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From Russia, with Music

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Music Division chief Susan Vita and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington (center) talk with Glinka museum director Mikhail Bryzgalov at the Library in May. / Abby Brack Lewis

The Library of Congress and a Moscow museum recently completed a project that, for the first time, brings together the original music manuscripts of one of the great composers of the 20th century – works that had been separated over the past century by thousands of miles and the Russian Revolution.

The Library and the Glinka National Museum Consortium of Musical Culture between them hold nearly all of the original manuscripts of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, best known for his great “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” Piano Concerto No. 2, Prelude in C-sharp Minor and “Vocalise,” among other works.

The institutions digitized their manuscripts over the past two years and, in May, formally exchanged copies in a ceremony at the Library.

The exchange allows musicians and scholars, for the first time, to study the composer’s manuscripts side by side.

“Our ultimate goal in entering into this project was to make these important research materials as accessible as possible to researchers and performers,” said Jan Lauridsen, assistant chief of the Library’s Music Division.

Insights for Musicians

The study of original manuscripts allows musicians and scholars to gain insight into compositions and the methods of their creators – decisions, for example, on omissions, additions and revisions.

The work of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes serves as a case in point.

Andsnes this year received a nomination for a Grammy Award for his recordings of Rachmaninoff’s third and fourth piano concertos – a project for which he prepared by studying the composer’s scores and sketches at the Library.

Rachmaninoff debuted his Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1927 to generally bad notices – reviews that prompted the composer to cut and revise the piece several times over the next 14 years.

“I thought it was very fascinating that there were big chunks of music that were just taken away in the 1941 version,” Andsnes said. “I wanted to look at the score and compare it to the other two versions and see what the process was for Rachmaninoff and figure out what he tried to do and why. That was wonderful to sit with these different versions.

“When you look at the manuscript, you often see the energy of how it is composed. You see the insecurities – things have been crossed out – and other suggestions. It’s very interesting to see that process.”

A Refugee from Revolution

Rachmaninoff composed the bulk of his work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before he fled his native Russia for the West following the Russian Revolution in 1917.

He composed several important works – Piano Concerto No. 4 and “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” among them – over the next quarter-century while he lived in New York, California and Switzerland.

Rachmaninoff died in 1943 in California, and his widow, Natalie, began donating his post-Russia archive to the Library eight years later.

The Glinka, meanwhile, eventually acquired the manuscripts from the composer’s Russia years.

The collaboration between two institutions separated by thousands of miles brings together complementary pieces of Rachmaninoff’s work – early sketches he made in Russia but turned into completed works years later in the West, revisions to early works that the composer made later in the United States or Switzerland.

For example, Rachmaninoff made early sketches of “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in Russia, sketches now held by the Glinka. He finished the piece in 1934 while living in Switzerland, and the full score of the completed work resides in the Library.

The manuscript exchange allows musicians and scholars, finally, to make a side-by-side study of the versions of this great work – its 18th variation provides one of the best-known themes in classical music – from the earliest inspirations Rachmaninoff captured on paper to the full score.

For now, the material is not accessible online – most of the Library’s holdings of Rachmaninoff are not yet in the public domain – but it is available to researchers who visit the Library or the Glinka.

The opportunity to study the original manuscripts and digital versions of the originals in one location is irreplaceable, Andsnes said.

“When you sit with the actual manuscript,” he said, “there is a kind of a holy feeling of touching this paper that the composer has been working with – that’s magic.”

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