His was a curious career, the career of a virtuoso that reads little better than an engagement book. Although a St Petersburg youth (born at Oneg, near Novgorod), he became a member of the Moscow school ; although so intensely Russian that his life of exile from his native land – after the 1917 Revolution whose detonation released so much energy in the political, social or artistic spheres – maimed his creative powers, he settled at last in California ; although he belonged to a semi-irreligious gentry naively enamoured of the West, that born miniaturist, dealing with impressions, could not forget Russian culture such as raised on the Russian soil amid the old clichés, at times worked to death : the kolokolas (Schumann’s Bell of Ivan Veliky ?) of a Christianity as understood and practised by the Russians, the boundless Russian plains or the hills of Georgia with their gorgeous harvest-fields, the passing breezes or the storms of a climate neither European nor Asiatic, with an inevitable greyness leading up to extremes of energy and inertia that could explain the shambling and fatalism that indulge at length in these ventures in geographical and historical determinism ; whereas, given the right conditions of relaxation, the greyness dissolves into a highly differentiated colourful group of kindly, shrewd and helpful individuals quite adverse to a restrictive range of emotion.
And that could explain also why a number of expatriates, bent on justifying their residence abroad, do not imagine, in retrospect, to have lived in any acute sort of consciousness of the iniquity of all kinds of things they almost certainly took for granted until they got outside, because, side by side with their bitterness, floats on the memory of an unquenchable enjoyment of the common things of life, a kind of passionate acceptance of Slavonic melancholy such as captured by the Russian lyrical poetry and its best representatives (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Lermontov etc…) selected, for instance, by Marietta Shaginian (pet name:“Ré”)
“A few days ago, I finished my new songs. Half of them are written after poems from your copy-book… on the whole I feel happy about these songs I succeeded in writing without much suffering“, letter to “Ré,” 8, May 1912, from whom he had received the poems he wanted, those poems and songs expressing a deep emotional Romantic tradition, emanating from the lower strata of society (Chaliapine had been a shoemaker’s apprentice) with their mixture of candour and tenderness and love of the children and their folklore interspersed in the Russian folk-songs, and in Rachmaninov’s letters from Ivanovka, the Satin’s estate in the government of Tambov, 500kms south of Moscow, the place that was the environmental and sentimental quarry whence Rachmaninov digged his artistic material, that is to say, those lyrical romances which are the quintessence of Russian culture and poetry, such as beautifully rendered by his favourite interpreters, Chaliapine, Felia Litvinne or Nina Koshetz (his Faurean heart’s secret).
Facing the sign-post (Schubert’s Wegweiser?) at the crossroads of two Worlds, Rachmaninov could not take sides (“it will be understandable if eventually I will decide to give up composing and will become either a pianist, a conductor or a country squire – perhaps even an automobile racer“) because for him as for the individual Russian, the recurrent choice lay between suffering with the recalcitrant Archpriest Avvacum exiled to Siberia in the 17th c., or success with Governor Pashkov, a pioneering adventurer and tyrant who tormented Avvacum for years on end.
Rachmaninov never took sides, sticking, perhaps, to the closing words of Avvacum’s Siberian Diary : “God will decide the Day of Judgment“ (God or “the Tsar of Heavens“ in Tyutchev’s words ?) ; but Rachmaninov’s music has gained him a Hall of Fame at the Moscow Conservatoire and also a niche for his best interpreters. So, many thanks to the Composer and so many “spassibas“ to his guest-virtuosos at the Tchaïkovsky Conservatoire in Moscow.
CLAUDE D'ESPLAS - The Music Lesson
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