Russia Wants Rachmaninoff’s Remains Back

Should a composer who abandoned his home forever be returned there 72 years after his death?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Lebrecht Music & Arts/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

In the world of classical music, loyalties run deep and remnants of great composers are prized. It’s not every day, though, that a composer’s physical remains become a political flashpoint — unless the remains are those of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The AFP reports that a Russian minister has sparked an international debate by announcing his intention to reclaim Rachmaninoff’s remains from a cemetery in New York state.

It’s a surprise move that has stirred controversy, writes the AFP. After all, Rachmaninoff died in the United States after spending decades outside of Russia in self-imposed political exile. Despite considering himself “the most Russian of Russians,” writes Mary Jane Ayers, Rachmaninoff watched his bourgeois way of life evaporate during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. That year, he fled to Sweden and later the United States, where he worked as an acclaimed concert pianist. Though the composer mourned his country for the rest of his life, he never returned.

Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, recently called on the United States to repatriate the composer’s remains in what the BBC calls “a lavish mausoleum” on his old country estate. But the move appears to be less about a composer’s final resting place and more about tense Russian-American relations. The BBC quotes Medinsky as claiming that Americans have neglected the composer’s grave while attempting to “shamelessly privatize” his name, and the AFP notes that the minister accuses the United States of presenting Rachmaninoff as “an American composer of Russian origin.”

Rachmaninoff received American citizenship shortly before his death and even had his music banned in Soviet Russia after he moved abroad. But as the AFP writes, Russia has long expressed interest in the exiled composer, even attempting to purchase one of his homes in Switzerland.

However, the composer’s descendants have no plans to return his remains to his country of origin — after all, Rachmaninoff requested to be buried in New York in his will. But perhaps the tiff will bring new notoriety to the great composer — you can listen to him playing his own Piano Concerto 3 here.

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