On October 14-15, the annual RASA conference will be held in Chicago. This year it is dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The outstanding musician left Russia shortly after the 1917 revolution and died in 1943 in the USA, but in the history of music his fame as “the most Russian composer” was firmly established. He himself felt his connection with Russia until the end of his life. During World War II, he bought a plane for the Red Army with money he earned on several concerts.
We discussed what Rachmaninoff’s creative experience of emigration teaches, why his works were banned and allowed to be performed again in the USSR, and whether classical music will stand the test of time in a conversation with the honorary speaker of the conference, the conductor who performed all of Rachmaninoff’s works, professor, Director of the Orchestra Northwestern University Music Biehnen School Viktor Yampolsky. Interviewed by Olga Orlova.
Viktor Yampolsky was born in 1942 in the city of Frunze (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) in a family of musicians. His father, Vladimir Yampolsky, a pianist, accompanied outstanding Soviet violinists: M. Polyakin, D. Oistrakh, Yu. Sitkovetsky, V. Klimov, V. Pikaizen, M. Lubotsky. Mother, Faina Zaslavskaya, studied with Vladimir Horowitz.
In 1966 he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, studying violin with David Oistrakh. In 1973 he graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory, studying conducting with Nikolai Rabinovich. He was a member of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra as a violinist and assistant conductor under the guidance of Kirill Kondrashin.
Left the USSR in 1973. On the recommendation of Zubin Mehta, Yampolsky received a Leonard Bernstein scholarship and immigrated to Tangelwood (USA), where he won a competition for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He conducted the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Halifax (1977-1982) and the Boston University Orchestra (1979-1984). From 1993 to 1994 he was chief conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Johannesburg. He was also resident conductor of the Chicago Civic Orchestra (1991-1996) and principal conductor of the Omaha, Nebraska Orchestra (1995-2005). Graduated more than seventy graduate students in conducting.
T-invariant: You conducted all of Rachmaninoff’s major works. How and when did he appear in your life?
Viktor Yampolsky: My acquaintance with Rachmaninoff happened very early, because his music was extremely popular in Soviet times. Well, of course, Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto was played on the radio every day! But Rachmaninoff was also performed quite often. And the first works of Rachmaninoff that I remember from childhood were the Prelude in C-sharp minor and the famous “Vocalise” - version for violin and piano.
Then I entered the school and began courting the pianist Tanya Akopyan (later she became my first wife), who was practicing Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto. At the same time, the International Tchaikovsky Competition was organized in Moscow, the winner of which Van Clyburn played Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto in the final round. That’s when I completely fell in love with the Third Concerto.
After graduating from the conservatory, I was accepted into the orchestra of Kirill Petrovich Kondrashin at the Moscow Philharmonic. And naturally, I played the Second Symphony and “Symphonic Dances” many times. “Symphonic Dances” was Kondrashin’s favorite work. We played them on all our trips, including Carnegie Hall in New York and London Symphony Hall, and in Vienna and Berlin - all over the world.
Incidentally, I grew up not only due to recognizing Rachmaninoff as a composer, but also to those who performed him. First of all, it was Evgeniy Fedorovich Svetlanov, who set himself the task of promoting the music of Rachmaninoff and Russian music in general. Svetlanov conducted all of Rachmaninoff’s major works. And, besides, Svetlanov himself was a composer. And this is also, probably, one of the reasons for his love for Rachmaninoff.
Having studied his scores since I was twenty-six, I am proud to say that I have conducted all of Rahmaninoff’s symphonies and “The Symphonic Dances”. I also had the chance to perform “The Bells”: I love this piece! Although in Soviet Moscow “The Bells” were not popular because of the religious plot.
T-i: Didn’t you then have a question about why a composer who left Russia in 1918 and died in America is so popular in the USSR? For example, it was impossible to publish emigrant writers. Why was it different for musicians? Why was Rachmaninoff not banned by the Soviet authorities?
VY: Well, he was banned. In 1931 there was a party resolution against him and the newspapers wrote that his music should not be performed. This was the government’s reaction to Rachmaninoff’s signature under a collective letter to the New York Times. The authors of the letter objected to the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who enthusiastically described his trip to the USSR .
But soon after the letter was published in an American newspaper, in March 1931, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the orchestra and choir of the Bolshoi Theater performed Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem “The Bells” based on poems by Edgar Poe, translated by Konstantin Balmont, who, by the way, was also an emigrant. That’s when the propaganda campaign against Rachmaninoff began in the Soviet press.
T-i: Was it possible to perform Rachmaninoff again after the World War II? For his support of the USSR?
VY: This is not entirely true. There was a ban in 1931, but it was lifted a year later. Then there was a second ban, in 1937, but it was also soon violated. During the World War II, Rachmaninoff supported Russia’s fight against fascism not only in words, but also transferred money from concerts to the Soviet Army.
T-i: Rachmaninoff left Russia three years earlier than the “philosophical ships” sailed from Russia, but in reality he “sailed” together with them. With whom could you compare him in terms of the degree of influence, perhaps?
Viktor Yampolsky: According to my feelings, in music the importance and reputation of Rachmaninoff as a brilliant Russian composer and pianist surpassed all visiting artists, and over the years it has even grown.
T-i: Why is Rachmaninoff usually called “the most Russian composer”?
VY: It depends on what you consider the most Russian. One can consider the one who included the most folk melodies in his compositions to be the most Russian. Rachmaninoff was not a champion in this. But I see him as a successor of the Russian school of composition of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This is the idea of the synthesis of Western European composition techniques and culture in the compositions themselves with a Russian spiritual principle. It is spiritual, which is not always associated with folk music, but the spiritual, Orthodox principle is certainly heard there. Tchaikovsky began this fusion, synthesis, and Rachmaninoff continued it. And what distinguished him from all the others was that no one had such a gift for melodies.
He was a genius of wide, deep, flowing melody. Both in the second symphony and in his piano concerts, his lyrical flow is heard in the foreground. Next to him there were Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky and Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev - both modernists. And Rachmaninoff said goodbye to the nineteenth century for quite a long time, while his peers had already left for the twentieth. On the other hand, they were all then Russian composers in their own way.
T-i: Rachmaninoff’s work is usually divided into three periods. The last one, the third, is just from 1918 until his death in 1943. 1918 - the beginning of his emigration. How did emigration affect Rachmaninoff the composer?
VY: It had a terrible impact. He found himself thrown out of his home. Instead of creativity, he had to earn money. After all, Rachmaninov always hesitated a little in three areas: in composition, conducting and playing the piano. But when the revolution threw him out of his native environment, he lost the foundation on which his music grew. He became homeless, he had to feed his family, and he made a choice: he became a concert pianist. He began to work really hard, playing solo concerts, with an orchestra. As a result, his life turned into a continuous tour - from one place to another, from one country to another country. After all, he played more than a thousand solo concerts. Believe me, it was very difficult for him to live like that. But this is how he became outstanding, one of the best pianists of the twentieth century.
T-i: What, in your opinion, is the most outstanding work Rachmaninov composed outside Russia?
Viktor Yampolsky: The best work is “Symphonic Dances”, which he created at the end of his life. With this phenomenal thing he struck the final chord. It’s like Mozart, who with his “Jupiter” symphony said: this is how I can compose, just try it! And so far no one has succeeded, by the way. In the “Symphonic Dances” two currents are heard in parallel. One is Orthodox, associated with the chants of the Russian Orthodox Church. It appears in almost all of his melodies at very close intervals of seconds and thirds. And the second is the ancient Gregorian chant Dies Irae.
It is interesting that Rachmaninoff’s use of his own piano playing techniques, in particular bells and alarms, in the orchestration turned the orchestral sound into a gigantic church choir and organ.
T-i: War is a time for inventorying valuables. Often compatriots, no matter whether they are in Russia or outside it, ask the question: how would one or another of our intellectual authorities react to this situation? For example, what would Rostropovich do now? Where would he be? Who would he be with? Or Vysotsky? Or Brodsky? Or Solzhenitsyn? For Rachmaninoff’s generation, the Second World War became such a testing time. Then some representatives of the White emigration: Zinaida Gippius, Vladimir Merezhkovsky, Nina Berberova - supported Hitler in the hope that he would defeat Stalin. Others, on the contrary, despite their dislike of Soviet power, believed that it was necessary to help Stalin defeat fascism. Writer Gaito Gazdanov, for example, being a soldier in Wrangel’s army in his youth, in the 1940s he joined the Resistance movement in Paris and rescued fugitive Soviet officers in the occupied territory of France. Rachmaninoff also took a clear position on this issue. What do you think determined this choice?
VY: I think that the position of Russian emigrants on such big philosophical issues was connected, in general, not entirely with a political position, but with what they were aware of and what they were not. We all really support our homeland. But some of us know more about what the Soviets did and what they led Russia to. And some lived in their own world, more romantic and abstract, and did not really know reality.
But we now understand what a catastrophe happened to Russia with the death of the empire. After all, it still can’t get out of this situation; it’s still in a deepest pit. And I don’t see a way out of this. And now I’m already reading articles about how many parts Russia will split into and where it will go, for example, the Asian part or Siberia, and how much China will seize, and so on.
T-i: Yes, the plot about the collapse of the empire is closely connected with the war in Ukraine and with the imperial discourse, which in many ways determined the possibility of this war. Therefore, all over the world there is a rethinking of attitudes towards Russian culture. This is a big challenge for all specialists in Russian studies: for sociologists, for cultural studies, for Slavic scholars, specialists in Russian literature. Does this mean that there will be a similar revision in relation to Russian composers? And the work of the same Rachmaninoff will be rethought and revalued?
VY: I think this process is natural. But I wouldn’t say it’s a rethink. For me this is a deepening. When we begin to consider a certain idea and study it, it leads to a deepening of our knowledge.
T-i: Will Rachmaninoff pass this test?
VY: Absolutely! Sure! Because his music expresses the deepest features of the Russian soul. And I’m not sure that he knew this well, because very often a young man does not know the depth of his talent. But now we see that its significance in Russian music is absolutely incredible.
T-i: What metaphor could you use to describe the figure of Rachmaninoff in your musical world?
Viktor Yampolsky: For me, he is Moses, whose bush was burning in his hands. His fire burned, but did not diminish.
T-i: Did Rachmaninov have followers?
VY: I think they were. There were composers who followed his traditions and used his methods. Firstly, this is Myaskovsky, who loved his music very much. And although he was very close to Prokofiev, in terms of his theoretical principles in composition, he, of course, was not with Prokofiev, but, on the contrary, followed Rachmaninoff.
The second person who loved Rachmaninov very much and really grew up on his foundation was Georgy Sviridov. All his magnificent choral music, for example, “Poem in Memory of Sergei Yesenin,” was closely connected with the choral works of Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff. I can’t say that this is some kind of copy, no! But one senses respect for the direction of his choral music.
T-i: Did Rachmaninoff influence Shostakovich?
VY: No, they belonged to completely different musical eras. Shostakovich began to take his first steps as a composer already in the Soviet country. Rachmaninoff at that moment was an emigrant, deliberately forgotten by the Soviet authorities. Therefore, they did not have a personal acquaintance. And when Shostakovich finally began to turn to Rachmaninoff’s music, he was already a completely independent composer with his own musical language. And therefore, for him, this influence of Rachmaninoff could only be on the intellectual level, but not on the composer level. But there was, for example, Gliere, extremely respected by both Prokofiev and Shostakovich. However, Gliere, like Rachmaninoff, was looking back at that time.
T-i: Could Rachmaninoff be a classic for them?
VY: Absolutely! Just like Tchaikovsky.
T-i: Didn’t it seem archaic to Soviet composers?
VY: No, under no circumstances. You used an interesting word – archaic. The fact is that music is such an interesting thing (if you can call it a “thing”) that it knows no time. We like music and at this moment we may not realize that this is music of the 18th, 19th, 20th or 21st centuries. At this point, it doesn’t matter to us when it was composed. For example, here we are listening to “Symphonic Dances” – it doesn’t scare us that it was composed at a time when Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were already in the next world. (Laughs). They have already composed all of modernism. But we don’t care. All the same, Rachmaninoff is Rachmaninoff. We do not compare it to a specific year. There is some kind of cultural irony in this, since sometimes time is too local, but music never is.
T-i: Rachmaninoff left Russia deliberately because he had, as Lenin said, “antagonistic contradictions” with the Soviet regime. And now many of those who leave Russia do so precisely because of ideological, absolutely irreconcilable contradictions. What can Rachmaninoff’s experience teach today’s Russian emigration?
Viktor Yampolsky: I would say in one sentence: your mailing address does not play any role in who you are. It could be Switzerland, Australia, the North Pole, but if you are Russian, bring everything with you. Take everything with you…
T-i: Rachmaninoff carried Russian music, despite the fact that he lived in America for 25 years?
VY: Of course. This happened to me in 1973, when I suddenly found myself on the streets of Rome, going to the American consulate. And when I found out that we were already getting ready to board a plane to the United States, I said to myself and my family: “I am going to America as a Russian emigrant and I will die there as a Russian emigrant”. Fifty years have already passed, and I believe that I definitely realized this then. My address is now in Toronto, but that doesn’t matter to me. Because anyway, I am who I am. And for me, the Moscow Conservatory and Herzen Street (now it has a different name) have not gone away. Still, I see myself there, and I see all these corners and buildings. Together with them, all the feelings that flowed through my consciousness between the Merzlyakov School and the Moscow Conservatory are alive. Leningrad has not disappeared, there I studied conducting. Russia lives in me every day.
T-i: The same as she lived in Rachmaninoff?
VY: Exactly! I remember when Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky came to Moscow for his 80th birthday in the 1960s, he walked for a long time near the conservatory, examined the buildings, pointed with his finger and said whose house it was: “This was the house of Count Yusupov. This was the house of Count Tolstoy”. He saw all these houses in his memory as they remained, and we went completely crazy: a person who knows whose house it was before the revolution - can you imagine?!
T-i: When Rachmaninoff came to the States, he had the opportunity to support himself with concerts, he lived in an era when not only in Russia, but even in the West, the entire educated part of the population breathed classical music. It was impossible to imagine an educated family without classical music. Therefore, Rachmaninoff’s audience was large, but there were few musicians of this caliber. The economics of the music industry of that period allowed musicians to survive professionally. And Rachmaninoff is an example of this. A hundred years have passed. The situation has changed. On the one hand, the number of musicians has increased significantly. And their audience, on the contrary, has greatly decreased, partly turning into musical ghettos. They exist in large cities, but they are very narrow groups of the population. In this regard, naturally, the most gloomy predictions about the future of classical music appear. And then a few years ago a sensational book appeared Norman Lebrechton the end of classical music. The author actually predicts its end precisely for economic reasons. What do you think about this?
Viktor Yampolsky: I think that music will not die, but will transform. It’s like in physics: energy does not disappear. It simply passes from one form to another, but does not disappear. We see it clearly in the audience in concert halls. The fact is that in Rachmaninoff’s time, if a person wanted to listen to music, he had to go to a concert hall. And now he doesn’t have to go to the concert hall. He turns on his screen, and he can listen to any piece he wants…
T-i: …in the car?
VY: Yes, he can listen wherever he wants. But someone should record this music in the studio for him so that he can compare different performances. The process of transmitting musical information has changed greatly. That’s where the people who are able to perceive this musical information will come from, that’s another question… Nowadays it is difficult to maintain cultural connections between generations. When Rachmaninoff came to the United States, he immediately received a contract for 25 recitals, because at that time people who came from Europe lived in large cities in the eastern United States. These were people of musical European culture. Even I, when I arrived, noticed that in every house there was a piano. But this is the result of European emigration. In the USA at that time there was an audience ready to listen to Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff. And the same thing happened to Prokofiev, who also toured a lot.
But now everything has changed a lot. And the main thing that worries me most is the bridge: the connection between the present and the past. We could not imagine our life without knowledge of our history, our past, connection with our ancestors. But in the “new world” this is not the case. People who have no predecessors live here. Therefore, it is not clear why they need classical music at all.
Text: Olga ORLOVA
Olga Orlova 22.09.2023