Our contributor Yulia Savikovskaya met with Ettore F. Volontieri, who manages The Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation. The foundation was established in 2000 by the composer’s grandson, Alexander Rachmaninoff at “Villa Senar”, the composer’s house on the shores of the Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. Read more about Rachmaninnoff legacy and the role Villa Senar plays in it in the interview.

Serge Rachmaninoff at his studio in Senar

Yulia Savikovskaya: Dear Ettore, how come that you came to be interested in Rachmaninoff?

Ettore F. Volontieri: First of all, let me say that I had the chance to work for many years as the representative of the Mariinsky Theatre. In 2004 I happened to be in Lucerne, where the Mariinsky was touring its concert version of “Pique Damme”. There I met Alexander Rachmaninoff, the grandson of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who lived at the Villa Senar as the only heir of Tatiana Rachmaninoff, the daughter of Sergei. Since then we met each time I was presenting Rachmaninoff music around Europe with my projects. In December 2004 I organised the Rachmaninoff marathon in Santa Cicilia with Alexander Toradze and students of his Piano Studio. It was an amazing display of Rachmaninoff music for piano. Alexander came and he was extremely happy. The following year he came to my office in Milan and proposed me to work for the foundation as the consultant for him. Alexander shared with me his idea to revive the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, particularly the lesser known works by the composer. So by May 2005 I’d started working with him. Rachmaninoff music has been always very present in my life as a concert manager, as an artist manager; and, of course, to be allowed to enter into the very private sphere of the composer’s life has been a life-changing experience for me.

Yulia Savikovskaya: If we make an hierarchy of how well the Russian composers of the XXth century are known in the west, where would Rachmaninoff stand?

Ettore F. Volontieri: Well, in terms of being the name that rings the bell to most of the people I have to say Rachmaninoff is probably number one. Of course, the popularity of Shostakovich has been rowing enormously. I would say Stravinsky is, of course, very popular but in a very restricted circle of people and very-very respected. Rachmaninoff has been projected to the main popularity by Hollywood, and by the fact that many of his melodies have been also taken by pop-composers and pop-singers, who make arrangements of his music. You can like or dislike it, but the Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto no. 21” movement is so popular because Celine Dion made a song based on its tunes. Things like these didn’t happen to other composers. Of course, in a circle of classical music aficionados and, especially, critics this hierarchy can change. But in terms of general popularity Rachmaninoff is probably the most popular Russian composer after Tchaikovsky.

Serge Rachmaninoff

Yulia Savikovskaya: Could you say a few words about how Rachmaninoff acquired Villa Senar and which years of his life he spent there?

Ettore F. Volontieri: It’s a very interesting story, as Rachmaninoff came to Switzerland and particularly to the Lake of Four Cantons, or Lake of Lucerne, for his honeymoon with his wife Natalya. He was up to the Rigi Hohflue, which is a beautiful mountain, from which you can see all the lake of Zurich and its amazing landscape. They both loved the place. There are several letters of Rachmaninoff saying how beautiful this place was. Then, we all know that 1929 marked the worst crisis for the American economy and then the World economy. By 1929 Rachmaninoff, thanks to his American activities, mainly piano concert performances and all the recordings, was able to amass a certain fortune. It was bad time for people to have money, because the stock exchange was in a terrible shape due to the crisis. So I have a feeling that Rachmaninoff was keen to invest his money so as not to lose it. Rachmaninoff had a great friend, Oskar von Riesemann, who lived in Lucerne. Suddenly, we see it from the archives of Villa Senar, the correspondence started between the Rachmaninoff and Oscar about a beautiful piece of land becoming available for sale on the lake of Four Cantons. It belonged to a German businessman, who had a small spice factory and a Swiss chalet on the site. The site of 20 000 square meters, was right on the lake in a beautiful location where one could see the Pilatus, a sacred Swiss mountain. Rachmaninoff immediately jumped on the idea and bought this piece of land. Later Rachmaninoff asked a German architect, to develop an extension for the chalet. However, the suggested projects were not appealing, and Rachmaninoff made a clear decision to build a completely new house hiring two Lucerne architects, Krebs and Möri. In order to build this, he had to completely change the topography of the territory – he had to make a huge investment to get rid of a massive rock in the middle of the site, and make a plane, flat land. And because of this work that took about two years to complete Senar now has two houses: one smaller house which is called the Gärtnerhaus, where Rachmaninoff spent two years waiting to the big house to be ready. We have the first documents of Rachmaninoff being in Senar in 1932 and receiving his friends like Horowitz and his wife and Toscanini. There are many letters saying he was so happy in the place. The new house was completed in April 1934, and as soon as the Stanway piano, which is Frederick Stanway donated to him on his 60th birthday, arrived, Rachmaninoff began composing. I find it incredibly touching that between April and August 1934 he composed the “Paganini Rhapsody”, the rhapsody in a team of Paganini, which is his first big work that he composed since he left Russia apart from “Piano Concerto №4” and the “Corelli variations”. The “Paganini Rhapsody” flows with amazing freedom of expression being composed in Senar, a place where Sergei could express himself with complete joy like he did in Ivanovka in Russia. Later in 1935 he started working on “Symphony №3”, which he completed with orchestration by the summer of 1936. We can say that Senar was definitely the place, where Rachmaninoff regained his voice and the ability to create these beautiful melodies with amazing orchestration.

Villa Senar 1934

Yulia Savikovskaya: Are there any indications in his letters that he found that inspiration being at the villa?

Ettore F. Volontieri: Yes, especially in letters to his cousin Sofia Satina, where he is constantly talking about how well he feels at this place, how he always looks forward to coming back here. In one letter he even says: “I think I’ve found the place where, if needed, I should be buried”. But why? Because Rachmaninoff was able to create this place absolutely how he wanted. We can say that Senar was one of his compositions – there is so much of his personal taste, his presence. He made every single decision on how the house should be built and even which plants were to be planted in the garden. At Villa Senar we have a detailed archive of all the documents related to the construction of the house and one can see the personal contribution of Rachmaninoff in many ways.

Yulia Savikovskaya: How well is the house preserved? What is the feeling you get when you enter it?

Ettore F. Volontieri: One of the greatest things that, I think, Alexander did, is to really preserve the house as it was. We have so much of the original construction and furniture. We even have the only existing suit that Rachmaninoff kept there. We have all the linen, all the small pieces of interior – everything is here.

Yulia Savikovskaya: This is quite unique, because it’s not the case for Stravinsky last house in Los Angeles or even Rachmaninoff’s former house in LA.

Ettore F. Volontieri: The house in Los Angeles was sold long ago. People who live there have nothing to do with Rachmaninoff or the family. That’s why Senar is so important. We should be grateful to Alexander, Rachmaninoff’s grandson, as he was obsessed and kept and saved everything. All that Sergei Rachmaninoff left in Senar is there. Everything, down to the shopping lists, receipts, where he was marking what he was buying and how much he was paying. It is, I think, a kind of love for his grandfather, an act of recognition of how great he was, that Alexander kept literally everything. So you have the feeling that Rachmaninoff left the house just five minutes ago.

Yulia Savikovskaya:  So the visitors find themselves taken back in time to the summer, between 1934 and 1942, right?

Ettore F. Volontieri: Yes, we can say that Rachmaninoff spend a significant amount of time every year at Senar between early March and August every year during 1934-1939. Seven full very important years. We know the history of the time, I mean, dictatorships arising, the Nazis coming to Germany and occupying the cultural life in Germany, forcing all German Jewish artist to leave the country, Toscanini announcing his terrible situation and leaving Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals forever. That’s when the festival of Lucerne was started with the strong presence of Toscanini. It was a very important period for Europe, for the entire world. So it is remarkable that Rachmaninoff was able to spend his time at Villa Senar and to compose such masterpieces here. And I think, this is the reason why the Rachmaninoff Foundation is working hard to keep the place as a memorial not only to Rachmaninoff as a musician, but to Rachmaninoff as a person, a generous man helping his friends, helping a lot of people around him to relocate, supporting people who had to leave Russia. He was also helping Russia during the World War II, sending food and medicine. Sergei was a man with very clear political views, and who had to pay for this, because, as we know, Rachmaninoff’s music was banned in the Soviet Union for many years. Only later after Rachmaninoff gave a lot of support to the Soviet Union, the Union of Composers came back and congratulated him with his 70th birthday. Sadly, Sergei died the day before receiving this telegram from the Union of Soviet Composers.

Rachmaninoff with Toscanini

Yulia Savikovskaya: Switzerland was a safe, almost mythological place for many immigrants during the War.

Ettore F. Volontieri: Yes, in a way it represents a place where people can find peace and also a place, where people can meet. We are very happy as the Rachmaninoff Foundation to say that in 2018 Canton of Lucerne has added Villa Senar to the list of heritage sites which deserves to be protected.

Yulia Savikovskaya:  Could you say a few words about Rachmaninoff’s grandson?

Ettore F. Volontieri: Alexander dedicated his whole life to the memory of his grandfather. He invested a lot of energy to manage the author’s rights of his grandfather. We should not forget that for many years the music by Rachmaninoff was considered  old-fashioned and was not really welcomed by orchestras. It was banned by the music critics. It’s very interesting to look at the changes in music critics writing about Rachmaninoff from the late 50s until early 90s. I remember finding a note in Grove Edition of 1951, where one critic said that Rachmaninoff music was used in Hollywood movies and he would probably be forgotten very soon. However, with time, however, Sergei’s music gained good ambassadors, good conductors who were saying: “Hey, music of Rachmaninoff is not music of the past”. Look at the “Symphonic Dances”, it’s an extremely modern piece, the orchestration is incredibly modern, he is using jazz, he is using blues elements, he is really a man of his time, not just somebody looking behind, looking at Tchaikovsky.

One of the biggest tasks Alexander has been working on was to get the lesser known works by Rachmaninoff to be accepted by symphonic orchestras. I could never forget the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande presenting for the first time the Isle of the Dead in 2013. His choral symphony The Bells was presented for the first time in Scandinavia in 2008. His music was just forgotten, not to mention “Symphony №1” or the “Piano Sonata №1”. However with time, many pianists began to include “Sonata №1” in their programmes. Starting with Michail Pletnev, Nikolay Lugansky, the young generation, Daniil Trifonov, many are rediscovering this piece.


Yulia Savikovskaya: What has been happening to Villa during the pandemic? When do you hope to reopen? How can one visit it?

Ettore F. Volontieri: During the pandemic, of course, we were forced to cancel all our public activities. We have now re-opened the house for private groups, but only small groups of no more than five people. For people who are interested to visit, we’re very happy to open the house, to show it and to explain where we are with a project of transforming Villa Senar to a cultural centre dedicated to Sergei Rachmaninoff, which was, in fact, in the will of Alexander Rachmaninoff.

Villa Senar is very close to Lucerne. From Lucerne you take a very beautiful boat, and you get to Hertenstein in 35 minutes. From there you have a nice walk through the hill, and you get to Villa Senar. It’s a beautiful walk in the middle of the forest. It is part of the inspirational strength of this place. I think, it’s very important that as many people as possible are aware of the existence of this place. Of course, Alexander kept it very private because it was his private house. But, he was preparing to open it up for public after his death as a  memorial for Sergei Rachmaninoff, as the musician, the historical figure.

Yulia Savikovskaya: You have also digitised the Rachmaninoff’s archive. Could you tell us more about it?

Ettore F. Volontieri: Yes, we have a very successful partnership with an association, called “The Rachmaninoff Network” based in Holland. Thanks to their help, we were able to, first of all, to stabilise the materials, don’t forget that these materials have been here for eighty years, and paper is subject to deterioration. And now we, of course, have the digitised them as well. In order to protect the material from abuse we had to also create a kind of encoding procedure from the people who use the material commercially.

Yulia Savikovskaya: Do you have documents that have never been seen by any biographers of the composer?

Ettore F. Volontieri: Many documents, in fact. We have a huge number of documents, letters to his daughter where he speaks about almost everything. Also we have a lot of letters that Rachmaninoff received in Senar from his inner circle of friends and people – Konstantin Somov, Nabokov, Chaliapin, Bunin, Vladimir Horowitz, Nathan Milstein, and others.

Our dream is to create a global Rachmaninoff database, where all the documents could be available digitally for scholars and students. This is one of our dreams, which we are trying to develop together with “The Rachmaninoff network”. It will also include the partnership with the most important places where Rachmaninoff heritage is spread, like the Glinka Museum in Moscow, the Library of Congress in Washington, and the family Wanamaker, who are also preserving an important amount of letters, documents, photos, the piano which Sergei had in his apartment in New York, and then Beverly Hills, some paintings…

Villa Senar in Winter, 2021

Yulia Savikovskaya: So if somebody reads this article and they want to support Villa Senar, what can they do?

Ettore F. Volontieri: We are about to launch the Friends of Villa Senar. At the moment, people can also make donations directly to the Rachmaninoff Foundation. They can go to our website and find contact information, where they can be in touch with us. And we will welcome them. We usually don’t have fixed ticket prices, we ask visitors to give what they can.