Caught in the Muddle

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He would later become known as one of the twentieth century’s great pianists and composers, but in 1897, at the age of twenty-four, Sergei Rachmaninoff jumped at the chance to be the assistant conductor to one Eugene Esposito in a new private opera company opened in Moscow by a tycoon named Mamontov. He soon found that he had jumped into a maelstrom, as he wrote to a friend on November 22:

In our theater chaos reigns supreme. Nobody knows what’s supposed to happen the day after tomorrow, tomorrow, or today for that matter. There’s nobody to sing, not because we have no singers, but because in our big company of 30 or so, about 25 should be fired for incompetence. There is also nothing to perform. The repertory is huge, but everything is produced so badly, with such sloppiness (except for Khovantshchina) that 95 percent of the repertory should be chucked out or completely reworked.

Mamontov can’t make his mind up and gives in to everyone’s opinion. For example, I got him so interested in the idea of producing Schumann’s Manfred that he immediately gave the word to begin production on it….About five minutes later his friend Korovin, who understands nothing about music (but is a very nice person, just like Mamontov) had talked him out of it….

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Nonetheless, I am still employed at the theater and hope to stick it out with this job until the end of the season…because I now need the complete attention and cooperation of the musicians, which as an assistant conductor elsewhere I would never get from them. By the way, one of these gentlemen, right in front of the orchestra and a full audience, slapped Esposito for some supposed slight. What if that should happen to me? God forbid!

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