Why would I post a review of a biography (Scott, Rachmaninoff, 2011) of a prominent 20th century musician on a blog committed to advancing leadership understanding? First, because one of the issues about which I am most concerned today is how to foster creativity, innovation, and originality and second, because creativity and innovation requires the courage to lead.
Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) composed many of the pieces that music listeners most enjoy from the height of late Romanticism. Rachmaninoff’s family name is derived from an Old Russian word, ‘rachmany,’ meaning hospitable, generous, or spendthrift. Growing up outside of Novgorod, Russia, his father abandoned the family when Serge was 10. Already showing promise as a pianist, he was selected to receive the best of training under the guidance of Nicolai Zverev. Noted as extremely independent by his family (his nickname was ‘yasam,’ meaning ‘myself’), he had such perfect recall of music notation that his early teachers decided that he didn’t need to study music theory at all. Rachmaninoff’s great talent would result in some judging him to be lazy but the advocacy of a family member who was a talented musician himself resulted in young Serge studying at the Moscow Conservatory, a place where he would flourish.
Study at the Conservatory resulted in Serge emerging as one of the most talented young musicians in all of Russia, a judgment conferred by Tchaikovsky and other instructors who gave Serge the highest marks ever conferred on a protégé after his final examinations. Having achieved very early success with the Prelude in C# minor, his Piano Concerto #1, and other compositions, Serge was to face a period of self-doubt and retreat after the failure of his Symphony #1 in 1896. However, hypnosis broke this unproductive period, bringing us one of Rachmaninoff’s most beloved works in 1901 – Piano Concerto #2 – or the ‘Rach 2’ as some refer to it.
Great fame and notoriety in Russia would lead to performances throughout Europe and, with the German invasion of Russia, Rachmaninoff established residence in cities such as Paris and Dresden. Eventually, the increased opportunity of performance in the U.S.A. and growth of Soviet military/political oppression would cause him to establish residence, and eventually seek citizenship, in the United States. Rachmaninoff pursued an aggressive concert schedule in the U.S.A. during the winter and in Europe for the summer throughout the rest of his career. He played his own piano works and select compositions of others under the batons of such great conductors as Mahler, Stock, Stokowski, Ormandy and others.
Rachmaninoff is a classic example of a person of great talent who struggled with ‘imposter syndrome,’ being periodically driven to isolation and despair by self-doubt. His early success probably made him more vulnerable than most, a result of oscillating back and forth between adoring audiences and caustic critics who would occasionally take him to task. Yet, Rachmaninoff stayed with a style of composing that in the end would result in his being recognized as one of the greatest musical talents of Romanticism and the early 20th century. He stuck to his conviction in his music and he gave himself to others in performances that were often noted as ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. Rachmaninoff acted out of conviction, authenticity, and he became more resilient over time as he realized that acting on his conscience was essential to his artistic genius. These are the attributes that I suspect are central to fostering creativity and innovation in leadership.
The name from which his is derived, ‘Rachmany,’ was prophetic of the way Rachmaninoff would live. He often raised money for his Russian artistic colleagues and performed in benefits to aid Russia during both WWI and WWII. He also spent the fortune he would acquire as the highest paid pianist of his age by purchasing multiple residences in Europe and the U.S.A. The most significant of his residences was the one he designed and built not far from Luzern, Switzerland. This estate, called Senar, would be a ‘little Russia,’ hosting exiled Russians such as Vladimir Horowitz who could no longer comfortably return to their homeland. Senar would provide a home and respite during summers away from concertizing and it would also allow Rachmaninoff to return to composing. Indeed, it brought us one of his most beautiful works, the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” The last thing Rachmaninoff would write before his death on March 28, 1943, was printed in the April 5 Musical Courier:
“I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me. I cannot cast out my musical gods in a moment and bend the knee to new ones. The new kind of music seems to me to come, not from the heart, but from the head.”