Between Steinway and Motorboat
The composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff lived in Hertenstein on Lake Lucerne for five years.
Natalia Rachmaninoff was sceptical. For years, her husband (and cousin) Sergei Rachmaninoff had toured the musical centres as a star pianist. Since fleeing Russia after the October Revolution of 1917, the family and their two daughters had lived mainly in the USA and France. And now he wanted to buy a rocky ledge above Lake Lucerne?
Rachmaninoff did indeed buy it. He had part of the rock blown up to make the 20,000 m2 site suitable for building. He then hired the Lucerne architects Alfred Möri and Karl Friedrich Krebs, who designed a villa for him in the Bauhaus style, highly modern, with a lift, large window fronts and a sun terrace. And it was here, in 1934, at the age of 61, that he began his second life as a composer.
His first had ended when he left Russia. In the years that followed, he composed very little: because he was booked up as a pianist, but also because he lacked inspiration. He found it again in Hertenstein near Weggis. In his very first summer here, he wrote his «Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini» for piano and orchestra, which was to become one of his greatest hits.
Russian soil, Russian staff
The Villa Senar, as he called the house in reference to the names of Sergei and Natalia Rachmaninoff, became a kind of Russian enclave in Switzerland. Rachmaninoff had vast quantities of Russian soil imported, on which his park was then laid out. The domestic servants he needed for his thoroughly luxurious lifestyle also came from Russia, as did the chauffeur who drove him around in a Lincoln car. Preferably at high speed.
For Rachmaninoff liked to travel fast: not only by car, but even more so with his motorboat, with which he almost daily disturbed the silence and tranquillity on Lake Lucerne that he so appreciated in this place. And, of course, also as a pianist: how virtuosic and passionate he played was soon discovered by the Lucerne fishermen, who gathered with their boats in the bay in front of the Villa Senar whenever Rachmaninoff practised.
In November 1934, he travelled to Boston to play the premiere of the «Paganini Rhapsody». He then toured the USA, Canada and nine European countries. No sooner had he returned to Lake Lucerne than he began work on the second major work of his Swiss period, Symphony No. 3. Only rarely was his wife able to steer him away from work in the following years; then they took a holiday on the Adriatic, in Riccione, or a cure in Aix-les-Bains.
A visit from a maharajah
Rachmaninoff's time in the Villa Senar lasted five years, then political events intervened in his biography a second time. The threat of war worried him and he planned to move to the USA. On 11 August 1939, he was scheduled to give one last performance in Lucerne under the baton of Ernest Ansermet, with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 and the «Paganini Rhapsody». Afterwards he wanted to leave.
There was a slight delay, however, because an Indian maharajah was sitting in the concert with his family of about 40 people, who asked Rachmaninoff to visit his villa afterwards. He was allowed. When, during his visit to Hertenstein, he expressed the wish that Rachmaninoff might listen to his daughter's piano playing the following day in a Lucerne hotel, he was granted this too. The daughter did not play badly, Rachmaninoff noted – and then finally left. One day before mobilisation, he left Europe via Paris; he did not return until his death in 1943.
Later, his younger daughter Tatjana lived in the Villa Senar; still later, her son Alexander Conus led a secluded life here. Occasionally, he invited pianists to play Rachmaninoff's once specially made Steinway grand piano and to record CDs. After his death, there was a complicated scramble for the villa, which was finally taken over by the Canton of Lucerne. It is now being renovated in several stages and reopened as a cultural and educational centre
Translated with DeepL.com