There’s a NY Times article saying, “Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, said that Rachmaninoff’s remains should be exhumed and sent to Russia. ‘The composer dreamed of being buried in Russia…'”
Look, I haven’t literally read everything written by and about Sergei Rachmaninoff, but as of two years ago, I had read the vast majority of it. I read a lot about him, his life, his music, the cultures in which he worked. Because I was writing my doctoral dissertation on the only choral work he wrote while living in the U.S. I lived with it, analyzing it, studying it, rehearsing it, conducting it. I read everything remotely related to it, not just because I had the academic responsibility to find every source I could, but because I love this piece of music, and everything I learned about its composer made me adore him more and more. So, even now, I feel a respect, admiration, and personal connection to Rachmaninoff.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was in my head every day for almost two years. The NYT article describes a biographer wanting to spend time alone at his grave, that it felt personal to visit, and I completely feel that reality myself. He was preferred the private, quiet, thoughtfulness of composition to the public pressure of performing. But he wrote enough letters and gave enough interviews to leave a first-hand sense of himself for those of us who want to know what he was like. And he was deeply beloved by his friends and family, who wrote so many accounts of him that it’s easy to find points of correlation to get a real sense of what was true about him.
I don’t know how much time and energy Minister Medinsky has invested in getting to know Rachmaninoff and his wishes, but I doubt it could be much if he believes Rachmaninoff would want anything to do with Russia as it stands today.
Rachmaninoff did love Russia, and it broke his heart to leave. He may have dreamed of being buried in Russia before, you know, revolutionaries razed his family home to the ground, and the government started policing art and condemned him from a distance, forbidding his music to be performed in Russia for decades. He may have pined for his homeland, but Russia after his flight did not feel like home to him anymore. He knew that the place was not his home, but rather his home had been made up of the life and culture he lived there. And they had disappeared, except in his ex-pat friends, with whom he stayed close. He maintained Russian traditions with them and his family. He kept as much Russia as he could, for as long as he could. But he knew that the Russia he had left behind didn’t exist anymore.
Maybe someone would wish to rewrite this history, but it’s well and clearly documented, which makes rewriting it quite a cumbersome task. His published letters fill two volumes, for the luvvapete.
So, I try to keep my posts restricted to the work of conducting, but I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about this. I feel defensive on behalf of Rachmaninoff. For example, I think it’s stupid that people try to transliterate him name as Rakhmaninov or anything else, even if it is more “accurate.” He spelled it Rachmaninoff in the Roman alphabet. Isn’t it just a show of basic respect to spell his name the way he chose? I also want to advocate for his work — which I feel is under appreciated because it has so much drama on the surface that people assume that’s all there is to it; but really there is deep nuance underneath.
I think he’s the Bach of his day: the last one writing in an old-fashioned style, maybe, but holy moly he was doing it with so much sophistication and depth and richness that it will surely, surely live on for centuries. And, oh, how he sets his native language. The way Bach sets German, the way Barber sets English, Rachmaninoff sets Russian and Old Church Slavonic. Sensitive, natural, perfectly fitted melody with inflection. MmmmmWAH!
So, shut the hell up, Medinsky. You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about.
Okay. Rant over. But, dude, you should program some Rachmaninoff on your next concert. It’s ah-mazing.
And here’s me in my SVR fangirl t-shirt.