Sergei Rachmaninov, part 2

rachmaninovconcertAt a concert during the late 1930s.

(Conclusion. Continued from part 1.)

St. Petersburg was decimated almost immediately after the Revolution, even before any organized revolutionary terror had time to start. The complex social roles that comprise any modern civilization become death sentences for their holders in the instant when the infrastructure sustaining them disappears. Lenin himself wrote to other revolutionary leaders, in May 1918, “Petrograd is in an unprecedentedly catastrophic situation. There is no bread. The last remaining potato flour and rusks are being distributed to the populace. The Red capital is on the brink of death by starvation.” The city was ravaged by epidemics of diseases like typhus, which by the early 20th century were becoming a thing of the past in major urban areas.


It may be surprising that Soviet writers were quite forthright in describing living conditions in the aftermath of the Revolution, though of course they did not delve too deeply into the causes. Veniamin Kaverin, author of the nationally famous coming-of-age novel The Two Captains, for which he was awarded the Stalin Prize, 2nd degree, described his boy protagonists — who have run away from home because their relatives, unable to feed them, have decided to send them to a shelter for orphans — wandering around Moscow:

So began the bad days. The kinds of things we did! We stood in line for money. We were hired to clean snow off the panels in front of the houses… We shoveled manure out of horse stalls. We slept in alleys, in cemeteries, in attics… We were walking, I remember, down the Bozhedomka, thinking only of one thing: if only we could see a fire; sometimes it happened that fires were made outdoors. Nothing in sight! Snow, darkness, silence! The cold of the night. All the entryways are closed. Freezing, we walked silently.”

(from The Two Captains)

Kaverin’s heroes are children during the Revolution, which allows him to avoid talking about anything pre-1917 at all. But it is wrong to see this only as an ideological convenience, there is a certain truth of life in it as well. Kaverin’s characters — and, in real life, many people from their generation — approached this situation with a kind of savage optimism, ruthlessly clearing away the rubble in the conviction that a new future could be built from scratch. But for people who could function only when their basic well-being was guaranteed by law and routine, who had lived an entire lifetime in those surroundings and implicitly took them for granted, and who had never imagined what it might be like to survive in extreme situations, there was never any chance. Vasily Rozanov (1856-1919), who was famous in the 1910s as a controversial philosophical author but lived a quiet, prim and private family life, fled St. Petersburg with his wife and children and stayed in the countryside, attempting to raise money by self-publishing the writing that he still felt compelled to produce — but he found that he no longer had any readers, and that all that remained was to sell or barter his books. His children took turns staying with relatives or traveling to wherever they could buy supplies; on one of these trips, in October of 1918, Rozanov’s only son contracted the Spanish flu and died three days later. Rozanov was left trapped in a small town with a disabled wife and four daughters on his hands. All the ways out had closed, and he starved to death.


Well, friends, I am tired, exhausted, I cannot write any more. Do something for me. I am dying now, I cannot do anything, especially not work. I would really like to finish [my book on] Egypt, I have a great greedy thirst to finish it, but it is unlikely that I can. And this work is truly marvelous. It contains many positive discoveries, I almost finished [the study of] the cult of the sun. I would have liked to write more, my dears, write mostly about Egypt, about the sun, many marvelous aphorisms, maybe I might write a few more letters, I don’t know and cannot promise.”

(written two weeks before Rozanov’s death)

But the story that we are telling here is a happier one — Rachmaninov left in December of 1917 and thus avoided the worst. He spent most of 1918 in Scandinavia (in uncomfortable lodgings outside Copenhagen) and, by the end of that year, moved to the United States, where he lived much of the rest of his life. During this first year abroad, he had no permanent income, having arrived with little other than the clothes on his back, and relied on donations from wealthy admirers in the emigrant community. By December of 1918, however, he had completely changed over into a professional pianist (starting with a recital in Providence, Rhode Island, less than one month after arriving in New York), and thereafter toured every year from 1918 to 1943. In an appendix, Kovaleva-Ogorodnova presents a complete chronology of all of his tour dates; even one of his more relaxed years would easily have 20-30 concerts (the busier ones would have over 60).

In this way, Rachmaninov rebuilt his life, but throughout the years he tried to remember those who were less fortunate. He regularly arranged, and used his fame to advertise, recitals for the benefit of Russian emigrant communities in Europe and the United States:

In America, Russian poverty is not as apparent, does not jump out as much. But here [in Europe] it is overwhelming, it can be seen at every turn, calls for help come from all sides. On May 5th, I am playing a concert, whose proceeds will be donated to help those in need. So, this time, I am quite concerned about attendance. I invite everyone!

from a 1933 interview in Paris (Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, II/69)

These circumstances obviously did not favour composition, though in 1917 Rachmaninov did write some short sketches for solo piano. One of these, titled “Fragments,” perhaps evokes some of the bewildered helplessness that people in his position must have felt (and will yet feel). The scale of the piece is nowhere near the magnitude of the upheaval in their lives, but for many of them it will take the rest of their lives to even begin to grasp that magnitude.

Even in the following years, however, after Rachmaninov’s life stabilized and he regained his wealth, he never had the kind of freedom to compose that he took for granted during 1900-1917. In the last 25 years of his life, he produced only six new, complete works of music, Ops. 40-45 (and, in fact, Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 40, had been started in the 1910s). To some extent, his focus on performing, which drained much of his energy, was caused by his concern for his family, his desire to provide financial security for his wife and daughters. At the same time, surely at some point he achieved sufficient recognition that he could afford to scale back his concert schedule…but there was a side of Rachmaninov that simply loved being on stage. “I don’t know what gives me more pleasure — writing music, or performing it… When I play in a concert and have a good day (and you know that some days are not so good), I think that is after all the greatest happiness.” (Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, II/130) Years later, his wife recalled how, during his final tour, she “begged him to cancel those two concerts, but he again repeated his favorite phrase: ‘You are not going to roll me around in a wheelchair, I am not going to sit in a wheelchair and feed the pigeons, it would be better to just die.‘ And so he played those two concerts in a condition of total illness. Every movement caused him pain.” (II/160)

During the concert [on March 18, 1933, Rachmaninov] played his transcription of Bach’s Prelude in E major…the Appassionata, works by Chopin and Schumann, the Impromptu in A-flat minor by Schubert, two of his own preludes and a transcription of the scherzo in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ After he played his own Humoresque and ‘Daisies,’ the applause still did not end. He again came out, sat down at the piano and gazed at the keys. Then he turned to the audience and made a gesture with his hands, as if he was at a loss, saying, “It seems that I can’t remember anything else!” This scene was so amazing, so human and intimate after the charm of the concert, that the public went into a wild delight. Someone shouted, “C-sharp minor!” Rachmaninov smiled, nodded his head and played the prelude that turned out to be so popular in America. He had to come out again many more times and play more and more: Tchaikovsky’s ‘Troika,’ Schumann-Tausig’s ‘The Smuggler,’ etc. In the dressing room, again there was a crowd…Rachmaninov carried himself upright, shook hands and signed playbills.”

from reminiscences by a friend and audience member
(Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, II/65-66)

rachmaninov1921.jpgRachmaninov in 1921.

From a purely biographical standpoint, one could say that there is not much to talk about with regard to Rachmaninov’s life abroad. Kovaleva-Ogorodnova’s account now turns into a list of tour dates, concert halls, conversations with agents, and occasional vacations, interspersed with chance meetings with old friends and, as the years go on, news of their deaths. These are years of refined, gentlemanly, and ultimately uninteresting routine — or, rather, they would be, if not for those six final works. Rachmaninov may not have had (or taken) many opportunities to write music, but when he did, he said more than in his entire career pre-1917. I believe that these final compositions are of central significance in his life, and retroactively magnify the importance of his older work. Had he never written them, he would still have been world-famous as a pianist, but his compositional career would have gone down as more of a curiosity, and today we would think of it as something that contained a few pleasant surprises for the devoted student of classical music, but otherwise was not in the same league with the big names. But, fortunately, he did write them, and through them the depth and tragic power of his music coalesce into a clear form that also enables a better understanding of everything else that he wrote.

One might look at Op. 41, “Three Russian Songs,” written in 1926. This unassuming title refers to a short set (about 15 minutes total) of three songs with folk origins, arranged for chorus and orchestra. Among the six final works, Op. 41 is arguably the most obscure due to the considerable difficulty of staging it (not only does it require a full orchestra, but also a full chorus with the ability to sing in Russian) relative to its length. Notwithstanding, its depth and importance for Rachmaninov’s legacy show themselves from the very first song:

Через речку, речку быстру,
По мосточку, калина,
По крутому, малина.
Селезень-от переходит,
По мосточку, калина,
Переходит, малина.
Серу утку переводит,
Серу утку, калина,
Переводит, малина.
Сера утка испугалась,
Испугалась, калина,
Улетела, малина!
…Селезень стоит, плачет,
Стоит, плачет, калина,
Стоит, плачет, малина…
Across the stream, the swift stream,
Across the bridge (strawberry),
The narrow bridge (raspberry);
See the drake, he is crossing,
Over the bridge (strawberry),
Crossing the bridge (raspberry);
He is leading the gray duck,
Leading her across (strawberry),
Across the bridge (raspberry);
The gray duck, she was frightened,
She was frightened (strawberry),
She flew away (raspberry)!
…The drake stands there, weeping,
He stands weeping (strawberry),
He stands weeping (raspberry)…

As can be seen from the simple, nursery-rhyme lyrics, this was a folk song, probably a kind of courtship song for country boys and girls. There was originally nothing serious about it. One of the boys, in the role of drake, would make a big show of confidence “leading” the duck; the girl would pretend to be smitten with him and then suddenly “fly away,” to the encouraging laughter of her friends (the “strawberry/raspberry” refrain was for the onlookers), and the boy would then make an exaggerated display of heartbreak, which, if performed with sufficient cleverness and comic skill, would win back the girls’ sympathy.

In Rachmaninov’s hands, this lightweight material is somehow turned into a profound evocation of loss and grief. For a classical piece, the music is bizarrely abstract and modern — there is no central melody or any discernible lead, but instead a kind of background murmur punctuated by sudden, sharp intrusions, like the dissonant wail of the strings when the drake is abandoned. The sepulchral chorus tells the story slowly and steadily, but swells starting with “The gray duck, she was frightened,” and after she flies away, the formerly calm pulse of the brass becomes darker and louder, as the delayed realization of total disaster turns into the oppressive weight of helpless solitude.


The second song, “Oh, my Vanka, bold and headstrong” (starts around 4:20 above) abandons any connection with the folk source at all; it is a formless, abstract landscape stretching infinitely in all directions. The voices are singing words, but each line is stretched out to the point of losing any rhythmic structure, and so the singers themselves sound like woodwind instruments, floating in an endless daydream somewhere out of reach. This does not sound like a song, or like opera or anything else; it is like a glimpse of an alternate history where music itself developed in a completely different direction that we, in our world, never discovered.

The third song, “My white powder, my rosy blush” (starts around 10:45) is quite offensive to contemporary sensibilities, so let us approach it with redoubled enthusiasm:

Белилицы, румяницы вы мои,
Сокатитесь со лица бела долой,
Сокатитесь со лица бела долой,
Едет, едет мой ревнивый муж домой!
Ай люли, ай да люшеньки-ли!
Едет, едет мой ревнивый муж домой!
Он везёт, везёт подарок дорогой (Ай да! Ай да!),
Он везёт, везёт подарок дорогой:
Плетёную, шелковую батожу.
Ай, ай люли, ай да люшеньки-ли!
Плетёную, шелковую батожу,
Хочет, хочет меня молоду побить (Ай люли, ай люли),
Хочет, хочет меня молоду побить,
Я ж не знаю и не ведаю за что.
О, ай ли, люли, эх, люшеньки-люли!
Я ж не знаю и не ведаю за что,
За какую, за такую за беду.

…Только было всей моей-то тут беды:
У соседа на беседе я была,
Супротиву холостого сидела,
Холостому стакан мёду поднесла.
Холостой стакан мёду принимал,
Ко стакану белы руки прижимал,
При народе сударушкой называл.
«Ты сударушка, лебёдушка моя,
Понравилась походушка твоя!»

Белилицы, румяницы вы мои,
Сокатитесь со лица бела долой,
Едет едет мой ревнивый муж домой.
Хочет, хочет меня молоду побить,
Право слово, хочет он меня побить…
Я ж не знаю и не ведаю за что…

My white powder, my rosy blush,
Away with you, come off my face,
Away with you, come off my face,
My jealous husband rides, rides home!
Oh, la, la, la…
My jealous husband rides, rides home!
He brings, he brings a fine gift for me (Oh yes! Oh yes!),
He brings, he brings a fine gift for me:
A woven, silken whip.
Oh, la, la la…
A woven, silken whip,
He wants, he wants to beat me, his young wife (Oh, la, la, la…),
He wants, he wants to beat me, his young wife,
And I don’t know, I can’t imagine why.
Oh, la, la, la…
I don’t know, I can’t imagine why,
What, whatever did I do?

…And this was all that I did:
I was at the neighbour’s house for a chat,
Sat across from him, an unmarried man,
Poured a glass for him, an unmarried man.
He took the glass, the unmarried man,
To the glass he pressed my hands,
Openly he called me his lovely lady.
“My lovely lady, my little swan,
Oh, I did like the way you walk!”

My white powder, my rosy blush,
Away with you, come off my face,
My jealous husband rides, rides home.
He wants, he wants to beat me, his young wife,
I tell you truly, he wants to beat me…
I don’t know, I can’t imagine why…

Feel free to disbelieve me, but this song is a confident demonstration of feminine power, and was never viewed in any other way by any of its singers and listeners in centuries past. The woman narrator is making a mockery of her ineffectual husband — her big show of fear is contemptuous and sarcastic, and actually displays her absolute certainty that she will be able to control him. In a traditional setting, this song would be sung by a group of women very loudly; any man walking by would feel growing discomfort and attempt to make for the nearest exit as inconspicuously as possible. In fact, by complete chance, we can still hear something of that in a 1926 recording of a splendidly mincing, sneering rendition by actress Nadezhda Plevitskaya, accompanied on piano by Rachmaninov himself (the only extant recording of him in this role):

(Plevitskaya knew something about relying on herself — Kovaleva-Ogorodnova writes, “Nicholas II called her ‘the nightingale of Kursk’ and, by some accounts, wept after hearing her sing. After the Revolution, Nadezhda Plevitskaya fled from Russia to Germany, and later to Paris. Her fate in emigration turned out to be complicated. Plevitskaya was recruited by the NKVD, and in the late 1930s participated in the abduction of General Miller, who headed the Russian All-Military Union. [An organization of former White Army officers. -FL] Plevitskaya was arrested and thrown in French prison, where she died in 1940,” I/376)

Returning to the music, what Rachmaninov saw in this song, I don’t know, but the originality of his full orchestral arrangement is in a class of its own. The voices start out singing together, but in the second half some of them split off and wordlessly harmonize in the background, creating a swooning, dreamlike sensation that contrasts with the growing energy of the main vocal line — the wilder and more sensual the song is, the more its characters recede into the distance.

I have never heard any other classical music that sounded like this, and that is very typical of Rachmaninov’s final work — while nominally it fits into the classical idiom, upon closer examination it seems to have less and less in common with other classical music. On the other hand it is clearly not “modern” music either as that word is usually understood. It belongs in some other genre that, it seems, never actually existed.

Rachmaninov was not able to follow up on this work quickly; his next foray into composition did not occur until five years later, in the form of an also fairly short set for solo piano, “Variations on a Theme of Corelli,” Op. 42. This piece might be viewed as a kind of practice run for the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” Op. 43, which was written in a month in 1934 and proved to be a career-defining work.

kinskipaganiniNiccolò Paganini (more or less).

The “variations” format lends itself well to purely academic or technical pursuits, rather than program music. The “theme” is a short melody or phrase of music, often less than a minute long and borrowed from another composer. The “variations” are modified repetitions of this material, which may introduce additional complexity into the theme, transpose it into a different key, place it in a different rhythmic structure, or, conversely, add new content that follows the structure of the original. In some cases, the variations may substantially depart from the theme, and whatever links remain can only be identified by closely comparing the sheet music.

The theme of the Rhapsody is about 15 seconds long. It is taken from the last of the “24 Caprices” for solo violin by the notoriously mercurial 19th-century virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. The sensational legends surrounding Paganini helped create the ideal of the Romantic artist, the image of the brilliant, rebellious enfant terrible who leads a messy and tempestuous personal life (a consequence of the powerful emotions that he is supposed to experience), but captivates crowds everywhere he goes with the sheer irresistible force of his art.

rachmaninovstandingRachmaninov is unimpressed.

Paganini’s theme is original and imaginative — it boldly intrudes on the audience’s attention and it is easy to see why people got excited about it. In the Rhapsody, however, he met his match. Rachmaninov’s variations explode with such dazzling energy and invention that Paganini is turned into an almost comic figure, a kind of marionette flailing around in someone else’s merciless hands. The range of these excursions from the theme is so great that a full orchestra is required to accommodate it, and Paganini’s famously complex violin figures are upstaged by some truly pyrotechnical writing for piano. Of the 24 variations, half are under a minute long, leading to some of the most abrupt and extreme dramatic contrasts in all of Rachmaninov’s music. The tempo is generally very high throughout, although there are a few moments of languor that only serve to intensify the feeling of being swept away in the total unpredictability of the composer’s thought.

For lack of a better word, the Rhapsody was a “hit,” from the moment it premiered (November 7th, 1934, in a sold-out Lyric Opera House in Baltimore). Its focus on piano as the lead instrument allowed Rachmaninov himself to perform it. That already hints at the secret to its success — there was always a dimension of showmanship in Rachmaninov’s work, going back to the hyper-dramatic opening of the Prelude in C-sharp minor, but here in the Rhapsody, at the age of 61, he openly embraced and indulged this side of himself. The louder and faster it is performed, the better; the orchestra does not need to search for interpretive nuance, all that is asked of it is to keep up. Case in point, here is a 2014 performance by the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic with the glorious Valentina Lisitsa (who, suitably for the reckless abandon of this music, flew in on one day’s notice) bashing the piano with enough fire to rival Rachmaninov himself:

Paganini’s theme starts at 1:14 (it is preceded by variation #1), and begins to mutate before it even finishes, as the piano crowds out the violin. Variation #2 (starting at 1:32) then repeats the theme on piano alone, in a jittery cascade of sixteenth notes filling all the pauses that were in the original. The strings come back on the next repetition to accentuate the beats; in the background, the brass adds a hilarious quacking sound that calls to mind the comic quality of this treatment of Paganini. Over the next twenty minutes, the theme is thrown back and forth between different sections of the orchestra, and appears in multiple very different guises. In variation #9 (6:07), the brass teeters precariously on what appears to be the brink of a huge crashing crescendo, which does come but is slightly delayed by the unexpected appearance of a doom-laden piano vamping all over variation #10 (6:39). Variation #13 (10:32) reprises the theme with a swaying cadence and a much darker tone, as if it had been given to a cabaret act somewhere in the bad part of town. Immediately after that, variation #14 (11:01) turns it into a cheerful trumpet march.

The most famous, “quotable” part of the Rhapsody is variation #18 (16:15), which presents a slow and dreamy version of the theme — a lush, romantic piano melody on a sumptuous bed of strings. Ironically, the composition does little more than invert Paganini’s original (in the sheet music, the progression of the melody is simply turned upside down). It is not hard to read this variation straightforwardly as starry-eyed, glamorous Hollywood romance, and in fact it did influence a generation of movie soundtracks. Perhaps this is where the notion of Rachmaninov’s “sentimentality” originates, but in the greater context of the Rhapsody as a whole, it is one of many flights of fancy and not even the most striking one. In fact, it is followed by an even more exhilarating moment: variation #19 (19:20), in which the theme becomes almost unrecognizable, turning into a lightning-fast, octave-jumping, insistent piano run that sounds bizarrely futuristic, like an electronic production programmed to a speed that, one would think, could never be played by a human. The final variation (#24, 23:10) ends with a sudden full-orchestra crescendo (23:45), a burst of gratuitous, ecstatic aggression that would be right at home in a more contemporary form of music.

The Rhapsody was enormously successful practically every time it was performed. It is easy to appreciate it for its obvious compositional mastery, its charming energy and its larger-than-life theatrics. But its lasting appeal, in my opinion, also has something to do with its tantalizing ambiguity. Formally it belongs to one of the most abstract and academic categories of classical music, and so it does not easily offer any interpretation of what it is really about, although it certainly feels like a big statement is being made. One gets the feeling that the composer presented all of this for the audience’s delight, but deliberately withheld the one thing that really mattered.

villasenarVilla Senar.

In 1930, Rachmaninov bought an estate in Switzerland, on the shore of Lake Lucerne. His wife recalled, “There was a large, very old three-story house. Sergei Vasilyevich decided to demolish it and build a new one with every amenity. Our house was built on the site of a large rock, which had to be dynamited.” This turned into a massive undertaking that lasted several years; Rachmaninov “set aside time to develop a construction plan and corresponded with the architect during his tour.” (II/42) In 1932, he wrote in a letter, “I have started to manage the household myself. I fired the gardener and hired a new one on a daily basis. My neighbour helps with some advice — hoping for his involvement, I had come up with the idea of bringing him a supply of cigars. Today I was busy ploughing. [I have a] real double ploughshare and a pair of horses. Since my fields are ‘boundless,’ I will be done only by tomorrow evening, if the rain does not interfere. The earth is still damp. I don’t know if there is a furrow around here… In general, I have quite enough to do. Of course, I am not doing any of my real work! No time!” (II/60)

rachmaninovscytheArmed and ready for gardening.

The new house was named “Villa Senar,” standing for “Sergei and Natalia Rachmaninov.” The fact that Rachmaninov built it from the ground up indicates that it meant much more to him than a summer vacation home or a place to enjoy a gardening hobby. To the extent that he felt happiness in his life post-1917, it was here. Having lost his old home and way of life, he created a place for himself and his family — and, while this was mostly accomplished by spending money, no doubt it was especially meaningful that at least some part of it was built with his own hands…

Throughout the 1930s, Senar served as a haven for Rachmaninov and his wife, their two now-grown daughters and their families, and various friends and colleagues. “The recent events in Germany — Hitler’s accession to power and the public burning of ‘harmful’ books by the Nazis on May 10th, 1933 in many German cities, including Dresden, where [Natalia] Rachmaninova’s family was staying — had not yet become greatly frightening to the European educated class. For now, life flowed as usual.” (II/72) For Rachmaninov, this was one final time of virtually unblemished happiness, when he could play with his grandchildren, give rein to his fondness for cars and boats, and finally recapture the desire to write music. “On Thursday, April 12th, [1934], a week after Easter, the Steinway was delivered to Senar. Rachmaninov carefully lifted the lid and touched the keys… He could already hear his Rhapsody. Sometimes, from the study, one could hear the quiet rumble of the menacing, mysterious A-minor chord, spread like the wings of an eagle or demon across three octaves.” (II/80) The original manuscript of the Rhapsody, which is now stored in the Library of Congress of the United States, ends with the inscription, “18 August 1934. Senar. Praise God.

Nonetheless, there must have also been some lingering dark thoughts troubling Rachmaninov during these idyllic times. Just two years later, he completed Symphony No. 3 (Op. 44), most of the work also having been done in Senar.

Symphony No. 3 is Rachmaninov’s most difficult, most fragmented composition. Already in its first minute, it goes through multiple very different segments, which contrast with each other even more severely than anything in the Rhapsody. The opening is one of the strangest, most off-kilter starts that one could imagine for a symphony — a hushed, distant call from an isolated clarinet, suddenly emerging out of nowhere, addressed to no one, and just as suddenly (at 0:30 above), violently interrupted by a dark orchestral swell, which explodes into a crashing fit of rage. At 0:45, this wild fury suddenly dissipates, and faint pensive violins linger long enough to introduce the main theme.

To me, the main theme of the first movement is a central and defining moment in all of Rachmaninov’s music. I find it deeply unsettling. It is maybe not surprising that, at the age of 63, Rachmaninov may have been thinking about life and death — but it seems to me that this music contemplates my own life and death.

I imagine a very old man, sitting outside in the late summer, watching the clouds go by. The world of one’s thoughts is more real than the real world. Images appear in exquisite detail, much more believable and tangible than the abstract shapes that float in the sky. With perfect clarity, one sees all the things that one had hoped to do in one’s life, and that one finally understands will never be finished. There is a tragic aspect to this understanding, but in this same quality there is also a sense of relief — even as they appear, these images and memories lose their significance, because there is no longer any world in which they can exist. The very act of contemplating them becomes the conscious choice to let go of them, to let go of oneself.

The melody of the main theme is soft and plaintive. Individual consciousness is flickering and weak, but in this short instant, it has thought through more, and become more aware of itself, than over the entire previous course of its existence. It gazes, with deliberate meaning, at what is left of the real world.

The rest of the first movement consists of fractured waves of relatively calm reflection alternating with dark suggestion, frequently disturbed by sudden orchestral growls (2:00 or 7:20) or piercing cries (6:45). This world feels uneasy; it is, increasingly, not really worth engaging with. The only meaning and clarity that remain are in the inward focus of the dying individual — at 9:25, the movement coalesces back into the main theme.

rachmaninovatwork“Finished. I thank God! 6-30 June, 1936. Senar.”
(inscription on the last page of the manuscript)

The other two movements are also abstract and experimental, but take it a bit easier on the listener. The sweeping, emotional strings in the first few minutes of the second movement (which starts around 13:47) might not have sounded out of place in Symphony No. 2, but the dark anxiety of the first movement starts to surface again around 18:10 with a shrill, circular horn figure. At 20:12 this vague brooding suddenly comes together into a strident, marching rhythm, which under the circumstances comes across as a kind of defiant swagger.

The third movement (starting around 26:20) finally lightens up a bit, opening with a vigorous fanfare and a whirlwind of motion, like an exciting sleigh ride or a village wedding. If there is really any “nostalgia” in Symphony No. 3, as critics claim, it is probably here — a celebration of Rachmaninov’s memories, with no regard for whether they matter to anyone else or not. There is even a playful self-quote at 30:18, of the powerful “riff” from the second movement of Symphony No. 2. Nonetheless, even here, darkness still lurks around the edges; around 36:30, everything unexpectedly quiets down and the flutes emerge for a somber, delicate interlude, like being lost in a sudden thought. A final orchestral crescendo ends things on a relatively bright note.

Symphony No. 3 premiered in Philadelphia on November 6th, 1936, with Leopold Stokowski conducting. Audiences reacted very positively: Kovaleva-Ogorodnova cites a report in the New York Times that “At the end of the Symphony, the audience did not leave the hall for a long time, continuing to applaud until Rachmaninov finally appeared on stage.” (II/105) Critics, however, were harsh, expressing various forms of “disappointment” at what they perceived as a lack of novelty; this view was stated most concisely by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, whose description of the symphony in a single phrase as “a chewing over again of something that never had importance to start with” actually seems to have had more to do with the writer’s hostility toward Stokowski.


(“Last night the noise in Carnegie Hall was such as to cause one white-haired-and-pearled dowager to exclaim to another that it was simply wonderful playing but it had almost frightened her.” With prose like that, how was B.H. Haggin passed up for the Pulitzer Prize?)

Of course, the pendulum eventually swung back the other way as well, but overall Symphony No. 3 still remains under-appreciated and poorly understood. Rachmaninov, who had always been sensitive to how his work was received (since the days of Symphony No. 1), was disappointed, but tried to take the matter in stride. Writing to a friend, he summarized the situation as follows: “The reception…was sour. One review sticks painfully in my mind: that I didn’t have a Third Symphony in me any more. Personally, I am firmly convinced that this work is good. But…sometimes even the author can be wrong! Notwithstanding, I continue to hold to my opinion.” (Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, II/109)

Symphony No. 3 is difficult to perform, and, unlike the Rhapsody, demands a great deal of careful thinking from the conductor. Truly successful performances of this work are much rarer than, for example, of Symphony No. 2 or the piano concertos. In many of the existing recordings, the conductors made the regrettable decision to play an abridged version of the first movement. One of them was Rachmaninov himself — disturbed by the lack of understanding among critics, he cut an entire reprise of the main theme, occurring in the early first half and taking up several minutes. This is what happens in his recorded live performance with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in 1939 (see below), which by chance is one of only three extant recordings of Rachmaninov conducting his own work. The recording in the previous video, with Svetlanov conducting, also makes the same unfortunate cut, though in other respects the performance is excellent; a compelling treatment of the complete score can be found on Valery Gergiev’s 2015 recording with the LSO (he also takes the first movement a bit slower than Svetlanov, probably for the best).

By the logic of this narrative, Symphony No. 3 should have been the end. It feels like a last will and testament; behind its clarity and eloquent expression there seems to be the fatalistic understanding that there is no longer anything worth saying (seemingly borne out by the critical response). As it turned out, however, one more thing was left after all — “Symphonic Dances,” Op. 45.

In early 1939, Rachmaninov “was convinced that war was inevitable and hesitated when deciding whether or not to go…to Europe, to see [his daughter] Tatiana…[he] wanted to take her away with him, together with her family, but there were hindrances, mainly Tatiana’s own unwillingness to leave France.” (II/118) That summer was the last that he could spend in Senar. In August, he left, abandoning the house that he had spent much of the decade building. “Again, as in 1918, ‘although war had not yet been declared’ — as Natalia Alexandrovna [Rachmaninova] recalled — ‘the windows on the steamship had been painted black, the shutters were covered with curtains, the lighting in the compartment was very weak. All of these measures had been taken because of the risk of submarine attacks. On the first day of the war, we arrived in New York. Sergei Vasilyevich constantly worried about Tanya.'” (II/123) Rachmaninov never saw his daughter again, although she survived the war, and her son later came back to Senar and lived there until his death in 2013.

“Symphonic Dances” was written in 1940, after World War II had begun, but long before anyone was able to even guess its outcome. On the surface, this final work appears to scale back the difficulty of Symphony No. 3. It sounds much smoother, more “accessible,” with a much more overt theatrical polish. It opens with an electrifying flourish: a drumroll introduces the single most anthemic melodic phrase of Rachmaninov’s entire career, riding a surge of thundering, growling low brass. If time permits you to play only one video from this entire series, make it this one (but skip to 3:50, past some talking heads):

At the same time, from the beginning there are suggestions that the rules of composition are being deliberately bent. The first sign is the title: “Symphonic Dances,” not “Symphony No. 4,” indicating that the work is not fully bound to standard symphonic structure. The first movement has the cryptic and unusual tempo marking “Non allegro” (“not fast”), and the orchestra is joined at 5:55 by a grand piano — whose exclusive role here is to provide rhythmic support for the theme, almost like a bass — and, later, at 8:00, an alto saxophone, made to sound completely unlike whatever conception you may have of this instrument. Rachmaninov was always quite open about his disdain for modern music, so this feels almost like a challenge to the audience, wryly pointing out that they don’t really know anything about what these instruments can do.

Very soon after the hyper-dramatic opening, the music begins to turn inwardly upon itself, subverting these grandiose gestures. By 7:25 the main theme has evaporated so completely that it is hard to believe that it had ever been there in the first place. A quiet and thoughtful mood settles in, and the second theme enters on unhurried woodwinds (led by the saxophone). Rachmaninov wrote repeating melodies like this before, circling endlessly and languidly around themselves, starting anew just when it seems like they are about to end, but this one may have the most depth. It has some resemblance to the tragic theme from Symphony No. 3, but the sharp pain of that deathbed reflection has been dulled, soothed by a comforting detachment — if there is any “nostalgia” left in it, it has been tempered by full acceptance of the fact that it no longer has any recognizable object. The very images that had been left over from the past are now themselves departing; it is impossible to explain them to others and it no longer seems important to do so.


At 13:47, after a harsh interruption that sounds like a burst of sarcastic laughter, the dark first theme is reprised, with the beats accentuated by peals of thunder from the drums. Violent percussive crashes convulse with rage — in parts, “Symphonic Dances” summons more pure aggression than anything else in Rachmaninov’s fifty-year compositional career. The fury of these moments, the power of the introspection, the inexplicable intensity of the dramatic shifts and the overall self-conscious theatrical quality of the composition — the ideal marriage of high-concept experimentalism and grand spectacle — combine to create a sense of deep mystery. It is easy to be fascinated with “Symphonic Dances.” One can listen to it for years and still feel that one has not really figured it out.

The second movement, “Andante con moto (tempo di valse),” starting at 16:25 above, feels like a throwback to the ballroom dances of 19th-century European courts, which themselves by now had become a distant memory. It has no extreme changes of sound, and is more of a piece than probably any part of any major Rachmaninov composition in forty years. The leisurely melody glides steadily in the string section, the aristocratic couples circle gracefully around and around the dance floor; at the same time, the scene also has a strange and eerie unease, starting with the dissonant brass opening (which intrudes just as harshly two more times during the movement) and present throughout at the edges, in the anxious trills of a lone flute or violin, which emerge whenever the lead melody pauses. Many critics and writers, quite accurately, describe this sound as “ghostly.”

It seems to me that the ghost being summoned here is that of classical music itself. Rachmaninov had outlived, not only his country, but his entire art form; classical music itself was dying, and among the few remaining hold-outs there was now no one else with the same kind of stature. The dancing lords and ladies are shades of themselves, lifting off from the floor and continuing their movements in the air. The audience is shown a glimpse of a grand, unknown history — an image that suggests dazzling majesty, but is so intangible that it may vanish at any moment.


After a brief, quavering false start, the third movement suddenly shrieks into action (26:59). Of the three parts of “Symphonic Dances,” it is the closest to the splintered style of Symphony No. 3; after a short fragment of rhythmic brass and a jarring interruption by what sounds like church bells, the music breaks into a convulsive dance (27:15). This one has none of the stately, refined grace of the waltz from the second movement; it is undisciplined, frenetic, like a crowd in disorder. As it writhes, a counter-theme emerges (28:45) and bizarrely reveals itself to be a quote from a Russian Orthodox hymn, part of the All-Night Vigil service for which Rachmaninov had written an arrangement back in 1915 —

Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes

— only sped up and given over to the same manic violins. After a massive orchestral crash, the music settles down into an odd midsection: a long, somewhat meandering moody interlude with the feeling of uncertain, inconclusive anticipation. This disorienting composition perhaps feels less complete than the first two movements, but it is here that “Symphonic Dances” begins to take on a prophetic quality. Whatever was being expected finally arrives — the woodwinds announce the return (36:47) of the crazed “dance” theme. Flush with increasing energy and power, it is joined (39:08) by the theme from the medieval Catholic chant “Dies Irae,” which Rachmaninov had quoted many times in the past. Its appearance here is stunning: it swoons on drunken, sensual horns, a dissolute, shameless and rather beautiful perversion of its original intent. Then it is interrupted by a drumroll (39:25), the noise clears entirely and the theme from the Vigil suddenly reemerges. It is a bit slower than the first time, but feels more powerful, each beat lands heavily. The strings lift it up ecstatically, culminating with the single most violent, thrashing ending in Rachmaninov’s catalogue.

The final appearance of the Vigil is heralded by the inscription “Alliluya” in the sheet music:


At first glance, it does not seem particularly difficult to read the composer’s intent. The ending depicts the final reckoning of the sinful world, which has plunged into chaos and revels in a degraded (and, unfortunately, tantalizing) parody of spirituality. By contrast, the weight of the Vigil theme feels like the heavy, inexorable footsteps of God.

But if you think about it, this breath-taking transformation may not be all that different from what happened to the Catholic theme; can Orthodox choral music really still be itself if played with a triangle and xylophone? Rachmaninov, most likely, was not greatly religious, although he deeply respected religious faith, attended Orthodox services with some regularity, and in general was sufficiently fascinated by Orthodox beliefs and aesthetics to have made them an important element of his music. In any case, regardless of how strongly he believed in God, he undoubtedly had a sufficiently clear understanding of the Orthodox way of thinking. So, he must have known that this arrangement could just as easily be read as blasphemy. This particular hymn exhorts worshipers to come to confession; it is sung from the point of view of a solitary penitent who wishes to be alone with God. The contrition and self-denial of the individual worshiper is completely effaced by this instrumentation.

So is Rachmaninov’s message intended as an expression of faith in God’s ultimate triumph, or as a presentiment that, in the end, all faith will be powerless against worldly depravity? And, if God does come, will we, having abandoned our art and our forms of expression, still have the ability, the language to understand and answer Him? In fact, even the violent ending begins to seem strangely unfinished — where, in Rachmaninov’s other symphonies (even No. 3), the boisterous finale would serve to invigorate the audience and provide a sense of closure, “Symphonic Dances” ends with several disjointed roars that are simply followed by silence.

rachmaninov1941Rachmaninov in 1941.
(The only colour photograph ever taken of him.)

This vision of apocalyptic conflict was the last music that Rachmaninov ever wrote. He died less than three years later, the medical reason being cancer. Shortly before his final illness, he mentioned that he would like to retire from or cut back on performing and focus on composition. But I wonder if he meant it; to my mind, we should just be grateful that we got “Symphonic Dances” — the last great work of classical music, appearing a decade after its time had ended, by all indications forever.

I went to his dressing room, I wanted to speak with him. (My aunt wrote to me that Rachmaninov never forgot about her during the years of poverty.) Sergei Vasilyevich at the piano…seemed to me to be just as he was in his youth, his movements were quick and young. But when I saw him up close, I realized that he looked much older, very much so. His eyes were thoughtful, weary and sad… I wanted to say goodbye and asked him:
‘Sergei Vasilyevich, when and where will we meet again?’
‘I don’t know and, unfortunately, I don’t know if it can really happen; I now spend more time in the New World than the Old.’
‘But aren’t you planning to come back home?’
‘Alas! It is unlikely that I will have the chance.’
‘In my case, I dream of it,’ I said.
‘Maybe I wish it even more fervently, but there is too much in the way.’
His facial expression changed greatly, as if he was now burdened by my person. We said goodbye, and I never saw him again.

from reminiscences by a former friend (Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, II/99-100)


Rachmaninov’s standing in the Soviet Union underwent multiple major changes. In the early 1930s, he was the subject of scathing attacks in the Soviet press. As sometimes happens, the writers intended to say one thing but actually said another: “[‘The Bells’] was characterized as ‘wild and pagan,’ ‘chillingly mystical’ ‘church singing,’ and the wedding episode was called ‘the utmost in crude erotica’; the listeners were ‘strange old men in long tuxedos and old ladies in old-fashioned silks that smelled like mothballs, bare skulls, quivering necks, swollen eyes’ — as if from some other world (they included many former friends and admirers of the composer). ‘The whole concert was of a very strange character, to say the least. The ringing of bells, liturgy, devilry, the feeling of horror before a spontaneous conflagration — all of this is quite fitting for the way of life that rotted away long before the October revolution. For whom is this concert intended? Perhaps for fragments of pre-revolutionary Russia, whose terror has found its appropriate expression in the text and music of the author?’” (II/50) During this time, his music was rarely performed in Russia; not only was the subject matter of “The Bells” or “The All-Night Vigil” incompatible with the ruling ideology, but Rachmaninov himself also signed various petitions (with what degree of conviction, it is hard to say) by the Russian emigrant community attacking the Soviet government. In return, the Soviet comic writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, as part of their series of satirical grotesques about American life, amused themselves by writing, “‘[Rachmaninov] sits in his dressing room telling jokes before going out on stage,’ and when the bell rings, he goes out, affecting ‘the great sadness of a Russian exile on his face’…” (II/51) Someone else wrote a farcical depiction of Rachmaninov as a ballroom pianist, playing cheap dance music for money at bourgeois cocktail parties.

It is a pity that the rumour of my having written an entire set of foxtrots is unfounded. I would have liked to have written them, as I enjoy their unique and inimitable rhythm.

Rachmaninov’s rejoinder (Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, II/52)

But by 1941, times had changed. When Nazi Germany invaded Russia, Rachmaninov was deeply worried and dismayed by the ambivalent tone of some emigrant publications. “At first, like most Americans, he was sure that the Russians would be immediately crushed by the German onslaught. He went from despair to hope and from hope to despair… He was deeply saddened by the defeatist mood of certain groups in the Russian diaspora and the total lack of understanding by Americans of what was going on in Russia.” (II/135) In November of the same year, he staged a recital at Carnegie Hall and donated the proceeds for the benefit of the Red Army, directly to the Russian consul general in New York. On June 27th, 1942, he received the following delightfully archaic reply:

The warriors of the Red Army address Rachmaninov. We send you our best wishes, many years of life, health and courage for your high artistic service for the good of our beloved land. Accept also our gratitude for your help given to the fighters of our heroic Red Army, [who] guard with their lives our homeland and the cause of all progressive humanity against the fascist barbarians.

(Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, II/139)

Kovaleva-Ogorodnova describes an account by “the Soviet pilot Mikhail Gromov, who had repeatedly flown to the United States with diplomatic instructions… ‘I was not able to see Rachmaninov then, although the time of the meeting had already been set… We had written a letter to Rachmaninov with an invitation to visit the Soviet Union. I remember that we were supposed to meet Sergei Vasilyevich at a concert in Philadelphia. We were preparing for a long, serious conversation with Rachmaninov, we were anxious… But, to our surprise, our departure was scheduled exactly on the day of the concert… Our plane soared above Philadelphia exactly at the moment when, down below, Rachmaninov began his performance.” (II/136) The invitation was never made.


Perhaps it was for the best. Rachmaninov was never particularly interested in what is called “politics” (his occasional comments on this subject are not particularly insightful) but he had the mindset of an absolute individualist, and for that reason alone he would never have been content living in an ideological state, even if it were to grant him a measure of creative freedom (as it did with Bulgakov or Prokofiev) in exchange for his support. But, be that as it may, on his deathbed he “asked…about the status of the war every day, about the successes of the Russians and where they were now,” and “[w]hen they brought a new radio into the house, he asked to tune it to Moscow, as he wanted to listen to music that was being broadcast from Moscow.” (II/166)

Both Fyodor Chaliapin [Jr.] and Natalia Alexandrovna later said that, half-conscious, he kept asking: ‘Who is playing?.. I hear music.’

(Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, II/167)

Rachmaninov’s singular talent and musical originality were fully revealed in his final compositions — they are what enables us to go back to his early work and evaluate it properly. Ironically, in exile he became a more distinctive but also more “Russian” composer than he was during his life in Russia. Prior to 1917, he was a fairly cosmopolitan European artist who happened to live in St. Petersburg. Certainly he was fond of Russian culture — as a young man, he idolized Tchaikovsky, and often referred to Russian folk songs, poems or church services. But at the same time, he could just as easily see a German Expressionist painting and feel compelled to write a gothic mood piece about it (“Isle of the Dead”), or he could spend his time on more academic exercises like writing a set of 24 preludes in every major and minor key. It also says something that he could make the decision to leave Russia quickly enough to go through with it in time (Rozanov, for example, could not, unlike many of his literary colleagues).

But Rachmaninov’s late work is full of rich imagery and uniquely deep feeling, full of foreboding and loss, but also contemplation and exultant strength of will. Although on the surface it defiantly affirms traditional classical forms, at the same time it hints at the possibility of some new genre of music that never actually materialized — some sort of new direction that would not have been like modern music, but was already not classical music either. Because this music was so out of time when it appeared, it never had particularly strong ties to the past, and now has miraculously shaken them off. To this day, neither classical nor modern audiences have fully understood Rachmaninov because, as it turns out, he is not speaking to them from the past at all; the enigmatic quality of “Symphonic Dances” comes from the fact that some part of it is our own future. In both the great fortune and misfortune of Rachmaninov’s life, and in his music, there is the power and anguish, the glory and tragedy, of the entire blood-soaked 20th century. But in his person, that century has had the comfort of its great musical expression; when we go down that road, who will be there to make our lives say something?

ivanovka2007Site of Rachmaninov’s Russian estate (Ivanovka) in 2007.
(Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, I, colour plate V)

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