A Hometown Reclaims Its Rachmaninoff Ties

The pianist's stature is being reinstated in the post-Soviet era BY Bill Gasperini, Special to The Christian Science Monitor:

The delicate young fingers moved gracefully over the keys as both hands moved quickly up and down the scale, playing the complicated melody.

The sound of the notes filled the room under the watchful gaze of the man who had composed the piece almost a century ago, Sergei Rachmaninoff. His famous, penetrating visage looked down upon Dalia Nazarova from a poster on the wall.

"To be here where [Rachmaninoff] came from is like a dream," the music student said during a pause in the practice session. "It is an inspiration to continue the tradition that he started."

She was speaking in a musical institute that bears the famous composer's name in the provincial city of Tambov, located about 250 miles southeast of Moscow.

Rachmaninoff did not actually live or even teach at the institute, although he did live in another village not far away. The school's claim to his presence arises from a visit he made in 1909 when he was sent from the Moscow Conservatory to check on whether the institute should be closed.

Less than 10 years later, he was forced to leave Russia after the 1917 Communist Revolution. For almost 40 years afterward, his name was held in disgrace by the Soviet authorities, who labeled him a "bourgeois landowner."

Then in 1959, the college was renamed for him during the post-Stalin "Khrushchev thaw." Since then, the Tambov region has done its best to reclaim him.

Nowhere is the rehabilitation effort more visible than in the village of Ivanovka, a two hours' drive south of Tambov city, where Rachmaninoff used to spend his summers a century ago.

There, a large estate that originally belonged to his wife's family has been painstakingly restored after it was completely leveled by local peasants driven on by the dictates of Bolshevik ideology in the early 1920s.

The reconstructed complex includes two large houses, a barn, and a separate car garage where the Rachmaninoffs kept their "Lorelei" auto, the Russian equivalent of a Model T. The estate was literally rebuilt from the ashes, beginning in the 1970s, with funds provided by the government. Now, staff at what is called the Rachmaninoff Home-Museum say there is a steady stream of visitors despite its relative isolation.

One of the buildings has many family items that were removed to safety before the destruction, including a piano used by the composer. Bedrooms, a study, and a small library look as if they hadn't been disturbed since the family lived there.

The other houses an extensive exhibit of photographs, letters, concert posters, and other memorabilia documenting Rachmaninoff's career. Every phase of his life is represented, with particular emphasis on the years from 1890 to 1917, when he spent summers living and working in Ivanovka.

Most of the photos make it easy to see just how bucolic life was here: They show Rachmaninoff reading, relaxing, playing the piano, driving in the old car, and posing with his wife, Natalya, and two daughters.

Rachmaninoff came from a family of wealth, but his father was something of a ne'er-do-well who squandered most of his money. Born in the Novgorod region (not far from St. Petersburg) in 1873, young Sergei grew up in modest surroundings before studying first in St. Petersburg and then Moscow at the famous Music Conservatory.

He first came to Ivanovka in the summer of 1890 to visit with his future wife's family, who were relatives. Ultimately he married Natalya, a cousin, and the two then spent their summers at the estate, along with her parents, until 1917.

Rachmaninoff "always said this was his favorite place, that even after he left for America his heart remained here," says museum director Alexander Yermakov. "Almost all his best compositions [including Piano Concerto No. 3, profiled in the recent movie 'Shine' and considered one of the most technically difficult pieces of music ever written] were either composed during those quiet summers or at least inspired by Ivanovka."

"Shine" has stimulated much new interest in the composer, but the region has seen little of the film so far, with a limited run only in Moscow.

It is said that Rachmaninoff did find it hard to compose well after he went into exile. However, his grandson Alexander Rachmaninoff (see interview, left) takes exception to the notion that he found inspiration only in Ivanovka.

"My grandfather lived for 26 years in the US and Europe, from 1917 until his death in 1943," Mr. Rachmaninoff said in an interview recently in Moscow, where he was attending an international piano and voice competition. "He did compose works after he left Russia. Here they just want to hold onto everything about him."

The son of Tatiana, the younger of the composer's two daughters, Alexander Rachmaninoff lives at his grandfather's home in Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. He oversees a large publishing business, part of the musical legacy left by the composer.

In September, he visited the Ivanovka estate for the first time, although he has often traveled to Russia since the early 1970s. He declined to comment on what he thought of the reconstructed estate after the visit, which a close friend described as "very emotional for him."

Back in the city of Tambov, the Rachmaninoff name still provokes certain controversy. The region's governor is from the Communist Party and long opposed a move to rename the main avenue that runs past the music institute after Rachmaninoff as well.

In the end, the city's pro-reform mayor agreed to the change, but only on that part of the avenue next to the school.

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