Rachmaninoff's Complete Songs
A Companion with Texts and Translations
Publication Year: 2014
Sergei Rachmaninoff--the last great Russian romantic and arguably the finest pianist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries--wrote 83 songs, which are performed and beloved throughout the world. Like German Lieder and French mélodies, the songs were composed for one singer, accompanied by a piano. In this complete collection, Richard D. Sylvester provides English translations of the songs, along with accurate transliterations of the original texts and detailed commentary. Since Rachmaninoff viewed these "romances" primarily as performances and painstakingly annotated the scores, this volume will be especially valuable for students, scholars, and practitioners of voice and piano.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Russian Music Studies
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
The Moscow public first learned of a young composer named Sergei Rachmaninoff in the spring of 1893, when the Bolshoi Theater announced production of his one-act opera Aleko. He was known before that to insiders at the Moscow Conservatory, where he performed some of his early piano works. An opera, however, based on Alexander Pushkin’s brilliant narrative...
A Note on Dates and Spelling
Before 1918, the Julian Calendar (“Old Style”) was used in Russia and is still used by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Gregorian Calendar (“New Style”) was adopted in February 1918: this moved the calendar ahead by thirteen days, or twelve in the 19th century. Dates in this book are given in Old Style if the event took place in Russia before 1918, and in New Style if outside Russia or after 1918...
List of Abbreviations
Early Years (1873–1892)
Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born into a gentry family of modest means in the spring of 1873, on a family estate near Novgorod. He spent his early boyhood in that flat river and lake country in the far north with its long winter nights and its white nights in summer, near the Volkhov River and Lake Ilmen, the scene of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko. Novgorod is the oldest city in...
Nine Unpublished Songs (1890–1899)
Like several other Russian composers, Rachmaninoff was drawn to this lyric of Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841) by the powerful and original way it expresses rejection, “best feelings” spurned, in the image of the beggar by the monastery gates who asks for a piece of bread and is handed a stone. It is a scene easily imagined by a Russian reader; in fact, as we know from the memoirs of Yekaterina...
First Published Songs, Opus 4 (1893)
Word of a new talent named Rachmaninoff spread quickly. The music publisher Karl Gutheil approached him with an offer to publish Aleko and pay him a fee of 500 rubles for it. He also bought two pieces for cello and piano, Op. 2, and the first set of songs, Op. 4. It was a large sum, but there were delays in getting the money to him, so he took a job giving piano lessons in the summer of...
Sophia Satina tells us that Rachmaninoff wrote this song at one sitting, as an improvisation on the piano. The musical phrases are a perfect match for the words. The first line of text is like a title to what follows, an introductory phrase “centered on a pivotal note (F), a prominent feature of much of Rachmaninoff’s...
Six Romances, Opus 8 (1893)
At the end of September 1893, Rachmaninoff’s teacher Nikolai Zverev died suddenly in Moscow: “We buried him yesterday. We’re awfully sorry,” he wrote the Skalon sisters on 3 October (LN 1, 227). At about the same time in Paris the poet Aleksei Pleshcheyev (1825–1893) died and was brought back to Moscow...
For the first song in the set, Rachmaninoff chose Heine’s lyric “Die schlanke Wasserlilie” (The slender water lily). A shy maiden and her lovesick swain are figured in images of a water lily looking up at the silvery moon, and then looking down at his pale reflection mirrored in the water. The nouns for lily and moon are feminine and masculine in both the German and Russian texts...
Twelve Romances, Opus 14 (1896)
With the death of Tchaikovsky in October 1893, “my career, which had begun so promisingly with Tchaikovsky’s support, came to a halt” (Rachmaninoff’s “Dictated Reminiscences,” LN I, 54). Tchaikovsky had encouraged him, attending rehearsals of his opera at the Bolshoi Theater and showing his enthusiastic approval after the performance. Tchaikovsky persuaded the...
Any Russian speaker who has ever heard Rachmaninoff’s songs recognizes this song immediately because the basic musical phrase of the song is made out of the first three words, and these words are a common phrase everyone uses on a daily basis in Russian. In English, we might say “I’ll wait for you” or “I’ll be waiting for you” or “I’ll expect you” or “I’ll see you then,” depending on the...
Twelve Romances, Opus 21 (1902)
A period of nearly six years fell between the Opus 14 romances and Rachmaninoff’s next set of songs. The interval itself was not unusual, and in future there would be a space of four to six years between sets of songs: Op. 26 (1906), Op. 34 (1912), and Op. 38 (1916). But during this 1896–1902 period a serious crisis in Rachmaninoff’s life as a composer, a crisis brought on by...
The impulse behind this song came to Rachmaninoff more than two years before he wrote the other songs in the opus. It stands apart from them in its length (it is his longest song), in its conception as a dramatic monologue demanding “theatrical as well as vocal skills of the highest order” (Martyn, 122), and in its performance history, sung as it was on many occasions by Chaliapin...
Song 46, Without Opus (1900)
Unlike Songs 1 through 9, which Rachmaninoff chose not to publish, he did approve the publication of the present song in a charity anthology to benefit widows and orphans of musicians in Moscow. The paper on which the fair copy was made was used by the composer in the second half of 1900, and the manuscript bears that date, but the song was probably composed earlier in...
Fifteen Romances, Opus 26 (1906)
When, at the end of their honeymoon in July 1902, Sergei and Natalia Rachmaninoff arrived in Bayreuth for the Wagner festival, they joined a party of fellow Russians led by Konstantin Stanislavsky (on Rachmaninoff’s relationship with Stanislavsky, see Song 62). Together they visited Liszt’s grave, met Cosima Wagner, and attended performances of...
Rachmaninoff begins Opus 26 with this slow Adagio in D-flat major. The song gave a cheerless start to the concert when the Kerzins premiered the new songs in February 1907. Tchaikovsky’s colleague, Nikolai Kashkin, who was present, found it disappointing. Reviewing it, he wrote that its “declamatory manner” was ill-suited to a lyric that calls for “an integral poetic mood”...
Song 62, Without Opus (1908)
The professional friendship between Rachmaninoff and Konstantin Stanislavsky, who was ten years his senior, goes back to 1897, when the composer got his first conducting job in Savva Mamontov’s private opera company. They got to know each other better in Yalta in the spring of 1900, seeing Chekhov every day, and by the time they met in Bayreuth for Wagner’s...
Fourteen Romances, Opus 34 (1912–1915)
In October 1906 Rachmaninoff moved with Natalia and their daughter Irina to Dresden, where they lived for the next three years, visiting Russia rarely except in the summers, which he always spent at his Ivanovka estate. Dresden was more costly than Moscow, but they found a sunny townhouse where he could work undisturbed. He attended a production of Richard Strauss’s...
For the Greek and Roman poets, and their successors in the Western tradition, it is through the “muse,” as everyone knows, that the poetic word is transmitted from its source of inspiration, divine and all-knowing, to the mortal poet, who renders it in the human language of an earthly time and place. Music and poetry come through her; she is descended from Mnemosyne, the goddess...
Song 77, Without Opus (1914)
This song, more like one of Brahms’s “serious songs” on Biblical texts than a Russian romance, was written to honor the fallen soldiers of the Russian army after the outbreak of World War I. That event, which took place on 19 July 1914 (Old Style) at 4 p.m. Moscow time, turned out to mark the beginning of the end for the Russian empire...
Six Poems, Opus 38 (1916)
Nearly a year into the war, the sudden death of Alexander Scriabin on 14 April 1915 came as a cruel shock to the whole nation. Attempts to lance an abscessed boil on Scriabin’s upper lip gave him blood poisoning, and three days later he was dead at the age of forty-three...
As soon as he read the text of this song, Rachmaninoff found music in it waiting to be written down. “It’s remarkable,” he told Marietta Shaginian, “that this Armenian poet has such a musical feeling for nature. If every poet writing about nature could do what he does, then we musicians would simply have to touch the text—and the song would be ready”...
After Russia (1917–1943)
When the Romanov dynasty fell in February 1917, Rachmaninoff finished the spring concert season in various Russian cities, donating part of his earnings to the soldiers of “my now liberated country” (B/L, 204). In April he went to his estate in Ivanovka to oversee the spring sowing. He found chaos there, as a fanatical group of SRs (members of the Social Revolutionary Party) from...
Two Sacred Songs (1916)
After drafting the Opus 38 songs, Rachmaninoff evidently gave to Nina Koshetz the pencil sketches to two “sacred” songs. After Koshetz died in 1965, her daughter Marina Koshetz (1912–2001) donated them to the Rachmaninoff collection in the Library of Congress in 1970. She published them in 1973, indicating that they were “originally intended to form part” of the opus...
Index of Singers
Index of Song Titles in Russian
Index of Song Titles in English
Index of Names