What Was the Matter with Rachmaninoff?
In 1927, the British music-hall duo Flotsam & Jetsam recorded a comic song, “What Was the Matter with Rachmaninov?,” in which they lamented the popularity of the once-ubiquitous Prelude in C-Sharp Minor among hapless amateur pianists: “Then there’s another one down the street/Who must be trying it with her feet/She’s the one who gives you fits/Whenever she comes to the difficult bits.”
It was not only in music halls, however, that Sergei Rachmaninoff was criticized for being too popular.1 Few classical composers of significance have received so many unfavorable reviews over so long a period of time, and there can be little doubt that Rachmaninoff’s bad press arose in large part from the fact that his compositions were hugely successful with concertgoers who disliked most other 20th-century music.
As recently as the 1970’s, critical disdain for Rachmaninoff was so widespread that even his few open admirers, among them COMMENTARY’s Samuel Lipman, struck a defensive note: “Whatever Rachmaninoff’s exact rank as a composer, it was his achievement to reflect his own world—simply, honestly, and directly”2 Far more typical was the outright contempt of the American composer Walter Piston, who once confronted Gary Graffman after a performance of the Second Piano Concerto, asking, “How can you play such junk?” Similar sentiments can be found in the article about Rachmaninoff in the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians:
As a composer he can hardly be said to have belonged to his time at all. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor.
To read this sniffy passage today is to be reminded of a remark made by Percy Grainger: “The world around me is dying of ‘good taste.’ ” But tastes change, and it turns out that Rachmaninoff’s “enormous popular success” has lasted. Moreover, a growing number of musicians and critics now freely admit to holding his music in high esteem. Earlier this season, for example, New York City’s Lincoln Center presented a “Rachmaninoff Revisited” festival in which such artists as the Russian pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the British pianist Stephen Hough performed most of his major works. And while much postwar Rachmaninoff scholarship remains available only in Russian—there is still no full-length critical biography in English—two important books about his life and work were reissued in paperback last year by leading academic publishers.3 Even Grove’s finally got around to changing its mind, commissioning a new article for its 1980 edition in which Rachmaninoff is described as “the last great representative of Russian late romanticism.”
This is true enough, so far as it goes. But had Rachmaninoff’s contemporaries listened more attentively to his music, particularly the pieces he wrote after emigrating to the West in 1917, they might have seen that despite his nostalgia for the lost world of Czarist Russia, the last great Russian romantic also heard—and heeded—the call of modernity.
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff was the second son of a charming but irresponsible aristocrat who had money, married more money, and lost it all. Within a few years of Sergei’s birth in 1873, the Rachmaninoffs were forced to sell their ancestral estates and move to a small apartment in St. Petersburg. Vasily Rachmaninoff and his wife Lyubov soon separated, informally but permanently, and young Sergei knew from then on that he would have to make his own way in the world.
After a false start at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the boy left his family in 1885, transferred to the Moscow Conservatory, and began working in earnest. Three years later, Tchaikovsky heard his music and predicted “a great future” for him; not long after that, he moved in with Varvara Satdna, his father’s still-wealthy sister. Until he left Russia, Rachmaninoff would spend his summers at Ivanovka, the Satin family’s country home, where he did most of his composing. He was inspired by the beauty of the place, as well as by the love of a surrogate family that gave him some of the stability heretofore missing from his uncertain life. As he would later recall:
Ivanovka offered the repose of surrounding that hard work requires—at least, for me. This steppe was like an infinite sea where the waters are actually boundless fields of wheat, rye, oats, stretching from horizon to horizon. Sea air is often praised, but how much more do I love the air of the steppe, with its aroma of earth and all that grows and blossoms—and there’s no rolling boat under you, either.
Eventually, Rachmaninoff would marry Natalya Satina, his first cousin, and become master of the estate that was now his true home. By then, though, he had long since established himself as a key figure in Russian music. In 1891, he finished his first important work, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 1; he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory the following year, and within months had found a publisher, set up shop as a professional composer, and brought out a set of five short piano pieces, one of which would make him famous. The tightly interlocked chords of the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, evoke the sound of tolling church bells—an onomatopoeic device of which he would thereafter make frequent use.
Rachmaninoff was one of the very small number of classical musicians to have been equally gifted as composer, pianist, and conductor. Like the comparably multitalented Leonard Bernstein, he found it difficult to keep his three lives in balance, and tended to emphasize one “career” at a time; in Russia, he alternated between conducting and playing piano, whereas in the West he was primarily known as a pianist. Still, it was his compositions that brought him the widest acclaim, though even in Russia he occasionally ran afoul of highbrow critics who, like Vyacheslav Karatygin, claimed that “[t]he public worships Rachmaninoff because he has hit the center of average philistine musical taste.”
The essential elements of Rachmaninoff’s style were already firmly in place by the time he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. Then and later, Tchaikovsky was his strongest influence, though he had a darker orchestral palette than his mentor, favoring the lower strings where Tchaikovsky’s scoring is aerated by bright woodwind lines. Similarly, his piano writing is full of thick-voiced chords that cannot be executed comfortably by players with small hands, though it also contains numerous passages of Chopin-like delicacy.4
A lifelong depressive, Rachmaninoff readily admitted to being desperately afraid of death, an obsession presumably related to the unstable circumstances into which he was born, and his melancholy temperament left its mark on his music. Most of his compositions—including all three of his symphonies and all five works for piano and orchestra—are in minor keys. The Dies Irae, the familiar plainchant setting of the section in the Roman Catholic requiem mass that refers to the day of wrath that will “dissolve the world into ashes,” is quoted prominently in several of his works, including The Me of the Dead, Op. 29 (1907), the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934), and the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940). In addition, some of his best-known original melodies, among them the opening themes of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 (1900-01) and the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 (1909), have the flavor of Russian Orthodox liturgical chant.
Like many other Franco-Russian composers, Rachmaninoff did not take naturally to the sonata-allegro form that had dominated Austro-German musical tradition. Unsure of his ability to sustain an organically developed musical argument, he cut and revised many of his longer pieces prior to their final publication, and sometimes even after that. Significantly, he admitted to finding it “of great help,” when composing, “to have in mind a book just recently read, or a beautiful picture, or a poem. Sometimes a definite story is kept in mind, which I try to convert into tones without disclosing the source of my inspiration.”5
Not surprisingly, then, he was more at home with character pieces for solo piano, which require less rigorous formal control, and with songs and choral music, whose structure mirrors the sequence and imagery of a pre-existing verbal text. While he also produced a few successful large-scale instrumental works during his Russian years, most notably the Second and Third Piano Concertos and the Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27 (1906-7), more characteristic—and arguably more effective—is The Isle of the Dead, a Liszt-like symphonic poem inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s macabre painting of the same name.
This lack of formal rigor was off-putting to German-trained critics, who habitually condescended to Rachmaninoff without betraying the slightest appreciation of his gift for writing the long-breathed, immediately memorable tunes that are now known the world over as his trademark. Amazingly, the writer Philip Hale rendered the following wrong-headed judgment on the Second Concerto in a program note for the Boston Symphony’s first performance of that now-beloved piece: “The first movement is labored and has little marked character. It might have been written by any German, technically well trained, who was acquainted with the music of Tchaikovsky.”
As he grew older, Rachmaninoff lightened his palette, producing songs whose vaporous keyboard textures and elaborately chromatic harmonies are almost impressionistic in effect. At the same time, his rhythmic language became more unpredictable, even aggressive; the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter would later go so far as to claim that the Etudes-Tableaux, Opp. 33 and 39 (1911-16) foreshadowed the modernist keyboard techniques of Sergei Prokofiev. Still, these changes took place within the framework of an already well-defined style, and though the Etudes-Tableaux are more musically sophisticated than Rachmaninoff’s earlier pieces, they are no less clearly the work of the composer of the C-Sharp Minor Prelude.
Rachmaninoff’s stylistic growth was interrupted by the Russian Revolution, a disaster about whose implications he had no doubt whatsoever. At the end of 1917, the composer and his family left Russia, never to return. Fourteen years later, he would co-sign a letter to the New York Times declaring that “[a]t no time, and in no country, has there ever existed a government responsible for so many cruelties, wholesale murders, and common-law crimes in general as those perpetrated by the Bolsheviki.”
No sooner had he settled in the U.S. than Rachmaninoff realized he would no longer be able to earn a living as a composer: Russia had never ratified international copyright conventions, thus making it impossible for him to profit from the continuing sale of his most popular works. Igor Stravinsky faced a similar problem when he emigrated from the Soviet Union, and both men came up with the same solution, retrofitting themselves as high-priced celebrity performers. Rachmaninoff briefly considered a career as a conductor (the Boston Symphony even offered to make him its music director), but opted instead to become a full-time concert pianist, playing his own concertos with symphony orchestras and giving numerous solo recitals that established him as one of the half-dozen greatest piano virtuosos of the 20th century.
Rachmaninoff recorded extensively between 1919 and 1942, making it possible for later generations to hear the playing that W.J. Henderson described in his review of a 1929 performance of the Chopin B-Flat Minor Sonata:
The logic of the thing was impervious; the plan was invulnerable; the proclamation was imperial. There was nothing left for us but to thank our stars that we had lived when Rachmaninoff did and heard him, out of the divine might of his genius, recreate a masterpiece. It was a day of genius understanding genius.
But while Rachmaninoff’s 78’s continue to be admired by connoisseurs, the impression they make on modern-day listeners is quite different from that which they made when new.6 Today, Rachmaninoff is seen as the quintessential romantic, imperiously high-handed in his free treatment of the printed text; but in his own time he was thought to be (in the phrase of the American critic-composer H. T. Parker) “the puritan of pianists,” austere and direct to the point of matter-of-factness. In fact, both points of view are valid. For all the flexibility he brought to the music of Chopin and Schumann, it is Rachmaninoff’s galvanizing rhythmic exactitude that gives his playing the distinctively “modern” quality noted by his contemporaries.
Unfortunately, his grueling concert schedule, including the immense amount of practice time he needed in order to work up a sufficiently varied solo repertoire, made it all but impossible for him to concentrate on composing. Beyond this, the shock of leaving his native land—of losing Ivanovka, for him the embodiment of all things Russian—robbed him of inspiration. As a result, he wrote no original compositions of any kind between 1918 and 1925, and from 1926 until his death seventeen years later he produced only six pieces.
By the time Rachmaninoff once again felt capable of composing, he had become painfully aware that the world of classical music had changed beyond recognition. Czarist Russia had been more or less isolated from modernist developments in the West; but by 1926, the modern movement in music was firmly established in Europe and America, and Rachmaninoff claimed to find its values unsympathetic: “I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. The new kind of music seems to come, not from the heart, but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel.”
Yet for all his seeming rejection of modernism, the compositions of Rachmaninoff’s later years suggest that he was not only aware of the new music but had even been influenced by it. In addition to being more compact and coherent in form than their predecessors, the Paganini Rhapsody, Symphonic Dances, and Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44 (1936) are tough-minded, even sardonic in tone. Rhythmically edgy and harmonically acerbic, these romantic yet forward-looking pieces are the work of an artist who was fully prepared to engage with modernity—on his own terms. It is revealing that only the Paganini Rhapsody found ready acceptance in the concert hall, no doubt because it is a spectacular virtuoso showpiece, whereas the Third Symphony and Symphonic Dances left audiences cold.
Alas, Rachmaninoff wrote no more music after the Symphonic Dances, claiming that they were his “last flicker” of inspiration. Instead, he threw himself into concertizing, continuing to perform even after it became clear that he was seriously ill. In February of 1943, he canceled his remaining appearances and returned home to Los Angeles, where his doctors learned that what they had thought to be a severe case of pleurisy was in fact malignant melanoma, a particularly virulent form of cancer. He died a month later, and was buried in New York.
The rehabilitation of Rachmaninoff is one of the most curious chapters in the history of musical taste. For unlike so many apparently similar phenomena, it cannot be explained by the collapse of the avant-garde monopoly. Rather, Rachmaninoff’s music was widely dismissed by tonal and atonal modernists alike, and it was only because of the unswerving loyalty of performers—and, of course, audiences—that he continued to be performed throughout the era of high modernism.
That so committed an exponent of the natural law of tonality should have inspired such widespread contempt even among those who shared his views can be partially explained by recourse to one of the fundamental tenets of modernism itself: the notion that cultural progress is historically inevitable. According to this view, it is possible to be a tradition-minded modernist, but only by working in an idiom that is unambiguously contemporary in flavor. Thus, Stravinsky was a conservative modernist who sought to reinterpret and refresh the language of functional tonality, whereas Rachmaninoff, though no less committed to tonality, was an anti-modern reactionary who refused to change with the times.
This is, of course, a Marxist-style political interpretation of history disguised as an iron law of aesthetics. But while it may have some validity as a general proposition, it has no relevance to the particular case of Rachmaninoff. Not only was he a decade older than such first-generation modernists as Bartók, Berg, and Stravinsky, but—contrary to widespread belief—the works he produced after emigrating to the West were subtly but unmistakably shaped by modernism. And while it is impossible to know what kind of music he might have written had he lived longer, it seems not at all unlikely that his style would have continued to move along the challenging course set by the Paganini Rhapsody, Third Symphony, and Symphonic Dances.
Be that as it may, one need not speculate about what Rachmaninoff might have done in order to admire what he actually did. At the very least, his work is easily comparable in quality to that of such neoromantic modernists as Samuel Barber, Francis Poulenc, or William Walton, and the best of it grows in stature with repeated hearings. It has only been in recent years that Rachmaninoff has come to be acknowledged in the West as a first-class song composer, and the Etudes-Tableaux and Symphonic Dances now seem on their way to entering the standard repertoire.
What, then, was the matter with Rachmaninoff? For those listeners who are made uncomfortable by the straightforward expression of emotion in classical music, his name will always be a synonym for vulgarity. The English critic Edward Sackville-West, writing in 1924, spoke for them all:
Metaphorically speaking, Rachmaninoff shut himself up in a dark room, frightened himself to death, and then translated his soul-storm into the language of music. I look forward to the time when people will be ashamed to listen to Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, [Richard Strauss’s] Tod und Verklärung, and the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.
But less priggish critics (one is tempted to say, less English critics) no longer find it necessary to make excuses for Sergei Rachmaninoff, not even for the ever-popular Second and Third Concertos. These frankly emotional, impeccably crafted pieces, like the rest of his output, have stood the test of time, and while some of his works are more fully realized than others, it is now plain to see why the best of them have won—and earned—a permanent place in the hearts of listeners everywhere.
Rachmaninoff on CD: A Select Discography
Sergei Rachmaninoff made superb recordings of many of his major compositions, both as pianist and as conductor. They include the four piano concertos and Paganini Rhapsody (Naxos 8.110601 and 8.110602) and the Third Symphony, Vocalise, and Isle of the Dead (RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026-62532-2), all with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led in the concerted works by Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski.
In addition, countless other distinguished artists have recorded Rachmaninoff’s music, and most of their performances are currently available on CD.7 Here are some of the best, arranged chronologically by date of recording:
1920-21: Among the first pieces by Rachmaninoff to be recorded by other artists were four of his songs, “In the Silence of the Secret Night,” Op. 4/3 (1892), “Sing Not to Me, Beautiful Maiden,” Op. 4/4 (1893), “To the Children,” Op. 26/7 (1906), and “Before My Window,” Op. 26/10 (1906), sung in English by the lyric tenor John McCormack with violin obbligati by Fritz Kreisler. All are on John McCormack, Lieder Singer, an anthology of McCormack’s fascinatingly idiosyncratic recordings of German and Russian art songs (Symposium 1164).
1937-43: The cultivated, warm-toned pianism of Benno Moiseiwitsch, whom Rachmaninoff called his “artistic heir,” can be heard on The Complete Rachmaninov Recordings: 1937-43, which contains the Second Concerto, the Paganini Rhapsody, and seven solos. Among the latter are Moiseiwitsch’s staggering 1939 version of Rachmaninoff’s transcription for solo piano of the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo, recorded in a single unrehearsed take (Appian APR 5505).
1950-51: The death of William Kapell in a 1953 plane crash brought to a premature end what would surely have been the most illustrious career of any American pianist of the 20th century. Fortunately, Kapell left behind incomparably forceful and vital recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody, and both are included in the Kapell volume of Philips’s Great Pianists of the 20th Century series (Philips 456 853-2, two CD’s).
1951: Vladimir Horowitz, whose playing of the Third Concerto Rachmaninoff preferred to his own, made three “official” recordings of that notoriously demanding piece. The second, accompanied by Fritz Reiner and a New York studio orchestra, is a locus classicus of the pianist’s febrile style (RCA Victor Gold Seal 7754-2-RG).
1957: Six years later, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded a taut, brilliantly played early-stereo performance of The Isle of the Dead. It has been reissued on CD as part of The Reiner Sound, an anthology of orchestral showpieces (RCA Victor Living Stereo 09026-61250-2).
1958: Van Cliburn recorded the Third Concerto live at Carnegie Hall shortly after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Unlike the composer’s own heavily cut recording, this lyrical yet commanding performance, accompanied by Kiril Kondrashin and the Symphony of the Air, is unabridged. It is part of the Cliburn volume in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series, coupled with the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 36 (1913) and eight shorter solos (Philips 456 748-2, two CD’s).
1959-67: Rachmaninoff worked closely with the Philadelphia Orchestra in his later years, dedicating his Symphonic Dances to that lush-sounding ensemble. Eugene Ormandy, Stokowski’s successor as music director, went on to make definitive stereo recordings with the orchestra of the Symphonic Dances (Sony Classical SBK 48279) and the three symphonies (Sony Classical SB2K 63257, two CD’s).
1971-83: The Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s album of selections from the Preludes, Opp. 23 and 32, and Etudes-Tableaux, Opp. 33 and 39 is among the greatest of all Rachmaninoff recordings, past or present (Olympia OCD 337).
1974-79: The Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström recorded a near-complete set of Rachmaninoff’s songs with Vladimir Ashkenazy at the piano, and these sensitive performances have been deservedly acclaimed ever since their original release (Decca/London 436 920-2, three CD’s).
1993: An unusually theatrical interpretation of the Ail-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (1915), a liturgical setting for unaccompanied chorus of a Russian Orthodox service, was recorded by Nikolai Korniev and the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, with Olga Borodina singing the mezzo-soprano solos (Philips 442 344-2).
1999: David Finckel, the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, also makes CD’s with his wife, the pianist Wu Han. Among their best performances, which can be ordered directly through www.artistled.com, is a lustrous version of the Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19 (1901), appropriately coupled with sonatas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich (ArtistLed 19901-2).
2000: Rachmaninoff’s favorite among his own works was The Bells, Op. 35, a 1913 “choral symphony” for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra based on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous verses, which had previously been translated into Russian by the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. It is now available in an idiomatic performance by the Moscow State Chamber Choir and the Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Mikhail Pletnev (DGG 289 471 029-2).
In addition, a representative selection of Rachmaninoff’s solo 78’s, including nineteen of his own shorter pieces and his legendary interpretations of Chopin’s B-Flat-Minor Sonata and Schumann’s Carnaval, can be heard on the Rachmaninoff volume in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series (Philips 456 943-2, two CD’s).
Except as indicated, these CD’s can all be purchased online by viewing this article during the month of June on COMMENTARY’s website: www.commentarymagazine.com
1 Rachmaninoff preferred this transliteration of his name from the original Cyrillic characters, and used it consistently from 1917 on.
2 “In Praise of Rachmaninoff,” May 1978.
3 They are Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, a 1956 documentary biography by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda (Indiana, 464 pp., $29.95, paper), and a revised edition of Rachmaninoff, Geoffrey Norris’s volume in the Master Musicians series (Oxford, 196 pp., $16.95, paper).
4 It is possible that Rachmaninoff suffered from Marian’s syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the connective tissues that would not only explain the unusually large size of his hands (he could play a chord spanning an octave and a half with his left hand) but might also account for some of the painful ailments that beset him throughout his adult life, including arthritis, chronic back pain, and occasional stiffness of the hands.
5 On a few occasions, Rachmaninoff acknowledged the specific extramusical source of a purely instrumental composition. In 1930, for instance, he told the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi that the Etude-Tableau in A Minor, Op. 39/6, was based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
6 Rachmaninoff recorded the Chopin B-Flat Minor Sonata for Victor three days after giving the concert reviewed by Henderson. The performance is currently available on CD and is listed in the discography at the end of this essay, along with a sampling of his other recordings as pianist and conductor.
7 Out of print but worth looking for are Alexis Weissenberg’s 1970 set of the piano preludes, a version much admired by Herbert von Karajan (and available as recently as last year as RCA Victor Gold Seal 60568-2-RG), and a collection of seventeen of Rachmaninoff’s best-known songs, gorgeously sung by the tenor Nicolai Gedda and accompanied by Weissenberg with sometimes excessive but always startling virtuosity (briefly available in France as EMI Studio D 102573).