The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Populist hack or true genius? The riddle of Rachmaninoff
His exile was never abstract... Russia defined every experience and every work through its absence
GOODBYE RUSSIA: RACHMANINOFF IN EXILE
by Fiona Maddocks
384pp, Faber, £25 (0844 871 1514), ebook £12.99
In a scene in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), a pianist holds an after-dinner drawingroom in thrall as he plays Rachmaninoff ’s Prelude in G minor (Op 23, No 5). The camera finds a couple seated on a sofa. “But Boris, this is genius,” the woman says, turning to her companion. “Really?” he replies. “I thought it was Rachmaninoff.”
Half a century on, the question still hangs in the air. In his lifetime, the Russian composer, conductor and pianist achieved a level of fame, popularity and financial success that surpassed most classical artists before or since. In 2021, his Piano Concerto No 2 was named the most-voted-for piece in the history of Classic FM’s Hall of Fame: a musical champion of champions. But is it genius, or is it just Rachmaninoff ?
Fiona Maddocks doesn’t so much answer the question as dismantle it. Goodbye Russia is not a straight biography, musical analysis, defence or critique – though it does all of these things. It’s rather “a chronological set of impressions and excursions, sometimes looping back and forth”. The decision to start that chronology in 1915 – two years before Rachmaninoff, an established artist aged 44, fled revolutionary Russia – redistributes the weight of a familiar story.
A gifted but troubled youth, assailed by illness, depression and self-doubt, the composer ricocheted between success and failure through his 20s, consolidating his reputation just in time for revolution to force him abroad. His later years in Europe and then America – years in which he composed only six new works – become the focus here. We follow Rachmaninoff from hand-to-mouth living in Copenhagen, where his wife was forced to turn cook and housekeeper, to growing abundance and luxury for the couple and their two daughters in New York, Switzerland and finally Los Angeles. Yet his exile, in Maddocks’s telling, was never abstract. Russia – a country in which the composer would never again set foot after 1917 – defined every experience and every work through its absence.
Maddocks is a deft narrator. She dissolves into her story, surfacing only in wry asides and a tender, precise arrangement of material that builds to a deeply moving climax. Digression is built into a wide-lens narrative that never ignores an enticing side-trail, the many brightly-coloured cameos and incidents strewn through a life lived at the nexus of 20th-century politics, art and artists. “In this tight web of Russians abroad,” Maddocks writes, “everyone knew each other even if they pretended not to.”
The headliners are a Who’s Who of the Russian literati and beyond. There’s Tolstoy, who was sought out to galvanise a melancholy teenage Rachmaninoff, but “merely shooed the young man away, saying that the life of an
artist was hard”; Nabokov, one of the many recipients of the successful composer’s collegiate kindness and generosity; Chaplin, debating the meaning of religion with Rachmaninoff over dinner in LA; Leonid and Boris Pasternak, unimpressed by the composer’s controlled performance at the piano (“He may as well have been sitting in front of a bowl of soup”).
But it’s the lesser-known characters that yield the most intriguing stories – whole lives, loves and eccentricities sketched in miniature. They range from the early muse Marietta Shaginian, who lived “in a room in a halfruined churchyard... inhabited by bats and rats, and guarded by a drunk ‘gypsy’ woman with a beard”, to William Hupfer, the piano technician from the Bronx who followed Rachmaninoff (“Rocky”) across the world, taming pianos with his “sharp ears”, watching from the wings through almost every performance.
Rachmaninoff, a man uprooted and unmoored, who never fully mastered English despite his many years in America, and forever sought to recreate the happiness of his family’s country estate at Ivanovka, was – for all these and more – a fixed point, a polestar. Nowhere is this clearer than in the status of his Prelude in C-sharp minor, which Maddocks calls “both a useful calling card and... a permanent curse”. She traces the public’s obsession with this early work, a symbol of the composer’s double-bind: caught forever in the grip of popularity that would freeze him in time, prevent him from being taken seriously in a postwar world of modernists. She examines his own complicity, too, in that process: “I understand nothing of the modern music of today,” he would claim, describing himself as “a ghost wandering in a world made alien”.
Ultimately, Maddocks leaves the “Rachmaninoff enigma” for readers to decipher, weighing the composer’s instinctive gift for melody against his cerebral approach to structure and performance, his habit of treating music like the engine of one of his beloved cars, to be dismantled and understood. She fills in the gaps between Stravinsky’s famous description of the composer – “a 6ft scowl” – and the warm, gentle man remembered by family and close friends. And, with the aid of medical reports from his final illness (newly translated and published in full here for the first time), she paints a moving portrait, of a man defined by nostalgia for a lost home, and a genius defined by nostalgia for a lost world.