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Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff and Smith College

On November 4, 1909 Sergei Rachmaninoff gave his first performance in the United States at Smith College, and in doing so began forging a connection with Smith that would endure beyond his death in 1943.

According to biographer Max Harrison, the 1909 concert was the first completely solo recital Rachmaninoff ever gave, despite his renown as a pianist by that date. Presented in the old Assembly Hall (now office space) in College Hall on a Mason and Hamlin piano as part of the Smith College Concert Course, the 1909 program consisted entirely of Rachmaninoff’s original compositions, including his Sonate in D minor, Op. 28. Also on the program were four character pieces – Mélodie, Humoresque, Barcarolle, and Polichinelle – and four Preludes, including the by then well-known Prelude in C-sharp minor from his Op. 3, Five Fantasy Pieces for Piano. Rachmaninoff substituted that last work for another Prelude on the evening of the performance, perhaps by popular demand. One Smith student who attended noted in her program that the C-sharp minor Prelude received “most hearty applause,” and another found it “…most interesting to me because I have had it.”

By the time he arrived in Northampton, the 36-year-old Rachmaninoff had distinguished himself not only as a pianist, but also as a conductor and composer. His first and second symphonies, first and second piano concertos, and the operas Aleko,The Miserly Knight, and Francesca da Rimini, were already written. The summer before setting out for the U.S., he completed both the tone poem “The Isle of the Dead” and his third piano concerto, a work he intended to premiere in New York. That new concerto was so much on his mind when he was in Northampton that he inscribed three measures of it with his signature in Smith College’s Distinguished Visitors Guestbook.

Rachmaninoff’s Smith College concert was the first of 26 U.S. appearances on that tour, 19 as pianist and 7 as conductor.Within weeks of his Northampton debut, Rachmaninoff introduced the Third Concerto in New York under Walter Damrosch’s baton, and repeated it in January 1910 under the direction of newly-appointed New York Philharmonic conductor Gustav Mahler at Carnegie Hall.

Rachmaninoff returned to perform at Smith College three times after 1909 – in 1921 (the same year he bought a house in New York), in 1928, and in 1941 (the year his Symphonic Dances premiered in Philadelphia and he bought a home in Beverly Hills). All three subsequent concerts took place in John M. Greene Hall, played on Steinway pianos.

In addition to welcoming Rachmaninoff’s artistry over three decades, Smith College would eventually welcome a member of his family. His cousin, sister-in-law, and a key source of biographical information about the composer, Sophie Satin, arrived at Smith in 1942 as a research associate to Professor Albert Francis Blakeslee in his Genetics Experimental Station. She became a Visiting Associate Professor of botany in 1945 and remained at Smith for ten more years.

Satin’s father Alexander had married Barbara A. Rachmaninoff, the daughter of a Tambov Province landowner, in the early 1870s, thereby linking the Satin and Rachmaninoff families. Satin spent most of her childhood at her family’s country estate, Ivanovka, some 300 miles from Moscow. Her first mention of her cousin Sergei Rachmaninoff in her memoirs was her recollection, “…one of our cousins was invited by Mother to join our family.”

For four student years, Rachmaninoff had been one of several pupils billeted with the Moscow piano teacher, Nikolai Zverev. His increasing drive to compose was hampered by the incessant dawn-to-dusk practising in Zverev’s apartment, however, and in 1889 he moved in with his “aunt Barbara” at Ivanovka. The bucolic setting offered a far more conducive atmosphere for composition, and provided a peaceful haven that Rachmaninoff yearned to recreate in later years in other countries. 10-year-old Sophie was delighted with their new lodger, as was her sister Natalya, whom Rachmaninoff married in 1902.

In 1903, Lenin and the Bolsheviks launched the political changes that would revolutionize Russia by 1917. Rachmaninoff, Natalya, and their two daughters, Irina and Tatyana, left Russia forever in the chaos of the 1917 October Revolution. Before his departure, he gave Sophie the keys to his desk and asked her “…if something happens…try to save the manuscript of [my] unpublished first symphony.” The Rachmaninoffs went first to Sweden to honor a contracted series of Scandinavian appearances. From there they traveled to America and settled in New York.

In 1920, the year Rachmaninoff secured a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company, Sophie left Russia behind. After signing a paper promising never to return to her homeland, she traveled to Dresden, where she could freely communicate with the Rachmaninoffs in America.

“My sister and her husband were established in New York,” Sophie recalled. “They insisted on my coming to America. My brother-in-law, the pianist and composer Rachmaninoff, was well-known in the U.S.A. and he obtained for me a temporary visa.” After an interminable day subjected to immigration questions and paperwork, Rachmaninoff and his wife were able to bundle Sophie into their car and sweep her away to New Jersey.

Sophie’s botanical training soon secured her a position at Cold Spring Harbor, where she met Professor Blakeslee, and in 1942, when he was invited to establish his Genetic Experimental Station in the botany branch of Smith College’s science department, Sophie accompanied him. Two years later she would receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the college. Sadly, “…in the spring of 1943, I was much aggrieved by the unexpected death of my dear brother-in-law Rachmaninoff,” Sophie recalled. “He and I were very close. From the time that he had moved in with us, I always considered him as my brother. He reciprocated that feeling.”

Sophie had maintained a close relationship with Rachmaninoff, attending concerts, corresponding with him, and collecting material about his activities. After his death, she began to serve as a consultant for journalists, historians, and others interested in his life and music. She remained at Smith College until the Genetics Station closed in 1955.

Clifton J. Noble, 2009 Written using material from the Smith College Archives.

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