Rachmaninoff’s First Performances in Philadelphia

April 17, 2017

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra occurred in November 1909, during his first American tour. When he set sail for the United States for this tour in the fall of that year, he was 36 years old and already a major star in his native Russia and in many parts of Europe, highly regarded as a pianist, composer, and conductor. Promoters had been trying to lure him to America for several years, but he was reluctant to make the trip and kept putting it off. Finally, in 1909 the combination of an especially lucrative offer and his own financial situation convinced him to make the journey.

Rachmaninoff’s first performance in the United States was a solo piano recital at Smith College in Northampton, MA, on November 4, 1909. Four days later, he made his first appearance in Philadelphia, at the Academy of Music. This concert was not with The Philadelphia Orchestra, however. Arrangements had been made for him to begin his American visit by making a mini-tour with the Boston Symphony, and it was with this ensemble that Philadelphia first heard him. With conductor Max Fiedler presiding, the program featured Rachmaninoff playing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in its U.S. premiere.

Program of Rachmaninoff’s first appearance in Philadelphia, November 8, 1909, with the Boston Symphony under conductor Max Fiedler.

Later that month, Rachmaninoff returned to appear with The Philadelphia Orchestra in an all-Russian program on November 26 and 27 at the Academy. The original plan was for these concerts to begin with Orchestra Music Director Carl Pohlig conducting Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, then he would hand the program over to Rachmaninoff, who would conduct his own Second Symphony, play three of his solo preludes as piano soloist, and conduct Musorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain. This was how the concert program booklets were printed, but the plans were later changed, as indicated by a note that was inserted into the program:

"Mr. Pohlig has decided to give the entire Programme at this week’s Concerts to SERGEI RACHMANINOFF. Therefore the first number announced on the programme, the TSCHAIKOWSKY Overture “1812,” will be omitted."

Original program for Rachmaninoff’s first appearance with The Philadelphia Orchestra, November 26-27, 1909, with Music Director Carl Pohlig. The concert was later altered.

Thus Philadelphia hosted America’s first concert conducted entirely by Rachmaninoff, as well as the American premiere of his Second Symphony and his first appearance in the U.S. in the three-part role of composer, pianist, and conductor in one concert.

Rachmaninoff’s first American tour lasted about three months and included performances with most of the nation’s major orchestras of the time. Of particular significance, although they could not have known it at the time, was his appearance in December 1909 with the Cincinnati Symphony and its then conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Three years later Stokowski would become music director in Philadelphia, where he would forge the special lifelong relationship between the composer and the ensemble.

Detail from the concert review of Rachmaninoff’s November 26, 1909, debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra in the North American newspaper. 

Musical considerations aside, among the benefits Rachmaninoff hoped to derive from the tour was that the proceeds would allow him to do something he had been wanting to do for some time—purchase an automobile. He had become fascinated with this new type of vehicle and was very keen on getting one. As he confided in a letter to a friend in July 1909, “I’d like to buy an automobile. I can’t tell you how much I want one! … I don’t want to go [to America]. But then, perhaps, after America I’ll be able to buy myself that automobile.” Rachmaninoff did indeed purchase a car when he returned home, where one of his favorite pastimes became driving around the Russian countryside.

Following his initial American tour, Rachmaninoff returned to Russia and resumed his musical career. His next appearance in Philadelphia was in March 1919, when he played his First Piano Concerto with Stokowski and the Orchestra. This second Philadelphia appearance was under very different circumstances than the first. Rachmaninoff had fled his homeland in late 1917 following the Russian Revolution and was now residing in America, which would be his home for the rest of his life. He would appear frequently with The Philadelphia Orchestra until his death in 1943, premiering many of his works here and making his symphonic and orchestral recordings almost exclusively with the Orchestra. 

Support for the Rachmaninoff Festival is provided by Tatiana Copeland. Mrs. Copeland’s mother was the niece of Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Tatiana Copeland was named for the composer’s daughter, Tatiana Sergeyevna Rachmaninoff.

This is the second in a series of special posts surrounding the Orchestra's Rachmaninoff Festival. To purchase tickets please visit philorch.org.

All photos: The Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives