Arts & EventsMoriarty’s Musings: My Russian Symphony

Moriarty’s Musings: My Russian Symphony

Moriarty’s Musings: My Russian Symphony

My slowly evolving Russian Symphony is dedicated as follows: In Memoriam Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Rachmaninoff was as formative to my infancy and my subsequent character as my four years of Jesuit education.

Crawling on the carpet floors in the home of my infancy, just off Grand River in Detroit, this Russian genius’ Second Symphony convinced me that I had been born into heaven itself.

A Haunted Heaven, but heaven nonetheless.

My little head would lift to receive all the forbidding powers this master had to offer.

The ominously dark universe of sound which I was being led into has held me in its spell for over 70 years.

How can so sad and remorseful a foreboding as Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead at so early an age have strengthened me?

Nothing, not even my four years of Jesuit high school, so prepared me for the haunted heavens of my life as had Rachmaninoff and the soul-wrenching depth and gravity of his symphonic creations.

Rachmaninoff and the Jesuits taught me that life is a shatteringly divine seriousness.

After I began composing my “Russian Symphony,” I realized that as an American I cannot possibly remain in such darker corners of symphonic orchestration without a fight.

Some musical struggle within wills me to escape!

Why is that?

My indelibly American addiction to a “pursuit of happiness.”

However, the vitally important American, Joseph Campbell, and his fervent request that we “up the American stakes” and not merely “pursue our happiness” but “follow our bliss”?!

That word “bliss” surely includes the brooding lyricism of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

So, as we approach Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead (1909), that fearsome reminder of our mortality?

The adventure, the pilgrimage within our own inner odysseys can breathe ecstasy itself!

Suddenly, in the midst of my writing this, a documentary video of the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff comes to my attention.

From Rachmaninoff’s diaries emerge thoughts as melancholy, as revealing and as lonely as his yearning lyricism.

His First Symphony doesn’t sound at all like the Rachmaninoff I was raised on.

The horrifying reception of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony by the critics, despite its dedication to the gypsy girl he had loved and the sincerity of its intent, was devastating.

After such a debut as a serious composer, he writes: “I was unable to compose again for almost three years.”

Rachmaninoff’s next piece was part of his repertoire that introduced me to his Second Piano Concerto.

“How little did we (Russia) know of what was to come (World War I and the Communist Revolution)?”

Yet somehow all of the justifiable and prophetic foreboding can be found in his Isle of the Dead.

In Harvest of Sorrow, the fugue from his First Symphony prepares us for the composer’s flight from Russia and Lenin’s Communist Revolution in 1917.

By the time Rachmaninoff’s family had reached a refuge in Stockholm, Sweden,

We were frozen,


and alone.

In exile?


What madness!!

What a bourgeois I’ve become!

My character has been quite ruined!


my fellow Russian exile,

describes me as a “six-foot scowl”!

America gave me financial security

but it could not give me peace of mind!

To maintain his Russian soul, Rachmaninoff surrounded himself with as many Russians as he could find and afford: a Russian secretary, a Russian cook and a Russian chauffeur.

Nothing could give us back our homeland.

Only my (Russian) friends,

my (Russian) family

 and my (Russian Orthodox) religion

sustain me!

At least Europe seemed a little closer to Russia.

So the Rachmaninoffs began staying in France for the summers.

News from Russia became ever more distressing!

Stalin and his bullies

seemed determined to destroy the Russia we loved!

In The New York Times, he wrote:

At no time

and in no country

has there ever existed

a government responsible

for so many cruelties,

wholesale murders

and common law crimes

as those perpetrated by the Bolsheviks!

For 13 years now,

the Communist oppressors

have subjected the Russian people

to indescribable torture.

They are nothing but a group of professional murderers!

My music

was now forbidden!

For me,

Russia was forever closed!

He then moved to Lake Lucerne in Switzerland where, for a short time, he was at peace.

I’ve even found a place here

where I can be buried.

I shall find peace

at last!

Variations on a Theme by Paganini was composed at his new home at Lake Lucerne.

However, World War II was looming.

Oh, Russia! My Russia!!

I fear we are living on a volcano!

Rachmaninoff returned to America because of the war and retired to California.

My Symphonic Dances 

are a memory of what was

and what might have been.

Wherever I live,

I compose Russian music.

My music is,


a long, dark coda

into the night.

At the signs of his increasingly serious lung illness, he writes,

I’m frightened,


and guilty!

This documentary, The Harvest of Sorrow, ends with, of course, the most powerfully memorable wellspring within his music, the indelibly memorable melody of Symphony No. 2, Third Movement, 1908.

It is profoundly moving to watch and see a Japanese symphony orchestra performing one of its former enemy’s quintessentially Russian and, I must add, Russian émigré classics.

Everything this music grieves for is fulfilled in the sight of such a complete agreement among the world’s artists that the pains we mutually suffer are indisputably most divinely translated into an offering up of such sublime lyricism!

A ritual Mass of reconciliation.

An orchestra of Tokyo performing Rachmaninoff!!

An Isle of the Dead from both sides rises in the profoundest gratitude.

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