The enthusiasm of Sikorsky’s men, who had worked for weeks without pay, was at its lowest, and the workforce dropped to a mere handful. The few dollars that could be raised by selling stock in the company were spent mostly on food… After about a half-hour visit, Rachmaninoff said, ‘I believe in you and your plane and I want to help you.’ ” The composer sat down and wrote a check for $5,000 (approximately $100,000 today). With a smile, he gave the check to the stunned Sikorsky and said, “Pay me back whenever you can.”
That’s the famous story of how composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff became a Sikorsky vice-president, as told in the Sikorsky Archives. Although he was widely considered to be a rather dour and bloodless man, even by his contemporaries, Rachmaninoff was passionate about fast machinery. In fact, one of his signature pieces was composed for a very familiar reason: he wanted to buy a car.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3 is not for the faint of heart. It’s so demanding to play that the composer himself, despite being one of the strongest technical pianists of the twentieth century, wrote an easier version of one critical passage for those nights on his long American tour when he wasn’t feeling quite up to pounding his way through the original.
That tour, a grueling affair which saw him play twenty concerts in the span of six months, was physically and spiritually crushing for Rachmaninoff, but he had a goal in mind: purchasing his first car. Nobody is quite sure what he bought with the money, although the modern and perhaps romantic opinion among classical music fans is that he purchased one of Karl Benz’s products. He then purchased a new car every year or so for the rest of his life.
After the Russian Revolution swallowed up his home and properties for the good of the proletariat, the composer settled down in the United States, eventually becoming a citizen during World War II. From time to time, Rachmaninoff would travel to Europe for a holiday, and we are told that he always shipped two major items: a Steinway grand piano and his current automobile.
This was an era when important people were still commonly driven in the United States. The job of “driver” was a dirty one, closer to “field mechanic” than to the modern concept of limo operator, and most wealthy people were not interested in soiliing their hands with bearing grease or oil leaks. While Rachmaninoff engaged a driver for long trips, he also enthusiastically drove himself.
The pianist Abram Chasins tells a fascinating tale of Rachmaninoff the “car guy”:
Knowing Rachmaninoff’s enthusiasm for motoring, I suggested late that afternoon an automobile drive in an Isotta-Fraschini — one of those fantastic Italian cars loaned to me by my California host for this auspicious pilgrimage. He accepted eagerly and kept exclaiming excitedly over the car’s performance. When we got to Santa Monica, he couldn’t hold out any longer and asked if he could drive it. At the wheel, he displayed from the first moment the same precisional coordination and rhythmic rightness of his piano mastery.
One wonders if Rick Ross operates his Maybach the same way.
If Rachmaninoff was a “car guy”, the next question is: is the Concerto no. 3 great driving music? I have only had the privilege of hearing it performed live once — by Yefim Bronfman, in 2008. The most popular version is that by David Helfgott, but I prefer an earlier recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Some people dismiss it as “movie music” or “showoff music”, but if you are in a hurry to make time on a fast back road, you could do much worse than to spend forty minutes of your life listening to it. And if you happen to exceed a posted limit or two, don’t worry: the composer himself, according to his IMDB biography, “received occasional fines for exceeding speed limits in his automobiles”. Proper.