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Sergei Rachmaninoff

Anastassia Boutsko / gswApril 5, 2013

It's had its share of ups and downs in critical assessment, but Rachmaninoff's music is here to stay. We recall the composer who has been called the last great Romantic.

Sergei Rachmaninoff Copyright Imago ITAR TASS
Image: imago/Itar-Tass

2013 has two dates associated with the pianist and composer. 140 years ago, on April 1, 1873, Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Oneg at his family's estate near Novgorod. And 70 years later, on March 28, 1943, he died of cancer in Beverly Hills.

The "expatriate and traitor" was hardly welcome in his homeland. His music was officially boycotted there during the 1930s, which pained Rachmaninoff deeply. His final wish was to be buried in Russian soil, at Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetary, next to his friend, mentor and colleague Sergei Taneyev.

That wish went unfulfilled; Rachmaninoff, who'd become a naturalized American, rests in the Kensico Cemetary in New York. German influence

The work of what some have called the most "Russian" of composers was influenced to no small degree by German music culture. The three years from 1906 to 1909 that his family spent in Dresden were more than just an intermezzo. In their quiet home in Sidonien Street, he sought peace and relaxation from the revolutions churning back in Russia and from the countless tours that led the popular piano virtuoso around the world.

Robert Sterl's portrait of Rachmaninoff (c) picture alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library
Robert Sterl's Rachmaninoff portraitImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

Rachmaninoff made many friends in the city's creative circles, including the impressionist painter Robert Sterl, who made a portrait of him in April 1909. Turning points in Dresden

A monumental experience for Rachmaninoff was a visit to the Semper Opera, where he first experienced a work by his contemporary Richard Strauss: "Salome." It moved him to try his own hand at an opera, but "Monna Vanna" remained unfinished.

The composer completed three key works in Dresden instead: the Symphony No. 2, which made him a world-famous composer, the Piano Sonata No. 1 and the symphonic poem "The Isle of the Dead," inspired by a painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin.

Music 'for the gut'

Liking Rachmaninoff too much was long considered suspect. Music critics tossed around descriptions to the tune of "sentimental banality," "touchy-feely fluff" and "music for the gut." One reason is prevalent post-war anti-Romantic sentiment. And another Russian-born American citizen, composer Igor Stravinsky, polemicized against Russian late Romanticism and dismissed Rachmaninoff's work as "grandiose film music." On that subject: "The Seven Year Itch" by director Billy Wilder, in which Marilyn Monroe is seduced to the tune of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, had a lasting impact on the composer's image. The last 15 years or so have seen a shift in his fortunes. "Germans' relationship to Rachmaninoff has changed fundamentally," said Andreas Wehrmeyer in an interview with DW. The music expert and author of a Rachmaninoff biography added, "There was a time when one seldom heard Rachmaninoff's music in Germany. Now he's part of the standard repertory."

Wehmeyer believes this is thanks to the many Russian musicians in Germany, who love the composer's music and play it proficiently. Not to be underestimated, however, it the rediscovery of Rachmaninoff by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, who recently delivered a wonderful and subtle take on "The Bells," one of the composer's masterpieces.

"Rachmaninoff is currently relevant for the very reason that he casts off all of the usual trappings of timeliness," Andreas Wehrmeyer concludes.

Sir Simon Rattle (c) Uli Deck dpa/lsw
Sir Simon Rattle - an unabashed Rachmaninoff fanImage: picture-alliance/dpa
The premiere of "Salome" at Dresden's Semperoper in 1905 (c) picture-alliance/akg-images
"Salome" at Dresden's Semper Opera in 1905Image: picture-alliance/akg-images