Illustrations of two pieces by Rachmaninov:

  1. Barcarolle Op. 10, No. 3
  2. Moments Musicaux Op. 16, No. 3

Click on the image to enlarge. 


‘All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. One of my fondest childhood recollections is associated with the four notes of the great bells in the St. Sophia Cathedral of Novgorod…four silvery weeping notes.’

Sergei Rachmaninoff, the 4th child of Arkady Rachmaninoff, a soldier and pupil of John Field, was born in 1873 in Oneg on the banks of the Volkhov River, near Novgorod, 100 miles south-west of St. Petersburg. For the first 10 years of his life, Sergei lived in this idyllic northern landscape of rivers, silver birch and pine woods, lakes, snow and sky; many summers were spent with his grandmother with whom he attended Orthodox church services, loving the sounds of choral singing and vibrating bells, and enjoying village fairs where he heard gypsy music.

All this changed when his generous, artistic ‘dreamer’ father lost his mother’s fortune and the house that had been full of the music of Chopin, Field, and Mendelssohn was auctioned off. Rachmaninoff was sent, age 12, to live in Moscow under the strict tutelage of Nikolai Zverev, also the teacher of Scriabin. Rachmaninoff spent the summer of 1886 with his relatives on their estate in Ivanovka. Until 1917 when Rachmaninoff left Russia and the estate was seized, Ivanovka provided the peace and solace where Rachmaninoff wrote many of his greatest compositions. At first, after the Novgorod forests and rivers, Rachmaninoff found the flat fields of the Steppes around Ivanovka oppressive but he grew to love the ‘infinite sea where the waters are actually boundless fields of wheat, rye, oats stretching from horizon to horizon. Sea air is often praised, but how much more do I love the air of the steppe, with its aroma of earth and all that grows and blossoms’.

Following the deaths in the autumn of 1893 of Zverev and Tchaikowsky, a much loved supporter of the compositions of the young Rachmaninoff, the 21 year old Sergei started a new set of pieces dedicated to Pabst, 7 Morceaux de Salon Op.10.  No. 3 is the Barcarolle in G Minor. The waves of the rivers and the wheatfields, the dappled light of the woods, the rustle of treetops in the wind are captured in the undulating rhythms of the Barcarolle. In the painting, through the elegant white trunks of the birches, throwing their long wintry blue snow shadows, the viewer glimpses a typical old wooden Russian church on the shores of Lake Leman, and beyond to the windblown wheat fields of the Steppes. On the far left, the white walls of a twelfth century church in Novgorod blend with the tall arching birches.

From the time he left his Novgorod environment until his death just before his 70th birthday in March 1943 in Beverly Hills California, Rachmaninoff lived in and abandoned many homes in Europe and the United states, including 2 apartments on New York’s upper Westside. Many of these moves were prompted by the internal and external disasters that befell Rachmaninoff’s beloved native land, to which he never returned after December 23rd, 1917; he suffered the devastating effects of two world wars, witnessing with horror the rise to power of Hitler and Stalin.

The Rachmaninoffs sailed from Norway to New York on November 1st 1918, and, on their first night in the Hotel Sherry-Netherland Hotel, the family was awakened to the cheers and whistles that the Armistice had been signed. For the next 35 years, Rachmaninoff pursued the career of a virtuoso pianist, sometimes performing 75 concerts in 4 months. He toured widely over the United States and Europe, renting summer homes in both continents. Although Rachmaninoff had extraordinary careers as a concert pianist, conductor and composer, he never ‘could do two things at the same time’. For 17 years after he lost his country, he felt unable to compose, but he claimed not to regret the one sided focus on performance. ‘I love to play, I have a powerful craving for the concert platform. When there are no concerts to give, I rest poorly. If you deprive me of them, I will wither away. The most precious thing for me when I play is the feeling of contact established with my audience. Anticipation of this contact on days when I play gives me the utmost pleasure.’

On both coasts of America, Rachmaninoff enjoyed the company, both social and musical, of other Russian emigres. During his lifetime, he knew Tchaikovsky, Chaliapin (probably his closest friend), Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Scriabin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Mahler, Diaghilev, Stanislavsky,Tenayev, Arensky, Medtner, Siloti (his cousin), Kreisler, Heifetz, Hoffman, Horowitz, Elman, Milstein and Toscanini. Rachmaninoff was known for his calm, reserved, somewhat distant demeanour and his self described ‘funereal features’, but he also loved the company of his family and close friends with whom he shared many losses and sorrows, as well as happier times. He suffered from lack of confidence, not helped by a visit to meet Tolstoy who, after hearing the young Sergei accompany Chaliapin in a new song entitled ‘Fate’, sourly remarked: ‘Tell me, does anyone want this type of music?’ As in the case of most great creative artists, Rachmaninoff received many devastating reviews of the music that, after his death, was revered and popularized. Of the reviewers, Rachmaninoff remarked ‘there is in the whole world no critic more doubtful of me than I am of myself.’

In the painting that accompanies No. 3 of the Moments Musicaux, Op 16, one of Rachmaninoff’s darker compositions in the key of B Minor, a large Russian onion-shaped cupola dominates and divides the space into light and dark. On the left upper corner, the silvery pale light of northern Russia with the bells of St. Sophia Novgorod - the dawn of Rachmaninoff’s life - contrast with the darkness of the lower right corner which is illuminated by the domes of St. Petersburg Cathedral, the city from which Rachmaninoff departed through Finland to Sweden, never to return. Arches with motifs in rich copper and gold from the cathedrals of Kiev and Moscow portray another arc in Rachmaninoff’s life in Russia: ‘the sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know – Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence.’

These words might have been written by each of the composers of the pieces we hear in today’s programme. As they walked to work or play in the cities of Europe and Russia, the sound of bells showered down and around them. This wondrous sound, both joyous and mournful, is rapidly disappearing as churches close, the art of bell ringing dies, and our ears, covered by headphones, are no longer attuned to the sounds in the sky.

‘What is music? How can one define it? Music is a calm moonlit night, a rustling of summer foliage. Music is the distant peal of bells at eventide! Music is born only in the heart and it appeals only to the heart; it is Love! The sister of Music is Poesy, and its mother is Sorrow!’ 

— S.Rachmaninoff, New York, 1932