Rachmaninov under the auctioneer’s hammer

The autograph manuscript of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – the one with all the great tunes – has been sold at auction for £1.2 million. The 320-page score was presumed lost until it was discovered in the cellar of a Swiss collector in 2004.

RachmaninovThe Second Symphony is a highlight of the romantic repertoire, but it is a miracle Rachmaninov ever wrote it. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was poorly received – “the most agonizing hour of my life,” he later wrote. For the next three years, he suffered from chronic depression and struggled to compose. He even visited Leo Tolstoy in the hope that contact with the novelist would stimulate his creativity. Apparently, after hearing Rachmaninov play one of his compositions, the novelist asked, “Tell me, is such music needed by anyone?” Eventually, Rachmaninov underwent hypnotherapy and its success led directly to the composition of the much loved Second Piano Concerto (dedicated to the doctor who cured him).

The first performances of the Second Symphony took place in St Petersburg, Moscow, and Warsaw in 1908 – conducted by the composer. The work was published that same year and the manuscript lost sight of. Rediscovered in 2004, it was due to be offered for sale at Sotheby’s but was withdrawn after family members intervened, saying there was no evidence of the composer ever having sold it during his lifetime. A settlement was agreed in 2005 and the score put on display at the British Library.

Manuscript of Sergei Rachmaninov's second symphonyThe manuscript score is notated in black ink with numerous deletions, corrections and annotations. Apart from its work-in-progress nature, there is speculation that it might differ from the published version. But that’s unlikely. The full score was published by Gutheil in 1908 based on proofs corrected by Rachmaninov and now preserved at the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow. In 1960 a new edition was produced incorporating alterations overlooked by Gutheil as well as corrections made by Rachmaninov to the printed orchestral parts.

Rachmaninov – who, at the age of 13, transcribed and played the score of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony to the composer – is widely celebrated as one of the greatest pianists of all time. The second and third piano concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Second Symphony, and the Symphonic Dances are regularly programmed at concerts. And yet he composed three symphonies, four piano concertos, three operas and several choral works all of which deserve to be better known. There are recordings of Rachmaninov playing all four piano concertos, many piano works by other composers, and of him conducting his Third Symphony.

Villa-SenarThe manuscript of the Second Symphony is not the only item of Rachmaninov memorabilia that collectors have their eyes on. In the 1930s Villa Senar, located near Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, was the composer’s summer home. He wrote the Rhapsody there as well as the Third Symphony. In 1939 Rachmaninov emigrated to the USA, but he still hoped to be buried at Villa Senar – although that never happened. The house, which contains one of the composer’s writing desks and a grand piano, is in private hands. Now, Vladimir Putin wants to buy it for Russia. Rachmaninov – who never lost his Russian soul – would probably approve.

Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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