On the night of March 28, 1943, Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross, the great Russian composer Sergei Vasilevich Rachmaninov (1873–1943) fell asleep in the Lord after taking his last Communion.
Sergei Vasilevich died of advanced cancer in his house in Los Angeles. He spent the final twenty-five years of his life far away from his native Russia which he loved with all his heart to his last breath. Despite his agony, he every day made inquiries with his loved ones about Russia’s military progress at the front. When the nurse told him that the Soviet army was on the offensive against the Nazis, liberating towns from their occupation, he would heave a sigh of relief and say through his pain, “Very well then, glory to God! May the Lord give them strength!”
Twenty years before, as an emigrant in a Paris music shop Rachmaninov had run across his old acquaintance, Lev Pulver (1883—1970), music director of the State Jewish Theater in Moscow, who had been touring France. They exchanged greetings, and Sergei Vasilevich started asking him many questions about the life in Moscow. But barely had his companion said the first few words when the composer suddenly burst out sobbing and ran out of the shop without saying good-bye. “Rachmaninov was normally not particularly effusive in showing emotion. Therefore, we can conclude how painful his isolation from his homeland was for him,” his friend, the Russian pianist and composer Alexander Goldenweiser (1875—1961), who knew about that meeting from Pulver, related.
Sergei Vasilevich himself explained that the separation from his motherland took a tragic turn:
“By losing my native land I lost myself. An exile who has lost his musical roots, traditions and his native earth, has no more desire to create, no consolations other than the indestructible stillness… of memories.”
This accounts for Rachmaninov’s prolonged creative silence as a composer in a foreign land.
Love for his earthly fatherland runs through Rachmaninov’s creative work, the period before emigration included, so it is no coincidence that in the West his music is associated with Russia. This is what Sergei Vasilevich himself said in this regard:
“I am a Russian composer and my motherland left its imprint both on my temper and on my views. My music is the fruit of my nature, and that is why this music is Russian. I have never tried to compose Russian music or music of any other type intentionally.”
It is no coincidence that the musical expert Michael Kazinnik (b. 1951) observed that the theme of Russian bell-ringing can be found almost in every other work by Rachmaninov.
Taking the troubled year 1917 very hard, following the revolutionary disturbances and unrest of the masses closely, Rachmaninov came to a discouraging conclusion: “Even under Nicholas II, I felt more freedom than now when the word ‘freedom’ sounds like mockery.” On December 21, the composer with his wife and two daughters went on tour to Stockholm on the Swedish Royal Family’s invitation. After that, as he admitted, Rachmaninov became “a Ghost wandering in a World Grown Alien.” After successful performances, instead of coming back home two months later, Rachmaninov and his family went to Copenhagen where they stayed for almost a year. And in November 1918 he and his family moved to the USA where they found a permanent place of residence.
This is how his cousin Sophia Satina [1879—1975; a prominent biologist, botanist, geneticist and teacher.—Trans.] explained the composer’s decision to emigrate from Russia:
“Many considered the coup in Russia to be a temporary phenomenon. Rachmaninov believed that it was the end of old Russia and he as an artist had no other alternative than to leave his homeland. He used to say that life without art had no purpose, that after the collapse of the whole system art could no longer exist as such and that all kinds of artistic activity would stop in Russia for many years.”
The hands and heart
Sergei Rachmaninov with his wife Natalia Satina. 1925. The USA Characterizing the maestro’s qualities and talent, his contemporaries often cited the American pianist Jozef Hofmann (of Polish origin; 1876—1957). “Rachmaninov was made of steel and gold: steel in his hands, gold in his heart.” The whole world of music knew what the hands of this man of genius were capable of.
Shortly before the maestro’s death, his wife Natalia Alexandrovna Satina [1877—1951; she was also his first cousin.—Trans.] watched his hands. According to her, even when he was unconscious, he automatically moved his hands and fingers, as if conducting an orchestra or playing the piano. Doctor A.V. Golitsin felt the maestro’s pulse on his deathbed: “It was sad to realize that these fine, thin hands would never touch the keyboard again and would no longer give the pleasure and joy they had given to people for fifty years,” the doctor recalled.
For outsiders, Sergei Rachmaninov’s golden heart was hidden behind his outward reserve and coldness. According to the composer’s pupil, the pianist and singer Elena Zhukovskaya (nee Kreuzer; 1875—1961), he was never quick to make friends and was not the kind of person who would get onto familiar terms of address with someone immediately after getting acquainted with them. Rachmaninov seldom addressed people by name, save for his closest relatives. He even called his bosom friends, such as the teacher and fellow-composer Nikita Morozov and the singer Michael Slonov, only by name and patronymic. Moreover, those who were close to him noted his susceptibility to depression.
Alexander Goldenweiser, mentioned above, recalled:
“Rachmaninov as a person produced twofold impression on people. Those who barely knew him and were not close to him had an impression of him as of a somewhat stern, dried-up and even haughty man. In reality this outward reserve and strictness towards those around him were largely explained by the timidity of his nature. Rachmaninov was extremely charming with the people he was intimate with and whom he really loved.”
The following occurrence is an illustrative example of his modesty. After Rachmaninov had just taken up residence in the USA, a musical critic wondered why the maestro dressed so modestly. The composer replied: “Well, nobody here knows me yet.” Several years later the same critic wondered why Sergei Vasilevich remained faithful to his old habit of looking modest. “Maestro, your material well-being has substantially improved, yet you dress no better.” Rachmaninov shrugged his shoulders: “Why? Everybody here knows me as I am.”
With all his apparent hauteur, he as a true intellectual from the nobility would always take loving care of those around him and was extremely demanding of himself. For example, the thought that by playing the piano he probably disturbed his neighbors tormented Sergei Vasilevich his entire life. In connection with this he would always pre-book corner rooms in hotels in order not to bother other guests. In addition, all his acquaintances noted a scrupulous punctuality in him: whoever the composer was going to a meeting, he never allowed himself to be late.
His cousin Sophia Satina, who knew the composer from childhood, wrote the following lines about the composer:
“Sergei Vasilevich’s distinctive traits were kindness and sensitivity; he responded to the needs and suffering of others—mostly those who were total strangers to him. Few know how much he had helped people before his emigration from Russia but especially while living abroad, to those who had remained ‘there’ and those who lived ‘here’—that is, to Russian people scattered all over the globe. He could not stand ballyhoo and publicity at all. Despite the seeming haughtiness and strictness, he behaved very simply and naturally and was accessible to all who really needed his help or advice.”
The generosity of the maestro’s heart extended to a large number of people (both known and unknown to him) in all parts of Russia, which is evidenced by his numerous works of mercy. Rachmaninov would resignedly donate the money he earned to those in need not only when he lived in easy circumstances overseas. The musician had eagerly participated in charity concerts at the outset of his musical career, when he had started performing in front of the general public. The more his masterly performance developed and the more his fame grew, the larger the scale of his help was.
From his student years on, Rachmaninov gave many charity concerts at the Circle of Russian Music Lovers (set up by Maria and Arkady Kerzin), played at charity evenings in memory of the composer and conductor Ilia Sats (1875—1912), the actress Vera Komissarzhevskaya (1864—1910) and other cultural figures, rendering financial aid to their families. Thus, after the death of the composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin in 1915, Sergei Vasilevich gave a number of concerts in support of his colleague’s bereaved family. He would take part in the activity of the Russian Music Publishing House founded by the conductor, musical figure and philanthropist Sergei Koussevitzky (1874—1951), which offered all-round assistance to novice composers.
Despite his very busy schedule, Rachmaninov always found time for performances, the proceeds from which went for various social needs: supporting young students, novice composers, the Higher Courses for Women, the Music Foundation, schools, hospitals, and so on. During the First World War the composer gave regular concerts to support the army, mostly for the treatment of the wounded and the needs of the refugees.
Until 1917 Sergei Vasilevich would spend every summer in his beloved Ivanovka—his summer residence in the Tambov province, where he would gladly look after the house and derive strength and inspiration for his creative work. There the composer built a primary school for peasant children with his funds and during each stay wholeheartedly helped the locals, who really adored him. In time Rachmaninov planned to give Ivanovka to the peasants; and he would have done this but for the estate’s enormous debts which were a true burden. As a result, after the Bolsheviks had come to power the estate was ransacked and then burned down.
In a foreign land
Sergei Rachmaninov In emigration, once the musician stood on his own feet again and had paid off all the debts, he had much more opportunity to help others. After twelve to eighteen months of “concert travails” in America, his fees rose from $500 for a performance to $3,000—4,000 for a performance. On learning about the consequences of the revolt in Russia—the Civil War, desolation and famine—he began to cooperate with charitable organizations: the Red Cross and ARA (the American Relief Administration), sending parcels with provisions to the motherland and transferring huge amounts of money to distressed compatriots. Rachmaninov saw to it that certain amounts of money be spent in support of creative intellectuals—artists, musicians, along with the Russian Conservatory staff, philharmonic schools and opera theaters.
A notice of a parcel receipt from Rachmaninov belonged to the outstanding Russian theater director and actor Constantine Stanislavsky (1863—1938). The following text bore the maestro’s signature: “I attest that the food I have received will be used by me, and will not be sold or traded for something else.” Among the celebrities to whom Sergei Vasilevich lent his helping hand in difficult life situations were the Symbolist poet Constantine Balmont, the poet and prose writer Ivan Bunin, the composer Alexander Glazunov, the painter Boris Grigoriev, the graphic artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, the pianist and conductor Alexander Siloti, the religious and political philosopher Ivan Ilyin, the music theorist Georges Conus, the violinist Julius Conus, the writer Alexander Kuprin, the symphonic conductor Nicolai Malko, the composer and pianist Nikolai Medtner, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, the poet Daniel Ratgauz, the Ego-Futurist poet Igor Severyanin, the painter and graphic artist Constantine Somov, the choreographer Michel Fokine, the actor and director Michael Chekhov, and others.
His friend, the composer and organist Alexander Gedike (1877—1957), recalled:
“In those years Sergei Vasilevich did everything in his power to support his friends and relatives, firstly by sending them money and then parcels, which really helped many out of trouble. Those parcels contained flour, cereals, sugar, condensed milk, cocoa, vegetable oil, and salo [food consisting of slabs of salted or cured fat from pork back or pork abdomen; a traditional dish among the Eastern Slavs.—Trans.]. In a word, receiving such a parcel was a great help at that time. Many people in Moscow thought with warm feelings of Sergei Vasilevich, while putting sugar into a glass of cocoa with condensed milk every day.”
On one occasion, when his friend Michael Slonov sent his acquaintance to a post office to get yet another parcel from the composer, the cashier marveled: “Who is this Rachmaninov that provides half of Moscow with foodstuffs?!”
According to his cousin’s evidence, he would spend a third of his finances on charitable purposes. This is what she wrote in her reminiscences:
“Over very many years his aid continuously went to other parts of the world. It seemed there was no place in the whole globe from where he didn’t receive constant petitions for help from Russian people, scattered around the world. Among the seekers were sick, old and frail people; young people who wanted to obtain a higher education and learn one or another trade sought his help too; Russian public organizations that cared for the elderly, orphans and disabled, appealed to him; Russian educational institutions that opened in various European countries also called for help—some needed funds to pay for their premises, others sought to sustain their half-starved students, acquire equipment, pianos, etc.; churches and dormitories needed aid as well.
“Sergei Vasilevich had quite a few ‘personal pensioners’. Much money was spent to support some good, worthwhile causes, though most ended in failure. The names of the seekers are not to be made public and should be consigned to oblivion. This is surely in accordance with Sergei Vasilevich’s wishes because he disliked speaking on this subject very much. Nevertheless it is necessary at least to mention the very fact of this support in order to pay tribute to this kind-hearted, sensitive and humble friend of indigent and suffering people. Sergei Vasilevich did all in his power to support his colleagues—artists and performers who went on tour to America. He would recommend them to managers and the Steinway piano company, tried to increase their fees, etc. Their names are not to be made public for the time being either.”
In the foreign land, Sergei Vasilevich never forgot emigrants from among his compatriots and gave them active financial support too. Specifically, he performed numerous charity concerts to support Russian students and gave help to businessmen from among his compatriots.
One version of the famous story of Rachmaninov’s help to the great aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky (1889—1972) has it that one day the scientist came up to the composer behind the scenes after a concert in Chicago. They got into a conversation and gave themselves over to fond memories of their motherland. On learning that after a failed attempt to implement his latest project Sikorsky was having a hard time and struggling to make ends meet, Rachmaninov handed $5,000 to him. That was an enormous sum of money for that time; and it was that gift that helped Sikorsky stand on his own feet and become a world-famous celebrated aviation pioneer. Afterwards the inventor grew rich and settled his debt; and they established warm, friendly relations forever.
Beginning from 1941, Rachmaninov actively transferred money for the Red Army’s needs in the war with Germany, which proved to be a very inspiring example for Russian emigrants who were not indifferent to their motherland’s destiny. Sympathizing with his compatriots engaged in the war from the bottom of his heart, he would openly call on Russian emigrants to help the USSR, and in some circles he was even nicknamed “Red.” Sending one of his first checks for $3,920 to the USSR Consul in New York City Vadim Fedyushin, the composer wrote, “This is the only way I can express my sympathy for the suffering of people of my native land for the past few months.” His following donation to the USSR was accompanied by these words of support: “A Russian is helping as much as he can the Russian people in its struggle with the enemy. I want to believe and do believe in a complete victory.”
After living in profound homesickness for over twenty years, not long before his death he sent a letter to the Soviet Consulate with the request to be allowed to return home. After receiving no reply Rachmaninov finally acquired American citizenship to ensure an easier future for his relatives.
At the end of his life he shared his sorrow in his reminiscences:
“There is a weight on my heart. It is heavier than anything else; I didn’t know this feeling in my youth. I don’t have my own country. I had to leave the country where I was born, where I struggled and endured all the sorrows of my youth, and where I finally achieved success.”
In order to ease his pain a little Rachmaninov planted a white birch tree on the lawn beside his final abode in Beverley Hills, California, which reminded him of his faraway Russia and beloved Ivanovka. Shortly before his repose the birch tree withered…