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Rachmaninov's Little Russia in the Swiss Alps

Rachmaninoff at the piano (1936 or before)
Rachmaninoff at the piano (1936 or before) - Public Domain

"An ocean full of controversial emotions flowing against each other, growing waves of passion meeting in a turmoil, forming tsunamis, then melting away; leaving a listener speechless, taken, overwhelmed by such a powerful force of genius."

Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin compared his music to Michelangelo’s creations: “This music is other-worldly. I listened to your third piano concerto, and had the same feeling of overpowering terror as when you stand on top of a snowy mountain, as your heart stops from looking down at the world” (Ivan Ilyin, December 6th, 1929).

Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov, possibly the greatest composer of the 20th century, created the impossible, and what later was considered “superhuman” – he captured the whole scale of human emotions in music. And while there is no question about the effect his music produces on us, there is a bigger question that startles us: if his music is only a transposition of his deeper emotions on paper, then how can anything of that scale, anything as big as an ocean find room in a man’s heart, and most importantly, what natural force could ever cause his soul to stir so much?

Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where Rachmaninoff graduated with honors in the spring of 1891 -

Most historians have an easy answer. Born to a noble family, and having close ties with the Russian royalty, and with the best minds of the time — including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who had foretold his imminent success in music, and composer Alexander Scriabin, Rachmaninov’s friend — Rachmaninov could not help but have a very critical view on the Revolution of 1905.

As a composer, pianist and the orchestra director at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Rachmaninov was very uneasy about the political situation of that time. To him, growing anti-imperial moods was vulgar and dissipated. The greatest pianist of his time then starts to ponder the possibility of a temporary move to Europe, to give communism time to extinguish itself. In these rather difficult circumstances, the darkest times of Russian history, Rachmaninov emanates a heavenly light of suffering and faith - the greatest piano concerto in the history of music, his third piano concerto.

Villa Senar
Villa Senar in the 30s

Starting from 1902 and up to 1917, everything Rachmaninov earned was being invested in his family estate, Ivanovka. Compared to most, he is a very generous land owner – not only does he give land to his workers, improving their life conditions, but he also builds a village school. However, his love to people is not returned. In 1917, the estate is completely plundered by people who worked on his land, and their rage, evil and utter selfishness outrages Rachmaninov. 

It was then that he finally decides to leave the country in December of 1917, after the October Revolution. His forced and rather necessary (his main concern is his family’s safety and well-being) separation with his land, which doesn’t feel like his land anymore, plunges Rachmaninov into a deep melancholia, which lasts until his death in 1943. 

In his music he prays for the destiny of Russia, but it is not only in his prayers that he attempts to help. As soon as he is settled in his new home in New York, Rachmaninov starts giving as much as a half of his income on charity. He provides help not only to those friends who remained in Moscow - but the greqt composer also helps total strangers, everyone who is in need. This part of his biography will never be brought forth publicity, but it only goes to show what a wonderful soul he was.

Still in search of inner peace, Rachmaninov travels from America to Europe and back all through the 1920s and 1930s, but no place seems to please him. He enters into the longest unproductive period of his life. To a sensitive Russian soul, it is similar to death. He is facing an impossible dilemma: he cannot compose anything significant outside Russia, and he is not allowed to go back.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff & Eugene Ormandy, Academy of Music, Philadelphia late 1930's - Rachmaninoff Society

It was in 1930 when he traveled to Switzerland for the first time, when he instantly falls in love with a magnificent little village, Hertsenstein, near Lucerne. This place has gained a certain fame thanks to Lenin and Zinovyev, who come here for summer holidays since 1915. But since Rachmaninov had spent years looking for a property to buy somewhere in Europe, the discovery of this respite seemed like home. The family are against his decision,  and his daughters, both living in Paris at the time, attempt to persuade him to purchase something in France and his wife, Natalia, who grew up loving vast steppes, isn't at all enthusiastic about the surrounding Alps. All that is in vain. Rachmaninov is solid as a rock – he had finally found his place, the little Russia in the middle of Europe.

He purchases the villa in 1932 and names it “Senar” – the combination of his and his wife’s names: Sergei and Natalia Rachmaninovy. From that moment on, he is finally happy. He can recreate his Russian estate in all details; he himself participates in the planning of the future house, plants, flowers and trees. His sister-in-law wrote: “All his efforts were dictated by the desire to create a little Russia in the Alps. Natalia (his wife) was desperate; he was absolutely thrilled”. To his sister-in-law, Sofia Satina, he writes: “There is the peace and quiet that I need so much”, and, “I have always been convinced – the only place to live is Senar”.

Villa Senar
The House of Serge Rakhmaninov 1932-39 - Via

The new house arouses his insatiable appetite for composing and finally brings him back to life. “Ever since I have come back from Monte-Carlo, that is from the 1st of July, I sat down to work and been working on it literally from morning till night. It’s rather long (20-25 min) but it isn’t a concert. I called it “Symphonic variations on the theme of Paganini”. I’m glad I managed to compose it during my first summer in Senar. It’s a significant compensation for all these years” (Rachmaninov. Letters. August 19th 1934). 

His critics, however, weren’t as modest in the evaluation of his new work. His Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini was named one of the greatest works ever created. According to some, it summarized his life, became his autobiography written in music. It is ascetic, powerful and passionate like Rachmaninov’s earlier works, but there is something new to it – his desire to live.

His Swiss period is also marked by his close friendship with Vladimir Horowitz, a famous pianist who shared a very similar destiny with Sergei Vasilyevich. They both suffered from the Bolshevik regime. “My family lost everything in 24 hours. I saw with my own eyes how they threw our piano away from the window” (Horowitz). In 1934, his father comes to visit him from Russia. As soon as his father returns, he is arrested and thrown into prison. Horowitz undergoes a very difficult period, when he’s unable to play for three long years. “There was a lot I had to think about. I needed silence”.

1939 is the last year Rachmaninov will spend in. The war is inevitable and the family decides to travel back to America. “His plans to compose something in 1939 weren’t destined to come to life. Hitler stood in his way” – his wife Natalia wrote. 

Weggis in Switzerland
The village of Weggis in Switzerland not far from Villa Senar - Jeff Dlouhy

That is going to be the last time he will feel happy. When his request to return to the Soviet Union is denied, Rachmaninov decides to accept American citizenship and thus guarantee his family a future after he’s gone. But nothing keeps his spirits high. Death is hanging over him like a silent visitor. His last winter he travels through America, giving concerts with solely one purpose – to earn money and send it to those who are in need.

Rachmaninov, a great mountain of Russian music, 2 metres tall, with incredibly long and flexible fingers, dies of cancer in his Los Angeles home. Before his death, he calls for a Russian doctor. “I’ll talk to him about my pains and we will remember the past. It’s good for both the body and the soul”. It was clear to him that the body could not be cured, but the little pleasure of having a memory of Russia in the last moments of his life made his death in a foreign land a little less intolerable.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has proposed that Russia purchase Rachmaninov's estate "Senar", and his archive, to make Rachmaninov's "little Russia" legally Russian, honouring the composer and his love for that place. This intention to bring Rachmaninov "back home" is confirmed by a famous Russian pianist, Denis Matsuev: "It would be a place of pilgrimage. It is a place for unique master classes, festivals and competitions. And a museum, of course".