Nostalgia in the musical language of the late Russian Romantics

by , under Rachmaninoff's Cape

Colleagues and friends in Oxford attended, with me, the recent Met Opera performance of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. The opera opens with its heroine and her nurse in their secluded cottage deep in the Russian forest. Iolanta laments her condition – what condition? She sees nothing and knows nothing except that eyes are for crying. Yet she harbours a presentiment that nothing is right: Iolanta is longing for something but does not know what. Unaware she is blind, she has known nothing but her present condition in which she has dwelled all her life. Even her nurse is imbued with a similar nostalgia-for-the-unnamed in which Iolanta lingers. The music’s melodic line and vocabulary demonstrate how familiar Tchaikovsky was with the language of nostalgia in the nineteenth-century fin-de-si├Ęcle.

So too was Rachmaninoff. The contemporary listener absorbs these opening fifteen minutes of Tchaikovsky’s opera in awe of nostalgia’s power in Imperial Russia. The whole aristocracy, it seems, is pining for some lost Russia, crying their eyes out. How then can Rachmaninoff’s story have been told in English as long ago as 1956 – 59 years ago! – sans nostalgia as a primary force? Sergei Bertenssen’s excellent biography collects the facts and hoovers them into an impressive thick tome, so stuffed with details that the main lines of Rachmaninoff’s life – the life feeding into his musical language – are lost in a thick jungle of fact without point and emphasis.

Unlike Iolanta, Rachmaninoff knew what he was longing for: Russia. He had eyes, was not blind to his great loss – and love. When an artistic creator loses his country, its effect on his creative imagination can be catastrophic (Odysseus, Chopin, Walter Benjamin, Adorno?). The Rachmaninoff whose music many of us love so much continued to tell his close correspondents about the magnitude of his loss. I quote some jewel-specimens in Rachmaninoff’s Cape. This is why, in part, it is ‘a nostalgia memoir’. But the memoir is also Evelyn’s story, as readers will see beginning on March 26, and my story too.

Evelyn longed for ‘Rachmaninoff’ because he was larger than life and embodied everything she had lost: concert career, concert-cellist son, husband. And me? I too ‘lost my country’ when I emigrated from the USA to UK. Except that I am unaware of nostalgia for America, where I can be in 8 hours on a jet. I wrote Rachmaninoff’s Cape to understand the differences of three altogether different characters.

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