While marrying one’s cousin may seem an incestuous taboo today, before the twentieth century cousin marriage did happen from time to time, and as long as it didn’t happen too often in one family there were generally no ill effects. Charles Darwin, for instance, also married his first cousin (although this was before he formulated his theory of evolution, understandably). In some times and places cousin marriage was even considered especially romantic, but unfortunately for Rachmaninoff in early twentieth century Tsarist Russia cousin marriage was, if not impossible, at least rather frowned upon.
Rachmaninoff first got to know his cousin Natalia Satina many years earlier after a dramatic incident in his musical education. As a boy, Rachmaninoff lodged with his piano teacher, Nikolai Zverev (along with Alexander Scriabin, as fate would have it). As Rachmaninoff got older he became increasingly interested in composition, but his desire to compose was frustrated by the fact that all of the pianos in Zverev’s house were in one room, and there was always someone in there practicing, making it impossible for Rachmaninoff to sit at a piano and compose without distractions. One day in 1889, Rachmaninoff struck up his nerve and asked Zverev to buy him another piano and put it in a room separate from the others so that he could compose. Evidently, he didn’t ask nicely enough because Zverev was furious (he was generally against his students composing too much anyway, since time composing was time not spent practicing piano). Zverev wanted to kick Rachmaninoff out of his house, so the two of them went to visit Rachmaninoff’s family, and Rachmaninoff’s future as a musician was hotly discussed for over an hour. Unexpectedly, Rachmaninoff’s aunt (his father’s sister), Varvara Satina, took his side and offered to house, feed and clothe Rachmaninoff while he finished his studies at the Moscow Conservatory, and that is just what happened. The Satins* became a second family to Rachmaninoff, whose childhood had had its ups and downs (Rachmaninoff’s father had squandered the family fortune).
It was only years later that his amorous feelings for Natalia Satina began to develop (she was four years his junior). Significantly, she was also an accomplished pianist, which no doubt made her a sympathetic companion for Rachmaninoff. Their desire to wed, however, posed some obstacles: it was against the law of the Orthodox Church, and to make matters worse, Rachmaninoff was not a regular churchgoer. Through family connections, they made arrangements to be wed at a military barracks, because barracks priests reported not to the Holy Synod, but to generals (such was the relationship between church and state in Imperial Russia). There was one last hurdle to clear, however; they had to receive permission from the Tsar during the ceremony in order for their marriage to be legal. Fortunately, the telegram came through and everything went off according to plan. After the rather business-like ceremony, the newly married Rachmaninoffs sped away for a three month honeymoon in Austria and Germany. As far as we know, their marriage was a happy one, and they had two perfectly healthy daughters.
Rachmaninoff completed his Piano Concerto No. 2 during the period of his courtship and engagement to Natalia. While no one could claim that Rachmaninoff wished to depict the events of his life in his music, many listeners have found his second piano concerto to be full of passion, melancholy, yearning, and ultimately triumph, and it is interesting to consider the events that may have led Rachmaninoff to explore these emotional states in his art. Rachmaninoff certainly had purely musical reasons for writing this piece the way he did apart from regaining his confidence after the failure of his first symphony and his struggle to marry the woman he loved. Nevertheless, one of the most beautiful things about music is that it can universalize personal emotions and ideas, allowing us to empathize with people from times and places radically different from our own. If we approach music with a desire to learn about and understand the people who create it, we can enrich both our appreciation of the music and of each other.
For those interested in learning more about Rachmaninoff’s life, I highly recommend Bertensson and Leyda’s classic biography, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music.
*In Russian, last names are feminized for women, usually by adding an “a” at the end of the name: hence Ivan Satin and Natalia Satina could be brother and sister (at least linguistically).
Don’t miss Watts Plays Rachmaninoff 2 with the Houston Symphony!
Watts Plays Rachmaninoff 2
September 19, 20 & 21
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
André Watts, piano
Renowned pianist André Watts returns to Houston to perform Rachmaninoff’s deeply romantic Piano Concerto No. 2. Enduringly popular since its 1901 debut, the concerto’s themes have found fame in movies such as Brief Encounter, The Seven Year Itch and the popular song “All by Myself.” Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada also leads the heroic symphonic tone poem Ein Heldenleben by R. Strauss.