Category Archives: Musician’s Homes

Rachmaninoff hill-top rental, Beverly Hills

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I’m not quite sure why, but I have a soft spot for this particular address over all of the Russian culture-related addresses I have photographed in the Los Angeles area. It’s one of the few where I have no coherent image of the actual house itself. I was able only to shoot a series of photos of the approach to the property and the gates that keep prying eyes like mine out. Even when I did step a little over the bounds of propriety and peered over or between the large green gates, there still was nothing visible other than woodsy territory (in the photo immediately below), and two driveways leading in different directions (the last photo in the block immediately below, taken through a crack between the gate doors). Yes, there are bits of two structures visible in this shot, but, even if they are primary residence structures, they don’t give us any real idea as to what they look like. As such, this post consists mostly of environs, and I love the environs. So woodsy and isolated. You can only assume (but I think with good reason), that much of what you see would have been there when Sergei Rachmaninoff rented this property from the silent film star Eleanor Boardman in 1942. Most of the trees look like original landscaping. The bricks walls, with the local boulders used as decor, the gates and the mailbox all look like they probably were there when Rachmaninoff passed through briefly. Actually, it was the mailbox that got to me. Such a simple little object, but when you stand next to it, you can imagine Sergei Rachmaninoff reaching out to open it in order to find mail from – from whom? Walt Disney? Vladimir Horowitz? Michael Chekhov? Bruno Walter? Electric bills from Southern Edison? Whatever. If you ever make it up here, reach your hand out to that little catch on top of the mailbox and see if you don’t feel a little something shoot through your system.
The “genealogy” of this place is impressive. It was built for the director King Vidor by the architect Wallace Neft, known for creating the “California style,” in 1928. In subsequent years following Vidor’s tenancy it was owned or occupied by an astonishing number of remarkable individuals: John Barrymore, Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Richard Harris, Candice Bergman, Stephen Stills, Barbra Streisand and many more. The address these days is 9941 Tower Lane. Long ago it was known as 6 Tower Road, and it is possible that it was known as 1139 Tower Road (or Lane) when Rachmaninoff was here. The very cool Movieland Directory site, from which I’ve cribbed most of my info so far, informs us that the street address was 1139 for awhile in the 1940s, but when exactly in the ’40s it doesn’t say. Regardless of the slipping and sliding numbers and names, this is the place where Rachmaninoff first set down his bags when he came to look for a permanent place to hang his hat in Los Angeles. As I have written elsewhere on this site, he shortly thereafter moved to a home that he purchased in the heart of residential Beverly Hills. If you’re interested, look to your left, find the name “Sergei Rachmaninoff” and click on it…

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In a lecture delivered in Santa Monica in April 2015, Keenan Reesor, a pianist and musicologist, wrote about Rachmaninoff’s debut at the Hollywood Bowl on July 17 and 18, 1942, and about his recent relocation to Southern California: “…The Rachmaninoffs had just moved to Los Angeles. In May they rented the house at 9941 Tower Lane in Beverly Hills and, enjoying the atmosphere, decided immediately to buy a house nearby at 610 North Elm Drive.” Here is how Reesor describes Rachmaninoff’s stature at the time, including a quote from a review of the Hollywood Bowl performance in the Los Angeles Times:
“…[Rachmaninoff’s] music had been performed by an array of illustrious musicians, among them pianists Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz, and Benno Moiseiwitsch and conductors Albert Coates, Eugene Goossens, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux, Artur Rodzinski, Leopold Stokowski, and Bruno Walter. He had come to be regarded in Los Angeles as one of the greatest pianists and composers of his time. The capstone of it all was Rachmaninoff’s Hollywood Bowl debut—also his last appearance in the city—in two performances of his Second Concerto on July 17 and 18. ‘It was an occasion,’ wrote Isabel Morse Jones. ‘The large audience was aware of its significance and offered . . . the revered pianist, who now makes his home here, homage and appreciation.’ The orchestra, too, ‘greeted him by rising when he came in. . . . It was resplendent music Rachmaninoff made last night.'”
Our trusty Movieland Directory site tells us that Vladimir Horowitz was a frequent guest here, and that he and Rachmaninoff would often sit down at pianos (or the same piano?) and entertain guests. Just stop and imagine that for a moment. There is an account of the first time Rachmaninoff (as conductor) and Horowitz (pianist) met and became fast friends. It was in 1928 in New York. I will let Walter Monfried, a journalist for the Milwaukee Journal in 1943, pick up the story:
Sergei Rachmaninoff was conducting his own second concerto and the pianist of the evening was Vladimir Horowitz. The performance was one of surpassing beauty and perfection. After the concerto was finished, the composer shook hands with the young pianist and said simply, ‘This is the way I have always dreamed that my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on earth.’ […] The two pianists formed a mutual admiration society and each made it a point never to miss a recital of the other. Horowitz always instructed his manager: ‘If I am out of town when Rachmaninoff plays in New York, you must telegraph me, and you must let me come back, no matter where I am or what engagement I have.’ And whenever Horowitz performed in New York, Rachmaninoff never was absent and always was the last to leave the hall.”
Finally, a study guide for students by Mary Jane Ayers adds a bit of atmosphere and detail to Rachmaninoff’s life more or less at the time he was moving West, away from turmoil in Europe.
Rachmaninoff spent the next 20 years successfully touring Europe and North America as a piano virtuoso and conductor, working with dozens of orchestras as sort of a ‘citizen of the world.’ He continued to compose piano, vocal, and orchestral music. He never lost his desire to return to Russia, saying, ‘even the air here [in the US] is not like in Russia—it smells differently.’ As he got older, he felt most comfortable in the company of fellow Russians who had also been driven from their homeland. Unfortunately, by 1938, his world was again turned upside down by forces beyond his control. Following the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, Europe was once more on the brink of a world war. It was no longer safe for Rachmaninoff and his family to travel there. In 1939 he returned to America. His fellow Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, who had also fled from Russia, called Rachmaninoff ‘a six-foot-two scowl.’
In 1942, Rachmaninoff moved to Beverly Hills, California, and in 1943 he became a US citizen. Sadly, he died of cancer just one month later. In his last few days he wrote, ‘Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is never enough for music.’ He was 70 years old.”

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Sergei Rachmaninoff home, Moscow

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There is no plaque here, but the proof that Sergei Rachmaninoff lived briefly in this building at 15 Plotnikov Lane (it was numbered 19 at the time, and the street was called Nikolsky Lane) can be found in the writings of the late, great Moscow historian Sergei Romanyuk. “S.V. Rachmaninoff briefly moved into the house on this plot in the fall of 1892 after his triumphant graduation from the Conservatory.” That phrase, more or less in that configuration, is repeated over and over in many sources. That’s the influence of Romanyuk – if he said it, it happened.
Rachmaninoff is in the news a lot these days mostly for the wrong reasons. The Russian government, as though it has nothing else to do, decided not long ago that it wanted to bring Rachmaninoff’s bones home. This appears to have been the idea of Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky and, frankly, it sounds like one of his cockamamie ideas. I guess it wasn’t enough for Medinsky to wage war against obscenities in art; against so-called representations and propaganda of the “gay lifestyle” in art; against theater productions that supposedly “offend the sensibilities of religious believers”; against theater festivals that his department accuses of failing to support “traditional Russian values,” and so on and so forth. No, he had to go and decide to try to get someone to dig up Sergei Rachmaninoff’s remains, where they are buried north of New York City, and “bring them home to Moscow.” Medinsky is irked that the United States has “arrogantly privatized the name of Rachmaninoff” and that he, Rachmaninoff,  is put forth as a “great American composer of Russian descent.”
Since I’m not really up to jumping into this controversy at the moment, I’ll just say this: I’m not quite sure what sources Medinsky relied on to come up with the claim that people in the United States call Rachmaninoff an “American” composer. I never recall having seen such a definition, not in a respectable publication, anyway. As for the fact that he lived the last 25 years of his life in the U.S. – it’s true.
Maybe Medinsky is unhappy with the way Rachmaninoff’s name was westernized. Technically speaking his last name should be spelled Rakhmaninov. As I said not long ago in this space, the “ch” (in place of the hard “kh” sound) and all the “ff’s” are the sign of the era in which he emigrated. French and German styles of transliteration influenced American usage heavily at the time. There were, virtually, no Slavic studies in the U.S. at this time – just a few intrepid translators (Louis and Aylmer Maude, Constance Garnett) and producers (Sol Hurok). So there was no community concerned with keeping order in the transliteration of the names of all those Russians pouring in over the borders, many of them by way of France and Germany…
And don’t get me started on immigrants… Thank God the United States is a nation of immigrants. Anybody who tells you otherwise, in any form, doesn’t know jack about the United States, about humanity, about art, about culture, about life…
But I digress too much today…

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It doesn’t look like Rachmaninoff spent much time in this building at all. He arrived in the fall of 1892 and surely was gone by the summer of 1893, which he spent with family friends in Ukraine. It’s true that he came back to Moscow at summer’s end, but it sounds like he took up residence elsewhere at that point.
This building – now a fish restaurant – appears to have witnessed at least one important career moment in Rachmaninoff’s life, even though he was only 19 when he moved in. It so happens that the last work he composed while a student at the Conservatory was the opera Aleko, based on Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem The Gypsies. Although he disparaged the work, it turned out to be a big success. The Bolshoi Theater picked it up and mounted it on May 9, 1893 (April 27, Old Style). (I have seen other dates for this premiere – including March of 1893, but I trust the May 9 date.) Moreover, that production starred none less than the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin. Rachmaninoff probably would have received word of the Bolshoi’s decision, and would have been involved in the preparation for the premiere, while living here on Nikolsky Lane.
I can’t nail it down as a fact, but it would appear that Rachmaninoff lived here with his relatives, the Satin family. In any case, Wikipedia tells us that he “spent the summer of 1892 on the estate of Ivan Konavalov, a rich landowner in the Kostroma Oblast, and moved back with the Satins in the Arbat District.” That is precisely the time that Romanyuk has him showing up on Nikolsky (Plotnikov) Lane. Wikipedia offers a few more tidbits that appear to characterize the short time Rachmaninoff spent here: “His publisher was slow in paying, so Rachmaninoff took an engagement at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition, where he premiered his landmark Prelude in C-sharp minor (Op. 3, No. 2). This small piece, part of a set of five pieces called Morceaux de fantaisie, was received well, and is one of his most enduring pieces.”
The Satin family (pronounced Sah-TEEN) was important for Rachmaninoff: He would marry Natalya Satina, his first cousin. There is a nice little story about Sergei and Natalya on the Find a Grave website:
Sergei and Natalya met as young music students during Easter 1888. Rachmaninoff later roomed with the Satin family. Natalya wrote, ‘in September 1901 my parents finally succumbed to my pleas to be allowed to marry Sergei Vasiliyevich. All that was left was to obtain legal permission, which was not easy since we were closely related. [Marriage of first cousins was barred in the Russian Orthodox Church.] My mother took on the challenge with her one-of-a-kind energy and zeal. She thus bustled all through winter, and only in March it transpired that a petition had to be sent to the Czar. The wedding was postponed till the end of April due to the arrival of Lent. Early in April Sergei went to Ivanovka and sat down to write twelve romances, deciding to turn out one daily to earn money for our trip to Italy after the wedding.’ These are the 12 Romances for voice and piano, Opus 21.
Of their wedding day she wrote, ‘We were wed on 29 April 1902 on the outskirts of Moscow in some regimental church. I rode in the carriage in my wedding dress, with the rain pouring relentlessly. The sole entry into the church was via a long succession of barracks. The soldiers stared at us in amazement.'”

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Igor Stravinsky home, Los Angeles

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IMG_7462.jpg2Some topics I write about in this space require my digging deep to come up with a narrative thread. That will be no problem today. My only problem will be keeping the length of this text somewhere under that of the first two volumes of War and Peace (which runs four volumes in Russian).
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) lived a very public life in Los Angeles, for approximately 20 years at 1260 N. Wetherly Dr. (featured here today), and then for another nine years or so at 1218 N. Wetherly Dr. He was a star when he arrived in 1940 and his star did not wane until – well, in fact, it never has.
Thanks to Eric Walter White’s Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works, we know precisely when Stravinsky arrived in L.A. and where he lived. I fully quote the first footnote on page 93: “At 124 South Swall Drive, Beverly Hills, May-November 1940; Chateau Marmont, Hollywood, March-April 1941; and North Wetherly Drive, Hollywood, after that.” Stravinsky left Los Angeles (West Hollywood) in 1969 for New York where he died two years later. I know some Angelenos who would consider that a warning to the rest of us… For the record, Stravinsky was a resident at the Essex House for his two-year New York stay.
Stravinsky arrived in the U.S. from Europe in September 1939, pushed by the early conflagration of WWII. In Dec. 1939 he traveled briefly to CA to conduct two concerts in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He returned to NY to meet the ship on which his longtime mistress Vera de Bosset (formerly the wife of the great Russian painter Sergei Sudeikin) would arrive from Europe. He married Vera on March 9, 1940, in Massachusetts. Shortly after, on April 15, 1940, the composer was arrested in Boston (“Banned in Boston”) for the horrific offense of rearranging the score of the Star-Spangled Banner. According to a book called Igor Stravinsky: The Complete Guide, compiled by the Wikipedians, he employed a major seventh chord in his arrangement, thus violating a federal law against reharmonizing the national anthem.
That tidbit was news for me and brought to my mind a similar situation that I experienced as a child – Jose Feliciano performing his beautiful Latino-tinged version of the Star-Spangled Banner in Detroit in 1968, and setting off a storm of protest and anger from uptight America…
The time of Stravinsky’s move to the Left Coast was fortuitous for him. Walt Disney’s innovative and wildly popular Fantasia was just about to be released (that happened Nov. 13, 1940), and it, of course, included a powerful scene set to Stravinsky’s ground-breaking The Rite of Spring. If anyone in the States didn’t know who Stravinsky was at that moment, they surely would know soon. (However, see page 95 of White’s book to see how Disney strong-armed Stravinsky into giving him the rights to The Rite of Spring for a relative pittance because the work was not yet copyrighted in the U.S. According to Stravinsky: “The owners of the film wished to show it abroad, however, (i.e., in the Berne copyright countries), and they, therefore, offered me a sum of $5,000, a sum I was obliged to accept.“)

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The fact of the matter is that Stravinsky became a true celebrity in Hollywood. Mark Swed, the Los Angeles Times music critic, chronicles that extremely well in a 2011 blog. Swed, who himself studied music with Stravinsky at the composer’s home (presumably the later address, not the one shown here), tells of how Frank Zappa once wanted to do a version of The Rite of Spring with the Mothers of Invention. Elsewhere, we find that the late, great rocker Warren Zevon, a neighbor, also studied music with Stravinsky.
Indeed, this was, and has remained a neighborhood with genuine star quality. According to The Movieland Directory, other residents on Wetherly Dr. (at the time of Stravinsky’s residence and after he left) have included: Genevieve Bujold (1990s), Conan O’Brien (1990s), Troy Donahue (1960s), Cheryl Ladd (1990s), Suzanne Pleshette (1990s), Rita Coolidge (1990s), Tony Curtis (1960s) and Janet Leigh (1950s).
Bernard Holland ran a nice piece in the New York Times about Stravinsky’s Los Angeles years in 2001. Allow me to quote at length from that:

A curious pilgrim follows a colonnade of three-story palm trees along Doheny Drive, across frenetic Sunset Boulevard and up the narrow winding street to 1260 North Wetherly Drive. The Stravinsky house is small — white stucco and wood — on rising ground and sheltered by green growth around it. The interior, we are told, was artful clutter: the furniture was worn; the books were many. North Wetherly was the site of Stravinsky’s first sustained domestic happiness after the lingering illnesses and deaths of his first wife and his older daughter, and his subsequent marriage to Vera de Bosset Sudeikina in Bedford, Mass. Two of Stravinsky’s four children eventually came to America: Soulima, teaching piano at the University of Illinois, and Milene, settling in Los Angeles.
The Stravinsky friends were polyglot, international and many. There were the Russian and German enclaves, but also a detachment of British writers, like W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas (who shared the composer’s taste for hard spirits) and, especially, Aldous Huxley, with whom Stravinsky spoke in French.
Years later, Mr. Salonen considered buying the house, which had fallen on hard times. The conductor noted the carpet indentations where the great man’s pianos had stood, the hook where a goat had been tethered (Stravinsky liked the milk) and the built-in couch where Thomas had slept off more than a few over indulgences. An aspiring composer himself, Mr. [Esa-Pekka] Salonen wisely feared the presence of ghosts.
[Conductor Otto] Klemperer and others performed Stravinsky’s pieces at the Philharmonic. The composer himself appeared as pianist and conductor. Even the gaping Hollywood Bowl embraced the Stravinsky of The Firebird. The publisher Boosey & Hawkes eventually provided him a comfortable annual retainer, and there were the constant tours and travels for a man less famous than Clark Gable but not too far behind.”

Allow me to quote from still another source, this one from L.A. blogger Patrick Swanson:

In the summer of 1946, Igor Stravinsky was a freshly naturalized citizen of the United States. A fit and healthy 64 years of age, he was happily settled with his second wife (painter Vera de Bosset) in a cozy house nestled at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. Stravinsky-worshipers who make the requisite pilgrimage to 1260 North Wetherly Drive are in for a surprise when they see that the house that bore so many hallowed masterpieces of 20th century music (Symphony in Three Movements, The Rake’s Progress, Agon) is mere yards away from that mecca of flashy dross known as the Sunset Strip. Does Stravinsky’s ghost ever haunt Ryan Seacrest? He could if he wanted to. To experience one of those surreal juxtapositions of which Los Angeles excels, go to the house on a Friday night and think of Stravinsky working out the haunting medievalisms of the Mass (1947) on his muffled upright; then, walk down the hill until you are in front of the Roxy Theatre, where the spray-tanned and spiky-haired gather to watch a DJ press the ‘play’ button on his iTunes.
    The Los Angeles that Stravinsky called home for over 20 years had its own absurdities. During the war, the city’s blend of endless sunshine and endless creative (and financial) opportunity proved attractive for hosts of European intellectuals and artists seeking safe haven from Hitler’s Europe. Many flocked to  Hollywood to work for the booming film studios (Erich Korngold); Stravinsky’s great rival, Arnold Schoenberg, who had his own flirtations with Hollywood, settled nearby (about 20 minutes west on Sunset) in Brentwood, just down the street from Shirley Temple. When he wasn’t playing with permutations of the 12-tone row, Schoenberg could be found playing ping-pong and tennis with Charlie Chaplin and George Gershwin. (Schoenberg and Stravinsky, however, made sure to avoid each other.) It must have been a dizzying place. Invited to a cocktail party at the Stravinskys? Start boning up-you are going to be talking hallucinogens with Aldous Huxley, the Nuremberg Trials with Thomas Mann, nuclear bombs with Bertrand Russell. Even with all the imported brains, the Stravinskys managed to live a relatively normal LA existence. Vera Stravinsky’s diary for January 21st, 1948: “Sunbathe, and I drive Igor in the hills to air out his hangover.”

Stravinsky’s home at 1260 Wetherly Dr., at least these days, is almost entirely hidden from view. I had to fight back my sense of propriety and my own disgust at the manners of paparazzi  in order to get a decent shot of the house over the thick, tall hedges protecting the building and yard. I forged ahead, however, overcoming my reticence, in order to serve the god of history and information. The first shot in the block immediately above gives a decent view of the house. If you’re interested in other pictures of this house (and of other physical sites connected to Stravinsky around the world), you can find some nice ones on Katya Chilingiri’s photo website.  The Igor Stravinsky Foundation Facebook page publishes a nice photo of the composer playing a game of solitaire right here at his Hollywood home.
This post has already gone on unconscionably long. But if you’re interested in the topic I must also direct you to a nice tale of the relationship between Stravinsky and Aldous Huxley in Murray Pomeranoe’s Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue: Eight Reflections on Cinema, and to a review of the film Stravinsky in Hollywood, which provides some great information on the composer’s work during his L.A. period.

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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…

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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.”
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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

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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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