Today is the birthday of the Russian composer and virtuousic pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) — a date which held special significance for Frank O’Hara. Across the course of his life, O’Hara wrote seven different poems titled “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday” — including one titled “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday #158” and another “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday #161,” which playfully suggests that the series might have been infinitely extendable.
Oddly enough, some of these poems were written on or around April 1, while others were written months away from the composer’s birthday, in July. (In his Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, Joe LeSueur notes “It is of no great moment, I suppose, but Frank seems to have been confused about or uncertain of what day and month the great Russian composer-pianist’s birthday fell on … I don’t know what to make of this — do you?”).
O’Hara was a gifted pianist who seemed destined for a career in music before shifting his allegiances fully to poetry during college, and he enjoyed tackling Rachmaninoff’s extremely complex pieces. His father played the piano as well, and (as Brad Gooch relates in his biography of O’Hara, City Poet), Rachmaninoff was his father’s favorite composer: O’Hara, “influenced by his father, tried to get his parents to hang a portrait of the Russian composer in the den.”
Gooch mentions that “during O’Hara’s senior year a story circulated at Harvard that he had played once for Rachmaninoff at the New England Conservatory and that the Russian pianist and composer had advised him that his hands were too small for ultimate success.” (One can only imagine, then, what Rachmaninoff would have said about our current president’s chances of being a concert pianist!).
“O’Hara drew on this story years later when he wrote one of his ‘On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday’ poems”:
fortune, you would have been
my teacher and I your only pupil….
Only my eyes would be blue as I played
and you rapped my knuckles
dearest father of all Russias.
Gooch continues: “While such a session may never have taken place, the conclusion that he was physically unsuited to excel at a concert hall career helped to dissuade O’Hara from a career in music.”
In his memoir, LeSueur points out that the dream of being a musician never entirely left O’Hara: “I truly believe that Frank’s early desire and ambition to be a pianist remained with him throughout his life, not in any practical or realistic sense but as a dream or fantasy one stubbornly clings to, knowing all the while that what one longs for has always been out of reach, never obtainable.”
Here is probably my own favorite from O’Hara’s “Rachmaninoff series.” This one was written in 1953 (in July, not on Rachmaninoff’s actual birthday) and first appeared in Evergreen Review in 1957 and later in Lunch Poems in 1965:
On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday
Quick! A last poem before I go
off my rocker. Oh Rachmaninoff!
Onset, Massachusetts. Is it the fig-newton
playing the horn? Thundering windows
of hell, will your tubes ever break
into powder? Oh my palace of oranges,
junk shop, staples, umber, basalt;
I’m a child again when I was really
miserable, a grope pizzicato. My pocket
of rhinestone, yoyo, carpenter’s pencil,
amethyst, hypo, campaign button,
is the room full of smoke? Shit
on the soup, let it burn. So it’s back.
You’ll never be mentally sober.