Sergei Rachmaninoff: Is that what the Russian soul sounds like?


Sergei Rachmaninov was born in Russia 150 years ago and died in the USA 80 years ago. The Russians hardly celebrate an anniversary more than this one. What role does the composer play for Russia?

Sergei Rachmaninov with granddaughter Sophie, New York, 1927

His music is considered the sound of a Russian soul. In any case, he is – purely statistically – the most played Russian composer in the world: Sergej Rachmaninoff, born on April 1, 1878 as the scion of an impoverished upper-class family in the northern Russian provinces, died on March 28, 1943 as a world-famous composer and pianist ; just before he became an American citizen in California.

Rachmaninoff spent almost exactly half of his adult life, more than 25 years, outside of Russia, in Western Europe and the USA – first as a citizen of the world and virtuoso Travelling, later as an emigrant.

A life on the move: Sergei Rachmaninoff in the USA in 1934

Who owns Rachmaninoff now? Even 80 years after his death, this question is not only a sideshow of the Kulturkampf between official Russian cultural policy and the West, it is also of central importance for the self-image of Russian culture.

October Revolution 1917: before and then

The October Revolution of 1917 marked a boundary in the composer's biography. “Shortly before Christmas 1917, Rachmaninoff crossed the Russian-Finnish border with his family,” noted Oscar von Riesemann, Rachmaninoff admirer and biographer. “The train stopped just before the border, all passengers had to get off and cross the border line on a sleigh. Rachmaninoff did the same with his courageous wife, two small daughters and meager luggage. As another great Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka, just as shattered and disappointed, having left Russia forever, he stopped his carriage and spat on the border strip. Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, knelt down and kissed the soil of his homeland, as he had never had anything more precious in his life.”

Happy Days in Paradise Lost: Sergei Rachmaninoff at his estate in Ivanovka, with daughter and dog

With these words, the author established a primal myth of an artist who could only eke out a shadowy existence outside of his home country. Rachmaninoff's words are often quoted in a distorted way: “After I left Russia, I lost the desire to compose. With the loss of my homeland, I lost myself.”

Emigration was a traumatic experience for Rachmaninoff

In fact, Vera Valkova, leading Russian Rachmaninoff expert, told DW that his work fell into two radically separate periods – before and after he emigrated. “Of course, the experience of emigration was highly traumatic for him. In addition, he had to earn money as a piano virtuoso and had less time to compose.”

Vera Valova is Russia's leading Rachmaninov researcher

Generous and modest, Rachmaninoff not only provided for his family, but also supported Russian musicians who had stayed behind in Russia with donations and food shipments. “He always spent a third of his income on supporting colleagues in Russia,” confirms researcher Valkova, who works at the Moscow Institute for Art Research and is collaborating on the publication “Rachmaninoff: Chronicle of Life and Work”. The first two of the four planned volumes have just been published – by 1917.

“The Bells” was written in Rome

The researcher doesn't believe in the rumor that Rachmaninoff was “artistic impotence” during his stays abroad: in fact, he was more active as a composer in his younger years, before leaving Russia for good he wrote about 80 percent of his oeuvre – two of the three symphonies, three of the four piano concertos, all three operas, 80 romances. But here, too, statistics are not a good advisor: “Rachmaninoff often came up with ideas for his most significant works while traveling,” says Valkova.

Inspired Rachmaninoff: The idea of ​​”bells” came from a hotel on the Spanish Steps in Rome

The composer was particularly creative during his annual winter stays in Dresden between 1906 and 1909 and created the tone poem “Die Toteninsel” (inspired by the painting of the same name by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin) and his second symphony. The idea for his famous work “The Bells” also came about while listening to the ringing of the bells in Rome.

Writer Schischkin: “First death, then life”

“If I had to pick just one character to embody Russian culture, it would be Sergei Rachmaninoff,” says Mikhail Shishkin, one of today's most renowned Russian writers, who is also an accomplished and sensitive music connoisseur. He currently lives in Switzerland and, given the situation in his home country, calls himself a “confessed emigrant” – just like Rachmaninoff did.

Rachmaninov connoisseur Mikhail Shishkin: a Russian writer in exile

 “For me, what is Russian about Rachmaninoff is above all his self-perception as part of world culture,” Schischkin told DW. “It was the only way he understood and lived his Russianness.” Schischkin certifies that the composer has “perfect pitch – for history, for life”. In his music he anticipates the horrors of the twentieth century, of the GULAG and the Holocaust. But they also offered comfort.

Rachmaninoff was at home in his music

“All his life he tried to build a house for himself and his family – a big, bright, beautiful house,” says Schischkin. First on the beloved Ivanovka estate in northern Russia, where it was destroyed by the peasants captured by the revolution, later on the shores of Lake Lucerne – today the estate, Villa “Senar”, has been converted into a Rachmaninoff memorial. “But the actual home he built in his music,” says Schischkin. “For me, that's the secret of his music – it's a victory over death.” 

“I can't remember that an artist's anniversary was ever celebrated as big as Rachmaninoff's,” explains the Russian researcher Valkowa. There is hardly a Russian orchestra, hardly an opera house that is not dealing with Rachmaninoff's works this year, countless symposia and publications, the revitalized Rachmaninoff Piano Competition –  and of course a state ceremony in the Rachmaninoff Museum on the Ivanovka estate – where the peasants once threw the owner's grand piano from the first floor, lovingly built from the ashes by the charismatic museum director Alexander Yermakov, who died last year…

Just opened as a cultural center: Rachmaninoff's Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne

Russia is trying to usurp Rachmaninoff's memory

The writer Schischkin is downright appalled by the attempt by today's Russian rulers to usurp the Rachmaninov memorial: “Just as the ancient King Midas turned everything he touched into gold, so they turn everything they touch into dirt. This state is per se an enemy of all art and culture,” says Shishkin, who is the only Russian writer to have been awarded all three of the most important national literary prizes (“Russian Booker”, “Big Book” and “National Best Seller”). 

In the last months before his death, suffering from cancer, Rachmaninoff considered returning to Russia and even contacted the Russian embassy. “His death saved him and us from this disgrace,” says Shishkin. The composer, who maintained his Russianness throughout his life, took American citizenship, mainly to make life easier for his descendants.

“First death, then – life”: Rachmaninoff's grave in Kensico Cemetery in the city of Valhalla, north of New York

This is also the opinion of Vera Valkova, who die Rejects the idea of ​​reburying Rachmaninoff's bones – a project the Russian Ministry of Culture has been working on for years. The researcher has still not lost hope of publishing the last two parts of her Rachmaninoff Chronicle. However, most of the documents are in the Library of Congress in Washington and Western archives, which are inaccessible to Russian researchers until further notice.