Dear Re: A Glimpse into the Six Songs of Rachmaninoff's Opus 38

October 1, 1984

Dear Re: A Glimpse into the Six Songs of Rachmaninoff's Opus 38
Written by Anne Simpson
Symposium Volume 24

Was Sergei's fondness for "Re" an affaire de coeur or an affaire de sentiments? It does not matter, for it brought to fruition six beauteous songs.

In 1912 the population of greater Moscow was just under a million and a half.1 Its clientele for concerts, exhibitions, and the theater had become a familiar nucleus whose personnel knew well each other's tastes, opinions, and social status. By this time Rachmaninoff (Figure 1) was married and the father of two small daughters.


Figure 1. Rachmaninoff in Moscow, 1913 (Riesemann, Rachmaninoff's Recollections; by permission of G. Allen and Unwin, Ltd.).



Already established professionally as the composer of Opera 1-33, his stunning concerts both on the Continent and in the United States continued to make him the idol of many. He was especially alluring to young women who tantalized themselves in their own dream worlds of romantic fantasy.

Awestruck, smitten, but sensible, was Marietta Shaginian (Figure 2), an attractive, strong-willed and strong-minded young writer.


Figure 2. Marietta Shaginian, painted by Tatiana Hyppius, 1911 (Seroff, Rachmaninoff; by permission of Simon and Schuster).



Born in 1888 into an intellectually stimulating Armenian family, Marietta contributed articles to periodicals at the age of fifteen. Schooled as a proper young lady, only modicum exposure to the arts provided her a lasting appreciation and curiosity for them, particularly Goethe's works. In 1913 her volume of poetry, Orientalia, dedicated to Rachmaninoff, was rated by critics among the best works of the younger symbolists.2 This publication was only an inkling of her prolific career to come.

Such obvious intensity, intelligence and drive, later acceptable as a contemporary life style, were perhaps uncommon in females of this restive era. Manipulative Marietta was not too shy, despite Rachmaninoff's austere, aloof, non-smiling manner to write him the first note, cleverly signed "Re", in February, 1912. More successful with her ploy than pathetic bedridden Marie Bashkirtzeva in her "postal bombardment" of the insouciant de Maupassant,3 Re was able to sustain a rewarding four-year friendship with Rachmaninoff.

Though her letters to Rachmaninoff were not preserved they were undoubtedly tasteful, constructive, and withal healthily provocative, definitely filling a need for the creative surge within him. Unlike Tchaikovsky's immature involvement through correspondence with the unseen Madame von Meck,4 Rachmaninoff needed Re for more aesthetic reasons.

There is little or no indication in the fifteen selected letters which Re made public shortly after Rachmaninoff's death in 1943, that she posed a threat to his family security. However, their publication, along with her recollections of the cultural milieu of Moscow in 1912, caused almost as much ado as had Rachmaninoff's marriage to his cousin, Natalie Satin, in 1902.

In that period preceding the Revolution, artists and students afflicted with deep inner crises sought help from their own kind, substituting personal communication for a union with the collective. Though Rachmaninoff's disturbed earlier life could not be considered tragic, he too had battled personal crises.

Aware that for some years Dr. Nicolay Dahl had treated Rachmaninoff for severe melancholia and bouts of depression, Re realized the importance of his longing for peace and solitude. She knew that he often drove by "motor-car" to his country home, Ivanoka, to relieve pressure.5 An outlet for his multi-faceted mind, their relationship seemed rather an introspective desire for communion between kindred souls, though the flirtatious romantic aura of the letters might understandably have invited reading between the lines.

Rachmaninoff quickly answered Re's first letter in February of 1912. A few weeks later, anticipating the fourteen songs of Opus 34, he confessed a need for texts, requesting something sad rather than gay: "Light colors do not come easily to me."6 She promptly sent an adequate choice of contemporary Russian poems, since they had agreed that her Orientalia was unsuitable for musical setting.

Over half of Re's findings were used for Opus 34. Rachmaninoff often followed her suggestions concerning musical interpretation, and the first one, The Muse, adapted from Pushkin's various muses in Eugene Onegin, was dedicated to her. Opening with a plaintive, phantasie-like introduction, it reaches a rhapsodic peak just as the muse "brushed her hair aside and reached forward for the pipe."7

To answer her growing curiosity, Rachmaninoff wrote in April, 1912: "You asked me what I love besides my children, music and flowers, Anything you like, my dear Re! . . . Only not our musical young ladies." Then in May a long letter to Re began:

Besides my children, music, and flowers, I also love you, my dear Re, and your letters. I love you because you are clever and interesting, and do not go to extremes. . . . Teach me to have faith in myself, my dear Re! Perhaps just half as much as you have in me. . . . It is not without reason that for the past twenty years my only doctors have been the hypnotist Dr. Dahl and my two cousins (one of whom I married ten years ago and whom I also love very much).

By June Rachmaninoff had discovered that Re was Marietta Shaginian. Apparently her unique explanations of certain poems had unintentionally revealed her identity.

Re was concerned not only with Rachmaninoff's emotional health but with his career. Though he insisted that most criticism did not distress him, she constantly feared for him. In November, 1912, her article "Sergei Rachmaninoff—a Musical-Psychological Study," was published in Trudi I Dui. Full of complicated phraseology and analyses, it was far from an accurate picture of its subject, whom she would not meet until a month later. After reading it Rachmaninoff wrote her: "You seek in me something that is not there and you want to see me as I do not believe I will ever be." He later told her that she subconsciously attributed to him all of Nicolay Medtner's better qualities.

Among others, Re's cultural circle included the four Medtners: Nicolay, the composer; Emil, the writer, critic, and philosopher; Karl, a businessman; and Alexander, the violist. She hoped to draw the reticent Rachmaninoff into their atmospheric little evenings of reading, musical performance, and political discussion.8

Though Rachmaninoff greatly admired Nicolay he was intimidated by Emil, who praised him as a performer but not as a composer. He ominously referred to Emil as "the one." In June of 1913, Rachmaninoff wrote to Re: "A strange thing! I love you and want to see you, and read you, but I'm afraid of 'the one.'" However, he did visit the Medtners with Re a few times again in 1914.

Re's mother's home also afforded an occasional rendezvous. If Rachmaninoff stayed away from Moscow long, either for health or professional reasons, Re and her mother moved to be near him. Once in 1916, morbidly obsessed by a fear of death, he was temporarily eased by Madame Shaginian who told his fortune and gave him a handful of peanuts to distract his tortured mind.9

In addition to concertizing and myriad other activities, Rachmaninoff found time in these three years to complete Opera 34-37, and at least one unnumbered work.10 Too, he began a setting of King Lear, using a translation found by Re, but its unfinished manuscript was lost.11

Under Rachmaninoff's expertise the Russian song form, called by Glinka the Romance, took on a more colorful distinction, marking a departure from its folk song roots. His songs are generally characterized by partiality to minor keys, long flowing melodies which progress by intervals of a third, and frequent undercurrents of turbulent triplets.12 By comparison with earlier songs, those of Opus 38 are shorter and show a noticeable change in style, due partly to the more tailored demands of their contemporary texts.13 The shimmer of changing rhythms and ambiguous harmonies often results in a superimposition of the melody upon a textured under-fabric, not unlike the treatment in his Third Piano Concerto. Infrequent or non-existent time signatures add complexity to the ensemble.

Except for two written in 1916 without opus numbers, Opus 38 concluded Rachmaninoff's eighty songs. Called simply Six Songs for Soprano, the work was completed between September and November of 1916.14

All of these fanciful symbolists' texts were gathered by Re. Symbolism, popular among writers in the early 1900s, incorporated decadent elements of the preceding century, and included a mixture of irony and romanticism which failed to distinguish between truth and delusion, good and evil.

The poem In My Garden at Night by Avetik Saakovich Isaakin is Opus 38's first offering. Of the poet translator Alexander Blok said: "Perhaps in all Europe now there is no talent so fresh and direct. The lyricism, emotionality and musicality of his poems have won him instant popularity."15 Rachmaninoff's accompaniment is picture-painting at its best. One can fully sense the weeping willow's tears, particularly in the short but passionate piano interlude, wherein the composer so aptly captures the musical feeling of nature.

Andrei Belyi, trained in mathematics and natural science, later became a poet, philosopher, critic and novelist.16 Aided by Belyi's auditory imagination, the accompaniment for the aria-like vocal mood of To Her urgently implores the "tender, gentle, perfect one to linger not."17 A peaceful postlude leaves no doubt that this elusive bride has been through Lethe, the river of oblivion, and has achieved the euphoria of forgetfulness.

The almost impressionistic style of these first two songs tries to match musically the symbolists' preoccupation with verbal sounds. In them Rachmaninoff is less concerned with melody than with contrast of colors and textures.

Seventeen volumes of poetry by ego-futurist/post-symbolist Igor Severyanin, published between 1916 and 1922, have been called "vacuous, occasionally melodious."18The Daisies, No. 3 of Opus 38, a "naive little poem," nevertheless begins full of wonderment. Toward its end dazzling trills in the accompaniment overtake the vocal line. A counter-melody in the accompaniment requires the "lightest touch to realize its fragrancy."19 The "white host" is indeed believable in the lengthy ethereal postlude. The piece, an irresistible gem, was later arranged for piano solo and also transcribed for violin by Kreisler.

In the longest of the set, Valeri Briusov's playful Pied Piper, sometimes called The Rat Catcher, Rachmaninoff pensively combines rubato with an overall scherzo-like mood. Briusov, a prolific writer, was acknowledged in 1904 as head of the symbolists and editor of their monthly journal. He later joined the University of Moscow faculty.

Fyodor Sologub, poet of the idyllic Dreams, is better known as Fedor Teternikov, author of two novels, The Petty Demon and The Created Legend. Not an overly popular poet in Soviet Russia, only one volume of his poetry saw publication, and that posthumously. Dreams sustains a fairly high tessitura. The accompaniment, a subtle essence, rises, then subsides, reminding the listener of Debussy.

Also a famous translator, poet Konstantin Balmont is distinguished by his fluidity, musicality, rich alliteration, and exoticism. Unfortunately, he died destitute and lonely. Rachmaninoff's accompaniment to his A-oo, the last song of Opus 38, goes wild with thick orchestration as it builds up to "Come flee, my love, to the mountains."20 Rippling and unsettled, it is spectacular enough to be part of a concerto ending quietly with another long piano passage suggestive of the mocking echo described in the poem.

Rachmaninoff considered Opus 38 his finest songs. It seems odd, after such closeness with Re, that their dedication and manuscript went ultimately to the renowned soprano Nina Kochets.21 Their Moscow premiere by Kochets with Rachmaninoff at the piano on October 24, 1916 was stellar. Critic Yuli Engel wrote of it:

On such occasions the singer is usually the center of attention, and no one cares about the accompanist. For once it was the other way around. The accompanist was the center of the evening, not only as the creator of all that was performed, but . . . as an incomparable artist who gave his compositions the flesh and blood of sound, and kindled them with a vital breath that penetrated the interpretation by both performers.22

Obviously, the performers had not missed the "point." As Rachmaninoff once explained to Re, every piece must have a culmination, whether at the end or middle, loud or soft, to be approached with calculation and precision; if not achieved, the "construction crumbles and the piece becomes disjointed" and the "point" is missed.23

Surely the freshness of these songs was inspired by Re. Victor Seroff, definitive biographer of Rachmaninoff who interviewed Re in 1949, felt that she had been deeply, genuinely in love, though she never openly admitted it. She related: "He [Rachmaninoff] used to take phrase after phrase, or one measure at a time, and run it up and down, over and over again. I very often sat next to him while he worked this way because he would ask me to tell him stories."

A pleading letter to Re on September 20, 1916 said:

I re-read some of your letters, my dear Re, and . . . felt toward you so much gentleness, gratitude, and besides, something so bright, so good, that I wanted painfully to see you at once, to hear you, to sit next to you and talk to you frankly and intimately. . . . Oh where are you, my dear Re? And when will I see you?

And on January 26, 1917, he wrote from near Rostov: "I want to see you but I cannot go to you. Perhaps you will consent to come to me today before the concert in the Music School? We will be alone I promise you. . . . We could spend an hour and a half together. I will play and you, you will talk to me."

This may have been their last private meeting, though the very last one was in July of 1917 when Re and her new husband, Y.S. Khachatryants,24 attended a benefit performance in Kislovodsk, given partially by Kochets and Rachmaninoff. Of this Re wrote: "He purposely drew out the intermission while he sat with us on a bench in the garden. Somehow he could not find the courage to say good-by. I never saw him again."25

Except for a few concerts with bass singer Feodor Chaliapin, this was one of Rachmaninoff's last in Moscow. He soon left Russia for political reasons and to tour other parts of Europe as a pianist and conductor. A full musical life ensued until increasing ill health finally prevented his concert dates scheduled for the spring of 1943. On March 28 of that year he died at his Beverly Hills home, where he had lived for some years.

Re's illustrious career as a writer, moreover as a brilliant and remarkably successful professional woman, continued until the early 1980s. To her credit are seventy-nine books, among them a four-volume work on the Lenin family and a biography of Rachmaninoff, and countless short stories, some of which became movies. Not only known for dramas and articles on current events, literary criticism, philosophy and social problems, she was responsible for some of Russia's first detective novels in the 1920s.

According to one opinion, she essentially became an "instrument of education and propaganda" under Stalin, producing fiction on topical themes. She insisted that economic issues could be "celebrated in song or immortalized in art," and that "the real music is only beginning now: listen to it, comrades! Because the real music of the Revolution is socialist construction!"26

After the Revolution she taught some of her favorite subjects: philosophy, music, science, and textile weaving. Her first novel, published in 1923, described life in a mental home, possibly her own therapeutic transference of roles with Rachmaninoff's emotional illness. Between 1924 and 1929, she saw publication of five more novels, perhaps results of pressure from the critics who admitted that foreign novels were now the rage, rather than those written by Russians. For these she used the pen name of Jim Dollar.27

Then in 1931, Hydrocentral, her novel dealing with collective enterprise, created quite a favorable stir. Among her many honors bestowed by the Soviet Union was its highest award, the Order of Socialist Labor, given her in 1976.28

On March 25, 1982, the date of her death in Moscow, The New York Times punctually paid its respects in an obituary. An even fuller eulogy noting the demise of "Dr. Marietta Sergeyevna Shaginian" appeared in an April 6 issue of The Times of London. (In 1944 and 1945, she had received two doctorates in philosophy.) Referred to as the "doyen of Soviet writers," this rather personal tribute revealed that in later years she used a hearing-aid equipped with a microphone, which "helped to satisfy her unquenchable thirst for knowledge." A translator herself of Armenian, Azerbaijanian, and English authors into Russian, her own writings have been translated into numerous languages.29

Her book of memoirs was published in 1978, and a last novel in 1979, when she was ninety-one. Dear Re, how long did you remember the exquisiteness of the daisies, the pied piper's flute, the weeping of the willow?

1Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. (New York, 1910-11), XVIII, 893.

2Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 737.

3Ernest Boyd, Guy de Maupassant (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1928), pp. 157-71.

4David Ewen, The World of Great Composers (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), p. 374.

5Geoffrey Norris, Rakmaninov (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1976), p. 48.

6This and all following quotes from Rachmaninoff's letters to Re are taken from Victor Seroff, Rachmaninoff (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), pp. 135-53.

7Sergei Rachmaninoff, Rachmaninoff Songs (New York: Boosey and Hawkes, 1922), II, 56.

8Seroff, p. 140.

9Ibid., p. 152.

10Op. 34, Fourteen Songs (1913-15); Op. 35, The Bells, a choral symphony (1913); Op. 36, Sonata No. 2 for Piano (1913); Op. 37, Vesper Mass for boys' and men's voices (1915). The piece without opus number was a song, From the Gospel of St. John (1915). Norris, p. 193.

11Ibid., p. 50.

12John Culshaw, Rachmaninov: The Man and His Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 50.

13Norris, p. 155.

14Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (New York: New York University Press, 1956), p. 416.

15Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (New York: MacMillan, Inc., 1976), X, 437.

16All biographical information on the poets Belyi, Severyanin, Briusov, Sologub, and Balmont is taken from A Treasury of Russian Verse, ed. by Avrahm Yarmolinsky (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1949), pp. 285, 301, 287, 301, 284.

17Rachmaninoff, Songs, II, 119.

18A Treasury of Russian Verse, p. 301.

19Culshaw, p. 136.

20Rachmaninoff, Songs, II.

21Bertensson and Leyda, p. 201. First published by Russian Music Editions in 1916, Op. 38 was later reprinted in 1922 by Russischer Musikverlag in Berlin. In 1947 it became available with Op. 26 and Op. 34 in Volume II of Rachmaninoff Songs through Boosey and Hawkes. The Schwann catalogue lists several artists who have recorded Op. 38, even the baritone Peter Del Grande, though all labels are not accessible. One beautiful offering is by Elizabeth Söderström and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

22Seroff, p. 154.


24Available sources, even Shaginian's obituaries in The New York and London Times, give no information concerning Khachatryants or on her personal life following the marriage, suggesting that it was short-lived.

25Seroff, p. 156. Perhaps circumspectly, after such an intensely touching relationship, Re was not mentioned by Oskar von Riesemann in his Rachmaninoff's Recollections (1934), so filled with excerpts of conversation, correspondence, and vivid reminiscences.

26Edward J. Brown, Russian Literature of the Revolution (New York: Collier Books, 1963), p. 31.

27Glen Struve, Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), pp. 148-149.

28Contemporary Authors, ed. by Frances C. Locher (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, The Book Tower, 1982), CVI, 448.

29The New York Times, March 25, 1982; The Times (London), April 6, 1982.

9532 Last modified on October 24, 2018