Sergey Rachmaninov


Op. 21/5 • “Siren'”

About this work

Lilacs (Siren) was composed by Sergei Rachmaninov in April 1902, along with ten other songs that were then combined with an earlier piece, Fate (1900), into the opus 21 set of 12 Songs published by Guthiel in December 1902. Rachmaninov was married to Nathalie Satin in April 1902 and wrote this set largely to help pay for their honeymoon, which lasted until August. In June, Rachmaninov wrote to his friend Nikita Morozov, "these songs were written in a hurry and are quite unfinished and unbeautiful. But they'll almost have to stay this way, as I don't have time to tinker with them further. It would be nice to get done with all this dirty work by the July 1st so I can get to work on something new."

Unlike the other members of the set, Rachmaninov did not feel Lilacs to be "dirty work." The poem is by Ekatrina Beketova, an eighteenth-century Russian poet; it describes bunches of lilac flowers as "where happiness lives." Indeed, Rachmaninov's setting of this text is radiant and sunny, quite a contrast to the brooding melancholy that marks his vocal music of the 1890s. Lilacs quickly became popular and a regular feature of Rachmaninov's solo recitals, at which it was hardly uncommon for a singer or even other instrumentalists to be present for a number or two. The earliest recording of the song appears to have been made about 1921 by Russian bass-baritone Dmitri Smirnoff, with a young Gerald Moore presiding as accompanist.

Around 1908, Rachmaninov began to receive bouquets of lilacs at his performances from an anonymous admirer. The lilacs arrived, like clockwork, to every concert or recital Rachmaninov gave, no matter where he was appearing in the world, through 1918. That year, Madame Felka Rousseau of Russia identified herself to Rachmaninov as the mysterious donor of the lilacs. She stated that she would've preferred to have remained anonymous, but was curious as to why so much time had gone by since Rachmaninov had appeared in Russia. Rachmaninov explained that as long as the current political situation remained as it was in Russia, it was unlikely that he would be able to return at all. Soon after that, the lilacs stopped coming.

Lilacs was one of only two of Rachmaninov's own songs that he adapted into solo piano transcriptions. Rachmaninov made the arrangement around 1913 and often used it as an encore piece. He recorded it three times, the first such recordings being made for Victor in 1920, the second as an Ampico piano roll sometime in the 1920s, and the last time at his final recording session held at the RCA studio in Hollywood on February 6, 1942. This last version would not be released until long after Rachmaninov's death.