Rachmaninoff's Last Bow: The Reason Knoxville's Home to the World's Only Statue of a Russian Composer

When I walk over to UT for something, and I'm not in a big hurry, I stop and visit with Mr. Rachmaninoff in World's Fair Park. He's a good deal taller than I am, and doesn't say much.

Most folks, even people who live and work nearby, don't know he's here. He stands alone in a contemplative spot in a copse of trees where curious walkers find him. I wonder if he startles people on the street below when they suddenly notice him peeking through the foliage. From Cumberland Avenue at 11th Street, you can catch a glimpse of him only now and then, mainly in the wintertime. But he's back there, a tall man in tails, looking down a little sadly, bowing stiffly, perhaps painfully.

What may be the only statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff in the world commemorates the night, 70 years ago this week, just over the hill at Alumni Memorial Auditorium, that the great Russian pianist and composer gave the last performance of his life. That performance will be commemorated on the same date, within the same walls, a now much-more comfortable hall called Cox Auditorium. My colleague Alan Sherrod offers a preview of that show in this issue.

One reason Knoxville may own the world's only Rachmaninoff statue is that the Soviets never erected one. Russia was his birthplace, his home, the inspiration for his best music. But, unthrilled by the prospect of Communism, he left home just after the 1917 Revolution. Middle-aged then, he spent most of the rest of his life unmoored to a country. He found appreciative audiences in America. In 1925, he performed at the old Lyric Theatre, former Staub's Opera House, on Gay Street. Unlike many composers, he lived to see his star rise. One of the last of the long tradition of composers whose melodies were accessible and memorable enough to make it into mainstream culture. His preludes and concertos snuck into some Hollywood movies, from Oscar-winning drama Grand Hotel to the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races.

He and his wife, Natalia, finally gave in, and in early 1943 got confirmed as American citizens.

Rachmaninoff probably should have canceled his final tour before he got to Knoxville. He had come down with a bad cough in Chicago, and his doctor prescribed rest.

The story goes that he remembered having to cancel a show here once before, and didn't want to let us down again. Not knowing how ill he was, he came to Knoxville, expecting to pick up a tour that was to include Atlanta, New Orleans, and several shows on the West Coast.

Rachmaninoff took the train to Knoxville, and checked into the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street.

Three thousand people had bought tickets at UT's nine-year-old Alumni Memorial Auditorium to hear the most famous composer-pianist in the world. Back then, it was really more a gymnasium, with folding chairs. The fact the Rachmaninoff was scheduled to play at a gym might seem surprising, especially for a composer whose lush chords would crowd palaces. But where else?

Knoxville had slipped a few notches in recent years, and had few appropriate venues. The Tennessee, Bijou, and Riviera Theatres occasionally hosted live music, but were mainly for movies, and none of them could seat everybody who'd buy tickets to see Rachmaninoff. The big Lyric Theatre, at the corner of Gay and Cumberland, where he had played before, was built for classical performances, 70 years earlier. By the '40s it had deteriorated, and was better known for wrestling. For the first time, Knoxville was beginning to lean on the university for its cultural amenities. What UT had was a big gym, with folding chairs. Local-hero opera star Grace Moore had performed there not long ago, and folks thought it sounded all right.

The last time I wrote a column about Rachmaninoff's last concert, it was in 1984, for a short-lived lifestyle magazine called Citytimes. Back then, several witnesses were handy to talk about it. Lovely, elegant Evelyn Miller, then my neighbor in Fort Sanders—alone with her grand piano, she lived on Clinch as gracefully as if it were Fifth Avenue—recalled the 1943 concert vividly. She'd seen Rachmaninoff a few times before, in other cities, but thought his Knoxville show was the best she'd ever seen. David Harkness, a connoisseur of detail, recalled the master as stately, dignified, precise.

I was lucky to get in touch with music professional Harold Clark, proprietor of Clark-Jones Music; his late wife, Bertha Roth Walburn Clark, had founded the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. In 1943, Clark had recently toured with Rachmaninoff's protégé Vladimir Horowitz, and Clark was the man trusted to tune Rachmaninoff's Steinway before the show. He told me Rachmaninoff, who at age 69 stood six foot three, seemed frail, but did not complain about his health. He complained only about the dust on his keys. But when Rachmaninoff stepped out and sat at his piano, Clark, backstage, worried that he might slip off his bench.

Rachmaninoff played some Bach, some Wagner, some Schumann, some Liszt, and two of his own études tableaux. He also played Chopin's somber "Marche Funebre"—the funeral march.

Despite his apparent pain, Rachmaninoff played three encores, closing with one of his greatest hits, his grave, stern Prelude in C Sharp Minor. Clark told me Rachmaninoff knew an American audience wouldn't leave until he played it. The composer confessed backstage that he was tired of playing it, but it's an effective coda for a serious life.

Then he went back to the Andrew Johnson and, the next day, caught the train for Atlanta. Over the next few days, he would come to understand how ill he was. A fast-growing cancer had advanced to his spine. He canceled the rest of his tour. He died in Los Angeles, 39 days after his Knoxville show.

The statue was the idea, half a century later, of a Russian sculptor named Viktor Bokarev, who had never been to Knoxville, but thought it was just the place for his tribute to his personal hero, Rachmaninoff.