Man sitting at a piano

Bittersweet Symphony

“Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff, the outstanding Russian pianist-conductor-composer, will open the current University Concert series on Monday, Nov. 9, at 8:30 p.m. in the Alumni Memorial Auditorium. This promises to be a superb program and an auspicious opening of the new series.”

—From the Orange and White, November 6, 1942

The concert was by all accounts superb, but in hindsight it’s clear the event was anything but auspicious.

In fall 1942, the sixty-nine-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff was widely recognized as one of the greatest pianists of his day, and his concert performances were known to be consistently dazzling. Student anticipation of the concert was high, and a number of articles in the Orange and White—the university’s student newspaper at the time—let loose with nearly every superlative they could muster, calling him a “genius” who “is universally hailed as the greatest living exponent of piano techniques as well as one of the finest composers.”

By this point in his life, Rachmaninoff was in bad health, and the November concert at the university was postponed due to illness. Shortly thereafter, on February 17, 1943, Rachmaninoff performed in UT’s Alumni Memorial Auditorium, playing several of his own compositions as well as some by Schumann, Bach, and Wagner.

However, it was Rachmaninoff’s performance of Chopin’s “Funeral March” that would later be noted as a chilling portent of his own death, which occurred on March 28, 1943. The concert at UT was Rachmaninoff’s final performance.

While his concert at UT marked the end of Rachmaninoff’s career, his influence stayed with the university for decades. The day after the concert, in fact, the student newspaper announced that the university would soon start offering Russian language courses. Though the timing was undoubtedly coincidental, looking back it seems the announcement adds a bittersweet note to the legacy of the artist and his final performance.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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Rob Frost February 13, 2013 - 9:55 pm

My late grandfather, Ralph Frost, as the director of University Concerts was the concert promoter who brought Rachmaninoff to the University. He and my late father (who was a boy at the time) would to tell me about when they picked up Rachmaninoff at the train station when he arrived in Knoxville for this concert and took him to the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Mr. Rachmaninoff stepped off the train wearing a very heavy winter coat, while my grandfather and father wore something much lighter. Mr. Rachmaninoff quipped “Mr. Frost, based on our clothing, one of us must be crazy!”

tom February 19, 2023 - 5:34 am

That is a wonderful story. We think of classical musicians living a hundred years ago, but really they were here only yesterday in the scheme of time. What a great story you have to pass on in your family.

Susan Morrison Garland February 14, 2013 - 1:00 am

I so wish I could just hop on a plane and run down simply for this fabulous performance. Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky are my favorite composers.

Is there a chance that this concert will be recorded and made available for a fee? I’ll be the first in line. ???

Thanks, enormous thanks, to my Music Eduation professors and classes at UT for opening up the world of classical music to me. A lifelong gift that keeps giving.

Thank you.

By the way, this is awfully small print. I can barely see what i am typing! .

Susan (Morrison) Garland
Class of 1959

Winnetka (Chicago) Illinois


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