Goodbye Russia

When 44-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff packed a single bag and boarded a tram in November 1917, he “was aware that I was leaving Moscow, my real home, for a very, very long time . . . perhaps forever.” 

Vladimir Lenin toppled Czar Nicholas II earlier that year, hastening a revolution that overturned the social class structure. Wealthy landowners were under threat. Some supporters of the czar left behind their estates, fleeing elsewhere in Europe or to the United States. As a member of the social elite, Rachmaninoff was among those who chose exile. 

In Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile, Fiona Maddocks, the classical music critic at The Observer, draws on archival materials including newly translated ones, as she paints a riveting portrait of the Russian composer’s struggles to adapt to a new life outside his beloved homeland.

In the U.S., he would move among other groups of Russian emigrés and establish friendships with stars such as Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin, but his deep longing for his country estate and for his life in old Russia weighed heavily on him. While he reinvented himself as a virtuoso pianist, he composed very little, and he rejected modernist music and its cacophonous sonic structures that reminded him of the upheaval of the Revolution. Some friends even reported that they never saw him laugh. 

Rachmaninoff, writes Maddocks, felt like a “ghost wandering in a world made alien,” longing always for his Russian homeland. In 1940, three years before his death, he composed his “Symphonic Dances,” a haunting melodic orchestral suite dedicated to Russia. Maddocks provides illuminating glimpses of Rachmaninoff’s rigorous preparations for his performances, and his insistence on “dismantling every work he played in order to understand it, and then to reassemble it in performance.” 

A fan’s affectionate ode to Rachmaninoff, Goodbye Russia provides a spirited tour through the evolution of his music while he was in exile, as well as a glimpse of the cultural history of classical music in the early to mid-20th century in the U.S.

Literature

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