Rachmaninoff at 150: Not an easy interview, that Sergei (but who would be, over breakfast?)

One thing I’ve discovered in reading a lot about Sergei Rachmaninoff over the last few months is that while he led a rich inner life, he didn’t really like to talk much about it. Interviews with him tended to be taciturn affairs, or they would be exercises in frustration for the interviewer in which the subject would avoid any topic that might be of interest to anyone but the subject.

Here’s a case in point that ran in a Minneapolis newspaper one hundred years ago!


Rachmaninoff Likes Yankee Griddle Cakes, Scorns Eggs

Russian Pianist More Interested In Breakfast Than In Interview

The name of Sergei Rachmaninoff is written high in the gallery of modern musical immortals–but as he stirred his coffee at breakfast this morning in the Radisson hotel, and liberally deluged his stack of wheat cakes with maple syrup, there was nothing of the great artist about him except for his long, graceful fingers. Tonight, at the Audtorium, those same fingers will do incredible things on the piano. This morning, they grasped a coffee spoon with firmness, and stirred the contents of the cup until the coffee slopped out into the saucer.

Rachmaninoff, pianist-composer, is about as easy to interview as a Russian blizzard. He arrived at 7:30 a.m. today from Winnipeg, and at 8:30 he was still in a state of complete frigidity, so far as interviewers were concerned. It was not that the famous artist was discourteous, but simple that he appears to have a sincere distaste for being interviewed.

Likes Minnesota Pancakes

He answers questions in monosyllables whenever possivle. Only twice did he show signs of loquacity–and then not about himself, but about his personal friend Bruno Walter of Vienna, orchestra conductor who will direct the symphony orchestra a week from Friday night, and about his other conductor-friend, Henri Verbrugghen.

“Walter is a superb conductor,” said Rachmaninoff. “I expected to meet him here, but learned to my disappointment that he will not arrive for a week.”

After this burst of gossip, Rachmaninoff busied himself again with his pancakes, and took a tentative spoonful of soft boiled egg. He pushed the egg cup away.

“Your pancakes in Minnesota are all right, but I cannot say as much for the eggs,” said Rachmaninoff. “Your soil here, too, is remarkable fertile.”

Wants to Tour Lakes

This observation, in view of the fact that the soil hereabouts is covered with a foot, more or less of now, seemed rather far-fetched until Rachmaninoff, forgetting his reticence again, explained that he learned all about soil when he was personally managing his estate in Russia. He has been in Minnesota in the summer, and expects to come back next summer, if possible, for a month or so of vacation in the state of pines and lakes.

“Do you drive?” he was asked.

“Always,” replied the composer, with the greatest vigor he displayed during the entire interview. “Do you think I would trust myself to a chauffeur? Indeed not. I have no use for them, and if I tour Minnesota, I will drive every foot of the way myself.”

Again the great Russian, who has been living in New York since the revolution exiled him from his native land, applied himself to his pancakes, and further questions elicited nothing but sounds which, coming from a less distinguished personage, would have been called grunts.

Thanks to Fillyjonk for calling this to my attention! I’ve had the picture opened in a tab for about six weeks now.

My favorite part of this is when Rachmaninoff starts to open up on the subject of driving. Rachmaninoff loved cars and would often go on long drives to calm his no-doubt jangled nerves. In this he has a major point of commonality with another of my heroes, George Lucas. This particular degree of being less-than-open for an interviewer does seem a bit extreme, even for Rachmaninoff, so one wonder just what the interviewer’s in-person deportment might have been like; the resulting article, while amusing, does seem to walk right up to the line of being rather, wall, jerkish.

But you know, I’m not sure how willing to talk I would be if someone was asking me questions while I was trying to enjoy a stack of hot pancakes, either!

It’s worth remembering, too, that Rachmaninoff was as renowned in his day as a performer as he was a composer, if not even moreso, so here’s a recording of Rachmaninoff performing not his own music, but a Nocturne by Chopin. (Opus 9, No. 2 in E-flat Major, if you must know. This is one of Chopin’s most famous works, and one with which I struggled mightily in my piano playing days. The runs in the last few pages just would not inhabit my fingers at all.)


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