By on October 28, 2010

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.

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26 Comments on “Sergei Rachmaninoff, Car Guy, Aero Investor...”

  • avatar

    Great stuff.  Keep it up.

  • avatar
    Charles T

    Eighty-eight years later, the late Notorious B.I.G. paid tribute to this time-honored tradition of music for motors with the line “Rhyme a few bars so I can buy a few cars” from the song “Victory”. Some traditions never die.

  • avatar

    I would have enjoyed this article, but the dancing pop-up windows (despite blocker in Firefox) made reading the article seem like I was in a skeet shooting competition.  Ads are fine.  Dancing pop-ups will drive away your readers.

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      Install the Firefox add-in called RequestPolicy.  You have to spend a little time training it, but it gets rid of those dancing pop-ups if you don’t want them.
      Also, if you block, your browsing experience gets a whole lot faster.  That site is one of the slowest sites on the internet and many sites, including TTAC, force you to wait until it loads before you can read the site.

    • 0 avatar

      Better yet, install the latest version of Firefox. I saw no dancing pop-ups with it. If you have Adobe Flash Player, look at the settings manager in the Adobe site. Some pop-up apps hide there, and it’s simple to change the settings to keep them out.

    • 0 avatar

      I forgot one more thing. You can set up Firefox to automatically delete history, cookies and cache whenever you exit Firefox. That keeps the junk you acquire when surfing from accumulating.

  • avatar

    Interesting piece of car culture with historical intersections, succinctly written.

  • avatar

    What a fascinating topic: What would Rachmaninoff drive?  I suspect that this will not generate the traffic of What would Don Draper drive, but so be it.

    His music was very lyrical and expressive, and I would guess his automotive tastes to run towards Italian.  I could imagine a Duesenberg SJ, but it may have been a little too Hollywood.  There may have been a Cord 810 in there, though.

    Now you have me humming Rachmaninoff.  Could be worse.

  • avatar
    N Number

    I’m not all that familiar with Rachmaninoff, but I am quite familiar with Igor Sikorsky.  His story was one of the finest of any American innovator.  In my last year of college in 2006, I found a signed copy of his autobiography in the science library that had not been checked out in the entire time it had been in the collection (since the 1960s.)  I checked it out and read it, and came ridiculously close to “losing” it and paying the fine.  He did discuss the Rachmaninoff investment, and he went on to be a very successful airplane builder and later invented the modern helicopter.

    • 0 avatar

      You mean Russian innovator.

    • 0 avatar


      Sikorsky emigrated from Russia to the United States at the age of 30 (in 1919), and became a naturalized citizen in 1928, spending a total of 53 years in the United States, and finally died in 1972.

      So as a naturalized citizen, he was indeed an American, and the vast majority of his inventions were done while he was in the US.

  • avatar

    Amazing piece, I don’t understand how the man who wrote it can be called bloodless.
    i have tried to listen to classical music while driving but I’ve never owned a car which even nearly approached the required level of sound deadening and sound system quality. What is the car you can listen a piano concerto in? Are you using headphones while driving?

    • 0 avatar

      Segue back to Panther Appreciation Week with Jack and his Town Car?  Seriously, I have a 99 Town & Country that is very quiet, and is equipped with one of the higher level factory stereo systems.  It is a good “music car”.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      My 2005 Phaeton with the enhanced sound system was perhaps the perfect combination of audio power and road insulation.

      As fate would have it, today I’m having my Town Car’s stereo ripped out today. More details to come.

    • 0 avatar

      Audi equipped with Bang & Olufsen should do.

    • 0 avatar

      Audi equipped with Bang & Olufsen should do.

      Or without.  Even the base system sounds good (for a car stereo).  When my buddy was ordering his S4, we spent about an hour going back and forth listening to the B&O and the base unit.  The B&O may have sounded better without any adjustments, but after fading them both back a little to compensate for the harshness of having front speakers aimed at the windshield, we thought that the base stereo sounded better.  He wanted a good system and was willing to pay extra for it.  He kept the $1000 on that one though.

  • avatar

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

  • avatar

    Great story. I will send it to my brother-with-the-Prius who thinks cars–except his Prius–are appliances, because he loves music, and maybe this will help him see the music in automobiles. Oh, who am I kidding?
    As for Sikorsky, I can remember my father pointing out the Sikorsky factory where the Merritt Parkway crosses the Housatonic on a trip from Boston to NYC when I was a little kid, and I’ve gone by it countless times since. When I went to Skip Barber, one of my classmates was an engineer at Sikorsky.
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  • avatar
    GS 455

    The schmaultz and bombast in the Concerto no 3 makes it great driving music but it is hard to listen to classical music in the car. The wide dynamic range means that if you set the volume to hear the quiet passages, the loud passages will blow your eardrums out. If you set the loud passages to a comfortably loud level you will not hear the quiet parts. Using dynamic range compression removes alot of the enjoyment of listenng to classical music and road noise masks the subtleties of softer passages.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s why I asked the question above. The road insulation must really be very good so that the volume can be low enough for the loud passages but still hear the quiet ones crisply. I guess Jack’s Phaeton fits the description, they don’t call it Bentley on the cheap for no reason.

  • avatar

    Ashkenazy was some pianist! I still have a Rachmaninoff symphony recording in my record collection somewhere (the one that has the melody in the second movement that Eric Carmen used for his song “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again”).

    • 0 avatar

      Eric Carmen’s first solo album in the early ’70s features at least three songs that made use of Rachmaninoff themes – not only “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” but also the album’s bouncy first track “My Girl” and the better-known “All By Myself.”
      I enjoyed reading about Rachmaninoff: Car Guy and hope to see similar pieces about other creative artists.

  • avatar

    Very interesting article!
    Up to now, the only musician that was motorcycle, car & airplane freak, I had knowledge of was the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Starting with a Harley Davidson in the 1920s, he owned & drove the best of everything from Porsches, Ferraris, Benzes… One of his last cars was a Renault 5 Turbo in race trim.
    He also had a valid jet pilot license and was licensed to fly helicopters.

  • avatar

    Sergei had ENORMOUS hands.  He could span 12 keys without even trying….Some of his works are beyond belief, and only a select few people in the world can play his toughest works.

  • avatar

    Easily the most interesting article I’ve ever read in a car blog! I’ve never particularly cared for Rachmaninoff, whose works seem bombastic to me, but I look forward to listening to his Piano Concerto no. 3 in my not-so-quiet Subaru.

  • avatar
    George in Georgia

    An earlier comment mentioned the difficulty of listening to “classical” music in a car. Quite true.  My ’96 Contour SE with “premium” audio had the solution:  a defeatable compressor circuit which reduced the dynamic range.  This ought to be on ALL car cd players.

    Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, especially No 2, make excellent driving music, BTW.  They help soothe the soul faced with the inevitable traffic slowdowns and idiot drivers.  And there’s always his “Isle of the Dead” if your in a morbid mood!

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