Brussels Philharmonic | the american years

the american years

For seventeen years since I lost my country, I have felt unable to compose. When I spent the summer on my farm in Russia, I took pleasure in my work. I still compose, but it no longer means the same to me.

Sergei Rachmaninov

In 1917, Rachmaninov fled his home country after the devastating October Revolution. Through Scandinavia, he ended up in the United States, where he quickly established a substantial network as a concert pianist, thus providing for his family. His entire life, he combined a career as a composer with that of a pianist, thereby continuing the tradition of composer-virtuosos. Various posters show the composer himself at the piano, collaborating with different European and American orchestras.

When he was forced to leave his homeland due to the revolution and make a new home in Finland and later in the United States, composing would never feel the same for Rachmaninov. After his departure from Russia, he composed only a handful of major works. His existence as a concert pianist consumed most of his time and brought about a significant amount of stress. Above all, he missed the culture of his homeland and the idyllic atmosphere and complete tranquility of his beloved estate, Ivanovka, where he used to retreat for composing.

Villa Senar

Villa Senar is the estate of the Rachmaninov family in Switzerland. The name is a combination of the names Sergei and his wife Natalia: SeNar. The composer was very fond of this villa; it served as a kind of alternative to his memories of Ivanovka. He was deeply involved in designing the villa down to the smallest details. The composer received close friends there, such as Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) and his wife Wanda Toscanini (1907-1998), and found a great deal of musical inspiration there. For instance, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was conceived at this location. Apart from his Fourth Piano Concerto and Variations on a Theme of Corelli, this rhapsody was the first major work the composer completed after leaving Russia.

The premiere of the rhapsody in 1934 was again performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, with Rachmaninov himself at the piano. It was an immediate success. Several years after the premiere, Rachmaninov had to move again, this time due to the turbulent political climate in Europe. He settled permanently in the United States, at the luxurious and extensive Honeyman Estate in New York. Here, three years before his death, he composed his very last piece: the Symphonic Dances.

fourth piano concerto

Rachmaninov had been playing with the idea of adding a new piano concerto to his repertoire as early as 1913, but it took him until 1924 before he got down to working on it. The reason was on the one hand the culture shock and trauma he experienced after emigrating, and on the other hand his busy concert agenda as a pianist. In 1926, he finally saw an opportunity to take a sabbatical year and complete the work. On 18 March 1927, his Fourth Piano Concerto had its première, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The critics were hard-hitting: fans of his previous concertos found this one lacked the expansive melodies and coherence, whereas defenders of modernism saw his composition as old-fashioned. The tone of the reviews was for the most part disdainful, such as this one in the New York Times: “Apart from the expertise, you cannot say that the concerto has much that is innovative or remarkable to offer.” Rachmaninov returned to the drawing board and undertook a thorough revision. He added to the length of the final movement and on the writing for piano. But the reactions remained lukewarm, and Rachmaninov was unsatisfied. Two years before his death, he revised the work one last time, but the work failed to attract true appreciation.

the early years

Explore Rachmaninov's early years in Russia: from his rigorous mentor Zverev to the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, and the birth of his First Piano Concerto.

first chapter: The Early Years