English Arts Chorale

Sergei Rachmaninov

In conversation with Catherine Nasskau


CN:  We are delighted to be here with Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Sergei, could you tell us a little about your early life?

SR:  I was born in 1873 in Russia, to a family of land-owners. My family were musical and I started playing the piano when I was four. During my student years I consistently amazed my teachers as a pianist and composer, and at the age of just 18, I created a storm with my first piano concerto, described as an incredibly accomplished student work.

CN:  So it was natural for you to go on to study Music at the Moscow Conservatory.

SR:  Indeed, where my teacher was so insistent I became a pianist, he threw me out of the house when I persisted with composition. I got revenge with 'Aleko' in 1892, a one-act opera, which gained highest marks in my student exam, and led to a publishing contract and premiere at the Bolshoi.

CN:  But you then started to get into financial difficulties, I believe.

SR:  In late 1895, to improve my depleting finances, I agreed to a three-month concert tour across Russia with an Italian violinist; an awful experience and I abandoned the tour early, at great cost. My early successes did not last and my first symphony was roundly criticised in 1897.

CN: How did you react to that?

SR: I was not affected by its lack of success. But I was deeply distressed and depressed by the fact that the piece itself did not please me at all, and Glazunov's performance of it was poor. It was a hard time. I fell into a deep depression that lasted four years or so, when I was unable to compose a thing. I felt like a man who had suffered a stroke and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands. To make matters worse, I wanted to marry my beloved cousin Natalia, a fellow pianist I had known since childhood. But the Church and my family opposed the marriage.

CN:  How did you get out of this depression?

SR:  My family and friends persuaded me to have daily hypnotherapy and psychotherapy with Nicolai Dahl, for three months. It was thanks to him that new musical ideas began to stir. I was then able to complete my second piano concerto that thankfully was very well received.

CN: You might not know this, but its use in the film 'Brief Encounter' has made it a constant favourite.

SR: That is good to know. I was also offered the post of Assistant Conductor for a private opera company, and finally married Natalia in 1902.

CN:  And you then seemed unstoppable, composing a great run of pieces including the Cello Sonata and the Second Suite for Two Pianos, and also did more conducting. Did you have favourite types of music as a conductor?

SR:  Yes, opera, and I became the Principal Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904. I also worked as a pianist, and in 1909 composed my third piano concerto for a tour of America. All was going well - I could afford to buy a car and my uncle then left me his estate in Russia. But although I recovered from my crisis of creative confidence, I always doubted the worth of my music, which I often revised with substantial cuts.

CN:  How did the Russian Revolution affect you?

SR:  My world was shattered. I was not a supporter of Bolshevism but as I was a member of the Russian bourgeoisie, the communist authorities confiscated our estate. Fortunately at this time I was asked to perform in Scandinavia and I used this as an excuse to get permits to escape. In 1917 we fled Russia on an open sled, taking with us just some money and sketches of compositions. We settled in Denmark where I worked as a pianist, practising extensively to improve my technique. During this time I also composed my second symphony and first piano sonata.

CN:  What led you to emigrate to America?

SR: War was continuing throughout Europe, so when I was offered several major posts in America, most notably conducting with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I decided to go.

CN: You were considered one of the greatest pianists of the time. Did you enjoy the luxurious lifestyle you could now afford in America, where you lived for the final part of your life?

SR:  Not really as all the touring took me away from my family, and the exhausting concert tours also stopped me from composing. In 1942 we moved to California and I acquired American  citizenship in the final month of my life.

CN:  Any mention of your name today and thoughts turn to your extravagant, virtuosic piano concertos and the Romantic lyricism of your symphonies. What made you turn to the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church to compose a quiet, reflective and deeply moving set of vespers?

SR:  My 'All-Night Vigil', to give it its official title, was composed and premiered in 1915. I composed it after I witnessed a performance of an earlier choral work, and felt disappointed with the composition. Russia was in political turmoil at the time. The World War had just begun and Russia was committed to securing the eastern front, and the country was still in a mess as a result of the 1905 Revolution.

CN:  So it is not surprising that you were looking to write something more introspective than usual.

SR:  Yes, I had a deep religious faith, which I wanted to express through this unaccompanied set of choral vespers. They are separated into two parts: the evening Vespers and the morning Matins, both full of exquisitely rich harmonies. I followed the church's tradition of basing ten of the fifteen sections on Russian chants, with the remaining five being more free-form. Although those five were so similar to the other ten, they were really conscious counterfeits.

CN:  How was it first received?

SR: It was received so warmly at its premiere in Moscow, in aid of war relief, that four additional performances were quickly scheduled. I was delighted with its success and hope that audiences will enjoy it for many years to come.


Rachmaninov died of melanoma in 1943, in California, just before his 70th birthday.
In 1931 Rachmaninov's music was officially banned in the USSR as 'decadent'.


© 2017 Catherine Nasskau and English Arts Chorale Association

If your choir would like to use this material in your own concert programmes, please contact Catherine Nasskau at the EAC for permission.