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Sergei Rachmaninov: “My Motherland determined my temperament and worldview”

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Recognized already in pre-revolutionary Russia, Rachmaninov and in the West after emigration quickly became popular and in demand: tour, big fees, attention of the public and the press. But if you get to know his fate closer, it becomes clear: behind this external success story lies a completely different story, full of pain of parting with his native land, loneliness among strangers and at the same time – inexhaustible faith. To God and Russia.

“I am a Russian composer,” Rachmaninov said about himself, “my Motherland determined my temperament and worldview. My music is the brainchild of my temperament, so it is Russian.”

Condensed milk from the maestro

Early twenties of the twentieth century. In the USSR, devastation and famine. Composer Mikhail Slonov asked his friend to pick up a parcel at the post office: 49 pounds of flour (1 pound is almost half a kilo), 25 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of tea, 10 pounds of fat, 10 pounds of sugar, 20 cans of condensed milk … In total, about 53 kilograms. The post office clerk was surprised: “Who is this Rachmaninoff? Is he going to feed half of Moscow?!

Pianist Elena Gnesina recalled: “Rakhmaninov began to help Moscow musicians through the American organization APA, sending food parcels. Some of them came to my address for transfer to other persons, including A.T. Grechaninov and others whom I do not remember. But one day a double package arrived for me personally. I was very pleased with Sergey Vasilievich’s attention to me and I was happy that I could treat the entire staff of our school to a satisfying meal. I remember that we drank coffee with condensed milk, ate white pies and sweet buns. Everyone was happy and infinitely grateful to Rachmaninov.”

Sergey Vasilievich sent 20-30 such parcels monthly. He fed and provided money for poets and writers, musicians and artists. Stanislavsky, before the 1922 tour of the Moscow Art Theater began in Europe and America, like everyone who was starving in Moscow, signed for receiving humanitarian assistance from Rachmaninov: “I certify that the products I received will be used by me personally and will not be sold or exchanged.”

“I lost myself”

Parting with Russia became a bleeding wound for Sergei Rachmaninov, from which he could not recover until his last days.

By nature, closed, sensitive, prone to depression, at first he did not communicate with foreigners abroad, he surrounded himself exclusively with Russian people and practically did not come into contact with the “outside world”. He was in pain and hard.

The departure divided his life into two halves not only geographically, but also creatively: in 25 years in Russia, the composer created 3 concerts, 3 operas, 2 symphonies, 80 romances, the poems “The Bells” and “Isle of the Dead”, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom”, “All-Night Vigil” and much more. And when he left, he was silent for many years. In total, in exile, he wrote 6 works, and 4 were started in Russia.

“Having lost my homeland, I lost myself. The exile, who has lost his musical roots, the traditions of his native soil, has no desire to create, no other consolation remains, except for the indestructible silence … memories, ”he wrote.

What was Russia for him? What was his heart aching about? Of course, about the places where he grew up, where he received the most vivid and deep impressions in his childhood and youth. About loved ones. About language and culture… But not only. Russia for Rachmaninoff was inextricably linked with the Orthodox faith. It is no coincidence that he considered the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” and “All-Night Vigil”.

Four silver weeping notes

“For the strongest musical impressions, I have to thank my grandmother,” Sergei Vasilyevich recalled. At the age of nine, Seryozha Rachmaninov entered the junior department of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In the capital, he lived in a strange family, but for the holidays, his grandmother-godmother Sofya Alexandrovna Butakova took him to Veliky Novgorod.

She was a deeply religious woman, she took her grandson to church, gave communion, took her to the monastery, where there was a good choir. There, the boy, most likely, first heard about the canons of osmosis – “angelic singing”, as they called it in Russia.

In his grandmother’s house, he often heard old songs and chants, which she knew by heart. Seryozha also met the collector of Russian epics, the harpist Trofim Ryabinin. And in the mornings, the shepherd drove the flock past the grandmother’s house, playing on the birch bark.

And, of course, bells. Not far from the grandmother’s house was the temple of Theodore Stratilates, and a familiar sexton allowed Serezha to climb the bell tower. The future composer soon began to understand the ringing, the names of bells, distinguished them by their voices.

He especially remembered the chime of the Novgorod St. Sophia Cathedral. “The bell ringers were artists,” he recalled, “four notes formed a repeating theme again and again, four weeping silver notes surrounded by an incessantly changing accompaniment … A few years later I composed a suite for two pianos … – the Sofiysky bell again sang to me cathedral.”

For the rest of his life, the composer kept in his memory the ancient Novgorod znamenny chant. And the four bell tones of Novgorod Sophia – gentle, cheerful, plaintive, formidable – sounded in his piano sonata No. 2 and the symphony-poem “The Bells”.

Rachmaninoff’s friend, composer Alexander Gedike, wrote: “He was very fond of church singing and often, even in winter, got up at seven o’clock in the morning and left for the Andronikov Monastery, where he stood in the dim huge church for a whole mass, listening to the ancient, stern chants from Oktoikh, performed by parallel monks. fifths. It made a strong impression on him.”

In 1910, Sergei Rachmaninov wrote music for the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. And five years later he completed the All-Night Vigil, his greatest creation on the themes of ancient chants of the Znamenny chant.

The first performance of the All-Night Vigil by the Synodal Choir under the direction of Nikolai Danilin took place in March 1915 in Moscow. The success was stunning. The well-known critic Florestan (Vladimir Derzhanovsky) wrote: “Perhaps never before has Rachmaninoff come so close to the people, their style, their soul, as in this work. Or maybe it is this work that speaks of the expansion of his creative flight, of the capture of new areas of the spirit by him and, consequently, of the true evolution of his strong talent.

And the Japanese pianist Sadakatsu Tsuchida, who converted to Orthodoxy, said: “Rakhmaninov is a huge wealth. In his work there is the spirit of Orthodoxy, there is the power of the Resurrection, Russia, kindness, a merciful view of the world, the memory of eternity.

Ivanovka and its inhabitants

The fatherland of Rachmaninov is, first of all, Holy Russia, believing, prayerful. But this is also a specific place, about which Sergei Vasilyevich himself wrote in exile: “Living in Russia, I constantly strove for Ivanovka. Hand on heart, I must say that I still aspire to go there.

We are talking about the estate in the Tambov province, which belonged to Rachmaninov’s aunt and mother-in-law, Varvara Satina. In his youth, having quarreled with his teacher, Professor Zverev, with whom he lived on a full board, he found refuge in the Satin family, and later married his cousin Natalia Satin and became the de facto owner of the estate.

Until 1917, all the funds that he earned from concerts and received from the publication of his works, Sergei Vasilyevich invested in Ivanovka: he built new cowsheds there, repaired the horse yard, barns, brought equipment and new breeds of livestock … More than once he helped the peasants with the housework built a local school in the village.

And in 1913, when both daughters of Rachmaninov fell ill and the doctors were already preparing their parents for the fact that the girls would not survive, a miracle happened: Ira and Tanya suddenly recovered. And in gratitude for the fact that God gave children life, the gentlemen gave the peasants of Ivanovka 209 acres of land.

The last time Rachmaninoff visited Ivanovka was in 1917.

“Leave, master, from sin!”

It was spring. The Provisional Government for the first time introduced firm, directive prices for bread when purchasing it for army needs. And fermentation was already going on among the peasants: deserters incited them to plunder, the seeds were stolen, the sowing campaign was practically disrupted.

When they came to Sergei Vasilyevich from the village, he answered questions about the land for a long time, about who now controls Russia. Then everyone dispersed peacefully. But soon several old men returned and began to persuade the master not to linger in Ivanovka, they say, they often come here “some, Lord knows who, stir up the people, get drunk”: “Go away, master, from sin!”

But he spent so much energy, invested so much money in Ivanovka, helped local residents for years! Where does this cruelty come from?

He was never on the estate again. I wanted to give it to the peasants, but there were big debts on Ivanovka … And after the October Revolution, the estate was simply expropriated.

“Now the word ‘freedom’ sounds like a mockery!”

Rachmaninoff, like many thinking creative people in Russia, greeted the February Revolution with restrained optimism – like a wind of change … He transferred all the funds from the very first concert to the needs of the army. And then he gave two more concerts in favor of the front.

However, enthusiasm soon gave way to confusion: something clearly went wrong and in the wrong direction … Rachmaninov did not categorically accept the Second Revolution. “Even under Nicholas II, I felt freer than now, but now the word “freedom” sounds like a mockery!” he wrote. Back in March, the composer tried to go abroad. Then it didn’t work out. And in December, he suddenly received permission to leave and six months later, with his wife and two daughters, he left Russia.

Formally, it was a tour – he had scheduled performances in Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm. There he received several offers from America and emigrated to the United States. He was 44 years old. Rachmaninov never returned home, but all his later life in a foreign land passed with an eye on Russia.

New life

In America, he was offered the position of chief conductor of two of the best American orchestras, but Rachmaninoff decided to give up his career as a conductor. But America applauded him as a virtuoso pianist. He played great! At first, he was paid fees like ordinary guest performers – $ 500 per performance. But soon they began to pay 1000, 2000, 3000 dollars…

In 1922, Rachmaninov was able to buy a mansion on the banks of the Hudson. And he began to give about a third of his earnings to charity. And it all started with those same parcels with flour and condensed milk for friends and strangers – everyone who asks. Only a very narrow circle of people knew about the scale of assistance that Rakhmaninov provided: the personal secretary who transferred money, the person who compiled the lists of those in need, and family members. To the rest, the maestro seemed to be a closed snob, not shy about raising the bar of fees by signing new contracts. Who knows where these fees went …

“I believe in you and your plane”

Rachmaninoff performed at charity concerts both in the USA and in Europe, paid for the studies of personal scholarship holders, helped compatriots get jobs, provided orders for artists and sculptors, and bought Russian paintings. He was a member of charitable organizations helping Russian emigrant students in France and Germany, donated the proceeds from concerts to help needy Russian musicians, and transferred money to specific addresses. For example, the inventor Igor Sikorsky.

Sikorsky lived in New York and actually begged. There was little interest in airplanes at that time: there was a crisis in America. Igor Ivanovich designed his first planes literally in a chicken coop. There was no money at all.

Once Sikorsky was at a Rachmaninoff concert at Carnegie Hall. After the concert, he ran backstage with flowers in delight and … asked for help. Rachmaninov recognized him, was deeply moved: “I believe in you and your plane and I want to help!” And, without hesitation, he gave him the entire fee for his performance – $ 5,000 in an envelope: “Return when you can!” (According to another version, the composer simply bought shares of Sikorsky’s company for $5,000 and agreed to become its vice president. The risky financial transaction eventually paid off: Sikorsky’s design bureau soon gained momentum, and the inventor was able to return the money even with interest).

Another illustrative example of targeted assistance is associated with the Committee for Assistance to Russian Students in Emigration. Rachmaninoff regularly helped the Committee, and once wrote a letter there: “I heard that in France there are boarding houses in which the maintenance of one child a year costs 150 dollars. If the information is correct, then I would like to take care of one child and would be grateful if you would choose him for me and send information – his name, age and a short biography. After that, I will send you a check.”

The French immediately sent Sergey Vasilyevich a photo of Pavel Milovanov, a student of the Faculty of Chemistry at Sofia University. A capable young man became the first Rachmaninoff scholarship holder. Sergei Vasilievich annually transferred $150 to him and then, during his internship in France, he was interested in his fate. Rachmaninov also had other scholarship holders.

“Leave me alone!”

Rachmaninoff was able to provide for his family: he bought houses, rented a summer house near New York, at the end of his life he acquired land in Switzerland near Lucerne and built a villa there. The new estate was named “Senar” – Sergei and Natalia Rachmaninoff. But in his habits he was modest.

When he first moved to the US, a music critic asked him why he dresses so modestly. Sergei Vasilievich shrugged his shoulders: “No one here knows me anyway…” Years passed. Glory came, fees increased. The same critic asked why the maestro did not dress better. “Why? Rachmaninoff was surprised. “Everyone knows me anyway…”

All his life, the composer was worried that his piano playing interfered with his neighbors and in hotels he always booked exclusively corner rooms.

Intelligent and punctual to the extreme, he was never late for anything. A principled opponent of self-promotion, he refused to communicate with journalists and critics, did not go to pompous banquets and receptions. Once, on tour in a small American town, an ubiquitous photojournalist literally stuck to him at the station, but Rakhmaninov ran away from the paparazzi. During lunch in a restaurant, he was again nearby. The composer, in despair, covered his face with his hands: “Please, leave me alone!” The evening paper came out with a photograph accompanied by the caption: “Hands That Worth a Million.”


For fourteen years in exile, Sergei Vasilievich avoided politics – his mother and brother remained in Soviet Russia, and he did not want trouble for them.

But in 1931 Rabindranath Tagore visited the Soviet Union. Impressed by the “Soviet experiment”, he shared his observations in an interview with the American press. The Russian emigration reacted violently: a collective letter was drawn up, which was signed by many celebrities, including Rachmaninov. True to himself, he could not accept the praise of a system that grinds human destinies in the millstones of repression.

The letter, published in The New York Times, was blunt. At first, the Soviet Union did not react in any way. But then Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem “The Bells” was performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and it began … The magazine “For Proletarian Music” published an accusatory article “Let’s repulse the sortie of reaction”, where Rachmaninov and Balmont (the author of the translation of Edgar Poe’s poem “The Bells” ) were called “sworn enemies of the Soviet regime” and “fascist white émigrés”.

Further – more: articles, statements, minutes of meetings poured in as if from a cornucopia. “An attempt to rally and organize the hostile forces of reaction”, “a hardened enemy of the Soviet government”, “White Guard Rakhmaninov”, “counter-revolutionary speech” … The logical conclusion of the persecution was the ban on performing and publishing the works of “the singer of Russian merchants, wholesalers and bourgeois”. Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kyiv, Odessa conservatories called for a boycott of Rachmaninov’s music… The only one who did not participate in the general hysteria was the conductor of the Bolshoi Theater Nikolai Golovanov: at his own peril and risk, he continued to perform Rachmaninov’s works.

“From one of the Russians”

And then the war began. And Rachmaninoff stepped over himself: he still did not like the Bolsheviks and did not accept Soviet power, but decided that the fate of his country was more important than ideological differences. It was important for him to help the Russian people defeat Nazism, which he hated with all his heart.

When the Nazis invaded the USSR, Rachmaninov set a condition: the entire collection from every third concert goes to the fund for helping the Soviet Union.

On June 28, 1941, the composer addressed the Russian emigrants: “Regardless of their attitude to Bolshevism and Stalin, true patriots of Russia must help their Fatherland defeat the aggressors.” In certain circles, he was even nicknamed “Red”.

One of the first checks sent to the Soviet consul in New York, Rachmaninov accompanied by a letter: “This is the only way I can express my sympathy for the suffering of the people of my native land over the past few months.” And he commented on another donation as follows: “From one of the Russians – all possible assistance to the Russian people in their struggle against the enemy. I want to believe, I believe in complete victory.

He traveled with concerts throughout the United States and Canada, transferring tens of thousands of dollars to the American Fund for Relief of the Soviet Union. Rachmaninov’s money was used to purchase medicines for the Soviet army. The Soviet authorities also softened in their attitude towards the composer. They even thanked “for what you are doing for our common Motherland.” And they assured that “true patriots will always be provided with freedom of life and creativity in our country.”

Evidence remained that Rachmaninov wanted to attend charity concerts in Leningrad, Stalingrad and Moscow. He began to write the Stalingrad Symphony, was going to announce his return to the USSR, and even met with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, asked for a visa, and supposedly Molotov himself, while on a visit to the United States in the summer of 1942, approved his request. A year later, on his seventieth birthday, the composer received a congratulatory telegram from ten Soviet composers.

Maybe everything would work out. But … In 1943, the state of health of Sergei Vasilyevich deteriorated sharply, doctors discovered cancer.

In recent days, Rachmaninoff, rarely regaining consciousness, asked his wife to read him reports from the Russian front. And, having learned about the victory at Stalingrad, he whispered: “Thank God!”

A few days before his seventieth birthday, on March 27, 1943, he took communion in the morning and at night, without regaining consciousness, quietly died.

Materials in Russian used in the article:

• Ekaterina Kuznetsova “Rakhmaninov’s charitable activities in exile: touches on the composer’s portrait” (“Scientific Bulletin of the Moscow Conservatory”), https://nv.mosconsv.ru/sites/default/files/pdf/kuznetsova_2014_2.pdf;

• “Geniuses. Sergei Rachmaninov” (documentary film by Andrey Konchalovsky, TV channel “Culture”);

• Denis Khalfin “Sergei Rachmaninoff: Gold in the Heart”, https://pravoslavie.ru/127821.html;

• Serey Fedyakin “Rakhmaninov” (ZhZL series, publishing house “Young Guard”, 2014);

• Memoirs of N.A. Rakhmaninova, https://senar.ru/memoirs/Rachmaninova/.

Photo: Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano, early 1900s

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