At the beginning of August, the Swiss Alps were shining under the sun. After a few days spent in a beautiful chamber music program in Verbier, Switzerland, we headed to the region of Hertenstein, where the Villa Senar, where Rachmaninoff lived, is situated.
The Bauhaus-style residence, raising on the shores of Lake Lucerne, overlooks the mysterious and peaceful landscape of the lake of the four Cantons.
Undoubtedly, the atmosphere around this peaceful summer residence where the Russian composer lived in in the 1930s must have boosted his creativity in his later years. Hence the Corelli variations (opus 42, finished when the couple moved to the Senar), the Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini (opus 43) and the Third symphony (opus 44) emerged at the Villa Senar during a new period of creation. Didn’t Wagner compose The Master-Singers of Nuremberg in Hertenstein?
Nathan Milstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Gregor Piatigorski, are other names of compatriot artists who chose Switzerland as an adopted country thanks to its landscape and its atmosphere.
Senar means SErgei & NAtalia Rachmaninov. The Russian composer, “The Guillaume Tell de Senar” – as he signed his letters to his friends, wanted to leave his own trace on this new land, which reminded him of Ivanovka in his native country.
The most sought-after pianist of his time – after leaving Russia during the Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninov’s virtuoso career, performing between 50 and 70 concerts per musical season — has not forgotten his first vocation as a “composer”. He needed a place which could bring a new breath of creativity to write new works. His friend Oskar von Riesmann — the founder of the Senar project, and also the author of the “Rachmaninoff’s recollections”, biography — was right to suggest this beautiful region to his Russian friend in order to build his new summer residence.
At 5 p. m., in Weggis, Hertenstein, we arrive at the gateway to the gorgeous park where the roses welcome us (we inevitably think of the black roses created by the owner of the house). We are then encouraged to enter the private and intimate place of the Rachmaninoff family.
“The best room should be the studio, with windows 3.5 to 4 metres high and a view of Lake Lucerne.” said Rachmaninoff. The imposing black grand piano (designed especially for him; the piano has an exceptional length, with a much longer tail than standard concert pianos) that catches our first glance is the gift of the Steinway & Sons House for the composer’s 60th birthday. Here, one can imagine, for a moment, a great gentleman who is almost two meters tall sitting in front of the keyboard warming his hands with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or Chopin’s Etudes, perhaps the Schumann Carnival? Here, he had to play both the solo piano part and the orchestral part of his piano concertos, in the reduction version and improvising the cadence parts.
Rachmaninov, the man of culture, owned in his library the complete six volumes of Dostoyevsky, as well as the works of Chekhov and Pushkin. He obviously had a lot of music scores! From Bach (the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Two Voice and Three Voice Inventions, the Partitas, the English Suites, etc.) to Stravinsky and Shostakovich (the 24 preludes) and Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Liszt and others…. even Debussy (although he had very little interest in the musical language of the French composer!)
There are still some scores left, although Rachmanonoff brought a good part of them to the United States when he returned there in 1939 and most of the remaining scores were transferred to archives. Some pictures of family and friends hanging over the library still adorn the studio wall.
The rooms that reflect the composer’s other qualities are the dining room, bathrooms and the Schneider elevator; the Russian family often gathered their fellow artists around the large dining table, exchanged their artistic ideas, talked about their new projects, new travels and so on. He loved conviviality! Rachmaninoff was often at the dinner table with his friends, among them Fiodor Ivanovich Chaliapine, Vladimir Horowitz and his wife Wanda, Nikoalï Medtner, Michael Fokine and others.
Observing the Art Deco style bathrooms is like experiencing a work of art. Next to each bathtub there was a “bath heater” system: the family first heated them before running the hot water. Wasn’t that ingenious for the times?
The Schneider elevator between the main hall and the first floor also reflects his taste for modern technology.
After a few moments spent inside the Villa Senar, we head towards the immense garden where Rachmaninoff used to spend several hours taking care of his roses; he was a rose enthusiast and eventually invented the black roses which brought reporters to the event. The scents of roses and the smell of the earth tickle the nose, awakening the senses still asleep… Taking the path that leads to the lake, we see a garage on the water; Rachmaninoff would place his motorboat there, which he would occasionally use to be carried by the wind and speed. Yes, he loved the speed of his boat as much as that of his car! The man loved modernity.
We leave the Villa Senar hoping that this magnificent place will one day be open to the public as a cultural site (museum, festival residence, etc.), in order to inspire many artists of the new generation.