by Michael Scott

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Rachmaninoff’s work was scorned by the musical establishment as hopelessly old-fashioned and emotionally over-indulgent but never failed to find popular acclaim—including being used as the soundtrack to the film Brief Encounter. Who was this taciturn genius? This book investigates Rachmaninoff’s intense and melodramatic life.


Rachmaninoff’s work was scorned by the musical establishment as hopelessly old-fashioned and emotionally over-indulgent but never failed to find popular acclaim—including being used as the soundtrack to the film Brief Encounter. Who was this taciturn genius? This book investigates Rachmaninoff’s intense and melodramatic life.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Scott's (founder, London Opera Society; The Great Caruso) book on pianist-composer Sergey Rachmaninoff is almost entirely biographical, unlike Barrie Martyn's Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor and Max Harrison's Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings, which combine biography with musical analysis (both have musical examples, but Scott's book does not). The strength of Scott's book is in the numerous quotations from Rachmaninoff's letters; however, Rachmaninoff's life is of interest because of his music. Martyn and Harrison offer superior examinations of Rachmaninoff's music, and Robert Walker's popular biography (sans footnotes) Rachmaninoff has the advantage of many illustrations (Martyn's and Harrison's books also have illustrations)-inexplicably, Scott's has none. For a general treatment of Rachmaninoff's life and music, Harrison's book is the best. Recommended for libraries specializing in music or Russian materials.
—Bruce R. Schueneman

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The History Press
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By Michael Scott

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Michael Scott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7242-3



ITLK[The Rachmaninoff family's aristocratic origins: Born twelve years after the emancipation of the serfs: Changed political circumstances enable him to become a musician: Secures place at St Petersburg Conservatory but fails examination: Cousin Siloti secures opportunity for him at Moscow Conservatory.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born on 20 March 1873 at Semyonovo, one of his family's estates to the south of Lake Ilmen in the Staraya Russa region. 'It was near enough to ancient Novgorod to catch the echoes of its old bells', or so he would like to remember years later when his childhood memories were particularly dear to him. By then, this world had long been swept away. Oscar von Riesemann paints a word picture of an estate like the Rachmaninoffs at the time of his birth:

The manor-house was a low one or two storied wooden structure, built with logs from its own forests, whose sun-mottled gloom reached up to the garden gate; roomy verandas and balconies stretched around the whole front of the house, which was overgrown with Virginia creeper; behind lay stables and dog-kennels that housed yelping Borzoi puppies; in front of the house was a lawn, round in shape – with a sundial in the centre – and encircled by the drive; a garden with gigantic oaks and lime trees, which cast shadows over a croquet lawn, led into a closed thicket; a staff of devoted servants who, under good treatment, showed an unrivalled eagerness to serve, made house and yard lively.

However, Riesemann's eloquence should not disguise the fact that life in Russia in those days had another side to it, and that the Rachmaninoffs were among the privileged minority. As in France in the days of Louis XVI, or in the United Kingdom at the time of the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority was illiterate, many half-starved, and disease rampant.

According to a genealogy, 'Historical Information About the Rachmaninoff Family', it could be traced back to the days of Mongolian domination in the Middle Ages. As photographs taken in the last years of Rachmaninoff's life suggest, there is something almost Mongolian-looking about his features – his almond-shaped eyes with heavy bags under them, his pendulous lips. Stefan IV, one of the rulers of Moldavia, had a daughter, Elena, who married the eldest son and heir of Ivan III, the Grand Duke of Moscow. Elena's brother accompanied her to Moscow and it was his son, Vassily (nicknamed Rachmanin) from whose line the composer's family may be traced. The name has its origins in an Old Russian word, 'rachmany', meaning hospitable, generous, a spendthrift. As we shall see, Rachmaninoff's father was all of these things.

In the eighteenth century, Gerasim Rachmaninoff, the composer's greatgreat-grandfather, was a Guard's Officer in one of the Romanoff family's many succession disputes. When Elisabeth, Peter the Great's daughter, became Tsaritsa he was rewarded with an estate in the district of Tambov at Znameskoye. It lies in the Steppes, one of the most fertile parts of Russia, situated to the southeast of Moscow. The family remained here for the next 150 years. Alexander Gerasimovich, Rachmaninoff's great-grandfather, was a competent violinist and his wife was related to Nicolai Bakhmetev, a minor composer in the Imperial Chapel. Given how large Russia was and how poor communications were, families were obliged to make music for themselves in those days. Alexander's son, Arkady, joined the army but retired after duty in one of the many Russo-Turkish disputes. Arkady took piano lessons from John Field, the Irish virtuoso, but by the time Field came to Russia he was in the late stages of alcoholism and his powers were in obvious decline. Mikhail Glinka, the first important Russian composer, studied with Field and wrote of his playing, 'His fingers were like great drops of rain falling on the keys as pearls on velvet.'

The only time Sergei met his grandfather was as a boy, but the memory of the occasion remained with him for more than half a century. 'I played my little tunes, consisting of four or five notes and he added a beautiful and most complicated accompaniment. 'Arkady played music at the homes of other members of the nobility and although he never pursued professional standards – as a member of the landowning class it was not necessary – a quantity of his waltzes, polkas and other salon compositions did get into print. He is the only other member of the Rachmaninoff family to merit even a footnote in history. Princess Golizin, in her memoirs, recalls how as soon as he got up every morning he would go straight to the piano and let nothing distract him while he practised for four or five hours. His family was large (there were nine children) and the sons were all required to follow in their father's footsteps and join the army.

Vasily, Rachmaninoff's father, joined the Imperial Guards in 1857 at the age of 16. For the next couple of years he was sent off to the Caucasus to suppress a nationalist uprising by the Muslim leader, Imam Shamil. In 1862 he took part in the suppression of the Polish nationalists and thereafter spent his time in a typical fashion – drinking, gambling and making love. After nine years' military service he made a coup of his own by marrying Lyubov, the daughter and heiress of General Butakov, the head of the Araktcheyev Military College. Vassily quit the army to lead a princely life in the manner of his forebears. Like his father, Arkady, he too showed musical talent. His daughter Varvara recalls how 'he spent hours playing the piano, not the well-known pieces, but something – God knows what, and I would listen to him to the end'. Years later in his recitals, Rachmaninoff would often programme a piece based on a theme he remembered his father playing, supposing it to have been written by him, Polka de W.R. (a French transliteration of his initials), but it was in fact the work of a prolific Austrian composer, Franz Behr, in the Johann Strauss mould.

Vasily Rachmaninoff's family consisted of three daughters (Elena, Sophia and Varvara) and three sons (Vladimir, Sergei and Arkady). Sergei was raised in the traditional manner by a nurse, and took lessons from private tutors. His mother introduced him to music and he was only 4 years old when she first sat him at the piano. Like members of his father's family, he showed an aptitude for music from an early age but it seems unlikely that his talent would ever have amounted to much without his mother. The part his mother played in securing his first piano teacher is recalled in a letter written years later to Rachmaninoff by Mlle Defert, his sisters' Swiss governess:

You may recall how your mother enjoyed accompanying my singing. Do you remember how you stayed at home one day under the pretext of not feeling well, so I was obliged to stay with you? When we were alone you surprised me suggesting I sing a song your mother often accompanied me in. How astonished I was to hear your small hands play chords that may not have been complete but were without a single wrong note. You made me sing Schubert's 'Mädchenklage' three times. I told your mother that evening. The next day the news was sent your grandfather General Butakov and he ordered your father to go to St Petersburg and bring back a good piano teacher.

As a result, Anna Ornatskaya, a young graduate of St Petersburg Conservatory, was engaged to give Sergei his first piano lessons.

Like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Rachmaninoff's social position precluded his making a career as a professional musician and it was ordained that he would join the corps des pages of the Guards. However, it did not take long before economic changes in Russia began to affect the Rachmaninoffs. From his father's youth his wealth had caused him to court pretty well every attractive woman he met, but that had not contributed to making him provident. In the first years of his marriage the income from his estates had proved more than enough to cope with, even with his profligacy; but soon there was no place left for the extravagant, often absentee, landlords of old Russia. The rapid progress of industrialisation in western Europe inevitably led to the collapse of feudal Russia: In 1861 the serfs were emancipated and for the landowners this necessitated a new and revolutionary husbanding of their resources.

By 1877, only five years after his wealthy father-in-law's death, Vassily had managed to squander his wife's entire inheritance. At first Lyubov's position had been little different from the heiresses of previous generations; so long as their husbands could manage their estates competently then they had to put up with their philandering. But Vassily became bankrupt and Lyubov was faced with the prospect of having to fend for herself. She had no mind to play the role of her namesake in Chekhov's play and sit back while the cherry orchard was taken from her. The furious rows resulting from the genteel poverty that the Rachmaninoffs were slipping into, led to Sergei's parents separating. Lyubov moved to St Petersburg with all of the children, where her mother, Sophie Butakova, joined her. Sergei who was only ten could not have understood much of what was going on; all he knew was that his father loved him very much. He thought him kind and generous, but his mother was aware of the importance of introducing orderliness into family life. Rachmaninoff remembers her years afterwards stating 'there should be a time for everything'.

Soon after their arrival in Russia's capital, one of Vassily's married sisters, Maria Trubnikova, agreed to take Sergei into her family until Lyubov was settled. The Trubnikovs nicknamed him 'yasam' (myself); so independent was the little lad that when anyone in the family offered to help him he would brush them aside insisting 'yasam'. No sooner were they settled in St Petersburg than a diphtheria epidemic broke out. Three of the Rachmaninoff children contracted it, and although Sergei and his elder brother Vladimir both recovered, their sister Sophia died. Sergei's maternal grandmother helped to support the young Rachmaninoffs during these difficult years and it was she to whom the boy felt particularly close. Sergei enjoyed the summer vacations he spent with her at Borisovo, near the familiar landscape of Oneg, one of the family estates his father had been obliged to sell. He would wait impatiently for her to take him to church, where he would listen attentively to the music. Then, as soon as they were home again, he would go straight to the piano, and with his feet scarcely reaching the pedals, play through the chants he had heard. Although not conventionally religious, a preoccupation with Russian church music would remain an important influence on Rachmaninoff's compositions throughout his life.

It was during these summers that we first glimpse the composer. After dinner, the boy would improvise at the keyboard in front of his grandmother's guests, although he always claimed he was playing pieces by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Chopin. After these impromptu recitals, he recalled, 'she never failed to reward me with twenty-five kopeks, and naturally, I was not loathe to exert my memory, for such a consideration meant a large sum to a lad of ten or eleven.' His surviving elder sister, Elena, who was more than five years his senior, had a love of music which made for a common bond. She had a fine contralto voice with a natural individuality of timbre that foretold a great future. Sergei loved to accompany her. She would sing the latest fashionable song, like Tchaikovsky's 'None but the lonely heart'. Sometimes he was so deeply affected that he proved unable to finish, and she had to push him off the piano stool and accompany herself. In the autumn of 1885, when she was eighteen and had secured an engagement at the Bolshoi, Elena died suddenly. This was a traumatic event for the twelve-year-old Sergei.

The family's straitened circumstances made a place in the Guards impossible and Vladimir, Vassily's eldest son, had to go to an ordinary military academy. This, combined with the boy's obvious talent, made a career in music seem possible for Sergei. With the recommendation of Ornatskaya he gained a scholarship for the St Petersburg Conservatory. The fact that he had a perfect ear and could name almost every note in the most complicated of musical structures, persuaded his teachers that he had no need for basic theoretical training. Like many with exceptional talents, he did not fit easily into the conservatory regime and was allowed to go straight into harmony classes with older, more mature students. It was not until after failing his examinations that leading questions were asked him and his incompetence became obvious. At length, Karl Davydov, Principal of the Conservatory, complained to Lyubov, but she had no idea what to do. It was in 1885 that Lyubov's nephew, the young pianist Alexander Siloti, returned home after completing his studies to accept an engagement at the Moscow Conservatory. Having spent three years with Liszt and created a considerable sensation in concert, Lyubov begged Siloti to hear Sergei and give her his opinion of the boy's worth. Before doing so, however, Siloti happened to meet Davydov and asked him what he thought of Sergei. Davydov pulled a long face and replied that he could see no point in the boy continuing studying. It was with some difficulty that Lyubov finally managed to persuade Siloti to come to the Rachmaninoffs' apartment and hear his cousin play, but he was at once impressed. He told Lyubov that Sergei was very talented but that he needed stringent discipline. He recommended that she enrol him at the Moscow Conservatory and put him under the rigorous tutelage of Nicolai Zverev, his old teacher.



Rachmaninoff's most important piano teacher: Life at Zverev's: Joins Moscow Conservatory, staff includes Arensky, Taneyev and his cousin Siloti: Meets composers Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky: Begins to compose: Sudden departure from Zverev's.

In 1885 Nicolai Zverev was fifty-three. He had studied piano with two leading teachers, the Frenchman Alexandre Dubuque and the Bavarian Adolf von Henselt, both of whom spent many years in Russia. Dubuque, like Rachmaninoff's grandfather, had lessons with Field and taught Alexander Villoing, who numbered among his pupils the Rubinstein brothers, the virtuoso Anton, the pedagogue Nicolai and the composer Balakirev. At the time of its composition Balakirev's 'Islamey' was rated the ne plus ultra of virtuosity. Although Balakirev was not noted for his modesty he is on record as stating: 'If I can play the piano at all, it is entirely due to ten lessons I had with Dubuque'. Henselt rarely gave concerts and spent most of his time teaching. He told the American pianist Bettina Walker, who studied with him in his later years, 'I have never ceased wrestling and fighting with the flesh.' Walker was a devoted pupil yet she cannot forebear from recalling how the soubriquet 'Henselt-kills' stuck to him. Like Henselt, Zverev was devoted to practice, but whereas Henselt did not need much coaxing to be persuaded to play, Zverev hardly ever touched the piano, even in front of his students. Rachmaninoff never heard him play. Older pupils, like Siloti, remembered 'a very elegant and musical pianist with an unusually beautiful tone', especially the remarkable effect he created playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

In his affluent youth Zverev conceived his piano studies as no more than finishing lessons for a gentleman. However, like the Rachmaninoffs, his landowning family fell on hard times as was so often the way in the then rapidly changing Russia. At the age of thirty-five, less than a decade after the emancipation of the serfs, he was obliged to sell the family estate. It was then that he chanced to encounter Dubuque. When Zverev told Dubuque that the only living he could expect to find was that of a civil servant, Dubuque replied: 'Then you had better stay here and I'll get you piano lessons,' and that he did. In only a few years Zverev became one of Moscow's leading teachers and by 1900 no less than twelve out of nineteen of the Moscow Conservatory's gold medallists had been his pupils, and many became professors. Zverev's career proves a Shavian axiom: 'If you can, do; if you can't, teach; if you can't teach, then teach teachers.'

At Dubuque's apartment Zverev met Tchaikovsky and the composer agreed to give him lessons in musical theory. As Tchaikovsky's diaries confirm, they soon became friends and he even dedicated a song to him: Distant Past (Op. 72 No. 17). In 1870 Nicolai Rubinstein, the founder of the Moscow Conservatory, appointed Zverev teacher of junior piano students. In the mornings, he would teach privately at home for two hours before departing for the Conservatory at ten o'clock. After a break for lunch he would resume teaching, but this time he would take a carriage round to the homes of the wealthy and fashionable giving lessons, sometimes until 10 pm, and for more than appreciable sums. What he earned from his demanding labours was sufficient to satisfy his need for creature comforts, and it enabled him to accommodate a trio of the youngest and brightest conservatory scholarship boys in his home where they received tuition for free.


Excerpted from Rachmaninoff by Michael Scott. Copyright © 2011 Michael Scott. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Meet the Author

Michael Scott is one of the most knowledgeable writers on music and great performers. His previous books include biographies on Caruso and Maria Callas.

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