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Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music by…
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Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (1956)

by Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda

Other authors: Sophia Satina (Contributor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff A Lifetime in Music Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, with the assistance of Sophia Satina With a new introduction by David Butler Cannata An indispensable and captivating document, now back in print! Throughout his career as composer, conductor, and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was an intensely private individual. When Bertensson and Leyda's 1956 biography appeared, it lifted the veil of secrecy from several areas of Rachmaninoff's life, especially concerning the genesis of his compositions and how their critical reception affected him. The authors consulted a number of people who knew Rachmaninoff, who worked with him, and who corresponded with him. Even with the availabilty of such sources and full access to the Rachmaninoff Archive at the Library of Congress, Bertensson, Leyda, and were tireless in their pursuit of privately held documents, particularly correspondence. The wonderfully engaging product of their labors masterfully incorporates primary materials into the narrative. Almost half a century after it first appeared, this volume remains essential reading. Sergei Bertensson, who knew Rachmaninoff, published other works on music and film, often with a documentary emphasis. Jay Leyda wrote extensively on Russian music and film, as well as on American literature. David Butler Cannata is Professor of Music at Boyer College of Music, Temple University. Sophia Satina was Rachmaninoff's sister-in-law and cousin. Russian Music Studies--Malcolm Hamrick Brown, founding editor… (more)

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Sergei Bertensson
Jay Leyda

Sergei Rachmaninoff:
A Lifetime in Music

Indiana University Press, Paperback, 2002.

8vo. liv+464 pp. Introduction by David Butler Cannata, 2000 [ix-xlix]. Preface by the authors [li-liv]. Notes, Appendices and Indexes [pp. 387-464]

First published, 1956.
First paperback edition with new Introduction, 2002.

Contents

Introduction by David Butler Cannata
Preface
Prologue

PART I

1. Zverev and His Cubs
2. A New Family
3. Aleko and ''Free Artist"
4. Deaths and Failure
5. Second Concerto
6. Imperial Theater
7. Operas and Projects
8. Dresden
9. Europe
10. First American Tour
11. "Re" and The Bells
12. War and Night Vigil

PART II

13. Virtuoso
14. Ties with Russia
15. The Composer Resumes
16. Work and Rest
17. Exile Reinforced
18. Senar and Rapsodie
19. The "Russian" Symphony
20. The Composer Rebuffed
21. Retreat from Europe
22. Symphonic Dances
23. California

Notes on the Text
Appendix 1. Works
Appendix 2. Rachmaninoff's Work on Record
Index

==================================================​

This book is supposed to be a biography of Rachmaninoff written by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda. In fact, it is neither.

This book is actually a collection of excerpts from letters, mostly but not only Rachmaninoff's own, occasionally interspersed with authorial comments which chiefly show that the authors are very indifferent writers indeed. Really, it should have been called "Rachmaninoff: A Life in Letters". Many of the sources (which include a number of reviews as well) are haphazardly selected and quoted at inordinate length, including many insignificant details that should have been omitted. The letters are meticulously documented, but it is seldom that their content is examined critically by the authors. Musical or biographical analyses of Rachmaninoff's works are even rarer and, when present, painfully pedestrian; the same goes for his activities as pianist and conductor.

Although the book is ogranised in a chronological way, the continuity of the narrative (if that is the word) is often disrupted; even the current year printed in the upper part of every page doesn't help the matter. Rachmaninoff's friends, family and ancestors are all shadowy figures that never even approach anything like life on the pages, and so is the historical background of his times. On top of all that, it is difficult to imagine duller and drier writing style, too. It is very seldom that the authors express any opinion or show a trace of sense of humour, such as the charming remark that in one of his reviews the acerbic critic Cesar Cui ''drafted Rachmaninoff's artistic death warrant''.

In a nutshell, it is beyond me how other readers could find the book absorbing. For my part, it was a chore of colossal dullness.

On the positive side, the book is a good starting point for those seriously interested in Rachmaninoff's life and personality. In addition to the basic events in his life, clumsily related in between, the numerous excerpts from letters present a vivid picture of Rachmaninoff's mind and its development through the years, even if one is left to draw all conclusions alone. The young Rachmaninoff emerges as a compelling mixture of painful shyness and a most remarkable for his age self-assurance. He often appears selfish and petty, but it is not difficult to see that behind the callous façade there is an extremely sensitive and high-strung inidividual whose greatest longing was for human affection. It might come as a surprise to some that Rachmaninoff also had a fine sense of humour, quite developed in his teens, though later in his life it became more incisive. It is no less amazing to learn about his essential insecurity that tortured him all his life, including his most successful seasons as a piano virtuoso, to say nothing of his dispassionate self-criticism which was responsible for many revisions of works, not all of them improvements however. For anybody who has listened to, and loved, some of Rachmaninoff's finest compositions, it is clear beyond any doubt that he must often have been victim of deep melancholia and brooding depressions, occasionally brightened by an acute sense of fun. But it is quite another story to find out how closely all that is expressed in his letters as well.

Yes, the book is highly revealing about Rachmaninoff's character, including some of his relationships with other great men such as Tchaikovsky, Chekhov or Chaliapin. There are even few riveting accounts of eye-witnesses, such as those unforgettable parties at which Rachmaninoff, normally dour, taciturn and shy, laughed his head off and played the piano until 5 a.m., while Chaliapin sang everything from opera arias to gypsy songs.

I only wish the authors had taken the trouble to explore in depth the wealth of insights from Rachmaninoff's letters and to try to put his personality in the context of his life and works. Alas, they chose the laziest possible way: one quote after another, plus minimum comment of little importance. For example, in one early letter Rachmaninoff mentions, with great determination, that he was going to get married but we never learn anything more about that. The numerous mental states he refers to are almost always left hanging in the air. Nor is the historical background any better presented. The reasons for Rachmaninoff's leaving Russia for good after the Revolution are ''discussed'' in a rarely inept and perfunctory way. Considering that this was by far the single most traumatizing event in Rachmaninoff's life, such superficial treatment is inexcusable. The warm friendship he enjoyed later with Vladimir Horowitz is equally badly neglected.

The gravest fault of the book - leaving aside its dullness - is that no serious attempt, indeed no attempt at all, has been made to analyse Rachmaninoff's stature as a composer, pianist and conductor. For the most part, there is nothing more than phone-register stuff: during the summer he composed this and that, during the winter he played this and that, on this and that date he appeared as a conductor in this and that work. Seldom is there anything more than that, and when there is the chances are that it is not worth reading. The ill-fated First Symphony, for instance, is subject to only a few lines of psychological nonsense about its supposedly programmatic character. At one place, to take another example, it is mentioned that Rachmaninoff played his Second Concerto in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic as if it was a most ordinary concert. Being obviously incapable to do justice to their subject, Messrs Bertensson and Leyda resorted to their favourite method: endless quotations of reviews and opinions of others. These are so full of purple patch and pure vitriol that it is very difficult to capture the few perceptive bits they do contain.

The book is illustrated with few photographs of indifferent quality.

This new paperback edition comes with a much too long and excruciatingly tedious introduction by David Butler Cannata. He explores the lives of the authors and the history of the volume in way too excessive detail. Mr Cannata's justification is that the former are fascinating personalities and the latter is still the finest biography of Rachmaninoff there is. Well, if anything, he perfectly fails to convince me that there was anything at all remarkable in either Bertensson or Leyda, and his first footnote mentions several books on Rachmaninoff published since which supersede completely this one (more about that in the last paragraph).

The first of the appendices is a fairly useful list of works if one wants to know what and when Rachmaninoff composed, whom he dedicated it to or when it was published. The discography in Appendix 2 does not seem to have been updated at all since 1956. To say that it's dated is a monumental understatement; why it should have been reprinted here at all I have not the least idea. Pretty much the same is true for the list of Rachmaninoff's own recordings which lacks any explanation why some tantalising items were never issued. It would have been great if these discographies, Rachmaninoff's own and that of his music played by others, had been thoroughly updated and annotated for this new reprint. This would have increased the otherwise slender value of the book.

In their prefatory note to the completely obsolete discography the authors flatly, and stupidly, declare that they consider Rachmaninoff's recordings of his own works as authoritative. This is precisely what this attempt for a biography is not. At best, it is a basic introduction to Rachmaninoff's life and personality, occasionally insightful but often excruciatingly dull. The best that can be said about this book is that it is well, though awkwardly, documented and probably very reliable in terms of quoted material. Apart from many perceptive touches as regards to Rachmaninoff's mystical mentality that have to be sieved through enormous amount of trivia, it tells next to nothing about his works and significance as composer, his careers as pianist and conductor, or his recorded legacy. Needless to say, mature understanding of all these areas is crucial if we want to have at least a glimpse into the artist Rachmaninoff.

Since 1956 a number of studies on all these subjects have appeared, and it is safe to say that the comprehensive ones by Barrie Martyn (Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor, 1990) and Max Harrison (Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings, 2005) completely supersede on all fronts the lame attempt of Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda. Their book is still worth having as reference for this or that letter by the composer. But as a biographical study it is perfectly dispensable. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jul 4, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bertensson, Sergeiprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Leyda, Jaymain authorall editionsconfirmed
Satina, SophiaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cannata, David ButlerPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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