As the famous conductor Valery Gergiev once said, there is no musician that could skip Sergei Rachmaninoff in his way of becoming a pianist. To this day this hasn’t changed, and it’s the same with classical music devotees – Rachmaninoff simply cannot be skipped.
I would say, and it is not a subjective opinion, that alongside Tchaikovsky, Chopin and of course Mozart (we could add a few more names here) he is one of the most loved composers of today. It is a bit peculiar since composers from the beginning of the last century are not exactly highly positioned on the personal classical music “ranking lists’’. At the time when Stravinsky, Schoenberg and the other members of modernism wrote crucial pieces of music with the new, not particularly understandable atonal language causing riots of the audience at the premiers, Rachmaninoff remained “retro’’. Loyal to his principles, in the manner of late romanticism, he wrote music the way he felt it – music must bring relief, rehabilitate the mind and the soul, reveal the emotions of the heart. He stayed consistent to his ideas until he left this world in 1943, just a few days before his 70th birthday.
Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born on April the 1st in 1873. Although a look at his serious face brings awe, people who knew him say that he had great sense of humor. He loved fast cars, in his youth he was passionately though platonically in love with a married woman of Gipsy blood (it’s not by accident that Aleko was inspired by Pushkin’s Gypsies, and he also devoted his 1st symphony to her), he was a great lover of nature, folklore and above all his homeland. From the moment he left it in 1917., he dreamed about it feeling like a ghost that “wonders the world’’. And he did wonder a lot – through Stockholm, Dresden, New York, Paris, to Lucerne and finally Los Angeles.
Although he was not quite the type of a believer that goes to church on Sunday, as his niece Sofia Satina described him, religion meant a great deal to him, which is obvious by his opus of sacred works. The love for the sound of the church bells however, according to Satina, didn’t have much to do with religion. It was more related to his “Russian soul’’ which springs out from his music in every corner – passionate, dark, melancholic, tender, nostalgic, painful, furious…. After all, Rachmaninoff considered that everything composer carries inside, his whole experience, must be shown through music – love affairs, religion, homeland.
He wrote one of the most famous piano pieces when he was 19, while still staying in his little family paradise of the village Ivanovka. The piece is Prelude in C sharp minor, exactly the one that simulates the ringing of the bells from the church nearby. He described the very creation of the composition as the force from which he couldn’t set himself free, probably unaware that it will, transformed in massive and mighty chords, conquer the world soon.
The Prelude was an instant hit wherever performed – Moscow, London, U.S. Alexander Siloti would first perform it over the ocean so when Rachmaninoff later came to America he was very welcomed. The audience seemed to never have enough of this piece and Rachmaninoff played it to such an extent that after numerous concerts he declared that he preferred the “dance melody’’’. He was referring to the George L. Cobb’s cover of the prelude named “Russian rag’’ that will later become the part of Duke Ellington’s and Nat King Cole’s trio repertoire (in 1944.). Ironically, after not protecting his author’s rights, all Rachmaninoff got from it was the 20 dollars Gutheil publishing house payed him.
After he left, Rachmaninoff never came back to Russia. The only place where he found peace was the Lucerne lake house he named Senar (shorten from his and his wife’s name Natalia) where he composed the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. After 16 years of Swiss idyll, he packs for the last time in 1942 and with doctor’s recommendation, he goes to California. In another faraway world he’s still dreaming of his homeland while turning those daydreams into the magical harmonies of the Symphonic Dances. He used to say that he doesn’t understand the music of “today’’ and that time may change the technique of music, but cannot change its fundamental mission – to make us whole again. He wrote straight from the heart and in a way that healed his own sorrow. “If you want to know me’’, he said, “listen to my music’’.
These days, when 145 years from his birth are being celebrated worldwide, we could all just take his advice. We don’t even have to go to a concert, it is enough to bring him with us in our headphones when we go for a walk next time (the 3rd Piano concerto, or the 3rd Symphony for example). Endless melodies will take us through the still untouched landscapes, causing the desire to continue forever. Maybe, just a distant echo of the church bells from a well-known neighborhood will reach for us far from behind, reminding us that we are home.