known works) in 1934. He went on to compose his Symphony No. 3 (Op. 44, 1935–36) and the Symphonic Dances (Op. 45, 1940), his last completed work. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the Symphonic Dances in 1941 in the Academy of Music.

A lot of musicians, including myself, will sometimes make the honest mistake of thinking great composers to be superhuman and beyond such mortal concerns as disease. It therefore can come as a shock that even the magnificent Rachmaninov could be subject to the malady of advanced melanoma (a.k.a skin cancer). When he fell ill after a series of concerts in 1942, the family was informed but the composer was not. On February 1st, 1943 he and his wife became American citizens and on February 17th, 1943 Sergei gave his final recital at the Alumni Gymnasium of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (eerily his program included the famous “Funeral March” by Chopin). A statue called “Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert”, designed and sculpted by Victor Bokarev, now stands in World Fair Park in Knoxville as a permanent tribute to Rachmaninoff. He became so ill after this recital that he had to return to his home in Los Angeles. Rachmaninov lost his battle with melanoma about a month later on March 28th, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, just four days before his 70th birthday. A choir sang the fifth movement of his “All Night Vigil” (praised by some as Rachmaninov’s finest achievementand “the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church”) at his funeral. He had wanted to be buried at the Villa Senar (his home away from home) in Switzerland, but the conditions of World War II made fulfilling this request impossible. He was therefore interred on June 1st at the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

After a century of pianists questioning why Rachmaninov would choose to torture their kind, there may be a simple explanation. In addition to his evident virtuosity, Sergei possessed physical gifts including exceptional height and extremely large hands with a gigantic finger stretch (he could play the chord C Eb G C G with his left hand… meaning he could play an interval of a 12th with one hand SUPER IMPRESSIVE). This and Rachmaninov’s slender frame, long limbs, narrow head, prominent ears, and thin nose suggest that he may have had Marfan syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the connective tissue. This syndrome would have accounted for several minor ailments he suffered all his life. These included back pain, arthritis, eye strain (possibly the result of myopia), and bruising of the fingertips. Although Rachmaninov did not suffer the common cardiovascular ailments of the syndrome, studies show that about 40% of Marfan patients will likewise never appear to have this symptom unless echocardiography tests are conducted. Additionally, there is no indication that his immediate family had similar hand spans rendering any familial evidence unlikely.  A possible alternative diagnosis of acromegaly, a long-term condition in which there is too much growth hormone and the body tissues get larger over time, may be evidenced by the defining coarse facial features of later photographs.  Rachmaninov’s repeated bouts of depression are also consistent with a diagnosis of acromegaly. We will never know for sure if Rachmaninov’s hands were indeed a result of a medical condition; however, if it helps a piano student sleep at night I’m certainly willing to entertain the idea!

Below I have included a hilarious performance that is both amazingly done and witty in that it pokes fun at Rachmaninov’s ridiculous expectations for Prelude in C# Minor:

*You more often see old Rocky’s name spelled Rachmaninoff. I dislike this spelling because it is completely unnecessary. For the Russian spelling of Рахма́нинов (with the exception of the letter “х” which is close to the “ch” we insert in it’s place), each Russian character has an English equivalent (Р=r а=a х=ch м=m а́=a н=n и=i н=n о=o в=v). Oh silly Cyrillic translations…

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