The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
© Richard Freed

In February 1912, Rachmaninoff received a fan letter. Nothing unusual in that, since he was then at the pinnacle of his renown in Russia, but this one was signed, mysteriously, "Re" -- the second note of the scale -- and struck a deeply responsive chord in him: "Why does a certain sad impression emanate from your letter," he wrote in reply. Even before Rachmaninoff discovered that the writer was Marietta Shaginyan, a 23-year-old aspiring poet and journalist from Moscow, a regular correspondence began between them, his letters revealing a surprising insight into his feelings of self-doubt at that time (his recent series of Scriabin recitals had been poorly received and he was increasingly worried that he was failing to fulfill his youthful promise), hers offering encouragement as well as gentle chiding about the quality of the texts he had set in his earlier songs and suggesting some others that he might consider. He followed her literary advice for several numbers in his Op. 34 Songs, composed during the summer of 1912, and carefully considered the anthology of poems that she sent him four years later, fifteen by Lermontov, 26 by contemporary Russian poets. He selected six of those verses, all by living writers -- Blok (a translation from the Armenian poet Isaakian), Bely, Severyanin, Bryusov, Sologub and Balmont -- and set them in September 1916 as his Songs, Op. 38.

Rachmaninoff matched the poets' Symbolist tendencies with music of decided modernity, touched by Impressionism and often ambiguous in harmony, and entrusted the piano with much of the weight of the emotional expression. "The accompanist was the center of the evening," wrote critic Yuli Engel of the premiere, given in Moscow by Rachmaninoff and soprano Nina Koshetz on October 24, 1916. "[He is] an incomparable artist who gave his compositions the flesh and blood of sound and kindled them with a vital breath." Rachmaninoff continued his correspondence with Shaginyan until he was forced to flee Russia the following year by the Revolution. (He never composed another song after leaving his beloved homeland.) Shaginyan went on to a distinguished career in Soviet letters, winning a Lenin Prize and writing many historical novels, including one about the Czech composer Josef Myslivecek; she unearthed two of his lost operas during her research. She died in Moscow in 1982.