Vocal Area Network logo VAN Feature

Chaliapin and Rachmaninoff
by Nikolai Kachanov for Vocal Area Network
Posted March 3, 2005

Chaliapin and RachmaninoffThe Russian Chamber Chorus of New York offers "Chaliapin and Rachmaninoff: A Celebration of Their Friendship" on Friday, March 4 and Saturday, March 5. Artistic Director Nikolai Kachanov provides background on these giants of Russian music.

Their names are widely known and loved throughout the world, but few of their devotees know how close and fruitful the collaboration between these two great artists was, despite the brief duration allotted to it by fate. The unique, multi-faceted talent of Feodor Chaliapin (famed for his abilities as an artist and sculptor as well as for his singing and acting) and the extraordinary musical gifts of Sergei Rachmaninoff (composer, pianist, conductor) came together many times in both their personal and creative lives. Rachmaninoff dedicated his vocal compositions to Chaliapin, accompanied the great singer, and was one of the few conductors whose directions Chaliapin followed without demur. As colleague and as friend, Rachmaninoff exerted a great influence on Chaliapin's development as a musician. On the other hand, Rachmaninoff might never have created many of his best vocal compositions without the inspiration of Chaliapin's phenomenal singing. Chaliapin was the first to perform many of Rachmaninoff's romances, and in 1899 he gave a masterful performance in the title role of Rachmaninoff's youthful one-act opera, Aleko (1892), which six years earlier had enjoyed a brilliant success upon its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre, and had won the warm approval of Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Even in his youth, the budding singer possessed exceptional musical intuition and an indefinable attraction to the theater. This inner yearning for artistic development brought Chaliapin into contact with the most gifted people of his time. He counted artists, actors, musicians and composers among his teachers; his circle included the best exponents of late 19th-early 20th century Russian art and culture. The creative and human bond between two characters as different from each other as Chaliapin's and Rachmaninoff's is all the more surprising in light of the exceptionally strong will and vivid, unique personality each of them possessed. A born actor and a fascinating human being, Chaliapin was the center of attention in any company. Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, was reserved and taciturn outside his intimate circle, shying away from correspondents, and even from new acquaintances. But in Chaliapin's presence he became a listener, delighting in the former's flow of stories and humor.

Rachmaninoff's famous outward unsociability was probably due in part to his constant inward process of creation; he was, so to speak, guarding his internal creative laboratory from outside interruptions. Reminiscing about the composition of Aleko, he wrote: "The moment I was given the libretto for Aleko I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me. I was afraid of losing even a minute… Burning with impatience, I felt already how the music for Pushkin's verses was rising and boiling over in me." The one-act opera -- nineteen-year-old Rachmaninoff's examination piece for his conservatory diploma -- was completed in just seventeen days! In 1893, when Aleko was produced at the Kiev Opera, Rachmaninoff mounted the conductor's podium for the first time. His performance style was characterized by austerity; he did "nothing extra," no superfluous gesture, but only what was required to achieve the musical goal. This outward reserve controlled, but could not contain, his "titanic temperament"; his inner creative fire poured itself into a stunning musical effect that deeply affected his listeners.

As his genius ripened, Rachmaninoff's three musical personae -- conductor, pianist, and composer -- shaped and enriched each other, but also sometimes came into conflict, as when he quit his job as a conductor in 1906 and traveled to Germany, hoping to concentrate on composition. In 1907 he was invited by Diaghilev to participate in the Russian symphonic concerts the latter was producing in Paris. There he performed his own Second Piano Concerto and conducted his cantata Spring with Chaliapin as the soloist. French critics were enchanted by his "threefold" aspect as a musician. In 1908 the Moscow Art Theater celebrated its tenth anniversary. Rachmaninoff sent an unusual musical greeting. His Letter to Stanislavsky, full of humor and musical wit, was performed for the famous director by Feodor Chaliapin. Konstantin Stanislavsky recalled, "Dear Konstantin Sergeyevich," he sang, "I congratulate you from a pure heart, from my very soul. For ten years you have gone forward, ever forward, and have found the 'Blue Bird'…" The great singer's powerful bass rang out in a melody based on the liturgical theme "Many Years," set to a playful accompaniment based on Ilya Satz's polka -- the theme music to the Theater's famous production of Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird. The combination of the solemn church motif and the childish polka made for an amusing whole.

The hierarchy among Rachmaninoff's musical selves was perceived differently in different countries. I remember, when we began to perform his Liturgy twenty years ago, for many concertgoers Rachmaninoff the composer was a surprise. Here in America, Rachmaninoff the pianist was more important. In the Russian mind, Rachmaninoff was always a composer foremost, then a pianist, and only thirdly a conductor. Of course, Rachmaninoff the virtuoso pianist had a strong influence on Rachmaninoff the composer! His famous Preludes, in which one senses the element of improvisation that Rachmaninoff had had at his command from his youth, are a good example of this. The piano accompaniments of his Romances, too, are unusually developed, reflecting the composer's own skill -- the piano part is not secondary but is a full partner to the vocal line. Sometimes it even plays a more fully worked-out emotional and dramatic role than the voice, expanding the traditional Russian romance beyond the conventional intimacy of the genre.

Rachmaninoff's contemporaries at the Moscow Conservatory saw their young classmate as an innovator, relishing the novelty of the harmonies in Aleko. Ideas of reform filled the air in Russia at this time, reaching even the sphere of music, where they attracted such composers as Stravinsky, Scriabin and Prokofiev and called for new musical concepts. Rachmaninoff, though, always stayed true to the "realistic" school of composition he inherited from his beloved teachers, Tchaikovsky in particular. This was perhaps part of the reason he took so strongly to Chaliapin, a performer always searching for profound realism in art. From the very beginning of his career, Chaliapin found it contradictory that a majority of opera singers tended to play themselves in every production, rather than embodying the image created by the composer. Chaliapin himself was able, while performing music with rigorous accuracy (he could sight-read quite complicated compositions with ease and precision) to vary his intonation "within the interval" in order to capture subtle shades of character, emotion, and meaning. In other words, his vocal and tonal image possessed not only crisp outlines, but rich colors as well. Here we find ourselves in the holy of holies of Chaliapin's performing genius, which cannot be fully understood without taking into account the fundamental value of the singer's voice -- its timbre or "palette." In Chaliapin's rendition it is impossible to conceive of a Mephistopheles aria and, say, one of Don Brasilio's as being the same color! Every piece, even the simplest Russian folk song, was carefully painted in the appropriate hues. I am sure that Chaliapin worked out a special spectrum for each role, each phrase, each intonation, selecting colors from his seemingly infinite array. He was concerned with performing not only as a singer, but as an actor. Stanislavsky wrote:

The opera singer has to contend not with one, but with three arts at once -- vocal, musical, and theatrical. In this reside both the difficulty and the advantages of his creative work. The problem lies in the varied processes of mastering the three arts, though, this done, the singer has a greater and more variable ability to act upon the audience than do we dramatic actors. These three arts the singer must fuse into one, and direct into a common aim. To me, Chaliapin is an outstanding example of how the three forms of art can be fused. … Synthesis has rarely been achieved by anyone in the arts, particularly in the theatre. Chaliapin is the only example I can think of. My system is taken straight from Chaliapin.

Having set himself the task of penetrating not only the distinctive musical language of the composer, but also the character and scene at hand, Chaliapin incarnated his roles so fully that contemporaries called his performances a "miracle of art." According to their reminiscences, he did not "play" the role of Boris Godunov, but rather became him onstage. For this reason, the gallery of operatic images he created amazed listeners with their profound sense of truth. Without a doubt, Chaliapin owed this ability in part to his talent for painting and sculpture; it was as if he went through life collecting characters, closely observing the carriage, expressions and gestures of those around him and salting them away for later use. The historical photographs of him as various operatic heroes surprise us not only by the psychological depth of each character, but also by their sheer variety: he enjoyed equal success playing Russians, Tatars, Spaniards, Assyrians and Indians; heroes and villains; kings and paupers. It is hard to imagine that all these characters were created by a single person!

One of Chaliapin's very highest achievements in this art of embodying a character was his unforgettable incarnation of Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky's eponymous opera. His knack for getting inside the psychology of a character allowed him to animate this tragic figure from Russia's past with the utmost musical and human truth; we can say that in this act of creation Chaliapin rivaled the genius of the character's original creators, Pushkin and Mussorgsky. Chaliapin loved Mussorgsky's music and, though he never met him in life, seems to have discovered for himself the special genius of that composer - a discovery that eluded many musicians of the time. After his triumph in Boris Godunov, Chaliapin began to appear on all the world's best opera stages, alongside singers and conductors of renown. In 1908, he was in the Paris production of Boris Godunov, which enjoyed an enormous success. Alexander Benois recalled:

Oh, those were unforgettable days….the show was marvelous….But, it stands to reason, over and above this whole eagle's flight soars the genius of our "leading actor," and it was this genius that set the tone for everything; that was where the whole mood came from.

A year later Chaliapin was back in Paris with Diaghilev's production of scenes from Borodin's Prince Igor, with the wonderful set designs of Nicholas Roerich, studies for which can be seen in New York at the Nicolas Roerich Museum, on West 107th Street. In 1907, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role of Boito's Mefistofele, followed by performances as Don Basilio in The Barber of Seville, Mephistophélès in Faust, and -- under the baton of the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler -- Leporello in Don Giovanni.

Chaliapin always had special feelings for Rachmaninoff's opera Aleko, and loved it so much that he dreamed of finishing his career as a singer in that role. When the opera was staged in 1899 in Petersburg and in 1903 in Moscow, it received rave reviews, especially because Chaliapin was in the title role. Rachmaninoff himself wrote to Slonov: "The soloists were all magnificent, but Chaliapin towered over everyone else" (this was probably literally as well as figuratively true as Chaliapin was well over 6 feet tall). Chaliapin continued to conquer the opera stages of the world, vanquishing audiences everywhere with the inimitable mastery of his singing. He was the unique example of a bel canto singer who not only attained the highest level of his profession with virtually no professional training, but actually enriched the state of the art with his new creative ideas. The baritone Titta Ruffo remarked, "I know famous artists, but there is only one greatest artist -- Feodor Chaliapin."

Here it is important to note that Chaliapin defined himself as a singer through his concert performances. He loved to sing Russian folk songs and the romances of Rachmaninoff, Dargomyzhsky, Mussorgsky and other Russian composers, as well as works by Western composers such as Schubert and Schumann. In the words of Asafiev, Chaliapin sang

so precisely, so "in depth," that it seemed as if he and the theater could have nothing in common and would never resort to the emphasis on accessories and ostentatious expressions demanded by the stage. Complete calm and restraint enveloped him. For example, I remember Schumann's "In the Snow I Wept Bitterly" -- one sound, a voice in the silence, a shy, suppressed emotion -- as if there were no performer there at all, as if this huge man radiating joie de vivre and generosity of humor and affection wasn't there, but just a voice, and in the voice everything: all the depth and fullness of the human heart.

Chaliapin loved to perform with Rachmaninoff, who accompanied the singer with particular joy, "enjoying his performance, supplementing it, accompanying him wonderfully. For several years in a row, Muscovites were able to enjoy the unique and unrepeatable concerts of these two artists appearing together and thrilling audiences with their incomparable performing," according to the composer's cousin S. A. Satina. At the turn of the century, on a January day in 1900, Chaliapin and Rachmaninoff went together to visit Leo Tolstoy, where (though both reportedly were almost paralysed by shyness) they performed several songs for him. In his book Man and Mask, Chaliapin recalled this period in their friendship:

Destiny threw me in the way of a great many remarkable men. My meeting with Serge Rachmaninoff dates back to the first stirring memories of my life in Moscow…. A remarkable pianist, Rachmaninoff is, with Toscanini, one of the best conductors I have ever heard. When Rachmaninoff holds the baton, he inspires complete confidence in a singer. He interprets the very soul of a composition with the utmost delicacy, and if a pause or a suspended note is required, the singer may be sure that he will indicate them perfectly. When he is at the piano, I am not singing alone -- we are both singing. As a composer, he is the personification of simplicity, clarity, and sincerity.

It is interesting to note how the respective fates of Chaliapin and Rachmaninoff parallel and intersect each other. Regardless of their wide differences in personality and upbringing, they shared a belief in beauty and in selfless service to the cause of art. The were also united by the fact that, as sincere patriots, they could not stand aside from the social storms that buffeted Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. During this politically and artistically turbulent time appeared a whole pleiad of gifted painters, poets, writers and musicians, who all interacted with one another. Conversing one day about art, Stasov, Gorky and Repin remarked on the unusual colors of Rachmaninoff's music, which was almost like a landscape. Gorky reportedly said, "How well Rachmaninoff hears silence!" Strangely, this sense of a common striving among artists toward community and beauty reached its culmination immediately before the Revolution. Many members of the Russian intelligentsia acknowledged the need for social reforms, hoping that their introduction could avert a catastrophic event; others sympathized with the spirit of the revolution, seeing it as the only possible way to resolve the severe social and economic problems the country was experiencing.

The revolutionary mood and the events of 1905 could hardly fail to affect musicians, as well as other artists, ever sensitive to the world around them and acutely experiencing the sufferings of their homeland. Rachmaninoff's signature appeared, among others', on appeals in the press for necessary democratic reforms, as well as on a letter protesting the dismissal of Rimsky-Korsakov from the Petersburg Conservatory. On January 8, 1905, Rachmaninoff's cantata Spring received its premiere in Petersburg, with Chaliapin as the soloist. It was especially warmly received given that the sentiment of vernal renewal, embodied by Rachmaninoff's sensitive setting of the text by the socially conscious nineteenth-century poet Nekrasov, resonated with the general mood of the time.

Rachmaninoff's friend Chaliapin felt particular sympathy with the revolutionary movement given his own humble origins and his first-hand experience of the poverty and ignorance in which the peasantry lived. These feelings united him with Maxim Gorky, who also came from a poor background and shared a similar fate with Chaliapin, as well as his calling as an artist. Their friendship exerted a strong influence on Chaliapin's attitude to the revolution. It would be unjust to overlook the fact that both Rachmaninoff and Chaliapin did all they could to help their country as it suffered from internal conflicts on the one hand, and from the terrible effects of the First World War on the other. Concerts were held, personal sacrifices made to contribute to the front, and hospitals created. After October 1917, when Rachmaninoff was no longer in Russia, the Revolutionary terror began. In this dangerous time, Chaliapin did all he could to help many of those who were arrested, and often sentenced to death, just for being members of the gentry. He used his name and connections (especially Gorky) to wield influence, and even met with Lenin. Gradually, however, he realized that he would have to leave Russia, where not only his career but also his life and family were in danger.

Chaliapin continued his brilliant career in the West, though some who were close to him opined that his true genius was left behind in Russia. His agent, Leonidov, wrote: "His voice still sounded Russian, his recordings were still fresh, and the illusion of the former, great Chaliapin was fully preserved." About Rachmaninoff we know that after his first solo concert as an exile in America, in December 1918, his busy career as a concert pianist continued for nearly a quarter-century, leaving Rachmaninoff the composer "on ice" for many long years. As a pianist and conductor, Rachmaninoff became one of the leading musical figures in the world. Based in America, he made many guest appearances in Europe as well, playing and conducting his own works in the company of the world's best musicians, to great acclaim. In regard to his silence as a composer, he admitted, "When I left Russia, I lost myself. An exile who has been deprived of his musical roots, tradition, and native soil, no longer has the desire to create." However, when he finally felt the urge to compose, he completed pieces that had been in mind for a long time -- the Fourth Concerto, Three Russian Songs; created his last great piece for solo piano, Variations on a Theme of Corelli; then wrote Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, the Third Symphony, and the Symphonic Dances.

Despite his fantastic artistic successes and colossal recognition by the press and public in America and the West, Rachmaninoff always felt the need to stay in contact with Russians. He corresponded with old friends in Russia, materially helping many of them. He also became friends with many Russian cultural figures in America, including the writer Georgy Grebenshchikov (a friend of Chaliapin's from Paris), who in 1925 co-founded (together with Igor Sikorsky and Leo Tolstoy's son Ilya) the "Russian village" of Churaevka in Connecticut, where at the crossroads of Pushkin and Tolstoy Streets stand a chapel built according to a design by Nicholas Roerich. Churaevka was visited by Chaliapin and by Alexander Gretchaninoff, among others.

In 1923, artists from the Bolshoi Theater, including Chaliapin, paid Rachmaninoff a visit. They put together an impromptu concert that lasted till dawn. At Rachmaninoff's request, Chaliapin sang the well-known Gypsy romance, Ochi Chornye (Black Eyes), with such feeling that even those present who knew it inside-out, Rachmaninoff included, were transfixed by its power. In the morning, Rachmaninoff said, "How Fedya [Chaliapin] moved me!... This memory will last me at least twenty years." In the spring of 1938 Rachmaninoff went to Paris to visit his friend Chaliapin, who was mortally ill. He later recalled:

The last time I saw him was on the tenth of April…. Before I left… he started to tell me about how, once he was all better, he wanted to write another book, for performers, whose theme would be the art of acting… I told him that I had also a plan: once I left the stage, I too would write a book, and its theme would be Chaliapin. He smiled at me and stroked my hand. With that we parted. Forever! The epoch of Chaliapin has come to an end!

Rachmaninoff spent his last summer vacation in Beverly Hills. Here he was visited by friends, mostly musicians and artists, especially V. Gorovets, with whom he played piano duets. Rachmaninoff's last concert took place on the 17th of February, 1943. On March 28, he died, just three days before his seventieth birthday.


In our concert, celebrated works from Chaliapin's repertoire share the program with little-known and even unknown works. Among the rarely-heard pieces on the program are the cavatina and final scene from Aleko, as well as the cantata Spring, which was first performed by Chaliapin exactly 100 years ago. Receiving what we believe to be New York premiere is Rachmaninoff's witty, original Letter to Stanislavsky, with its libretto by Rachmaninoff himself. Rounding out the program are the more famous works: Rachmaninoff's Preludes for solo piano, and two favorites from the Mussorgsky section of Chaliapin's repertoire, "The Flea" and music from Boris Godunov.

MIKHAIL SVETLOV (BASS) began his career at the Bolshoi Theater, where he was appointed as a principal soloist after winning the prestigious Viotti International Competition in Italy. Outside Russia, Mr. Svetlov's previous engagements include critically acclaimed debuts at Milan's Teatro Alla, London's Royal Albert Hall, and New York's Metropolitan Opera, among other celebrated venues. Svetlov, like Chaliapin, possesses a naturally outstanding acting ability, penetrating emotion in role portrayal, large colorful vocal palette with special richness in the higher registers, allowing him, just like Chaliapin, brilliantly to perform baritone parts.

MICHAEL ZEIGER (PIANO) is a concert pianist and composer, with a doctorate in composition from the Moscow Conservatory. His compositions are performed with great success in Russia and include symphonic, operatic, vocal, choral and chamber works. RCCNY premiered his composition Poet-Prophet, written especially for the Chorus, 2002. Like Rachmaninoff, Zeiger has performed his own compositions both as pianist and conductor. Thanks to his complete mastery of the distinct characteristics of Rachmaninoff's style, Zeiger's performances convey the sense of improvisation that is a unique feature of Rachmaninoff's piano music.

Translated by Rebecca Stanton. For more information, visit rccny.org.

Nikolai Kachanov is the Artistic Director of the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York. This is his first article for Vocal Area Network.

Content Contact: Nikolai Kachanov.
Revision Date: March 4, 2005.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

 Vocal Area Network logo