Manitoba History: Rachmaninoff in Winnipeg: The Band of the Princess Patricia’s Regiment Meets a Russian Master
by Graham MacDonald
Winnipeg has long been recognized as a centre of great musical vitality. In the aftermath of the “Great War” there was a great demand in many North American cities for exposure to the best and the brightest of the world’s musicians, a demand greatly facilitated by improved rail transit systems. Many eminent performers appeared in Winnipeg in the early 1920s, including the English pianist Myra Hess, and Alfred Cortot of France.  One of the most distinguished pianists to come to the city was the Russian, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who performed in 1923 and again in 1925. Rachmaninoff was not just a pianist, but a famous composer and conductor as well. During his second visit, one of his popular compositions led to a memorable meeting between the composer and the Band of the Princess Patricia’s Regiment. Just how Rachmaninoff came to be visiting North American cities in the 1920s as a concert pianist, has much todo with the seminal political events of 1917.
In 1909, Sergei Rachmaninoff had been persuaded to leave his native country and undertake an American tour and it turned out to be a great success, notable for the first performance of his newly-completed piano concerto, the now-famous third in d minor. It was premiered by the New York Symphony under the baton of Walter Damrosch. In the course of this tour he performed with many of the good eastern seaboard orchestras: the Boston, the Philadelphia and the New York Philharmonic. The permanent conductor of this last mentioned was the composer, Gustav Mahler. Rachmaninoff played his new and difficult concerto under Mahler’s direction and the Russian was greatly impressed with the Austrian’s approach to conducting. In his Recollections given to Nicholas Von Riesemann in the early 1930s, he stated that “Mahler was the only conductor who I considered worthy to be classed with Nikisch. He devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection.”  This was a compliment paid by one perfectionist to another.  In the course of this first American tour, Rachmaninoff also went to Toronto where in late November he performed his popular second concerto. 
This would not be the great Russian’s last visit to Canada, but at the time, it is unlikely that he entertained any notion of returning to North America again. The reason is that Rachmaninoff was a man of strong domestic inclinations. Although the 1909 tour was necessary for his career, he did not enjoy being out of his native Russia. In a letter from New York to his cousin, Zoya Pribitkova, he complained that “I am very busy and very tired. Here is my perpetual prayer: God give me strength and patience.” It was not that he was ill-treated. “Everyone treats me nicely and kindly, but I am horribly bored with it all.” He confided to her of being in “this accursed country” and surrounded by nothing but the “business business” and trapped in a place where “they are forever doing, clutching you from all sides and driving you on.”  As one of the leading luminaries of Russian cultural life, he yearned to rejoin his own world, one which was, in most respects, his to command, and which would remain so until the political crisis of 1917. Rachmaninoff’s ability to pursue his musical destiny from an advantaged position within the borders of his own country ended in that year.
One reading of modern Russian history has it that ever since the reign of Peter the Great (1672-1725), that vast country had been set on a course designed to ultimately fuse its essentially Asian character with European models of politics and culture.  Just what the most satisfactory way to go about completing this fusion was one of the great questions posed in nineteen century Russian literature, under the cry: “What is to be done?” At its crudest, the problem was seen to be one of liberating a down-trodden and backward agricultural populace from the arbitrary power of a modified, Asian-style despotism and the financial control of the landed gentry. In the late nineteenth century, the advocates of reform were many, increasingly polarized between constitutionalists and out-right revolutionaries.  What better opportunity to introduce constitutional monarchy than in Russia? Was Nicholas II not kin to the British Monarch? However, the long-sought reforms of 1917 quickly reverted to the Asian despotic side of the scale and political rule quickly came to resemble the absolutist style of the old regime in a more secular form. 
In political and cultural terms, a great deal was happening in Russia during the decades preceding the revolution. With the traumatic rupture in political culture occasioned by the events of 1917, historians soon sought to characterize the preceding years by means of some convenient phrase. The term “silver-age” entered the lexicon, particularly with respect to literature, conjuring up a sense of decline, decadence, self-conscious aestheticism and experimentalism, the last creative gasp perhaps, of a culture which was running out of gas. This term did not please those who also detected dynamics of renewal as a kind of leavening agent in the pre-revolutionary setting. The literary scholar, Glebe Struve, much preferred to see those years in terms of a “renaissance.”  The point was well taken. The positive creativity and energy which characterised much of Russian economic and cultural life from 1890 to the revolution was indeed remarkable.  In the arts especially, an important coalescing of talent and European influence took place in a way which, in social terms, encouraged a crossing of traditional class lines, a late benefit, possibly, of the abolition of serfdom decree of 1861.  Bold innovation combined with more conservative traditions to produce a quite remarkable fusion in the arts, represented best by Serge Diaghilev’s Saison Russes in Paris in 1907 followed by his more famous Ballet Russes.  No better manifesto for the cosmopolitan and progressive aspirations of the Russian renaissance could be found than in the journal, The World of Art, inaugurated by Diaghilev in 1898. It was a lavish publication that enjoyed the Czar’s financial patronage until the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.  In 1898 the Moscow Art Theatre of Stanislaysky had also been founded, a theatre that was soon to have a far reaching influence on European, British and American stage craft. There, Chekhov’s seemingly passive plays combined ideas of psychology and realism, placing Moscow at the centre of the avant-garde.  However one may characterize the spirit of this “silver age”, it is clear that many conflicting trends were at play, and that creativity and reform were in the air in just about any field of endeavour. 
The suggestion of a frustrated drive towards westernization is a plausible enough interpretation for modern Russian history. For many in the upper ranks of society, there had been, since the days of Peter the Great, a fascination with importing European ideas and adapting them to the Russian situation. Furthering the influence of the enlightenment in Russia was one of the great passions of Catherine the Great. In his fond and insightful personal memoir of his own family’s role in late Imperial Russia, Michael Ignatieff has captured the essence of this historical conundrum. His grandfather, Paul Ignatieff, (1870-1945) the last education Minister under Tsar Nicholas II, was a liberal reformer, and then became a post-revolution émigré to North America. About his grandfather’s contemporaries, says Ignatieff: “They were the first generation to reconcile their European and their Russian identities, and they were the last.” 
This idea had registered rather forcefully on Paul Ignatieff’s fellow émigré, Sergei Rachmaninoff who, by just about any account, was a superb representative of that extraordinary “silver age” when hope and frustration seemed to mix in equal quantities. He had received the mantel of his hero and mentor, Tchaikovsky, after the latter’s death in 1896. After that date, he moved influentially in circles such as the Moscow Art Theatre, and quickly became a leading figure in the musical life of Russia, associated with the Mamontov Opera, the Bolshoi Theatre, the Imperial Opera of St. Petersburg, the Russian Musical Society and many other organizations.  He was acquainted with many of the great figures of the day, including Chekhov, Stanislaysky, Diaghilev, and Rimsky-Korsakov. The realist writer, Maxim Gorky (Alexei Peshkov), thelegendary base singer, Feyodor Chaliapin, and Rachmaninoff, had all been born within a one hundred mile radius of each other along the Volga, and in time, they became friends.  They also became exiles, although Gorky was to make his peace with the new regime and return home to become a force of reason among the Bolsheviks. 
Not so Rachmaninoff, who quickly came to conclusions of the most distinct kind in 1917. There was no doubt in his mind that his world had vanished. Although favourably disposed towards the constitutional agitation of 1905 and the changes of February, 1917, the musician quickly became disenchanted with the dithering of Kerensky’s Provisional Government, and then acutely so with the events of October, when the Bolshevik’s seized power.  About the last days before his departure from Russia, he recalled: “As soon as I had made a closer study of the men who handled the fate of our people and the whole country, I saw with terrible clearness that here was the beginning of the end—an end full of horrors the occurrence of which was just a matter of time.”  Late in December of that year, Rachmaninoff and his family abandoned the family estate in the black-earth country near Tambov and departed Russia for good. This was not a small decision for a man of forty-four with family obligations, and who was allowed to take only 500 rubles out of the country. While still contemplating the logistics of his departure he had expressed his worries over finance to a friend at the Moscow Conservatory who, says Rachmaninoff, replied to him: “ ‘But, my dear sir! You should be the last to worry about that. Why, here you have your exchange!’ and he pointed to my hands.”  The family spent its first year of exile in Sweden and Denmark. While in Copenhagen he was to receive numerous offers from the United States to accept conducting positions, but these he declined, doubting that he could fulfill the obligations at such short notice.  Instead, Rachmaninoff started to lay the ground work for a new career as a concert pianist. 
World War I had touched every one in Europe and North America in different ways. When the Norwegian steamer, Bergensfjord, shipped out of Oslo on 1 November of 1918, it sailed into an ocean still blacked-out by War. On November 10, the ship arrived in New York City. The Rachmaninoffs were on board. It was perhaps the best day upon which to arrive and make a new beginning in North America, for the following day the armistice was declared, to the relief of all. Among those waging war in Europe there was one unit which greatly deserved the rest promised by the armistice: that was the Canadian Princess Patricia’s, a regiment which had been in the field since late 1914.
On August 3rd, 1914, a day before Britain declared war on Germany, thirty-three year old Andrew Hamilton Gault, a captain of the Royal Highlanders of Canada (a Montreal based militia regiment), went to Ottawa to make a proposal to Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence. There was a general concern about the speed with which events were unfolding in Europe and Gault offered to raise and equip a mounted force at his own expense for use in the war, if such was declared.  It was a distinctly nineteenth century gesture, perhaps the last of its kind on record. Through liaison with Lt-Col Francis Farquhar, Military Secretary to the Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught, arrangements for the new force were approved and completed by August 8th, including the assignment of Farquhar as Commander and the lending of the name of the Governor General’s daughter to the regiment as patron. Thus, Her Royal Highness, The Princess Patricia of Connaught, became attached to what was to become one of the most famous regiments of the Great War.  It was one of the first units to take to the field in 1914 and one of the last to leave in 1918.  On April 9, 1917, King George telegraphed Ottawa: “Canada will be proud that the taking of the coveted Vimy Ridge had fallen to the lot of her troops.” This regiment had taken an important part in the action. Seven hundred and fifty of the Princess Pat’s lie buried in Flanders. 
Princess Pat’s musical history can be traced to its pipers who were present at the initial recruitment in Toronto in 1914. Lt-Col Farquhar was approached by one J. Colville, a Pipe Major, who expressed his desire to “pipe the regiment to France and back again.” The offer was accepted and Colville then assembled a complete Pipe Band from Edmonton, fitted out in full highland kit and the Hunting Stewart tartan, provided by the St. Andrew’s Society of Edmonton. Thus was born the first regimental band. 
In 1917, it became a brass and reed band under WO1 Williams, who was later killed in action. On the morning of November 11, 1918, the Princess Patricia’s Regiment, with its band at the head, marched into Mons and stood to attention while from the Belfry at Mons, the bells chimed out “O, Canada.” 
Upon the regiment’s return to Canada in 1919, the military leadership decided that the name of the unit should be preserved as part of the Canadian permanent field force.  As part of the consolidation the regiment’s band was put on a solid footing with the appointment of Captain T. W. James, a former bandmaster of the Scots Guards, as Director. “Musicians who had served through the great war with various British and Colonial regiments signified their desire to join, and within a short time the nucleus of the present band was organized.”  The regiment was assigned to the Osborne Barracks in Winnipeg, and from this base the band made many tours of western Canada and elsewhere, performing in parks, theatres and at local exhibitions.
From its beginnings as pipers in the trenches, the Princess Pat’s Band gradually transformed itself in the post-war years into something much more than a “wind” ensemble. “It is truly an orchestra, with the splendid tonal qualities, the balance, the rhythmic sense and the artistic sensitiveness of a first-class orchestra.” Its repertoire was orchestral although it also developed arrangements and programmes which would cater “to the tastes of all types of audience.”  Like Rachmaninoff, the band became itinerant in the 1920s. In the band’s repertoire was an arrangement of the Russian master’s very popular Prelude in C# minor. In time the paths of the band and the great pianist would cross.
In 1918 Rachmaninoff had, somewhat surprisingly, decided to take up the rigorous life of a concert pianist, rather than the more settled life of a conductor. In doing so he had to curtail his efforts in composition at a time when he was in the very prime of life. It was only in the later 1920s that he made some effort to pick up the pieces of his compositional career. The result was that in the first decade of his life in exile many people in North America and Europe were able to hear Rachmaninoff, the great pianist, perform on a fairly regular basis. Canada was not excluded from his tours and in 1923 and 1925 the citizens of Winnipeg welcomed the virtuoso to local concert halls.
His first visit came on Feb. 19, 1923, following a performance on Feb. 16 at Toronto’s Massey Hall, “where he drew one of the largest audiences that ever assembled to hear a newcomer to the city.”  The press reported that in the United States sold out houses were the rule and that with respect to local sales, visitors were expected to Winnipeg from Saskatoon, Kenora, Brandon, and many other rural centres.  At Winnipeg’s Board of Trade Auditorium, he performed a programme of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Moszkowski, and some of his own works, including of course, the famous Prelude.  In a glowing review of the evening performance “L.S.” ended by observing that the crowd “lingered until there was no hope of any more.” 
The following year, the Princess Pat’s Band went on tour in England where it performed over a period of six weeks, to great acclaim, at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The band was then engaged to give a series of concerts in several of London’s major theatres and also broadcast performances from the Savoy Hill Radio Station, one of the largest broadcasters in Europe. 
Offers were many to stay on in England, the National Sunday League having offered the band a series of forty Sunday evening concert engagements in the main London theatres. This offer followed upon very successful and well attended performances at the Alhambra and Palladium. 
The opportunities represented by advancing radio technology had not been lost on the owners of the major railway hotels in Canada. Passenger rail was the main mode of inter-urban transit for North Americans in the 1920s. Since the 1880s, the CPR, and its later rivals, such as the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Great Northern, had built hotels at appropriate destinations in the mountains and in the larger cities.  In 1904, the CPR broke away from its well-known “Chateau style” when it commissioned E. and W. S. Maxwell to build the new Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg, close to the main CPR Railway station in Point Douglas. The design was “a simple block with classical detail and a flat roof.”  On the other hand, when the firm Ross and MacDonald built the Fort Garry Hotel in 1911 for the Canadian Northern, near its Main Street Station, it remained faithful to the grand Chateau style.  These two large hotels came to define the boundaries of Winnipeg’s “hotel row”. 
Sir Henry Thornton, newly appointed president of the recently consolidated public Canadian National Railway system, was an innovator. In July, 1923 he initiated the use of radio for railway patrons and staff. By 1924, a system of radio stations had been strung together for the benefit of passengers and anybody who could pick up the signal. Music, news, stock market reports, children’s travel tales, and hockey provided the main ingredients of programming.  The CPR followed suit. When the Princess Patricia’s Band returned from its successful 1924 tour of England, both of the flagship Winnipeg hotels had become important centres of broadcasting.  Station CNRW operated on the seventh floor of the Fort Garry Hotel. “The acoustic properties of this room lend themselves splendidly to microphone transmission.”  The well-appointed Crystal Ball Room in the Royal Alexandra Hotel was also set aside for radio broadcasting.  By the time Rachmaninoff made his second visit to Winnipeg, the pitfalls of hotel radio broadcasting had been ironed out.
For his second concert in the city in March, 1925, Rachmaninoff performed at another of the favoured recital locations in 1920s Winnipeg, the Central Congregational Church. His programme again stressed the romantics, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. In her review of the concert, Mary Manners speculated that there “seemed to be some kinship between Liszt and Rachmaninoff.”  Her intuition was valid. Rachmaninoff had been taught advanced piano by his cousin, Alexander Siloti, a talented professor of music at the Moscow Conservatory, and one of Liszt’s favourite pupils.  Rachmaninoff was naturally required to play his famous Prelude in C# minor. A note on the history of this compelling piece is in order.
In his Recollections, Rachmaninoff related to Von Riesemann the circumstances surrounding the phenomenal success of this Prelude (Op. 3. No.2), composed when he was just nineteen.  As time went by, Rachmaninoff came to resent this tough little piece, which in short order had become a staple of the piano literature and an important test piece for aspiring upper level students. When Rachmaninoff landed in America in 1918, it had been nine years since his triumphant American tour of 1909, and there was now some question in the composer’s mind about how well he would be remembered. Von Riesemann writes that there never had been any danger of his name being forgotten for the Prelude “still made the round of all the concert-halls, cafes, drawing rooms, and the solitary studios of elderly piano mistresses, and kept his memory alive.”  In 1933, Rachmaninoff’s European manager, R. L. Ibbe, tried to clarify the composer’s view of this work for the press: 
That same year, Rachmaninoff encountered the Odessa-born pianist, Benno Moiseiwitsch, a great champion of his music, and a fellow émigré to America. Moiseiwitsch related the contents of a letter he had received from one of Rachmaninoff’s admirers. In this letter, the writer had speculated on the meaning of the famous Prelude. Does it, she asked, “describe the agonies of a man having been nailed down in a coffin while still alive?” To his compatriot Rachmaninoff wryly responded that if the Prelude “conjures up a certain picture in her mind than I would not disillusion her.”  Rachmaninoff was actually capable of taking some pleasure from any new and fresh performance of the work, such as the occasion in 1932 when he heard a rendition of it arranged for jazz band by the American, Ferde Grofe, the composer of the Grand Canyon Suite.  This openness to other treatments of the piece may help explain his response to a special request during his 1925 visit to Winnipeg.
As with many Russian musicians of the mid and late nineteenth century, Rachmaninoff came of a military background.  While free of all chauvinism and the jingoistic mentality, Rachmaninoff was a patriot who, during the war years, had committed much time, energy and money to relief projects.  The notorious discipline of his own creative life produced in him a natural affinity with those in the military, and it may be this, combined with his own memories of the recent carnage, which led him to respond favourably to a request from Captain T. W. James to conduct the Princess Patricia’s Band in a performance of his famous Pelude, in a transcription for symphonic band. While it is not clear if this performance was done for live broadcast, it may be reliably speculated on how it came about.  Rachmaninoff would have arrived by train from Toronto on the CPR and taken lodging at the Royal Alexandra Hotel as a matter of convenience. His presence in the hotel would have been well known to Captain James and the CPR Broadcast staff. The offer to conduct the band in the Crystal Ball Room was accepted, the composer later apparently “pronouncing his great pleasure at the competent performance of his composition.” 
Rachmaninoff had been maintaining a rigorous concert schedule for seven years, and the year 1925 marked another watershed in his career. While he would not cease giving concerts over the remaining years of his life, he was anxious to take a “sabbatical” and pick up the threads of his composing. By December of 1925 he had begun work on his Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 40). He cut short the bookings for 1925-26.  His output would not be extensive between 1926 and his death in 1943, but the late works were significant, highly polished and—to the irritation of many critics—very successful with the public.
Musicologists and critics have, over the years, remarked on the conservative nature of Rachmaninoff’s music, and of his own personal disposition in that direction.  It is true he avoided politics as much as possible in order to maximize his commitment to his art; but in many small ways he epitomized that ambiguity which was so characteristic of the best representatives of the “silver age.” Where general developments were concerned for example, he combined strong elements of the progressive with his undeniably patrician outlook. On the eve of World War I for example, he could be found in St. Petersburg, pestering a friend in the agricultural bureaucracy to fix things so that he might import an American tractor for his estate. He had invested much in his estate, Ivanovka, in an effort to rescue the family fortune which had been decimated by his father.  He drove an automobile in pre-revolutionary Russia and remained fascinated with automobiles and speed-boats when living in America and Europe.  He followed technical advances in music recording carefully, signing his first contract with Edison in 1918 and then with Victor in 1920.  Many of his performances have also been preserved through the medium of piano rolls, perfected by Charles Stoddards’s Ampico Company, with which Rachmaninoff experimented extensively. 
While remaining generally circumspect with respect to politics after his flight to America, he nevertheless could be moved to action. Rachmaninoff reinforced his alienation with Soviet authorities in 1931 when he lent his name, along with Count Ilya Tolstoy and Ivan Ostromislensky, to a strongly worded letter to the New York Times protesting the views of the famous Indian poet, Rabindrath Tagore, who had recently praised Soviet efforts in the field of public education. 
Rachmaninoff never returned to Russia, but in many respects, he never left. The melancholy which informed so much of his music was etched on his face for all to see. He was rarely seen to smile in public, and it was mainly the members of Russian émigré circles who understood his love of a good joke and his wry sense of humour. It was left to another famous Russian musical exile, Igor Stravinsky, to memorably describe Rachmaninoff as “a six foot scowl.”  It was as though the composer had taken the burden upon himself to convey to the world that what Russia had been seeking to achieve in those frenetic years before the revolution was of the highest importance and of the greatest dignity. This aspect was noticed by the reviewer of the 1923 Massey Hall concert in Toronto, just prior to the pianist’s first appearance in Winnipeg: “... the first impression of Sergei Rachmaninoff one got when he came upon the platform last night was that he is a tragic figure. 
3. On Rachmaninoff’s perfectionism, see Abram Chasins, ‘As I Saw Rachmaninoff: An Essay’ included in the RCA release of Rachmaninoff’s performances of his own four concertos in 1955. See also, Abram Chasins, ‘The Rachmaninoff Legacy - I.’ Saturday Review (29 October 1955), 37-39.
6. A moderate and balanced exposition of this whig interpretation of Russian history is that of B. H. Sumner, Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia (London: English Universities Press, 1951). Soviet scholars have also been interested in this view. See N. Pirumova et al. Russia and the West: 19th Century. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1990).
8. The literature on the revolution and its implications is large. A review with bibliography at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union is to be found in John M. Thompson, Revolutionary Russian, 1917. 2nd Ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1989.).
10. On the manner in which Russia attempted to modernize its economy in the later nineteenth century, see Theodore Von Laue, ‘Problems of Industrialization’ in T. G. Stavrou, ed. Russia Under the Last Tsar (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), 117-53.
11. Phyllis Hartnoll, The Theatre: A Concise History 3rd ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), p. 222; for a review of the effects of the 1861 decree and the reforms of 1905, see Gerald Tanquary Robinson, Rural Russia Under the Old Regime (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), Chapters 5 and 10.
18. F. W. Gaisberg, ‘The Last of the Three Giants of the Volga has Departed’ Gramophone (May, 1943), 37-8; Chaliapin: An Autobiography as told to Maxim Gorky (New York: Stein and Day, 1967), pp. 128, 277-79.
19. Dan Levin, Stormy Petrel: The Life and Work of Maxim Gorky (New York: Schocken, 1986); Richard Hare, Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).
20. On Feb. 2, 1905, Rachmaninoff was one of thirty-two musicians who had signed and published a public declaration urging government reforms, in the spirit of the general agitation of that year. See Bertensson and Leyda (1956), pp. 110-11.
40. See Harold D. Kalman, The Railway Hotels and the Development of the Chateau Style in Canada. Maltwood Museum, Studies in Architectural History, No. 1 (Victoria: University of Victoria, 1968); Cyndi Smith, Jasper Park Lodge (Altona: D. W. Friesen, 1985); Terry Reksten, Rattenbury (Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1978).
42. Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: An Illustrated History (Toronto: James Lorimer/National Museum of Man/National Museum of Civilization, 1977), p. 136; R. R. Rostecki, The Historic Architecture of Winnipeg, 1880-1920 (Winnipeg: 1972).
57. Museum of the Regiments. Calgary. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Regiment Archives. Box 18-1 (Regimental Band). File. 18 (75)-1. Typescript. In the later 1920s, Rachmaninoff articulated his reservations about the value of radio broadcasts but appears to have altered his view when confronted with the success which radio demonstrably achieved in bringing good music to the people. See Bertensson and Leyda (1956), pp. 255-56.
60. An important bibliography on Rachmaninoff’s music, work and biography, which includes the extensive Russian language contributions, is Robert Palmieri’s, Sergei Vasil’evich Rachmaninoff A Guide to Research (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985).
Page revised: 14 October 2012