Category Archives: Musician’s Homes

Sergei Rachmaninoff house, Beverly Hills

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The headline in the Pittsburgh Press says, “Rachmaninoff Dies at 69 in Home at Beverly Hills: Wife and Princess at his Bedside.” I don’t know what that sounded like on March 29, 1943, but it certainly sounds silly now. The princess was his daughter Irene Wolkonsky. Surely it could have read “daughter” in place of “princess.” But it’s a little late to argue this point now. And, anyway, were it not for this notice, it is possible we would never have known that the great pianist and composer loved to read detective stories in between performances and that he had a specially-made pair of electric gloves to keep his valuable fingers warm when they were cold. More generally known, I assume (although I did not know this myself), is that Rachmaninoff travelled with his own pianos when on tour. He did not use whatever the given venue had to offer.
But why so much about an obscure obituary of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)? Because in this small photo gallery you are looking at the location at 610 Elm Drive in Beverly Hills where he lived and died. This is precisely where his wife Natalie, his daughter, the Princess Wolkonsky, and his sister-in-law Sophie Satin sat by to attend him as he expired.
This building actually has a good presence on the internet already. Six years ago a Rachmaninoff blogger posted a wonderful series of photos that he took when he toured the empty home in 1987. At that time it was up for sale and so our intrepid researcher went through the house taking photos, even grabbing an angular shot of the very room where Rachmaninoff died on March 28, 1943. Those photos, as well as the detailed real estate information on the house make for fun reading. You can peruse them on the Rachmaninoff Network website.
The IMDb film website has a nice graph attaching the composer to this address, too, so let me offer that here:

At his home on Elm Drive in Beverly Hills Rachmaninov had two Steinway pianos which he played together with Vladimir Horowitz and other entertainers. His love of fast cars was second to music, and led him to occasional fines for exceeding the speed limit. Since he bought his first car in 1914, Rachmaninov acquired a taste for fast cars, buying himself a new car every year. His generosity was legendary. He gave away 5000 dollars to Igor Sikorsky to start an American helicopter industry. He paid for Vladimir Nabokov and his family’s relocation from Paris to New York. He sponsored Michael Chekhov and introduced him to Hollywood.”

I can’t help but add that my friend Vladimir Ferkelman, who drove me around Los Angeles one fine summer day this year to photograph Russian addresses in Hollywood, also once had an encounter with Rachmaninoff’s beneficiary Igor Sikorsky. Volodya happened to have reason to call Sikorsky’s offices in the 1980s, and the man who answered the phone recognized his Russian accent. They got to talking and it turned out that it was Sikorsky himself who had picked up the phone. He explained to Volodya that he had turned over most of the business to others by this time, but “it’s still my company, so I still come in to see how things are running.” I find it far-fetched, but satisfying that Volodya would have told me that story on the day he drove me to photograph the home of, among others, Rachmaninoff, whose investment made the Sikorsky helicopter a possibility…




Rachmaninoff first visited the U.S. in 1909 but was not enamored of it. But he was less thrilled by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and, when he received an offer to tour Scandinavia, he jumped at it. Officially he was merely heading out on a concert tour with his family in tow, so he left behind all of his belongings. Each member of the family took 500 rubles and some clothes. He spent much of the next 20 years touring and composing in Europe. But when the Second World War loomed large on the horizon in 1939, he again made his way to the United States. He settled in Beverly Hills in 1942 and he took U.S. citizenship in 1943 just one month before he died of cancer.
Rachmaninoff performed his last concert a little over a month before his death. This was in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee, as an article by Jack Neely tells us. The claim there that a statue commemorating Rachmaninoff’s concert is the only one in the world is erroneous – you can see a fine Moscow monument to the composer elsewhere on this blogsite – but more interesting is the circumstance of that last performance. Rachmaninoff expected to complete a tour that would take him to Knoxville, Atlanta, New Orleans and then on to the West Coast. He had already been in Chicago, where he came down with a cold. Not realizing just how ill he was, he courageously performed in Knoxville even though an eye-witness expressed the fear that his frail body would slip off the pianist’s bench.

Rachmaninoff played some Bach, some Wagner, some Schumann, some Liszt and two of his own etudes tableaux. He also played Chopin’s somber ‘March Funebre’ –  the funeral march.  Despite his apparent pain, Rachmaninoff played three encores, closing with one of his greatest hits, his grave, stern Prelude in C Sharp Minor. [Eye-witness Harold] Clark told me Rachmaninoff knew an American audience wouldn’t leave until he played it. The composer confessed backstage that he was tired of playing it, but it’s an effective coda for a serious life. Then he went back to the Andrew Johnson [Hotel] and, the next day, caught the train for Atlanta. Over the next few days he would come to understand how ill he was. A fast-growing cancer had advanced to his spine. He cancelled the rest of his tour. He died in Los Angeles 39 days after his Knoxville show.”


Sergei Prokofiev plaque, Moscow

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I asked my wife Oksana Mysina why she loves Sergei Prokofiev and her answer came quickly: “For everything.” I’m sure Sergei’s mother would be happy with that answer, but I wasn’t. “But what is it specifically?” I asked predictably. “It’s his dissonances,” she shot back. “They are unlike anyone else’s. You can tell a piece was written by Prokofiev instantly.  His music is extremely expressive, but never sentimental.”
Anyone who reads this space knows by now that I am a typical, deeply handicapped American when it comes to classical music. I know Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in part, because I made myself listen to it as an educational exercise decades ago. If I remember correctly, I liked it very much – but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it today, unless I went back and listened again.
“Peter and the Wolf” is a different story. I remember that extremely well; I listened to that a lot as a kid and I loved it. I still do. I love the playfulness and humor of it. That reminds me, by the way, that Oksana recorded an abbreviated version of “Peter and the Wolf” with the Russian National Wind Quintet several years ago. I really love their version. You can see it on YouTube.
Interestingly, for me, anyway, is the difference in the way that Russian and American cultures have locked onto certain composers and works. Kids from my generation, at least, all knew “Peter and the Wolf.” That made me assume the same was similar in Russia. But judging from Oksana’s comments that’s not true at all. It apparently is a more marginal work in Russia. The same can be said of some other works Americans consider true classics. I was knocked out, for example, when I found that Oksana didn’t even know Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” something I even – God forbid! – go around whistling sometimes. Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” too, is not the staple here it is the U.S. In recent years you do see it played more than the usual at Christmas/New Year’s time, but that’s as much to grab the foreigners in town as anything else. But I’ve gone a bit far afield.

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Prokofiev (1891-1953) had a fascinating biography. Born in a small Ukrainian village (near the region that is now plunged into war), he became one of the great musicians and composers of his time. Already being a composer of note, he emigrated to the United States in 1918, not long after the Russian Revolution. He lived for four years in the States, spent a short time in the Bavarian Alps, then settled in Paris in 1923. In the late 1920s (1927 and 1929, to be exact), when more and more Russian artists were feeling trapped by the politics of the day, Prokofiev toured the Soviet Union triumphantly. Then in 1936, just as the Great Purges were about to get underway (that happened in 1937), Prokofiev returned to Russia with his family. Between then and his death he left the Soviet Union only twice, in 1936-37 and 1938-39. In 1948, although he had written no small number of politically motivated works glorifying Soviet/Russian power and history, he was named along with several others in an attack on “formalist” art. It was a blow, some say, that he never quite recovered from. He died the same day that Joseph Stalin did – March 5, 1953. And, as all sources say, his death was not mentioned in a single Soviet newspaper.
Today a couple of museums are dedicated to Prokofiev’s memory in Moscow. The one pictured here is at 6 Kamergersky Lane, just across from the Moscow Art Theater. Prokofiev lived here, as is proclaimed on the plaque honoring him, from 1942 to 1953. I don’t know whether he actually moved in physically in 1942, or whether that is when this apartment on one of Moscow’s most prestigious streets was assigned to him. I do know that in the summer of 1941 he was evacuated to the Northern Caucasus as the German army drew closer to Moscow. (For the record, a reader informs me that the entrance to Prokofiev’s apartment was not this door by the plaque, but the next door to the right.)
In any case, this residence proved to be a good place to work. Over the last eleven years of his life Prokofiev wrote many works that are now considered among his best. The opera “War and Peace” is just one of them.
Prokofiev was a good player of chess and he made some nice quotes about the game. “Chess rules are made to be broken”; “Chess is primarily a battle with your own mistakes”; and “Chess for me is a particular world – a world in which plans and passions do battle.”
His story of his entrance exam at the Moscow Conservatory is also worth quoting: “My entrance exam came off rather effectively. Before me a bearded man brought in a romance without accompaniment as his entire baggage of work. I entered, stooped from the weight of two folders holding four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and quite a few pieces for fortepiano. ‘I like this!’ said Rimsky-Korsakov, who was conducting the exam.”
I’ve pulled all of these quotes from the Russian language Wikiquotes site.

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Bolshoi Theater house, Moscow


I can’t possibly do this building justice. More great performers and artists may have lived here at 7 Bryusov Lane (Pereulok) just a block from the Moscow Conservatory than in any other in Moscow. As the modest plaque above shows, it was built in the mid-1930s by the influential architect Alexei Shchusev especially to house people who worked at the Bolshoi Theater. A few others snuck in from time to time, so on the enormous number of memorial plaques that hang outside this building you also get an occasional painter or sculptor or two. But for decades – and even in recent times – this building continues to be associated with musicians, composers, singers and dancers. I spent an extremely pleasant evening in Apartment No. 6 here at the end of the 1990s. That’s when it was occupied by my friend, and one of the best editors I ever worked for, Margaret Henry. Margaret was not only the features editor at The Moscow Times, where I have worked since time immemorial, but she was the dance and ballet critic for the paper. So when by chance she ended up living in this building, it was almost as if it had been ordained on high. Living here at the same time as Margaret was the great ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. You can bet a plaque honoring her will be hung on these walls before long.

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The selection of plaques represented in this post includes, in the order that they’re pictured:
1) Ksenia Erdeli (1878-1971), the great harpist whose career astonishingly lasted from 1899 to her death in 1971.
2) Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-1993), the great tenor whose fame and popularity for decades were something like Frank Sinatra’s in the U.S. in the 1940s.
3) Nadezhda Obukhova (1886-1961), the mezzo-soprano, who did not make her operatic debut until she was 30. (For the record, Margaret Henry is also a mezzo-soprano.)
4) Maria Maksakova (1902-1974), a mezzo-soprano whose greatest popularity was in the 1920s and ’30s, although she sang at the Bolshoi until the mid-1950s. Her daughter Lyudmila Maksakova is a well-known dramatic actress, and her granddaughter Maria Maksakova, Jr.,  achieved stardom as an opera singer after the turn of the 21st century.
5) Antonina Nezhdanova (1873-1950), a lyric coloratura who sang opposite Caruso in Paris in 1912, and for whom Sergei Rachmaninov wrote Vocalise.

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6) Alexander Pirogov (1899-1964), the lead bass at the Bolshoi from 1924 to 1954. He was one of four brothers who made careers as singers.
7) Alexei Yermolaev (1910-1975), a ballet soloist at the Bolshoi from 1930 to 1956. He was also a choreographer and a teacher. Russian Wikipedia informs us that he “created a new trend in male ballet, which corresponded to the tendency of ballet to express the heroic, [giving it] a heightened dramatic and performative element, and introducing elements of folk dance into the discipline of classical ballet.”
8) Nikolai Golovanov (1891-1953), conductor and composer, husband of Antonina Nezhdanova.

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