Rachmaninoff the examiner

In 1900, Rachmaninoff worked at the Yekaterininsky Girls’ Institute.  One of his students recalled her experience of examination day:

The lessens after luncheon seem an eternity – the examination is to begin at 4.I straighten the front bow of my apron, gather my music together, and run to the music room.  The students to be examined are there already, sitting shyly on their stiff chairs.  In the center of the room is a long table covered with a green cloth.  Before the table, at an angle, is the piano.

The door opens.  We stand.  The principle, Mme. Krayevskaya, enters majestically, followed by the very tall Rachmaninoff, by Leo Conus, Goldenweiser, and the other music teachers of our Institute.  They sit – and we sit.

They begin with Anileyeva – the most notorious prankster in the school.  She’ll surely do something impromper.  “Play the scale of C major.” Anileyeva plays it – and then turns to Rachmaninoff: “May I play C minor?” Such questions during an examination just aren’t supposed to be asked.  The principal frowns, but Anileyeva is so spontaneous and so sweet that she seems to be a child who has not yet surrendered to the sever discipline of the Institute.  Sergei Vasilyevich smiles and says, “Very well, play C minor.”

A second pupil is introduced, and a third – and finally my turn has come.  I concentrate my whole being on the figure of Sergei Vasilyevich.  He has placed his great hands, with their long fingers, on the table; he leans slightly forward.  From the list before him he reads my name aloud.

I rise, nearly staggering with excitement – the white keys of the piano spring toward me – my hands tremble.  I play as if in a dream.  A calm, even voice says, “Good.” This “Good” encourages and kindles me.  I am whirled away by the speed of an étude by Wollenhaupt, and the little Tarantelle by Leschetizky carries me gracefully to the happy end of the examination.

I get up, and the principal kindly nods her head.  Again I see the reserved, but simple and unofficial smile of Sergei Vasilyevich.  A deep curtsy and I rush madly out and downstairs to the classroom.  My friends – Natasha, Marusya, Tania – surround me.  “Well, did you pass? Did you play well?” I am in ecstasy – even Sergei Vasilyevich had said “Good.”  What joy!  From my desk I take a post card – a photograph of Sergei Vasilyevich, whom we all adore – and I kiss it.

Cited in: Bertensson, Sergei & Leyda, Jay (2001) Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.90-91.