Given that Rachmaninov has been showing up in my musical life from several different directions lately, I've been thinking of a scene I never forgot from Natalya Sats's memoirs, "Sketches of My Life".

Natalya Sats (1903-1993) was the director of the Moscow Musical Theatre for Children (and according to the Russian Wikipedia, the world's first female opera director). She helped Sergei Prokofiev produce the famous children's musical story "Peter and the Wolf" (and apparently when the famous radio play of "Alice in Wonderland" that involved Vysotsky's songs, was discussed, she accused the studio of "corrupting children with Vysotsky's mostrous songs --- see, I can like both of them despite this).

She was the daughter of the composer Ilya Sats, who was best known for composing the children's musical "The Blue Bird," and she herself received a musical education.

From the surrounding paragraphs, this scene must have happened when she was about eight years old (translation by me; apparently an official translation of that book exists, but I haven't been able to find it; the tense shifts are in the original, and I think capture the child's perception of the event):

Once I was home all alone. I sat readng. The doorbell rang and I opened the door. There stood a tall thin man in black, clean-shaven, severe-looking.

"Is Ilya Alexandrovich home?" he asked me in a grim voice.

"He'll be coming soon," I replied, feeling that this was someone special, and I grew a little frightened.

He came in, took off his hat, then his leather gloves --- each finger separately. He put his gloves in his hat. He wiped his feet, even though it was dry outside. He took off his coat and hung it up. His movements had some kind of stony formality, and his face, too, was of stone. No, he can't be one of the actors.

The dry man in the stiff collar didn't smile to me; his mouth was tightly locked, you can't talk to him. He was very cleanly shaven; he had little hair on his had, and a very high forehead. He seemed somehow completely separate, like an island. Tilting his head, he followed me to Papa's office --- he seemed to feel cramped under the low ceiling of our apartment. I offered him a chair, then shut Papa's door and stood pondering on the other side. What if Papa won't come for a long time? What will I do with this stranger?

Our Papa always has his tie and everything all askew; the "island" has everything very straight, with many buttons on his suit jacket which are all precisely buttoned.

I stood there, not knowing what to do. And then suddenly from Papa's office I heard an entire orchestra, a much bigger one than the one I had heard under the stage of the Theatre of the Arts. How astounding! Papa's old upright piano couldn't possibly sound like that!

The sounds insistently demanded some truth; they would unite in the most powerful chords I have ever heard. They raced apart and merged back together with unearthly speed. These sounds, like some unknown current, snatched me up and carried me away --- nothing of the mundane usual was left around me, just those sounds around me and in me... Was this tall man a wizard?! Did he have twenty fingers?

We were not allowed to open the door when there was music playing. Respect for the arts, for musicians, was instilled in us almost from birth. But on that forever unforgettable day, when I suddenly felt so wonderful and so frightened, I slightly opened the door and saw the stranger sitting at Papa's piano, playing. There he was, big, straight, stony-faced, only his fingers moving; his hands were huge, soft, strong, he orders them, and they...they sing in the sweetest voices, they light up the sun, they destroy foes... They could do anything, these wonder-working hands! It's interesting that he is somehow grayish-yellow, dry, all made of corners, and his hands are young, soft, completely different from the rest of him. Oh! He is going from middle C to the A of the second octave above it --- almost two octaves with one hand!

He is playing something like a polka. My feet start dancing despite me, and my mouth is smiling. How hard it is to stand by the crack of the door while this polka is playing! But it gets more amazing the further it goes: it is as if a hot wave floods everything inside you, and you feel like it's now a holiday, to everyone's joy.

Now he is playing something else: one huge someone and many little ones; a giant and some amazingly quick little elves! The Wolf and many Red Riding Hoods? They are so quick that one can't tell at all who will win.

How, how could ten simple fingers play like that! What a miracle, what marvellous luck that must be!

Perhaps he is just pretending to be so wooden, so that no one could tell from his face how good he is, but when he is playing, he can't hide that...

A bell rang in the front hall. It was Papa. Without saying a word, he quickly took off his coat, buttoned up all the buttons of his suit jacket, quickly fixed his tie, even smoothed his moustache, and went into his office. Ours was a one-story home, a "breeze-through", Mama called it; of course, Papa had heard that music even outside, and had understood who had come.

The amazing man greeted Papa, polite and friendly, and said, "I really like your polka from "A Man's Life," while the music to "The Blue Bird" is simply charming."

Such a man is saying that to my Papa? I am filled with pride.

But why did they shut the door? And the most important thing in the world right now was that the "amazing one" play again. No, he keeps on talking, and not playing. His voice is gray, only on one or two notes, even when he is saying nice things.

I was shocked how one could play at times so softly and tenderly, at times so forcefully, like great bells. My playing was always somehow in the middle: a little louder, a little softer, well, just ordinary. Now Papa's music is playing in Papa's office, and I...for the first time in my life I am mad at Papa! I so want the other one, the big one, to play again.

About twenty minutes later the stranger left --- he must have valued his time --- but what a completely new world had opened to me!

I had thought that my Papa plays the piano better than anyone --- because I hadn't heard anyone except him! But now...! How could I have possibly imagined that a musician's fingers could obey his will so well, could run about so, could sing like the sweetest of singers, could sound like a hurricane, a storm, a war... How did he make our little old upright piano say so much, say something so important that it couldn't even be said with words!...

I sat by Papa. He was in a good mood.

"Papa, you won't be angry? He plays the piano better, so much better, than you. Why is that, Papa?"

Papa answered warmly, without the slightest hint of being insulted, "Because he is Rachmaninov. Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov. He is a wonderful composer, but he is also a great pianist, a genius at the piano. I play the piano to tell people what I have to tell them, to help them understand the play, the show. I play to feel my music better. But Sergei Vasilyevich has unlimited command of the piano. Why, did he play long without me?"

- Natalya Sats, Sketches of My Life, 1985.


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