Sergei Rachmaninov

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The reviews of Rachmaninov’s Recollections 1 set me thinking of his Concerto in C minor, which I heard at its first performance in England by Siloti2. The success of the work did not surprise me, for its refreshing spontaneity and brightly coloured idiom are rare. The Symphony in E minor is no less distinguished. But for all the artistic and monetary successes that seem to come easily enough to travelling or exiled Slavs and Poles, they always seem profoundly melancholy, wanting something that the world cannot give - at least, not to them. Each time I met Rachmaninov3 he was complaining, first, that he could not compose out of his native Russia, which alone, reflected by his ancient Mongol ancestry, could supply the lacking inspiration. The second occasion was after his return from America: an orchestral work, written and glamorously produced in the States by Stokowski4, had not been successful elsewhere and he was very unhappy about it: indeed, nothing he had written in America seemed to please him. He was suffering badly from nostalgia: and all creative artists know full well the baneful influence of unsympathetic surroundings.

As we know, the war unhorsed many a popular favourite, even among composers, and at the same time put many an unworthy person, man and artist, in the saddle. Matters may be righted in time, mostly through forgetfulness on the part of those who were then in the midst of musical life. When war broke out the whole musical fabric collapsed. Wood was rehearsing Rachmaninov’s big choral work, The Bells, for Sheffield; it was never done there, though it was, I believe, performed at Queen’s Hall some time after hostilities ceased. There were otter performances under Wood, at Birmingham in 1921 and at Liverpool a year later, but Rachmaninov does not mention them5.

This was one of the minor tragedies in Rachmaninov’s life: greater and worse things were enacted in Russia, where the established order of artistry and artists was assailed with cruelty born of jealous knowledge and vindictiveness. Even as recently as 1931 an official ban was put on a performance in Moscow of The Bells. It seems like a nightmare after reading Carlyle s French Revolution to see before one’s eyes the resolution attributed to the St Petersburg Conservatoire of Music. Rachmaninov’s works ‘express the decadent ideas of a bourgeois, and are particularly harmful under the present circumstances when the class war on the musical front is so embittered’. That is a cunningly devised proscription, and probably more brutal in its effect than the ignorant assertion in Moscow that Rachmaninov was a composer who was played out long ago… an insignificant imitator and reactionary.

  1. Rachmaninov’s Recollections by Oskar von Reisemann (trans Dolly Rutherford) - London, Allen & Unwin, 1934. ↩︎

  2. Something funny here. Alexander Siloti conducted the world première of the Concerto in Moscow, but the English première (Queen’s Hall, 29 May 1902) was conducted by one ‘Sapellnikov’. Either Brian has confused the name, or he actually heard a subsequent performance under Siloti. [Harold Truscott adds: I do not know Sapellnikoff's date of birth (I gather that this was his own preferred spelling), but he died in 1941. I did not know of his conducting activities, either, assuming that the two were the same person, but Vassily Sapellnikoff was known to me as one of the three greatest exponents of pure pianism that I have ever heard. The other two were Simon Barere and Horowitz.] ↩︎

  3. The occasions, unfortunately, are unknown. Rachmaninov was interviewed by Musical Opinion for their December 1930 number (p213) by an unidentified questioner who was probably Brian: this could not, however, have been the first meeting. ↩︎

  4. Presumably the Fourth Piano Concerto, premiered under Stokowski in March 1927. If Brian was the interviewer in December 1930 that would be the ‘second occasion’. ↩︎

  5. Brian’s memory may be at fault here: the English première of The Bells seems to have been in Liverpool, under Wood, on 15 March 1921. It was not given in London until 1937 (again under Wood). [Philip Scowcroft adds: [and] under Sir Henry Wood in the last Sheffield choral festival of 1936.] ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1934, pp. 764–765