On Superior Street in Duluth, Brad Snelling was wandering through an antique store when he came across a painting of a pianist he immediately recognized to be Ignacy Paderewski. “I was told by the person who ran the store that there was a local artist who did paintings of composers as they passed through town,” Snelling said.
It was this painting and his love of music that ignited Snelling's curiosity to find out what other musicians might have performed in Duluth. Snelling, who serves as the periodicals/collection development librarian at CSS, was interested to find out if one pianist in particular had played here--Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Snelling’s interest in Rachmaninoff has been present for many years, as he listened to and loved the Russian composer’s music as a child. “Rachmaninoff was a really important figure to me growing up, kind of a boyhood hero of mine,” Snelling said. ““I think I became attracted to him because of the sheer difficulty of his music. I grew up around pianists. My mother was a piano teacher and my brother was a pianist, so I grew up hearing piano music all the time. I listened to Rachmaninoff’s music so much it became a part of my internal soundtrack.”
Curious to know if his boyhood idol had played here, Snelling used his resources to delve into the history of classical music performances in Duluth, centering on the early 20th century concerts sponsored by Matinee Musicale, for whom he occasionally writes program notes.
“I write program notes for Matinee Musicale performances,” Snelling said, “so I knew about a short history of the Matinee written by Sister Mary Richard Boo, a former president at the College, and in the history there's a list of artists and the dates that they passed through Duluth.”
After discovering that Ignacy Paderewski had performed in Duluth, Snelling explored further and stumbled across a dissertation by Robin Gehl. Gehl’s research showed Paderewski worked under the same manager as Rachmaninoff, so the focus of Snelling’s research shifted to his boyhood hero.
“I was playing around on Google and stumbled onto Gehl’s dissertation about Rachmaninoff’s travels in the Unites States and his recitals from 1918 to 1943,” Snelling said. “Her main topic was Rachmaninoff’s touring of the United States playing recitals after he left Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.”
Finding the Gehl dissertation spurred Snelling's decision to write an article for the Duluth News Tribune, commemorating the Russian’s visit to the Northland 90 years ago, a task nearly as difficult as some of Rachmaninoff’s music.
“Even for a short [newspaper] piece, only 600 words, I used five different libraries to gather my information,” Snelling said. “I used the Duluth Public Library, the UMD library, the CSS library, the Arrowhead Library System, and the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center.”
Each library visit during his research provided Snelling with something unique related to his research, including the Duluth Public Library and the library at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD).The Duluth Public Library, has an index of News Tribune articles. Once he knew the dates of the articles published about Rachmaninoff's performances, he went to the UMD library, "where they have microfilm for the Duluth News Tribune, looked under that date and saw if there was any information, which there was.”
Using the microfilm copies of the News Tribune, Snelling found both a preview and a review of the concert, which was held at one of the city's musical venues of the time, the Duluth Armory. Rachmaninoff's performance drew an estimated audience of 3,500 classical music fans. “The preview article mentioned where he was staying in Duluth,” Snelling said, “and also included a brief interview with him, so there are quotes from Rachmaninoff. In the paper the day after the recital was a fairly lengthy review, so I was able to pull information from that as well.”
Snelling said that given the Russian's popularity the size of the Duluth audience was not surprising, noting that after leaving Russia in 1917, Rachmaninoff traveled widely across the United States. "The population of Duluth was bigger then," Snelling said. "There was a much bigger audience for classical music at the time. Back then, you would have seen people of all ages at these concerts.”
Though Rachmaninoff performed traditional works by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Listz, the most popular piece he performed was his own composition, “The Prelude to the Concerto in C-Sharp Minor.” “It was a piece that he played most everywhere," Snelling said. "It was really demanded of him so often, but he hated it. He called it the ‘it’ prelude, because people would say ‘play it, play it.’ He grew to hate it because he played it so often.”
Despite such caricatures, Snelling said that Rachmaninoff's sterm demeanor did not detract from his musical genius. “He was one of the greatest pianists to ever live," Snelling said. While Rachmaninoff was in the United States, he used music as his primary source of income. "He was just playing anywhere that he could possibly play to make money,” Snelling said.
The Duluth News Tribune covered many musicians who made their way through Duluth, Snelling explained, and their coverage prompted him to learn more about two fairly unknown buildings in Duluth’s history.
“Rachmaninoff, like so many other famous musicians, stayed at the Spalding Hotel when he was in Duluth,” Snelling said. “The building isn’t there anymore, but there are some nice images of the Spalding Hotel at the Minnesota Digital Library, where you can pull up four or five images of the building.”
The other building involved in Snelling’s research was the site of Rachmaninoff’s concert, the still-standing Duluth Armory. “Their website gives a list of musicians who have performed there and it’s an amazing list, especially if you’re familiar with classical music,” Snelling said. “The connection most Duluthians make with the Armory is that Buddy Holly played one of his last concerts there, and Bob Dylan mentioned it in an acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards.”
Snelling, whose article about Rachmaninoff was published in the January 21, 2010, edition of Duluth News Tribune, said that even though he no longer holds Rachmaninoff with the same regard he once did, he enjoyed researching the concert, even though one question remains unanswered. He still does not know who did the painting of Paderewski.
"That might be my next project," Snelling said.
Brad Snelling's article in the Duluth News Tribune can be found at: http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/157742/publisher_id/36/
Robin S. Gehl's dissertation, Reassessing A Legacy: Rachmaninoff in America, 1918-43, can be fount at: http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Gehl%20Robin%20S.pdf?acc_num=ucin1227105259