Sergei Rachmaninoff in New York

by Emon Hassan on February 23, 2012

One of the most beautiful Piano Concertos I’ve ever heard is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which he’d written ending several years of depression and writer’s block. He dedicated the Concerto to Nikolai Dahl, the doctor who treated him. Decades later, Piano Concerto 2 would take an unusual “rebirth” in Eric Carmen’s ‘All By Myself’ (not the only Rachmaninoff piece he ‘rebirthed’). Strange, but true.

1918 wasn’t the first time Rachmaninoff had come to New York. Nine years earlier, he’d visited New York to introduce & perform the famous Piano Concerto No. 3, aka Rach 3 (and you thought I couldn’t get to use #3 to in this post, did you?). He’d rehearsed it on a silent keyboard aboard the ship that brought him here. The conductor, Walter Damrosch, who was known for his work as the conductor of Richard Wagner’s music. His, father, Leopold Damrosch, is one of the three people Franz Liszt ever dedicated a composition to. The other two, Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner. Leopold emigrated to New York in 1871 at the invitation of New York’s Arion Society, who, among many things, used to organize Summer Night’s Festivals in Lion Park over on 110th between 8 and 10 Ave. Can you imagine what it was like?

Pausing here for a sec. The Arion Society was a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln and had, 10 days after the death of the President, held a meeting to pay tribute to him, calling him “the liberator” and admiring “ABRAHAM LINCOLN, who had killed slavery, was a man who understood the people better than any other man”. The same meeting had a full-size portrait of the President and underneath a quote from a speech he’d given four years earlier: “Rather than sacrifice the liberties of the country, I would suffer assassination.”

Ok, back to Rachmaninoff. He had a successful career as a performer, not as a composer, during his stay in the States. Although he’d moved to New York in November 1918, Rachmaninoff didn’t become an American citizen until February 1943, almost two months prior to his death in Beverly Hills – four days before his 70th birthday.

Rachmaninoff was buried in Valhalla, New York, at Kensico Cemetery. Some of the biggest names in the entertainment and sports industry are buried in Kensico, Lou Gehrig among them. A portion of Kensico, in 1912, was sold to Gate of Heaven Cemetery, where Babe Ruth is buried.

Now now, I didn’t just drop in Richard Wagner’s name for nothing at the beginning. It has to tie in at the end, right? The naming of Valhalla, New York, where Kensico is located, was inspired by a fan of Wagner who shared the composer’s interest in Norse mythology.

Had fun? Good. I did. All the above came together simply because I found this doc on Rachmaninoff that started with him walking up to his apartment building in New York. Where the rest of the footage is from, I’m not sure.

This piece was originally posted on The Third Web Series blog.

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