How much do we need to know about a composer’s life?

by , under Rachmaninoff's Cape

In Rachmaninoff’s Cape I repeatedly raise this question: how much do we need to know? The answer is a great deal. For example, you cannot understand why Rachmaninoff compulsively repeats the Dies Irae theme – the death chant – unless you understand his childhood and extraordinary tie to ‘the old Russia’. These matters lead you to reassess his adulthood in relation to his childhood, as well as his sense of belonging to a specific biogeography – a ‘homeland.’ When Rachmaninoff told a French journalist in Paris in 1932 that ‘since leaving Russia’ he had little desire to compose, he meant something monumental for his career. Or when he revealed to a London journalist the same year that ‘since I lost my country, I have felt unable to compose’. He repeatedly made similar disclosures until the end of his life, emphasising the very eccentric point of view that a man without a country cannot create. How do we begin to understand this attitude? What are its biographical origins? My pairing of American-born Evelyn and Russian-born Rachmaninoff makes the point through incontrovertible contrast. We only understand Evelyn by decoding the weird narrative of her life. The same for Rachmaninoff, even for those of us narrowly concerned with his stylistic development and musical vocabulary.

Leave a Reply