“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” – Sergei Rachmaninov
In writing this blog, my goal has always been to offer people the opportunity to uncover a dormant passion for classical music, which is exactly what Rachmaninov’s music did for me. Discovering his music was the beginning of a new chapter in my life which saw me start regularly attending concerts, reading about the great composers, and enroll in classes in music history and composition. I listened repeatedly to Rachmaninov’s piano concertos in college, forming a distant goal of one day being able to play them myself – an extraordinarily difficult task, and one of the greatest heights a pianist can attain (there’s even a popular movie, Shine, chronicling the attempts of pianist David Helfgott’s efforts to master his third concerto). When it finally came time to sit down and write this entry however, I found myself putting it off time and time again, daunted by the task of doing justice to a composer that’s meant so much to me. The result is this slightly disorganized and probably over-long post, in which I’ve tried to cram as many of my thoughts down as possible – I hope you’ll bear with me and most importantly enjoy the music I’ve included. My personal bias aside, I’ve always thought Rachmaninov is one of the best introductions there is to classical music; the language of his compositions is deeply personal, and much like his friend and mentor Tchaikovsky, he wrote the kind of melodies that stay with you long after the music’s stopped. In describing his own ambition in composing, Rachmaninov simply explained “What I try to do, when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly what is in my heart when I am composing. Whether there is love, or bitterness, or sadness or religion, these feelings become a part of my music and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”
A clip from Shine:
Rachmaninov’s life story, one filled with adversity, doubt, resurgence and triumph, has always been an inspiration to me. He was more than just a phenomenal composer, but also an accomplished conductor and supremely gifted pianist, considered one of the greatest in history. Despite his immense talents however, he was plagued by self-doubt throughout his life, once remarking “I have chased three hares. Can I be certain that I have captured one?” His modesty was not affected, but rather a symptom of his music being perceived by many to be something of an anachronism; he wrote in the sweeping romantic style of the 19th century, when his contemporaries followed composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg in forging new paths in atonality and dissonance. Even a publication as esteemed as the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians offered a shockingly bleak posthumous appraisal of his work: “The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last and musicians never regarded it with much favor.” Rachmaninov persisted in composing in his own style throughout his life however, protesting that “The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt – they meditate, protest, analyze, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.”
Prelude in C♯ Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, one of Rachmaninov’s earliest compositions written as a teenager, played by Marta Deyanova. The prelude became extremely popular, so much so that publishers brought out several editions with dramatic titles such as The Burning of Moscow, The Day of Judgement, The Moscow Waltz and The Bells of Moscow. It came to be referred to as “The Prelude” and audiences would demand it as an encore at his performances, shouting “C-sharp!”, much to Rachmaninov’s annoyance as he considered it a trivial composition.
Rachmaninov’s lifelong sensitivity to criticism likely stemmed in part from the disastrous premiere of his first symphony in 1897, performed unrehearsed by a drunk conductor, which he later described as “the most agonizing hour of my life” and very nearly caused him to abandon composition altogether. The symphony prompted one critic to comment “If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninov’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell.” The episode plunged Rachmaninov into a lasting depression and saw his capacity for large-scale works evaporate completely for several years – sketches of a new symphony were abandoned, and he postponed work on an opera entitled Francesca da Rimini. His mood only worsened when he had the opportunity to play for Tolstoy, his childhood hero, who responded to his performance by asking “Tell me, is such music needed by anybody?”
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 1, an often-overlooked masterpiece written at just 18 years of age, played by Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sieji Ozawa. Rachmaninov was invited to play this concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but in his state of depression considered it unworthy and vowed to write another from scratch.
Seeing his deteriorating condition, Rachmaninov’s family urged him to seek help, and recommended a hypnotist, Dr Nikolai Dahl, who had successfully treated a number of their acquaintances. Over the summer of 1900 Dr Dahl administered an intensive course of treatment, which Rachmaninov later recalled in his memoirs:
“My relations had told Dr. Dahl that he must at all costs cure me of my apathetic condition and achieve such results that I would again begin to compose. Dahl asked what manner of composition they desired and had received the answer, ‘A concerto for pianoforte,’ for this I had promised to the people in London and had given it up in despair. Consequently I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in my armchair in Dr. Dahl’s study, ‘You will begin to write your concerto… You will work with great facility… The concerto will be of excellent quality…’ It was always the same, without interruption. Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. Already at the start of the summer, I was composing once more. The material accumulated, and new musical ideas began to stir within me – many more than I needed for my concerto.”
Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, aptly dedicated to Dr Dahl, was an instant triumph. What’s especially remarkable is the supreme confidence of the writing, its soaring piano melodies rising over a tide of sensuous strings like a phoenix from the ashes. The emotional intensity of this concerto grabs you right from the start and never lets go; a sustained high which is somehow neither overbearing nor too sickly sweet. The music showcases one of the quintessential elements of Rachmaninov’s music (and perhaps Russian music in general) – extracting beauty, exuberance and even joy from the deepest melancholy. It contains in my opinion one of the most beautiful adagio movements ever written (the slow movement, traditionally the second of three in a concerto); upon hearing it in rehearsal, Rachmaninov’s professor of composition wept and uttered the word “genius”. The concerto is a monument to the power of mind over matter, proof that the sun shines brightest after a storm.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, played by Yuja Wang and the Verbier Festival Orchestra, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
The opening passage of the concerto mimics one of Rachmaninov’s favourite sounds: the chiming of church bells, a motif that appears in many of his compositions. Rachmaninov once remarked “All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. One of my fondest childhood recollections is associated with the four notes of the great bells in the St. Sophia Cathedral of Novgorod… four silvery weeping notes.” Rachmaninov had enormous hands (perhaps not surprising given that he was 6’6″) and was capable of reaching the wide intervals of the opening chords, a feat many pianists can’t manage (if you listen carefully at the beginning of any performance of the concerto you can guess at the size of the pianist’s hands based on whether they play the chords simultaneously as intended, or splayed – i.e. the notes in quick succession).
Eric Carmen’s 1975 classic “All By Myself” borrows heavily from the 2nd movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Rachmaninov’s estate receives 12% of the royalties from the song.
Two years after his death, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was used as the soundtrack of the classic movie Brief Encounter.
With Rachmaninov’s confidence restored, he entered into a productive period in which he composed a number of his greatest masterpieces. Still feeling the need to prove himself as a symphonist, Rachmaninov finally succeeded in replacing the shattering failure of his first symphony with the triumph of his second, premiered in 1908 to great applause, with Rachmaninov himself conducting. I came across a great blog (which you can find here) that offers a concise perspective on the symphony that really resonated with me:
“Whenever I would like to introduce someone unversed in classical music to the world of symphony, I try not to start with Mozart. Listening to Mozart tends to make you feel old; at least that’s what some of my classically-trained friends say. (I, on the other hand, do not agree.) Beethoven also does not make an ideal opening, for while his Whip of Nine Lashes contains unbelievably powerful themes, it requires intensive training to actually tap into that majestic and often deadly energy. And Mahler, definitely not Mahler! Yes, his symphonies are among the most grandiose of the literature, but they contain undeniably ugly sounds. Every dedicated musician will eventually reach a point in their musical life when they can appreciate an ugly piece of music for its inner beauty; but it usually takes years to get there.
Instead of presenting a symphonic work by any of the well-known great masters mentioned above, I like to start with one by a composer who may not possess too much fame nowadays: Sergei Rachmaninoff. His Second Symphony is an excellent “starter symphony” for the following reasons: 1.) it is hauntingly beautiful, 2.) you don’t need to think and analyze to appreciate its beauty, and 3.) it represents hope and redemption; it is proof of one’s ascent from utter failure to renewed triumph.
Before you listen to the adagio, cast your mind back briefly to the famous love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet. Is there a trace of it in Rachmaninov’s melody? To my mind this symphony demonstrates the great influence of Tchaikovsky, who, like Rachmaninov, fought hard to stay true to himself when society seemed to demand something else.
Symphony No. 2, Op. 27, 3rd movement, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky (any Eric Carmen fans may recognize the music in yet another song of his, Never Gonna Fall in Love Again)
The following year Rachmaninov turned his attention once again to composing a piano concerto, which he intended to use as a calling card for his debut tour of the United States. Written in the tranquility of his family estate, his third concerto was completed on September 23rd, 1909, and practiced by Rachmaninov on a silent keyboard on board a ship to the States. Rachmaninov remarked that the distinctly Russian and instantly recognizable opening theme of the concerto “simply wrote itself”, but quite how he was capable of writing the rest remains a mystery to me; from this eminently simple and understated theme emerges an absolutely rapturous and unrelenting piece of music. Nothing else has quite the same ability to transport me so completely to another place; I don’t claim to be a synesthete (someone who associates music with images and colours), but I see this concerto as a whole world written in sound, I see it in shades of red and green. To borrow Schumann’s description of Beethoven’s late quartets, I believe it stands “on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination” and consider it one of the greatest achievements of mankind. I hope anyone reading this takes the time to listen to it – not just as background music (it’s too demanding to appreciate fully in that way I think) – but with a clear mind and an attentive ear. There are many fantastic recordings (my favourite interpreter is Ashkenazy) – I’ve included one which showcases the extraordinary technical demands on the performer.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, played by Yefim Bronfman and the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Valery Gergiev. The cadenza from 10:00 – 12:36 is surely one of the most ferocious and powerful passages in all of music, and Bronfman plays it like a man possessed.
Prelude in G♯ Minor, Op. 32, No. 12, played by my extremely talented friend Tara Kamangar, from her album East of Melancholy
Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14, played by Joshua Bell and the Orchestra of St Luke’s, conducted by Michael Stern
In 1917, the Russian Revolution changed Rachmaninov’s world dramatically. He lost his beloved family estate, his livelihood, and went into a self-imposed political exile, taking with him only a few notebooks containing sketches of various compositions. Rachmaninov ultimately settled in the United States, where he saw the greatest financial opportunities to rebuild a life for himself and his family. The loss of his native Russia was deeply felt, and the effect on his compositional output was dramatic: he completed only six more compositions until his death in 1943. He tried to recreate the atmosphere of his old Russian estate in his house in New York, entertaining Russian guests, employing Russian servants and observing Russian customs, but his inspiration never fully returned.
As Rachmaninov’s desire to compose deserted him, he took on an increasingly demanding schedule as a concert pianist and embarked upon an extremely successful career. Arthur Rubinstein, another leading pianist of the day, remarked of Rachmaninov’s playing: “He had the secret of the golden, living tone which comes from the heart… I was always under the spell of his glorious and inimitable tone.” Although he was one of the preeminent performers of his time, Rachmaninov never relished the limelight. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra described his demeanour as follows:
“Although Rachmaninov’s music is sometimes confused with the treacly romanticism of the Hollywood soundtracks it once inspired, Rachmaninov himself was a serious and aristocratic artist. He was one of the greatest pianists in history—an astonishing virtuoso in the heroic tradition of Liszt—but there was nothing flashy about his stage manner. Rachmaninov was surprisingly somber and remote for a crowd-pleasing superstar. He rarely smiled or courted the audience, and even his close-cropped haircut, of a kind that is ubiquitous today but was highly suspect at the time (like that of a convict, as the Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin said) suggested a stern presence. (Chaliapin also scolded him for his curt, peremptory bows.) Much later, Stravinsky called him ‘a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.'”
Below is a recording of Rachmaninov himself playing his own Prelude, Op. 23, No. 5
Overtime Rachmaninov’s success brought with it considerable wealth. He showed extraordinary generosity – for example, he paid to have Nabokov relocated from Paris to New York, and donated large sums to the Allies during WWII. Rachmaninov also used his new-found wealth to indulge his love of cars (he allegedly bought a new one every year), and purchase an estate on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. In its peaceful surroundings, Rachmaninov composed some of the great works of his later years.
Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 40, 2nd movement, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, 18th variation, played by the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, the last thing Rachmaninov ever wrote (and his own favourite), played by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, conducted by Edward Gardner
Rachmaninov now lies in Kensico Cemetery, a short train ride outside of New York, which has given me the chance to make the trip out there to pay my respects. His resting place led me to discover one mystery I’ve been unable to solve: his birthday is written as April 2nd (pictured below), but anywhere else you care to look you’ll see it as April 1st. Anyone happen to know why this might be?
As recently as August 2015, Russia has announced that it is seeking to have Rachmaninov’s remains brought back to the motherland, with the Russian culture minister claiming that his grave lies in neglect, and that he is unfairly presented as “an American composer of Russian origin.” It’s certainly an about-face from the Soviet ban imposed on his music, though it’s not clear whether Rachmaninov would have liked today’s Russia any more than the one from which he escaped nearly a century ago. Indeed, Rachmaninov himself requested to be buried in New York in his will, having been granted American citizenship just days before his death. And so it came to be that someone who thought of himself as “the most Russian of Russians” lies half-way across the world from his beloved homeland, the source of all his inspiration.