Unseen material reveals new side to Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s life was brutally uprooted three times. First in childhood, then in the prime of his life, and, finally, at the beginning of his old age. The many traces he left behind are scattered all over the world in very different countries with sharply contrasting political systems. As a result, our current image of Rachmaninoff remains fragmentary. The missing bits and pieces are filled in with suppositions and assumptions, and his biography is crowded with hearsay and legends. Three quarters of a century after Rachmaninoff’s death, researchers are still struggling with archetypes, ideologies, and - above all - with limited access to objective, factual documentation.
In spite of this, it is surprising how much documentation on Rachmaninoff has actually been preserved, in comparison to many of his Russian contemporaries. The materials uncovered at SENAR - Rachmaninoff’s luxurious holiday retreat on Lake Lucerne - now add a wealth of information, providing new clues and valuable insights that will fundamentally change our view of Rachmaninoff.
Two organisations have teamed up to realize this ambitious project. For the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation, founded by the composer’s late grandson and former owner of the property Alexandre Rachmaninoff, the conservation work at SENAR represents the first important step towards the transition of the estate into a cultural center and museum. For the Rachmaninoff Network, the digitalization work at SENAR is the starting point for the creation of a database that in time will provide digital access to all documents relevant to biographical and musical research.
Wouter de Voogd, chairman of the Rachmaninoff Network and professionally active as Senior Functional Manager at both the Stedelijk & Van Gogh Museums in The Netherlands, elucidates: "In 2014 the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation sought our advice. A year later, following successful collaboration on an exclusive photo exhibition at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival, we signed an agreement to assist the work at SENAR. World reknowned experts - not only on Rachmaninoff but also on paper documents, photo and film material, 78s, textiles and gardening - provided their services on a voluntary basis."
At SENAR, Rachmaninoff emerges as everything but the depressed, lethargic personality found in too many biographies. In itself, the estate already represents the magnificent, proud statement of a man determined to build his life against all odds. A man capable of reinventing himself. A man who possessed a truly extraordinary sense of purpose.
Wouter de Voogd enthuses: ‘We never expected to uncover such a variety of unique material. The discovery of an unknown source of such immense importance is truly unique for a composer of Rachmaninoff’s stature - particularly after the lapse of so many decades.’
Over the past two years, the Rachmaninoff Network has digitally copied thousands of artifacts at SENAR, and a large number of them were photographed in ultra high resolution for the purpose of authentication (handwritten letters) or digital restoration (image material). All documents, photos, films, negatives and recordings have also been stabilized and conserved.
A few very fragile artifacts need further attention to prevent deterioration. Urs Ziswiler, President of the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation maintains: "The project has our full attention. For the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation the preservation of SENAR and its archives are a top priority."
Now that all material has been digititalized and conserved, both organisations can focus on the most important task for future research into the composer’s life and music: providing digital access to the material by means of the SENAR Database. "It is a huge responsibility: It will take decades to properly catalogue all material", stresses Wouter de Voogd, "for the setup, we want to purchase secure hardware and state-of-the-art Museum software."
The Rachmaninoff Network and Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation are aiming to link this database worldwide to public and private collections outside SENAR. Only in this way can the different artifacts be linked. To this end a specific approach has been developed. Wouter de Voogd: "In the SENAR database, all artifacts will be individually numbered, catalogued, translated, provided with keywords and digital cross-links. This method will help us at a later stage to easily link originals in different parts of the world - especially letter correspondence, or photos."
The SENAR Database will be carefully set up layer by layer. This is obviously a huge task which will take decades to complete in full. For the first five years, a number of smaller projects have been defined that will guarantee visibility for the project.