Rhapsodic on Rachmaninoff

REVIEW: 'Goodbye, Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile' by Fiona Maddocks

Rachmaninoff (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
February 25, 2024

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Russia in 1873 and died in the United States in 1943. Composer, conductor, virtuoso pianist, he was another of those gifts the great tyrants of Europe—Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler—bestowed on America. An aristocrat, an artist, a man of spiritual depth, Rachmaninoff was in every way a man of the kind that the Russian revolution wished to snuff out. Sensing this early in the revolution, he fled at the first possible moment.

Rachmaninoff left Russia, but Russia never left him. "I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook," he wrote. "My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music." These words stand as the epigraph for Fiona Maddocks's study of Rachmaninoff.

I write "study," but Ms. Maddocks's book has more the loose, leisurely feel of an essay, in this case a more than 300-page extended essay. Obeying a rough chronological narrative, concentrating on Rachmaninoff's arrival in New York on the eve of the Armistice of World War I to his death in Los Angeles in the midst of World War II on March 28, 1943, Goodbye Russia ambles wherever its author's interests about various aspects of Rachmaninoff's life take her. She quotes at length letters and comments from his family and colleagues, taking, as she calls it, her own "discursive route." In her preface she writes: "No omniscience is claimed here, only curiosity and fascination, prompted by a love of the music."

Pleasing to report, it all works. "I am an intrigued outsider trying to understand Rachmaninoff across borders of language and culture," Ms. Maddocks writes, one who favors "careful interpretation over wild speculation." At the close of Goodbye Russia one feels one knows Sergei Rachmaninoff, what motivated him, stirred him, made him the musical genius he was. Fiona Maddocks does this, moreover, without the use of musical notation, which is a comfort to the musical illiterates among us, among whom I count myself.

"A six-and-a-half foot scowl," Igor Stravinsky called Sergei Rachmaninoff. Six-foot-three was Rachmaninoff's actual height, he kept his hair cropped short, rarely smiled during his 1,457 piano concert performances, and presented rather a severe public countenance generally. The Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet described Rachmaninoff's hands as "no bone, just meat," going on to note that these hands "are so expressive that a deaf man might well swear that [while looking upon them] he was hearing music. The fingers curve and hover and sweep and dance; each supple finger is individual; every note in a harmony is live and personal. He plays entirely with his fingers and his feet; the rest of his body is amazingly still." In her final chapter, Ms. Maddocks supplies a photograph of Rachmaninoff's long-fingered, elegant hands.

While still living in Russia, Rachmaninoff suffered depression owing to his doubt about his musical career. On two different occasions, he visited Tolstoy, at his Yasnaya Polyana estate, to discuss the matter. On both occasions, he was disappointed. Tolstoy, who was among the young composer's cultural gods, had no better advice for him than to pull up his socks and go back to work. On a second visit, he accompanied Fyodor Chaliapin's singing of his, Rachmaninoff's, song "Fate," to which Tolstoy responded by asking, "Tell me, does anybody need music like that?" He never returned for a third visit. That his god Tolstoy, in Rachmaninoff's words, was in fact "a very disagreeable man" only plunged him into further depression. Rachmaninoff was later treated by a Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who specialized in hypnosis, which, in Rachmaninoff's case, along with extended sessions of conversations, seemed to work in reviving his spirits.

However formidably off-putting he could seem in public, among family and friends, Fiona Maddocks informs us, Rachmaninoff could be cordial and compassionate. Compassion, she notes, "shaped his character" and was "the great constant in his life." He earned impressive sums from his piano concerts in America and Europe—he was, Ms. Maddocks reports, "one of the highest-earning performers in the world"—and loaned ample sums of money to those in need.

Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were, in Fiona Maddocks's words, "giants of the twentieth century and polar opposites." Neither composer was ever quite comfortable around the other. Prokofiev was a contemporary who never hid his animus to Rachmaninoff. Ms. Maddocks refers to his "unstinting bitchiness" to him. Aaron Copland found Rachmaninoff's music depressing. The problem, one suspects, was Rachmaninoff's antipathy to modern music. "I understand nothing of modern music today," he said. Ms. Maddocks adds: "In the eyes of the self-declared modernists, Rachmaninoff's failing was to have found a musical voice in his youth, a popular one at that, and stuck with it."

"His gift was lyricism and melody," Ms Maddocks writes. "This was Rachmaninoff's defining quality, his musical fingerprint." He thought much modern music was created in the minds of its composers, while the greatest of music came from the heart. "Unlike Madame Butterfly, with her quick religious conversion," he told the editor of the Musical Courier, "I cannot cast out my musical gods in a moment and bend my knee to the new ones." Rachmaninoff's music was in the line of Beethoven, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky (or Chick Kovsky, as I once heard a recent mayor of Chicago refer to him).

"For Russians," Fiona Maddocks writes, "music was as important as bread and borscht." Although he spent more than half his life in America, Rachmaninoff hired exclusively Russian servants, ate Russian food, kept chiefly Russian company, visited only Russian physicians. (A friend, and fellow exile, was Vladimir Nabokov.) When he hired a full-time "piano mechanic" to keep tuned and tended his Steinway pianos, which he had shipped to his various concert locations, this man, too, was a Russian.

Yet none of this excluded Rachmaninoff's admiration for America and things American. He admired the music of George Gershwin, the arrangements of Paul Whiteman, the innovative piano playing of Art Tatum, who himself had no formal training and whom Rachmaninoff thought unsurpassed among pianists in every style. Fiona Maddocks cites an article in Vogue in which Rachmaninoff set out three things he especially liked about America: the country's respect for what its people are and do and not where they come from; its splendid orchestras; and its cars.

In America Rachmaninoff fell in love with cars. He first drove a Lincoln, then a Packard, which he made sure were as carefully tuned as his Steinways. The pianist Abram Chasins described Rachmaninoff at the wheel displaying "from the first moment the same precisional coordination and rhythmical rightness of his piano mastery." (Joseph Conrad, I years ago read, drove a Cadillac. One easily imagines a parlor game in which one fits up various artists with automobiles: Tolstoy in a Range Rover, T.S. Eliot in a Bentley, Emily Dickinson in a Mini-Cooper, and so on.)

Rachmaninoff was not without his vulnerabilities and psychological glitches. His First Symphony was shredded by critics. He never found a home to replace Ivanovka, the estate in the Tambov region of Russia that belonged to his wife's family (he married a first cousin). He knew how to curry favor with audiences for his piano concerts, but his compositions attracted much criticism in America. Paul Rosenfeld called his Second Piano Concerto a "mournful banqueting on jam and honey"; Virgil Thomson cited him for "an opulence of discontent" and thought him a lesser talent than Scriabin or Stravinsky. Meanwhile Rachmaninoff suffered the composer's version of writer's block, going for three- and four-year periods without producing any new music.

Of the music he did produce, much has a richness and splendor, a soulfulness, that is unmistakably his. In his book on Rachmaninoff in the Music Masters series, the English critic Geoffrey Norris writes of his "emotional intensity … that feeling of fatalistic melancholy which pervades much of his music."

Two or three truly memorable poems, it has been said, are all that is required to establish greatness in a poet. Do the same numbers apply for composers? If so, Sergei Rachmaninoff more than qualifies. His Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Preclude in C sharp minor, The Bells, All-Night Vigil, Piano Concertos One and Two, and other of his compositions stake Rachmaninoff's undoubted claim to greatness. One has only to listen to any of these pieces to be grateful that Rachmaninoff didn't go off onto the track of modern musical composition and to regret that so many modern composers did not instead follow Rachmaninoff along the track of traditional classical music.

Goodbye, Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile
by Fiona Maddocks
Pegasus Books, 384 pp., $29.95

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of The Novel, Who Needs It? (Encounter Books).