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A Living Palace: Sergey Rachmaninov

Traces of virtuoso fingers

His world-famous compositions resonate throughout our concert halls to this day, but Rachmaninov himself also performed a number of times in the Centre for Fine Arts. Join us on a dive into the archives.

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. However, during his lifetime his primary source of income was as a piano virtuoso. His performances also brought him to Brussels. The Bozar archives record two concerts by him at the Centre for Fine Arts: in 1933 and in 1939.

The arrival of the Russian master in 1933 was announced with a great deal of hype in the Centre for Fine Arts magazine of the time. The author did not hold back on the superlatives and poetic descriptions:

« Sous ses doigts, le piano acquiert une sonorité d’une profondeur extraordinaire, au point qu’un seul accord revêt une signification esthétique complète. »
« L’art de Rachmaninov est tantôt un brasier aux flammes aveuglantes, tantôt, enveloppé qu’il est d’une lumière arctique pâle et irisée, le sommet d’une pure et glorieuse montagne de cristal. »

At that point in time, Rachmaninov had already spent more than a decade as an exiled drifter. He had not seen Russia for a very long time. His estate in the Russian countryside, Ivanovka, was where he had composed most of his work, but when revolution broke out in 1917 he was forced to leave his country.    

Following a spell in Scandinavia, he relocated to the United States where he dedicated himself to a career as a piano virtuoso. He travelled all over Europe and America, leaving little time for composing. However, time was not all that he lacked. He missed his homeland, which, to him, was inseparable from the act of creation. The Russian countryside was the source of inspiration for his art. In 1924, he lamented to a friend: ‘How can you compose without melodies?’ He squeezed a mere six works from his pen after his flight from Russia, including his Piano Concerto No. 4.   


His compositions became much less frequent, but he did still perform beautiful recitals. And those recitals provided an opportunity to perform his own compositions. His two recitals in the Centre for Fine Arts were both a combination of his own work and that of the great masters of the past.   

On 3 May 1933, he treated the Brussels audience to music by the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, alongside two of his popular Préludes.  


On 30 March 1939, he played pieces including Bach’s Concerto Italien, followed by a full performance of his beloved Préludes.

The Henry Leboeuf Hall was still quite new when Rachmaninov performed there in 1933. The hall opened in 1929 and was later named after the banker Henry Leboeuf. Even then, the ‘Grande Salle de Concert’ had already earned an excellent reputation through its design and acoustics. It is claimed that the renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, who performed there with the New York Phil in 1930 and 1934, even said: ‘I have truly heard myself for the first time here!’

Note the timings of the concerts, too, which were somewhat later than is usual today: 8.30 and 8.45 pm. It would appear that audiences dined later then than they do today. And a ticket to come and hear the world-famous Russian composer? Yours from 15 Belgian francs in 1939.

He never performed a third concert at the Centre for Fine Arts. In 1943, Rachmaninov was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and died four days before his seventieth birthday, in Beverly Hills.