Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Rachmaninoff Piano Concerti

Rachmaninoff with his granddaughter Sophie in 1927
As close to a smile as he will get: Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) with his granddaughter Sophie in 1927

Yesterday’s Music History Monday began with the story of the tenor Michele Molese’s call out of the critic Harold Schonberg from the stage of the New York City Opera in 1974 after Schonberg had made a snarky critical remark about Molese’s singing of a high “C”. It’s appropriate then, or so I think, to begin today’s post with another Schonberg appraisal, this one of Sergei Rachmaninoff the pianist. No snark here; Schonberg – who was the senior music critic of The New York Times for 20 years – had the opportunity to hear Rachmaninoff in concert when he (Schonberg) was a young man. Writing many years later, Schonberg was still in awe.

“There was nobody like him. Rachmaninoff would come on stage stiff and severe, never smiling, with his hair cropped as close as a convict’s. With terrible dignity he would seat himself and wait for the audience to quiet. He played with a minimum of physical exertion, brooding over the keys. From his fingers came an indescribable tone: warm, projecting into every corner of the hall, capable of infinite modulation. When Rachmaninoff played, everything was perfectly planned, perfectly proportioned. Melodies were outlined with radiant authority; inner voices were brought out in chamber music style. And those marvelous fingers seemed incapable of striking a wrong note. In an age of spectacular technicians, Rachmaninoff was peerless.”

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born on April 1 (some sources say April 2), 1873 in the Russian village of Semyonovo, roughly 100 miles south of St. Petersburg. He died – as did so many Europeans artists of his generation – an expatriate, in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943.

His family had been in the service of the Tsars since the 1500’s. As such, they were considered to be of the “old aristocracy”, although by the time Sergei was born most of the family money was gone.

Sergei’s father Vasily was an army officer and an amateur pianist; his mother Lyubov was an accomplished amateur pianist as well. All together, Vasily and Lyubov had six children: three boys and three girls. Sergei was the middle of the three boys.

Rachmaninoff at ten
Rachmaninoff at ten

Vasily wanted Sergei to go to military school. But military school was expensive: bribes had to be paid for admission; a commission had to be purchased and the requisite equipment and clothing had to be bought. And Vasily Rachmaninoff was broke. Consequently, in 1883, the ten-year-old Sergei was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His father, mortified by the turn of events, walked out on his family and moved to Moscow. Rachmaninoff’s parents did not divorce – that was out of the question given the strictures of the Orthodox Church – but they never saw each other again.

I wish I could tell you that Rachmaninoff’s three years at the St. Pete Conservatory saw one triumph after another, but I cannot.…

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