By Sigurd Neubauer
April 1st marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the legendary Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). In our tribute to the great composer, who is known for his glorious piano concerti and symphonic works, we will publish a multi part series on Rachmaninoff’s life and legacy featuring top scholars and pianists who have dedicated their careers to celebrating his music.
In our first part, we sit down with Andrea Loetscher, the dynamic Managing and Artistic Director of the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation who participated in the monumental restoration of the composer’s villa overlooking the magical Lake Lucerne and its idyllic surroundings.
It is formally known as Villa Senar.
After Rachmaninoff’s death in 1943, his wife Natalia Satina (1877-1951) inherited the villa. It was eventually passed on to their grandson, Alexandre Rachmaninoff (1933-2012), who lived there until his death. The grandson also established the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation (SRF), which he designated as the rightful heir of the villa.
Rachmaninoff was a true visionary, ca 1927.
Photo credit: U.S. Library of Congress
“It is a large villa on 24 square meters of land situated on the beautiful Lake Lucerne, and on the most beautiful spot one could possibly imagine,” Loetscher explains.
The SRF initiated that the villa would be granted monumental protection from the Swiss government because of its historical value, which brought down the price immediately, she adds.
The villa had initially been appraised somewhere between 40 and 50 million Swiss Francs (CHf) ($43.5 to $54.4 million), but because of the stringent historic preservation restrictions placed on it, it was sold for 15 million CHf at the end ($16.3 million), which made it easier for the County of Lucerne to purchase it, Loetscher reveals.
It was purchased after an inheritance dispute among the descendants of Alexandre Rachmaninoff had been resolved.
While the Canton of Lucerne takes great care of Villa Senar, the SRF is responsible for all programming
In 2021, the Canton of Lucerne purchased the villa and the following year the restoration began.
“The Canton of Lucerne took great care of restoring it to how it was when Sergei Rachmaninoff lived there,” Loetscher explains, adding that she was hired in June 2022 by the SRF.
As the owner of the villa, the Canton of Lucerne, “it takes great care of it, but the foundation is responsible for covering all of its programming.”
Prior to her appointment, Loetscher spent her career in marketing and music education. She’s also a classically trained flutist who spent many years with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.
Loetscher is the only full-time staffer but has a colleague working part-time.
Now that the villa has been restored, “once you enter it, you’ll have the impression that Rachmaninoff has just gone for a walk and that he will be back any minute. You might also imagine that he could be upstairs but he’s about to return to his piano in the living room.”
Villa Senar’s architecture is of the NeuBau style, “which was modernist and stunning at the time. There are very few villas like this one in Switzerland today,” Loetscher says.
She adds that Rachmaninoff “was a big visionary in general and in particular to how he wanted his villa.”
The villa has also been furnished with brand new furniture whose design is meant to resemble both the old traditional Russian and contemporary items that Rachmaninoff had when he lived there.
Rachmaninoff built the villa between World War I and II. During the numerous economic recessions at the time, “the composer lost his money many times over, which he had earned in the U.S.”
“It is said that once he got to the village of Hartenstein, which is not far from where he would build his villa, the composer felt home again. Villa Senar became his second home as much of his life was consumed with sadness for having been forced to leave his homeland because of the Russian Revolution of 1917, “ Loetscher says.
At the same time, she prefaces that “Rachmaninoff also needed to earn a living in order to finance his luxurious lifestyle, which is why he continued his performances as opposed to dedicating much of his time to composition.”
During his tenure at Senar, “the composer fulfilled his dream of owning a villa that provided safety and a sanctuary for his family. The magic of this place inspired him to compose some of his monumental works here,” she explains.
Loetscher is referring to how Rachmaninoff completed Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and the Symphony No. 3 in 1936 while at the villa.
One of his favorite activities would be to drive his motorboat on Lake Lucerne with his daughters and grandchildren, which is why the SRF intends to eventually purchase its own boat.
Explains Loetscher: “We wanted to bring back the atmosphere of a warm villa and magical place.”
In its forthcoming programming, the SRF will organize events that focus on Rachmaninoff’s life and the fact that he loved spending time at the villa with his family, including playing with his grandchildren.
“Just like the villa combines modernism and tradition, so too does his music.” In it, Loetscher explains, he combined high culture and jazz.
“He performed jazz for his best friends,” which is why the SRF will also be organizing jazz concerts as part of its programming to honor “all of the aspects of his personality as Rachmaninoff was at the same time a composer, pianist and conductor. We want this to be reflected in our programming.”
Describing the villa’s unique and “very special atmosphere,” Loetscher notes that once inside, “one breathes his air; one sits on his couch; and one drinks coffee out of his mug.”
The SRF wants to maintain this atmosphere, “which is why we’re so careful with what we’ll be doing.”
Among the works already commissioned by the SRF, Loetscher reveals that “we will have Lukas Geniušas, a Lithuanian pianist, come to record his first piano sonata, which is not well-known.
He will record it in its original version, she adds.
While chamber music will also be performed at the villa, Asmik Grigorian will be featured for an exclusive soiree where she will perform Rachmaninoff’s romances composed for voice and piano.
The celebrated Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, among others, will also provide master classes at the villa.
Rachmaninoff was a funny guy who enjoyed being with his friends
“We want to bring Sergei Rachmaninoff into the twenty-first century and draw awareness to his great artistry by creating programming so that new people can find ways to rediscover him.”
That’s why, she prefaces, that many live concerts will be organized at the villa where children from the various local music schools and marching bands will have an open invitation to come and perform.
“It’s going to be so much fun! It’s a place to get together,” Loetscher proclaims enthusiastically.
The concerts will be intimate as the seats are limited to 34 people.
In honor of the composer’s 150th anniversary, the SRF will partner with the Lucerne Festival to host a birthday bash on April 1 that features Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo who are also known as IGUDESMAN & JOO. They are known for their famous sketch comedy ‘Rachmaninov had big Hands.’
The celebrated Chinese pianist Yuja Wang will also perform at the birthday bash.
“Rachmaninoff was a funny guy who enjoyed being with his friends; he wasn’t just in a constant melancholic mood,” which is why “we want to reposition him as a human being and as the big star that he was.” In some ways, he was a “pop artist,” Loetscher adds.
Beyond the April 1st celebration, the SRF will open Villa Senar for public tours. “We don’t want this to be a museum but rather a villa that comes alive and is open for events.”
Rachmaninoff was known for his exquisite style. We wanted to bring the artist into the twenty-first century: Loetscher