Tag Archives: Sergei Rachmaninoff

Cathedral of Sergei Rachmaninoff farewell, Los Angeles

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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.

 

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Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Walt Disney, Los Angeles

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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) were three giants of Russian music in the 20th century. Their lives and professional paths snaked in and around each other in many different ways in many different countries of the world, although none of them ever became particularly close. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff entered the same alien, but attractive, universe of Hollywood and Los Angeles as a result of Hitler’s rise in Germany. (Their shy dance in space and time began when Rachmaninoff’s family moved to St. Petersburg in 1882, the year of Stravinsky’s birth in that city.) Prokofiev seemed to move in an orbit farther from the other two. In fact, more or less as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were settling in Los Angeles, Prokofiev made his last visit there before returning to the Soviet Union. There is, however, one name that brings them all together, albeit briefly and abstractly. Today we look at a place that was a mutual point of interest for all three of the composers: Walt Disney’s home at 4053 Woking Way.
Prokofiev, as it turns out, is the closest of all three to this topic. He met with Disney in 1938 after having seen and loved the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). At this point the great filmmaker was already fast at work on Fantasia (eventually released in 1940), the animated feature film that would set the standard for its genre for decades to come. Prokofiev was one of those whose work he thought might suit his plans. As such, he invited the composer to his house for a chat. According to Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image, Prokofiev even left us a brief record of that visit:
It’s very warm here,” Prokofiev wrote back to his family in Russia, “I’ve forgotten what an overcoat is. and the trees are covered with oranges and pineapples. Most American films are made in Hollywood and they build whole houses, castles and even cities of cardboard for them. Today I went to a filming session. A big tall warehouse had been turned into the square of an old town and people galloped through it on horses. I have also been to the house of Mickey Mouse’s papa, that is, the man who first thought up the idea of sketching him.”
So there we have it – Prokofiev visiting this house, the home of Mickey Mouse’s father. But, in fact, there is much more to the story and fortunately Disney himself chose to tell some of it. Even though none of Prokofiev’s music made it into Fantasia, Disney was transfixed by one particular work – Peter and the Wolf. He would end up making a film of it in 1946, and it would be nearly as popular and famous as Fantasia. So memorable was the meeting of the two men, that Disney had himself recorded telling the story of how Prokofiev, who spoke no English, came and played for the host, who spoke no Russian. The piano at which Prokofiev sat and performed still remained in Disney’s house at the time of the recording, and the video begins with Disney himself playing a few bars from Peter and the Wolf on the famous keyboard.
I remember how his fingers flew over our battered old piano,” Disney says with a bit of a wistful smile, “how his face glistened with perspiration as he concentrated on the music. And all the time I could see pictures. I could see his lovely fantasy coming to life on the screen.”
It’s a wonderful video. Check it out if you haven’t seen it.
(And, while this has nothing to do with the meetings of these great men, I can’t refuse to direct you to one of my favorite recordings of Peter and the Wolf ever – done by my wife Oksana Mysina with the Russian National Wind Quartet. Consider this a bonus track.)

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So, in regards to Fantasia, Prokofiev fell by the wayside early. One can’t help but wonder if Disney already knew that he wanted to devote an entire film to Peter and the Wolf, choosing not to “dilute” it in a miscellany. Be that as it may, Fantasia was originally intended to include music by both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. But the road to success is long and winding. And, in fact, the final cut featured only an abridged version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s The Firebird was also discussed for possible inclusion at some point, but was finally abandoned. Both scenes worked up to Rachmaninoff compositions – “Troika” and Prelude in G Minor – either ended up on the cutting room floor or were set aside at an earlier stage.
If any of this caused any jealousy or friction between the two men, it doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere. Stravinsky was usually respectful of Rachmaninoff and his place in history, if also somewhat uninspired by his colleague’s more traditional approach to the art of music. Rachmaninoff over the decades wavered between skepticism and enthusiasm about Stravinsky. According to Keenan Reesor’s paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943,” Rachmaninoff in 1918 “described Stravinsky ‘as a force to be reckoned with,’ noting that the early ballets ‘represented a high order of talent, if not genius.'” Stravinsky seems to have circled coolly around Rachmaninoff’s accomplishments with similar emotional reserve. According to Neeson:
In his only recorded assessment of Rachmaninoff’s music, published almost twenty years after the latter’s death, Stravinsky stopped short agreeing with those who said he didn’t like Rachmaninoff’s music but admitted that ‘it is true we composed very differently.’ Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff’s earliest pieces as ‘watercolors’ but said that ‘at twenty-five he turned to “oils” and became a very old composer. But,’ he continued, ‘do not expect me to denigrate him for that. In fact he was an awesome man, and there are too many others to be denigrated long before him. As I think about him, his silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations that are the only conversation of most musicians. Besides, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace when he played. That says a great deal.'”
Whatever the real feelings may have been between the two men, as recalled by Sergei Bertensson in Nicholas Slonimsky’s book Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, Rachmaninoff was an ardent fan of The Firebird.
I recall as we listened to the solemn and triumphant finale of The Firebird Rachmaninoff’s eyes filled with tears, and he exclaimed: ‘Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia.’ And when he was told that Stravinsky liked honey, he bought a large jar and personally took it in his car to Stravinsky’s house.”
I don’t know it for a fact, but I take pleasure in imagining that Rachmaninoff drove his beloved Cadillac over to Stravinsky’s house at North Wetherly Drive from his own place on Elm Drive. I have written about both of these places elsewhere in this space.
For those who appreciate tangents, playwright Frederick Stroppel wrote a play, Small World, about Stravinsky meeting Disney and hashing out their ideas over Fantasia. You can read about a 2015 production here.

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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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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 Rachmaninoff, Bridges Auditorium, Claremont, CA

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I have been working up to this post for awhile. I first learned six or eight months ago that Sergei Rachmaninoff performed a concert not only in my hometown of Claremont, CA, 27 years before my family moved there, but that he performed it in the same auditorium where I took the stage to receive my high school diploma. That was a notable day in my family’s history because my mother was furious at me. I neither cut my hair, nor did I bother to put on a proper pair of shoes – I wore sandals under my gown.
Bridges Auditorium has been a center-point of cultural activity in Claremont ever since it was built in 1931.  In fact, for decades, it was one of the best concert halls in all of Southern California. That is why someone like Rachmaninoff would come to this small college town to perform. Arthur Rubenstein, another great pianist from Russia, performed here in 1970. That, folks, puts me flat in the way of Mr. Rubinstein. I didn’t receive my high school diploma until two years after that. In other words, I was walking these streets with Rubinstein, having no knowledge of it. As fate would have it, in those days I was much more interested in the fact that Jim Morrison, later to found the Doors, actually lived in Claremont for a year when he was a boy.

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Bridges is quite an amazing place. You approach it from North College Avenue across a huge, beautifully maintained green called Marston Quad. If you stick to the sidewalks, you zig-zag your way to the building or you come at it from one of the sides, although it is also easy enough to cut across the grass, directly to your destination (but not if you’re in a long gown and your finest shoes). According to a text on the Bridges website, architect William Templeton Johnson set out for Europe to get ideas for the future concert hall. “He met the young Leopold Stokowski during his European sojourn, and the musician suggested he use Paris’s Salle Pleyel as his model for the hall’s acoustics.”
The architectural style is wonderfully clean and symmetrical. It is imposing enough, but also understated. There are details, such as the bas relief of trumpeters on the side walls (see below), that fix the design period quite attractively in the 1930s. I had as much fun photographing Bridges as I have any other structure posted on this blog. I could have kept going and going, but I had a plane to catch the next morning in the wee hours, I was fast losing sunlight and I hadn’t yet packed.
When I first found out about the Rachmaninoff Claremont concert, I wrote to Bridges Auditorium and asked if they had any hard information about it. To my utter delight, I soon received scans of the program from that night. I now knew that the concert took place on April 3, 1937, and that it began at a fashionable 8:15 p.m. For anyone who knows Russian culture and history well, this is a rather striking bit of information. 1937, of course, was one of the bloodiest years ever in Russian history. It saw the unleashing of Stalin’s Purges – infamous enough to receive capital letter billing – which, eventually, would bring some 20 million people to death in labor camps and interrogation cells over a period of about 16 years. As all of that was just gearing up, Rachmaninoff sat down one night in the sleepy city of Claremont – there were a lot more orange groves in Claremont then than people – and launched into an evening of exquisite piano music that began with Handel and would conclude with Franz Liszt.
I posted the bio page above; the actual program follows below. It’s not terribly surprising, although I find it satisfying, that of the five great composers whose names are emblazoned on the front of the auditorium, Rachmaninoff included three in his recital – Bach, Beethoven and Chopin.

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As you peruse the photos here – the sky is almost as dramatic as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – you can also log onto YouTube and listen to the great musician play his works himself. There apparently is no video footage of him performing, but there are wonderful audio recordings of both his Piano Concerto No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3. They would appear to have been recorded in the 1930s more or less at that time that he appeared in Claremont. There is also a video clip that claims to gather together most all of the extant video footage of Rachmaninoff walking, talking and sitting.
It is a real pleasure to read the commentaries to these rare recordings. I swore off reading internet commentary years ago. It seems to me the only thing a self-respecting person can do. But, lo and behold! Rachmaninoff inspires people to actually share interesting information, offer up valuable insights and exchange useful bits of considered opinion. One commenter calling him/herself Haotian Yu expressed surprise that Rachmaninoff once was considered a bad composer and is nowadays sometimes reviled as a bad pianist, and added, “Rachmaninoff has ‘arms of steel and a heart of gold’; I need nothing more. ”
Another commenter, Stephen Gallucci, spoke about the speed with which Rachmaninoff performed his Piano Concerto No. 3: “Rachmaninoff was the greatest without a doubt.  His ability to play this at this speed with such each [sic – ease?] and naturalness sets him apart from everyone, even Hoffman or Horowitz.  It is very sad that many modern pianists don’t understand or appreciate the late 19th-early 20th century approach to pianism and choose the homogenized approach.  The heart of Rachmaninoff’s approach as well as other golden age virtuosi  was spontaneity. Tempo fluctuation, varied detache, crescendo and diminuendo were free.  When this height of greatness has been reached the heart takes over completely and nothing else matters in comparison.​”

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Sergei Rakhmaninov Statue, Moscow

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Sergei Rakhmaninov. Piano Concerto No. 2. You can hear Yuja Wang do a nice version of it on YouTube. I’m pretty sure this was the first classical record I ever purchased. Not the first classical record I owned – that was Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a family heirloom I wore out the grooves on – but the first I bought. And even if it wasn’t the first classical record I bought, it is the first that ever competed seriously with records by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ray Charles, the Kinks and a few others for my attention. Rakhmaninov’s second piano concerto is some of the most moving, I would even say disturbing, music I have ever heard. At least that is true of the first few minutes and of those segments that reprise the stunning opening. In there you can hear the elements whirl and stir, you can hear the planet groan as it expands and contracts. In it you feel time racing ahead, out of control. There is in this music chaos and raw, elemental power.

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The concerto itself is so unlike this monument on Strastnoi Boulevard, in which the composer looks to me to be a proper, self-satisfied dandy! His bow tie and his slicked-back hair, his tightly-fitting jacket and his vest, his long, loose fingers and his lithe, lanky body all suggest a man who is well-packed up in his formidable defenses against the kind of chaos we hear in the first few minutes of the piano concerto.  I like this sculpture by Oleg Komov and Andrei Kovalchuk. And I love the setting amidst the flowers and the shivering, rustling greenery. But there’s something about it that’s a little too slippery. I slip and slide right by it without ever quite getting inside. The hands, though, are gorgeous. No two ways about that. Those are the hands of a pianist and composer. They have powerful music in them. [ADDED July 4]: If you doubt that last statement, go here to hear the man play his Piano Concerto No. 2 himself.

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