What possible connection could world-renowned, Russian-born pianist, composer, and performer Sergei Rachmaninoff have with Appalachia? Well, a concert, of course. But not just any concert—his last concert. Earlier this year, the UT Symphony Orchestra commemorated the 80th anniversary of that performance with a concert. Rachmaninoff was a fascinating individual and I’d like to share this Appalachian Connection with you, our dear readers.
Rachmaninoff’s final performance occurred on February 17th, 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee. The concert was held in the University of Tennessee’s former Alumni Gym (now the renovated Cox Auditorium) and featured the Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 with the “Funeral March.” Just over five weeks later, on March 28th, he died of cancer in his Beverly Hills home. The decision to perform the Chopin Sonata has been referred to as ironic, but I wonder.
Rachmaninoff had experienced health problems for quite some time and was deteriorating quickly. In fact, he was advised to cancel the Knoxville performance and the rest of the tour, but he refused. He had canceled an earlier appearance in Knoxville due to illness and wouldn’t to do so a second time. The balance of the tour was canceled soon after. Understanding he was a consummate professional who selected his own music, it would make perfect sense that he selected that piece with particular intent. No evidence supports such a claim, of course, but it feels right to me.
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff was born on April 1st, 1873 in the Russian region of Novgorod. His Father was a retired army officer and his mother was the daughter of a general. Sergei was born on his grandparents’ estate and likely would have ended up an army officer in Tsarist Russia. But a family misfortune derailed that plan. When Sergei was young, his father abandoned them after losing the family fortune. Sergei’s cousin Aleksandr Siloti was a well-known concert pianist and conductor in Moscow; and he suggested sending Sergei there to study piano and music.
He entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1887 at the age of fourteen. The Moscow Conservatory was one of the two premier institutions in Russia and produced the likes of Piotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Rachmaninoff graduated from the Conservatory in 1892 at age nineteen, and was already gaining fame as both a composer and performer. His ever-popular Prelude in C-Sharp Minor was first performed that same year, and he received a gold medal for Aleko, a one-act opera based on the poem Tsygany1)Tsygany translated means “The Gypsies.” by Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin.
After his graduation, Rachmaninoff remained in Moscow and became known primarily as a conductor and composer. He was prone to bouts of depression and insecurity. After a particularly bad premier in 1897, he went three years without composing, saying, “I felt like a man who had suffered a stroke and had lost the use of his head and hands.”2)Quoted in Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. Revised Ed. W. W. Norton & Co. 1981. p. 526. This creative drought ended in late 1899 after he underwent a psychiatric treatment that included hypnosis and suggestion. Rachmaninoff’s most productive period as a composer began after this therapy. His 1901 composition Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor remains his most popular work ever. The melodic line from the second movement is recognizable today from Eric Carmen’s hit single All by Myself, (1975), later re-released by Celine Dion (1997).
Rachmaninoff’s works were all very traditional in form, never venturing into the experimental like so many of his early 20th century contemporaries. In fact, he was often criticized for excessive Romanticism. He once wrote,
Melodic invention . . . is the real aim of every composer. If he is incapable of inventing melodies that endure, his chances of mastering his material are very slender.3)Quoted in The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, page 425.
The enduring popularity of his work is clear evidence that he mastered his material. His creativity and success as a composer continued until he fled Russia in 1917 (some sources say 1918).
Rachmaninoff went into self-imposed exile from Russia twice, both times with his family. The first occurred during the 1905 revolution. The Rachmaninoffs were part of the old landed class with ties to Tsarist rule. That failed revolution began with “Bloody Sunday4)I have found that “Bloody Sunday” has been used to describe horrific events many times since 1905, though I haven’t found references before then. Here’s what I found:
St. Petersburg, Russia, Jan. 23, 1905;
Dublin, Ireland, Nov 21, 1920;
Vancouver, Canada, Jan. 19, 1938
Selma, AL, Nov. 7, 1965;
Derry, Ireland Jan. 30, 1972;
Calabarzon, Philippines, March 7, 2021 on January 23rd, 1905, and ended in late 1906. Rachmaninoff and his family moved to Dresden, where he continued to compose and conduct. During this time, he made his first tour of the United States (1909), debuting as a pianist with the New York Symphony. Despite his success, including an invitation to become the permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony, he returned to Russia in 1910. Only seven years later, in December of 1917, he left his beloved Russia for good.
Rachmaninoff’s fame in Russia and Europe prior to 1917 was as a composer and conductor, not a performer.
His works include three operas; three symphonies; five symphonic poems, . . . four piano concertos; two suites for two pianos; two masses; and seventy-nine songs, for which he could be rightly claimed to be the creator of the Russian Lied.5)Larousse, p. 425-426. Lied is the German word for Song, and, in music, generally refers to setting poetry to classical music. It has a long history but became very popular in the mid-19th century.
The bulk of his body of work was composed prior to leaving Russia. During his twenty-five years in America, he composed one piano concerto, the 4th, numerous songs, and his popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
After he arrived in America, he reinvented himself as a concert pianist, gaining world-wide fame and great wealth. His social status during this period was equivalent to that of Hollywood movie stars. He was constantly on the move touring Europe and America, and dividing his time between Hollywood and Switzerland. Since his youth, Rachmaninoff had always been described as dour, serious, taciturn, and stubborn; and his brooding good looks only enhanced the image. If he hadn’t been described that way in his youth, it would have been easy to attribute his demeanor solely to his exile.
Rachmaninoff was an extraordinary piano virtuoso, and his compositions reflect that. He also had huge hands, with a hand-span of roughly twelve inches (Hand span is measured from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinky finger with your hand outstretched.) This means he could reach across 12 keys on the piano. To put this in context, NBA greats Boban Marjanovic and Shaquille O’Neal have the same hand-span. This key physical feature enabled him to perform his 3rd Piano Concerto, with a final movement considered practically unplayable because it demands that the pianist have great physical range.6)Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto made a return to popularity, beyond the world of Classical music, in the 1996 film Shine, a movie about piano prodigy David Helfgott, staring Geoffrey Rush and Noah Taylor. Rachmaninoff composed music based on his own skills and abilities, so some of his work is difficult to play if you don’t also have giant hands. His piano pieces are considered some of the most challenging for pianists to learn and perform.
His fame as a performer grew, even though he composed very little. This lack of production is widely believed to be due to a yearning for Russia, the home country he greatly missed. His Piano Concerto No. 4, his only concerto composed outside of Russia, is dramatic and emotional with a frenetic pace that conveys a painful yearning for something one cannot have. (In California his social circle consisted almost entirely of Russian ex-patriots, and, even after over twenty years, he never mastered the English language.)
The work of touring, practicing, and performing took a physical toll on Sergei over time. He had several health-related issues, including arthritis and exhaustion. By the late 1930s, his doctors were urging him to slow down. In 1939, at sixty-six years old, he experienced yet another exile, this time from his home in Switzerland. Still, he began planning his final tour for 1942-43. He bought a house in Beverly Hills, intending to retire there after that last tour, but his health continued to worsen. After playing what became his final concert in Knoxville, he canceled the rest of his tour and took a train to California. Only then was it discovered he suffered from an aggressive form of melanoma.
Rachmaninoff’s life was one of highs and lows, self-doubt and fame, and the sharp, devastating loss of place, due to exile. No matter where he lived, Rachmaninoff was, deep in his soul, Russian. His passionate compositions and performances were all grounded in the love of his motherland and his longing for it. I think this irrevocable connection to his homeland is something Appalachians can identify deeply with. We have a spiritual connection to Place that remains, regardless of circumstance. This connection was something I felt keenly after my family and I left Western Pennsylvania (though, since I was a young boy, I didn’t recognize it as such), and, at age seventeen, I jumped at the chance to return. It’s something I still feel now when I am away from these Appalachian Mountains. I believe this connection to Home is a second, and perhaps more profound, Appalachian Connection with Sergei Rachmaninoff.
*The title of this article is a quote from Rachmaninoff found in The Knoxville News Sentinel Feb 17, 1943.
- The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, 6th ed. Edited by Geoffrey Hindley. Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd. 1977. p 425-426.
- Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. Revised Ed. W. W. Norton & Co. 1981. p 524-527.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006245/
- Shine: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117631/
- International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) / Petrucci Music Library: https://imslp.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Sergei_Rachmaninoff
**Featured image Rachmaninoff and Steinway grand piano ca. 1910s-1920s – LOC ggbain.30158, Wikimedia — cropped and color altered
|Tsygany translated means “The Gypsies.”
|Quoted in Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. Revised Ed. W. W. Norton & Co. 1981. p. 526.
|Quoted in The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, page 425.
|I have found that “Bloody Sunday” has been used to describe horrific events many times since 1905, though I haven’t found references before then. Here’s what I found:
St. Petersburg, Russia, Jan. 23, 1905;
|Larousse, p. 425-426. Lied is the German word for Song, and, in music, generally refers to setting poetry to classical music. It has a long history but became very popular in the mid-19th century.
|Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto made a return to popularity, beyond the world of Classical music, in the 1996 film Shine, a movie about piano prodigy David Helfgott, staring Geoffrey Rush and Noah Taylor.