Click on photos to enlarge.
The location of this neat, compact and beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral is quite unexpected. Partially protected from the neighborhood around it by medium-height hedges, it stands in the middle of a mostly residential area at the corner of Micheltorena and Ellsworth streets in the Silver Lake region of Los Angeles. The official address is 650 Micheltorena.
According to an informational leaflet that you can pick up in the modest, but lovely front courtyard, the first liturgy was read here in 1923. The cathedral has played an active part in Russian emigre life ever since. As these photographs attest, it is in beautiful shape today.
We come to this cathedral today because this is where several services were observed in memory of Sergei Rachmaninoff after his death in 1943. (I have written about the house in which he died in Beverly Hills elsewhere in this space.) The cathedral’s website notes that the composer and pianist was a member of its parish. I do not know how frequently he came here during his relatively brief sojourn in Los Angeles. But, according to information contained in a short, but detailed piece on the Russian Novy Journal site, there were actually three services for Rachmaninoff at this cathedral over the course of 39 hours. I draw this conclusion from the article, “At the Coffin of S. V. Rachmaninoff,” originally printed April 2, 1943, in the San Francisco-based New Dawn Russian-language newspaper. (The article, signed “V.K.,” is given as a facsimile on the cathedral website, but I couldn’t make out much because the image was so small.) It is packed full of information and I will refer to it liberally below. I would like to acknowledge George (Zhorzh) Sheron, who republished the article in Novy Zhurnal and wrote the commentary to it.
The chain of events begins at the end: Sergei Rachmaninoff died at 1:20 a.m. on Sunday, March 28, 1943, at his Beverly Hills home. He had been given the last rites on Saturday morning. A requiem was read at home over the body Sunday morning before the composer’s body was removed from his deathbed. The body arrived at the cathedral at 7 p.m. on the 28th, and at 8 p.m. a great requiem was observed. Incidentally, one of the wreaths presented at the coffin was from the vice-consul of the Soviet Union who attended the service. A second requiem was observed the following day, also at 8 p.m. It was followed on Tuesday, March 30, by a requiem Mass at 11 a.m. Newspapers, including the Los Angeles and New York Times (“Rachmaninoff Rites Held in Los Angeles,” The New York Times [March 31, 1943]; “Rachmaninoff Paid Tribute in Russian Services,” Los Angeles Times [March 31, 1943]) and San Francisco’s New Dawn, indicated that the body, now in a 2,000 pound zinc coffin (as New Dawn reports), was to be held at Rosedale Cemetery until such time as it could be returned to Russia for final burial. In fact, the burial took place two months later in Kensico Cemetery in the town of Valhalla in upstate New York. I have not seen an explanation why it ended up in New York, rather than Russia, but if one considers that World War II was then raging, it probably doesn’t take much imagination to figure it out.
On the burial in New York, Rachmaninoff’s widow Natalia wrote the following: “I could not go home to New York for an entire month because of various formalities. Sergei Vasilyevich’s coffin was temporarily placed in the city mausoleum. At the end of May Irina and I returned to New York and we quickly were able to purchase a plot for Sergei Vasilyevich’s grave in the Kensico cemetery. The burial took place on June 1.”
In her memoirs, Natalia also left a fairly detailed description of Rachmaninoff’s death and the aftermath (like the previous quote, this is drawn from a Live Journal blog entry titled “The Grave of Sergei Rachmaninoff.”): “…On March 26 Doctor Golitsyn suggested we call a priest for the last rites. Father Grigory (who also read the requiem) read the last rites at 11 a.m.. Sergei Vasilyevich had already lost consciousness. The death throes began on the 27th, around midnight and on the 28th at 1 a.m., he died. He had a wonderfully calm and good expression on his face. People from the funeral parlor took him quickly in the morning and then transported him to the church. This was the marvelous little Holy Virgin Mary the Savior cathedral somewhere on the outskirts of Los Angeles…”
There is something touching about knowing the exact (or, in this case, almost exact) hour of someone’s death. It makes death not quite so abstract. It gives it a specificity that marks the precise, irreversible end of a life. It gives death itself an end, for death can only happen at that one moment when it happens. Everything afterwards is something else. Prior to that very moment Sergei Rachmaninoff (in our case) is a world-renowned musician and composer, however hampered he may be in his final hours. After that moment he belongs to history. His widow writes that he died at 1 a.m., which, since we have the more specific time of 1:20 a.m. from the San Francisco correspondent, encourages me to believe she was giving an approximation. I can’t help but think of a monologue from Nikolai Erdman’s tragicomedy The Suicide, in which a man contemplating taking his own life philosophizes on the difference between “tick and tock,” that is, the vastly different states of being that are separated by that brief, precise moment when death cuts life short. To paraphrase Erdman slightly, “I understand everything about ‘tick,’ I understand nothing about ‘tock.'” Thus it is that I am pleased in some deeply scholarly way to know that Sergei Rachmaninoff passed from one world to another at 1:20 a.m. Somehow it seems to provide a modicum of solace.
Our sources (V.K. and Rachmaninoff’s widow) tell us that the choirs sang beautifully at all the services. There were some celebrities in attendance (Michael Chekhov was apparently there), and the church was said to be packed, although it is a very small space and it wouldn’t take many people to fill it.
As V.K. sums up his account, “The funeral services of the great musician and a Russian man of great soul, were conducted simply but in a touching manner.”
Such was the farewell to Sergei Rachmaninoff.