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Rachmaninoff: An American Without Assimilation

Serge Rachmaninoff, photographed in 1919, somewhere outside of San Francisco.
Wikimedia Commons
Serge Rachmaninoff, photographed in 1919, somewhere outside of San Francisco.

The question of assimilation has been on my mind a lot lately. Living in this great country where individuality is embraced, our current obsession with assimilation for those choosing the U.S. as their new home seems like a strange paradox.

Consider the Russian composer, pianist and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff. When he moved to America in 1918 he could not let go of ties to his mother country. Even with the house he bought three years later in New York, he tried to recapture the spirit of a beloved country estate owned by his relatives.

Does this constitute a rejecting of American values? I would propose just the opposite: The freedom afforded our newest citizens offers them the gift of safety and comfort to hold their traditions close, bringing a new richness to our American tapestry.

Rachmaninoff's Third and final symphony, from the mid-1930s, is a good example of Russian and American traditions rubbing elbows. While Rachmaninoff never wrote a film score, his compositions have been used in well over a hundred films and TV shows. His last symphony shares the sweeping, Romantic lyricism of many of his best-known works, some of which, you can argue, have influenced American composers (and a growing number of Russian and European expats) and helped define the sound of music in the burgeoning American film industry.

In the opening of Rachmaninoff's Third we hear music steeped in a faraway tradition. The modal nature of the beginning theme evokes a foreign place for me — foreign yet comforting, ringing some kind of archetypal bells. I hear the sounds of his grandmother's Russian Orthodox Church, his obsession with death in the ancient Dies Irae tune and the brooding melancholy of a displaced soul, longing for home. This is music that captures life and sums up tradition — music that has heart and conveys soul, connecting us on a primal, human level.

Through it all, Rachmaninoff was Russian to the core, born into an aristocratic family in northern Russia in 1873. That's a long way from Beverly Hills, Calif., where he would live out the last years of his life. He died there on the morning of March 28, 1943. That night a Requiem Mass was held at the Los Angeles Russian Orthodox Church.

In 2015, the Russian government requested that Rachmaninoff's remains be returned, but so far his family has refused, saying that America was his chosen home; he and his wife became citizens just weeks before he died. We are privileged to consider him our adopted son. The wealth that Rachmaninoff brought to America was not compromised or diminished by demands for him to assimilate. Instead, we embraced all that he brought to America and have enjoyed that wealth as our own.

(Marin Alsop conducts Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Jan. 7-10 in Baltimore and North Bethesda, Md.)

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Marin Alsop artist page: listen to interviews, features and music archived at NPR Music.
Marin Alsop
In 2007, Marin Alsop became music director of the Baltimore Symphony, making her the first woman to head a major American orchestra. She was named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, the first conductor ever to receive the award. Between performances, she appears as an occasional guest on Weekend Edition Saturday and as a commentator for NPR.org's Marin Alsop on Music column.