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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 859

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This is the grave of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Born in 1873 in Russia, Rachmaninoff came from one of the nation’s oldest and most elite families. Many members of his family were high-ranking military officers under the Czar. They also had a great deal of interest in music. So young Sergei was brought up with both value sets. He started taking piano lessons when he was 4 and showed an incredible ability, memorizing entire passages from the time he was small. Like much of the Russian nobility though, the family was downwardly mobile by the late nineteenth century. These elites had big time spending habits and not a lot of steady income. The five estates Rachmaninoff was born into was reduced to one and the family spent most of its time in a St. Petersburg apartment. But Rachmaninoff still got his music lessons and was sent to conservancy at the age of 10. Other than music, he was an atrocious student who used to fake his own report cards.

Already a great pianist by the time he was a teenager, Rachmaninoff started to compose as well, infuriating his teacher who thought that a great pianist should focus on what he was good at. Well, he was wrong in this case. By 1892, Pyotr Tchaikovsky was attending his early concerts and strongly encouraging the young man. He was devastated by Tchaikovsky’s death from cholera soon after devastated him. He stopped writing for quite awhile, fell on financial hard times, and had to start teaching piano to make ends meet. He eventually snapped out of it, writing Symphony No. 1 in 1895. But then he had to pay back a bunch of money that was stolen from him on a train and which was to pay someone else, which forced him to work harder but on more minor pieces. The first performance of Symphony No. 1 was also a disaster, thanks to poor conducting from a drunk. The piece was panned and the young composer extremely depressed. It was never performed again in Rachmaninoff’s life and he basically stopped composing for the next three years.

Probably Rachmaninoff would have been a failure if his family hadn’t convinced him to get help for his mental illness. Successful treatment in 1900 revived his mood, helped him sleep and eat better, and taught him to not hate his own work so much. Soon after, the compositions began flowing. He won the prestigious Glinka Award for his Piano Concerto No. 2. He became the conductor at the Bolshoi Theater for two years, which was a controversial moment because his standards were very high and there were lots of disagreements with the musicians. In the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, Rachmaninoff left Russia for Germany, in part to escape the politics but also because as a rich guy, he was too in demand for parties and needed to work. So he and his wife–who was also his first cousin–moved to Dresden. Still struggling with some of his self-hatred, he was hesitant to create his Symphony No. 2, but it was a huge smash when it was performed. in 1909, he headed to the United States for his first tour there, working with Max Fiedler and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He spent the next several years engaged in composing, returning to Russia in triumph, leaving again in order to find a place to compose, and touring.

Rachmaninoff was most certainly no communist. A rich guy who was getting richer due to his work, he was deeply opposed to the Bolsheviks. Much of his money was tied up in land that was soon to be nationalized. He and his family left Russia for Finland at the end of 1917, only with what they could carry, which included his works in progress. He really didn’t want to go to the U.S. He didn’t like the country much on his 1909 tour. But he knew that the U.S. offered financial opportunities that the rest of Europe did not. So he accepted the many offers made to him by American symphonies looking to become equal of those in Europe. His first performance in the U.S. was a piano recital in Providence. It didn’t take much for him to become a huge hit in the U.S. He was able to live an elite life again, with apartments in San Francisco and New York, servants, etc. He became a center of Russian emigré life. However, he largely stopped composing after 1918, focusing heavily on tourism and his social life, as well as the need to raise money to fund his extravagant lifestyle, which included luxury cars by the 1920s. Definitely a man of the Russian elite there! He didn’t compose anything between 1918 and 1926, claiming that exile from Russia took out his soul. Well, maybe. But in 1926, he did take time off and composed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Three Russian Songs. In the last years of his life, he bought a place in Switzerland to go when he wanted to write and he composed four more pieces before he died. The Great Depression hurt his market and the finances got pretty shaky by a 1932 tour when he ended up losing money. He started making that up by the late 1930s by leaning in heavily to recording, with recording technology improving. He did a bunch of recording between 1939 and 1942.

By 1942, Rachmaninoff he had a lot of health issues. His doctors told him to move somewhere warm, so he chose California. He made one last tour, announced as such, in 1942 and 1943, to great acclaim. But by the end of the tour, he was collapsing. The tour ended in February. He was dead by the end of March, at the age of 69. He wanted to be buried in Moscow, but as he was now an American citizen, the Soviets refused.

Sergei Rachmaninoff is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York. In recent years, Vladimir Putin’s hacks have demanded that he be returned to Russia, claiming that the U.S. has ignored his grave. As you can see, this is not true. Instead, it’s just a tasteful grave in a tasteful cemetery. Tasteful is definitely something Putin knows nothing about. I’m sure he’d love to make some giant monument to Russian nationalism.

Anyway, let’s watch/listen to some Rachmanioff.

If you would like this series to visit other composers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Elliott Carter is in Brooklyn and Aaron Copland at the Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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