One summer, long ago, my French teacher invited some of her pupils to tea at her cottage in the Sussex countryside. In the garden we devoured strawberries and cream and in her front parlour I discovered a collection of recordings of classical music.
Among the records was Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto on shellac discs (78s) played by the composer himself. I was enthralled. A few years later, I attempted to play Rachmaninov’s “Polichinelle” (one of his Morceaux de fantaisie) at a recital shared with two other budding pianists. Another French teacher was at the concert and, without meaning to, she deflated my youthful arrogance by remarking, “I heard Rachmaninov play that piece.” (She could have added, “And it wasn’t nearly so good!”)
Rachmaninov was born 1 April 1873 in Semyonovo, near Great Novgorod, in north-western Russia. His family was of Tatar descent and had been in the service of the Russian tsars since the 16th century. His parents were both amateur pianists. He studied piano and composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and in Moscow. The story of his persistent self-doubt, the failure of his first symphony, and his subsequent trauma are well known. Treated by the psychoanalyst Nicolai Dahl, he composed his supremely romantic second piano concerto, dedicating it to the man who had successfully treated him.
Obliged to leave Russia after the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov built a new home on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. It stands in Hertenstein, near Weggis, and was named “Villa Senar” from the combination of the first two letters of Sergei and Natalia (his wife) and the first of Rachmaninov. There, in the comfort of a place that reminded him of Ivanovka, the old pre-revolutionary family estate, Rachmaninov composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, one of his best known works, his third symphony and the spectacular Symphonic Dances with its meandering, jazz-like solo saxophone. At the same time he pursued a hectic international career as pianist and conductor.
Rachmaninov left Switzerland in 1939, going first to Paris before settling in New York. He fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942 and was diagnosed with advanced melanoma. His last recital took place in 1943 at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It included Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, the one with the Funeral March. A statue called “Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert”, designed and sculpted by Victor Bokarev, now stands in World Fair Park, Knoxville, as a memorial.
Rachmaninov died on 28 March 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, four days before his 70th birthday. He wished to be buried at Villa Senar, but the conditions of World War II made it impossible and he was interred in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York. Never quite sure of his astonishing abilities, he once wrote:
“I have never been quite able to make up my mind as to which was my true calling – that of a composer, pianist, or conductor. These doubts assail me to this day. There are times when I consider myself nothing but a composer; others when I believe myself capable only of playing the piano. Today, when the greater part of my life is over, I am constantly troubled by the misgiving that, in venturing into too many fields, I may have failed to make the best use of my life. In the old Russian phrase, I have ‘hunted three hares’. Can I be sure that I have killed one of them?”