Composers Datebook®

Safe passage for Rachmaninoff


OK, how’s this for a movie scene worthy of “Doctor Zhivago” ...

It’s October 1917 and Lenin has overthrown the Tsarist government of Russia. A composer and virtuoso pianist can hear gunfire from his apartment as he works and decides that his family must flee their homeland. He receives an offer for recital appearances in Scandinavia and uses the offer as a pretext to escape Russia. But first the family must face a dangerous journey to Finland in trains crowded with terrified passengers.

At the Finnish border, a music-loving Bolshevik guard recognizes the famous artist and allows the family safe passage. But wait – there are no more trains running, so they must travel to Helsinki in an open peasant sleigh during a raging blizzard. They arrive in Stockholm on Christmas Eve, and one year later the composer and his family are able to book passage from Oslo to New York.

If that sounds perhaps a bit too melodramatic, consider that scenario is exactly what happened to Sergei Rachmaninoff, his wife, and two daughters.

In America, Rachmaninoff became a star pianist, playing 92 concerts at Carnegie Hall between 1918 and 1943. He continued to compose, but lamented, “When I lost my homeland, I lost myself as well... I have no will to create without ... Russian soil under my feet.” He would complete only six more major works during his 25 years in America.

Music Played in Today's Program

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) Piano Concerto No. 1 in f#, Op. 1 Krystian Zimerman, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG 4796868

On This Day


  • 1879 - Russian composer and pianist Nicolai Medtner (see Jan. 5, 1880);

  • 1881 - American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, in Johnstown, Pa.;

  • 1950 - American composer Libby Larsen, in Wilmington, Del.;


  • 1453 - English composer John Dunstable, age c. 65, in London;

  • 1935 - Austrian composer Alban Berg, age 50, in Vienna;

  • 1975 - American composer and conductor Bernard Herrmann, age 64, in Los Angeles, after completing the filmscore for Scorsese's "Taxi Driver";


  • 1739 - Handel: revival performance of oratorio "Acis and Galetea" (Julian date: Dec. 13);

  • 1871 - Verdi: opera "Aida" in Cairo, Egypt, at the Khedival Theater;

  • 1951 - Menotti: opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors" as a TV broadcast on the NBC network; According to Opera America magazine, this is one of the most frequently-produced American operas during the past decade;


  • 1920 - Last operatic appearance ever of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, in an evening performance of Halevy's "La Juive" (The Jewess) at the old Metropolitan Opera in New York City; Caruso would die in Naples (where he made his operatic debut on March 15, 1895) at the age of 48 on August 2, 1921;

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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