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Zane Dalal traces the life and music of Rachmaninoff and Stravinksy – iconic contemporaries with the same roots, whose lives intersected, but whose music could not have been more different.

If any of our ON Stage readers remember the Norman Jewison comedy from 1966 with Carl Reiner and Eva Maria Saint (The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!), they will also recall that the 1950s had been a ramp up to the possibility of nuclear war. The timing of comic relief, after John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stared each other down over Cuba, was not lost on anyone either. The Cold War continued, culminating in the Reagan administration’s pursuit of Star Wars, and the fact that the USSR did not have the power or, most importantly, the money to face off with the United States. Just a few years later, after glasnost had spread through Eastern Europe and the new Russian Federation normalised relations with the US, there was an extraordinary influx of Russian emigrés to Southern California, especially Los Angeles. Today, as one drives around Hollywood, the delicatessens and shops that once lined the road have been replaced by Russian delis, Russian doctors, Russian care centres and Russian shoe shops, all replete with typography in Cyrillic. Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ has taken up residence in his former backyard, proving all the Cold War propaganda to be utterly false and ridiculous.

Nevertheless, it was not the first time there had been notable Russians in Hollywood. There was a golden era in Los Angeles, when Alma Mahler, the composer’s wife, Vladimir Horowitz, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, singers such as Lotte Lehmann, and instrumentalists such as Jascha Heifitz, all lived within minutes of each other, and all met frequently and interacted socially. Those were the years when a fledgling city founded on nothing but the movies, reliably sunny weather year-round, a wing and a prayer, found its way into the list of international destinations. What is particularly remarkable is that two of these, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, were almost exact contemporaries with the same roots and traditions, now transplanted thousands of miles away from their homeland: both pining for home, both extraordinary musicians, both pianist-composers, both conductors, both of their lives intrinsically informed by their music and their performances of it, and both so very different in approach and in result. Further, the two works this season, both of which I have the privilege of leading with the Symphony Orchestra of India, are the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Rachmaninoff (1909), and the Firebird Suite by Stravinsky (1910). These two works, just a year apart, allow a glimpse into the world of these composers, who at the time had not yet left the pre-revolution Russia of the tsars. I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of these two works and these two men, and hope my findings will be of interest to read, as well as provide some audience preparation for our forthcoming performances.

Rachmaninoff’s journey

Rachmaninoff did not come from a well-to-do family. He could certainly not claim aristocracy as Stravinsky could, and would, but did have aristocratic ancestry traceable to the 17th century. His road to success was perhaps less obvious and less charted than Stravinsky’s. The young Rachmaninoff, a dynamo of pianism, was admitted to the St. Petersburg conservatoire at age 10. He was a remarkable pianist of extraordinary power, clarity and tonal scope. All of that is audible in his compositions and in his fantastic recordings, available to us today. Aided by his large hands (not quite Marfan syndrome), he could place almost any chord, in any combination, and make giant leaps all over the keyboard with comfort and ease. Imagine a keyboard – imagine stretching a comfortable, unstretched, relaxed octave with your hand and bring it down. Rachmaninoff’s hands reached a 15th (C-G) with the same ease. If he were playing a scale, there would be no daylight between his fingers. That said, his playing and his compositions had an improvised orchestral feel, spurred on by his active introduction to the wonders of the Mariinsky Theatre, where extraordinary things were going on. His friendship with the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin grew in this period, and both learnt from each other. His introduction to piano classes in Moscow through Alexander Siloti led to a relationship with Siloti’s lover, Tchaikovsky, and thereby an introduction to the fullness of orchestral sound. His relationship to music of the Russian Orthodox Church remained a connection, as it was geographically in his childhood: his home was equidistant from the church as it was from the theatre. Both places of worship, both adored.

One cannot fully understand Rachmaninoff without contemplating the choral music traditions of the Russian Church, and the sonorous harmonies that accompanied his thought processes throughout his life. Similarly, one cannot fully appreciate Rachmaninoff without taking into account theatre and, in particular, the opera. It was at the Mariinsky that he made his decision to become a composer. There is another styling in his compositions, which is instantly audible. There is a militaristic streak of rhythmic clarity, which appears, without fail, as a constant background. His father was a military man, and the martial impulses that drove the first symphony in 1895 remained throughout. His father drank heavily and womanised relentlessly, forcing his mother to leave the relationship quite early in Rachmaninoff’s life. He never saw his father again. If there is one overriding quality that Rachmaninoff possesses and demonstrates constantly, in a way that has never been (and is likely never to be) rivalled, is his creation of melody. He drew on endless inspiration to create melodies that are brand new, but give you the impression you’ve heard them before. He gives you a melody that might unwind for a whole minute-and-a-half, without the listener ever thinking, “Okay. I know where this is going.” Rather, he is always anticipating the new vista, the new horizon, or as Valery Gergiev describes it, “the new door that is constantly being opened”. His first symphony was a public disaster. Friends remarked that they thought Alexander Glazunov, who was conducting, was drunk. The concert was badly planned, with two other new works, and badly rehearsed by Glazunov, according to contemporary accounts from the orchestral players. Nevertheless, the critics, particularly César Cui, one of the ‘mighty five’ hurled abuse at a still very young and impressionable man in his twenties, and Rachmaninoff went into a state of depression. The work is actually marvellous, precise, visionary, complete and a fine primary statement of the composer’s talent. At the time, Rachmaninoff had to take psychological therapy to try and get over his depression, which he did ‘in trumps’. The second piano concerto, which we all love so much, was the next piece and dedicated to his therapist, Dr. Dahl.

Rachmaninoff’s recovery resulted in concertising and conducting the Bolshoi, including concerts in Dresden and the US for the first time. His concerts in the US would lead to extraordinary success, where he would typically play his piano concerti to great acclaim. Can you imagine two world premiere performances of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, in New York in 1909, with Gustav Mahler as the conductor of the second one? In this heady atmosphere, Rachmaninoff slowly became a household name, but never distant from poverty. He, as many emigrés found, had to work relentlessly to make money. One tour, extended by the Boston symphony that Rachmaninoff turned down, involved doing 110 concerts in 30 weeks. He hated the crowds.

Stravinsky’s journey

Igor Stravinsky, on the other hand, had no desire or destiny to end up at the St. Petersburg conservatory. Also a pianist by early definition, he, through family connections and his upper-class introductions, found his way into the circle of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky taught him a great deal about orchestration and about the sonority of notes. He professed to Stravinsky that he was completely self-taught, but Stravinsky noted later that Rimsky was blessed with a very sharp ear and excellent musical instincts. He put a premium on these, and Stravinsky, who was not very good at studies or being a student, found himself accommodated by a great composer on an informal schedule. Had he gone to the conservatory, he later remarked, he might have not survived the gruelling, arduous and sometimes demonic treatment of students. Our own Marat Bisengaliev talks of the rigours of training in Russian conservatories, and it is not an experience for the faint-hearted. There is healthy competition, there is unfair competition, there is cynicism and almost no encouragement, except that which comes from mastering your craft. This prepares you for your life ahead, but just as easily breaks you before you get there.

The Mariinsky was of huge import to Stravinsky, as it was to Rachmaninoff. They both lived in walking distance of it. The idea of theatrical pieces impacted Stravinsky, and so one of his first forays was to write Fireworks – a piece to commemorate the wedding of Rimsky’s daughter Najda. Rimsky had passed away, just a little while earlier, and the piece was as much an homage to him as a celebration of the wedding. It was to be a fortuitous event. There in the audience sat Diaghilev, who was immensely impressed, thus beginning a lifetime of collaboration, not always as easy as is suggested.

The year 1910 brought the commission of the Firebird Suite at Paris, which was instantly going to become one of Stravinsky’s home turfs. Stravinsky held three citizenships: Russian, US and French. The success of Firebird with Diaghilev was, in my view, a direct result of being in Paris. Paris was the bohemian place to experiment and be accepted. Diaghilev, already at arm’s length from the Russian establishment because of his affairs and scandals surrounding Vaslav Nijinsky, found a home for his troupe and his art in turn-of-the-century Paris. I wonder if Stravinsky would have received the resounding reception he did, had his works been performed in Russia first.

Nevertheless, following the enormous success of Firebird in 1910 came The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky recalled to his protégé Robert Craft in his later years in Hollywood that Diaghilev came across as an Oscar Wilde figure: patronising, patriarchal, elegant, with tremendous panache, but a unique caricature of himself. After the ballet performed The Rite of Spring, under Diaghilev’s direction, it was performed in concert version, conducted by Pierre Monteux. The concert rendition of the piece was such a resounding success that Stravinsky was lifted by the audience onto their shoulders and taken out into the streets, where he looked down to see rows of policemen there to guard his safety. He recounted later that Diaghilev was less satisfied with the success of the piece as much as he was miffed and jealous at the rousing audience reception of Stravinsky, and not him. There was no doubt that Stravinsky had extraordinary talent. His style, unlike Rachmaninoff, was conceived largely at the piano, and not orchestrally. Despite his training from Rimsky, he stated that he always thought of harmony and intervals in pianistic terms – typically what his hand could reach. So I put forward with some certainty, that whereas Rachmaninoff wrote symphonically for the piano, Stravinsky wrote pianistically for the symphony, in a precise, rhythmic, taut calculation that would morph into several different formats through his life. Rachmaninoff remained the font of the same style, whereas Stravinsky would go through a neoclassical period of looking back into the dance forms and sonorities of the 16th and 17th centuries. Later, an avant-garde style would make his champions wonder why they couldn’t understand his chord progressions anymore – all conceived and calculated at the piano.

The Hollywood Years

How is it that these two luminaries came to be in Hollywood? Rachmaninoff’s reasons are slightly different to almost everyone else. He, as far as he enjoyed America (which he didn’t), preferred to be a New Yorker. It was only his failing health that had him consider a warmer climate, and even at the end, he was concertising all over the country, despite his melanoma which was progressing at a rapid rate. He was undoubtedly famous as a pianist, and it was for that that he crisscrossed the country. His last concert was in Knoxville, Tennessee, in spite of doctor’s orders. He nevertheless set up home in Beverly Hills, and Stravinsky and he met socially. They didn’t talk about their music, both considering the other to be irrelevant, but did talk about Mother Russia and the problems that faced their children in France. There is the extraordinary account of Rachmaninoff showing up to dinner at Stravinsky’s at the invitation of Vera Stravinsky. Rachmaninoff, a looming, lanky, huge man, was received at the door by the diminutive, bespectacled, professor-like Stravinsky. An unlikely pairing, until Rachmaninoff produced a jar of honey he had brought, knowing that Stravinsky loved it.

Stravinsky came to Los Angeles, and particularly, Hollywood, for the same reasons that so many musicians of the day did: money, fame and fortune. What the movies could bring, a year of concerts could not. It is why we have some extraordinary footage of great musical figures, operatic and instrumental, subjecting themselves to sometimes great, but sometimes equally cheesy theatrics – under the aegis of ever-powerful film-makers, more concerned with commercial results than with art. Stravinsky was a hero to the press, an iconic Hollywood figure. For his 80th birthday, he was celebrated and fêted all over; as a point of comparison, that year his name appeared in the press about 30 times more frequently than Marilyn Monroe, and about 30 times fewer than Frank Sinatra.

That Hollywood hosted these extraordinary figures, not just in their dotage, but during creative periods, and that these two had known as friends, Cocteau, Picasso, Diaghilev, Chaliapin, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nijinsky, Mahler, Schoenberg and countless others, is an extraordinary fact. They not only brought that rich heritage to the West Coast, but created a school of American musicians that holds this heritage in their hands. It will be awhile, if ever, that Hollywood achieves the substance of those extraordinary years that began in the 1930s and 1940s.

Rachmaninoff died on 28th March, 1943, at 610 Elm Drive, Beverly Hills, CA. He wished to be buried in Moscow, besides Scriabin, but his US citizenship made that impossible. He was interred at Kensico Cemetery in New York.

Stravinsky lived at 1260 N. Wetherly Drive, West Hollywood, CA for 20 years and for another nine years down the street at 1208 N. Wetherly Drive. He was a star from his arrival in 1940 to his departure for New York in 1969. He died there two years later, with his wife and Robert Craft at his bedside.

Both men, more than anything, would have liked to have been reconnected with the land of their birth. Rachmaninoff’s objections to the Stalin regime, reported in the press with Count Tolstoy’s, made that impossible. Stravinsky lived long enough to be invited back to Russia in 1962, by Khrushchev. The whole world had claimed Stravinsky as their own, and he was already a US citizen. Stravinsky did return, but not before acknowledging that the Russian state thought little of him or his music.


Zane Dalal serves as Associate Music Director of the Symphony Orchestra of India and is a frequent contributor to ON Stage. He will lead works by Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky with the Symphony Orchestra of India on 16th September at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. He also blogs at www.zanedalal.com/blog.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the September 2018 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.