A 150th anniversary retrospective on Sergei Rachmaninoff

by Eleonora Paolin (01/04/2023)

"Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music."

This was the sentiment of Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff, who was born in Russia 150 years ago. Eleonora Paolin remembers the "last romantic" by looking at some remarkable aspects of his life and work.

Sergei Rachmaninoff devoted his life to music, as a composer, conductor and especially as a pianist. Not only was he born into a music-loving family – his great-grandfather was a pupil of John Field (the inventor of the nocturne), and his father played the piano – but his exceptional talent as a performer and composer was evident from his earliest years of study. In fact, he completed his piano studies at the Moscow Conservatoire a year earlier; in the same piano class was Alexander Scriabin. For his subsequent composition diploma (the one-act opera Aleko) he received the Moscow Conservatory's Grand Gold Medal - for the second time ever!

The composer Rachmaninoff

"I compose music because I must give expression to my feelings, as I speak, because I must give expression to my thoughts."

Critics, however, were often controversial towards him, and his sensible soul suffered as a result. The failure of the First Symphony is probably largely responsible for this. The premiere in 1897 in St. Petersburg was a fiasco: the orchestra did not seem well enough prepared, Alexander Glazunov conducted apathetically and presumably drunk. The criticism was scathing - fuelled, among other things, by the rivalry between the St. Petersburg and Moscow musical circles. Rachmaninoff left the concert early. Shortly afterwards, he fell into severe depression and lost his creative energy for several years. His family advised him to seek therapy. It was ten years before he devoted himself to the genre of the symphony again.

He resumed writing after regaining his confidence with the help of Dr Nikolaj Dahl, a Russian doctor, psychologist and experienced hypnotist. The Second Piano Concerto op. 18 is dedicated to him and has enjoyed great success since its premiere in 1901. Five years later, he returned to the genre of the symphony, but it underwent several revisions. He wrote: "I had fallen into a strange state of mind - something that often happens to me when I compose; a feeling of anxiety, apathy and disgust with what I was doing in my work, and that of course means disgust with everything else". In 1908, his Second Symphony op. 27, was finally premiered: It, too, was now greeted with enthusiasm, rekindling his confidence as an orchestral composer.

However, following his flight from Russia in the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917, there became an even greater gap in his compositional career: during the 25 years he spent in exile until his death, mainly in the United States and Switzerland, he wrote only six works (Op. 40 to Op. 45), five of them orchestral. On the one hand, his concert tours in America and Europe meant that he had less time to compose. On the other hand, the act of creation is deeply connected to his homeland: "Music must express the composer's country of birth, his loves, his religiosity, the books that have influenced him, the paintings he loves, the sum of his experiences".

In addition to these reasons, however, self-doubt about the quality of his compositions plagued him until the very end. Towards the end of his life, for example, he devoted himself to revising the Fourth Piano Concerto op. 40,. Since its premiere in 1927, it has been received rather lukewarmly by the concert-going public because Rachmaninoff's compositional style became more and more fragmented as it progressed (and as a result, 'great tunes' emerge less frequently) than one was used to, for example, from his two previous piano concertos. He had settled in Beverly Hills, where he had a house built along the lines of his early and prosperous Russian childhood.

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Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto in Anton Rubinstein's famous interpretation

The Last Romantic

Although he was professionally successful, especially in the 20th century, Rachmaninoff's achievements and output contribute to his image as the 'last Romantic', which also fits the stereotype of the tortured composer-pianist. Rachmaninoff was also not reflected in the 'modern language' of the 20th century, which "seems to come not from the heart but from the head", as he described it.

However, Rachmaninoff has also been called the last representative of musical Romanticism, as his compositions reveal the influence of Frédéric Chopin and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff enjoyed performing Chopin's music as a concert pianist - the many recordings he had made in America testify to this - especially the Funeral March from Chopin's Second Piano Sonata. It also sounded almost fatefully at his last public performance a week before his death in 1943. A striking reference to Chopin is his Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op. 22, 22 Variations on the 20th Prélude in C minor from Chopin's Préludes Op. 28.

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Rachmaninoff's stunning interpretations of Chopin's Funeral March along with the eerie finale of the Second Sonata

Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky

Rachmaninoff was also a great admirer of Tchaikovsky's music. The elder foresaw the younger's success even when he met Sergei as a boy. The young Rachmaninoff arranged Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony and Sleeping Beauty for piano four hands. On Tchaikovsky's death he wrote the Trio élégiaque No. 2 "in memory of a great artist".

Dies Irae as an idée fixe

The head motif of the Dies irae was another constant in Rachmaninoff's output. He used the liturgical sequence in many works in different ways. As a conductor, Rachmaninoff performed compositions that included the sequence, such as the 1912 Moscow Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, which is based on the sequence as thematic material. Rachmaninoff was also familiar with Liszt's Totentanz, a paraphrase on the Dies Irae, and had performed Mussorgsky's symphonic poem A Night Bald Mountain, which also contains the revised theme, in some concerts.

Whether as a haunting 'memento mori' for the composer or as a simple musical inspiration that had now been secularised and found its way into the art music of the 19th century, we find the Dies Irae in the First Piano Sonata op. 28, in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, in the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, in the cantata The Bells, in the Symphonic Dances and especially in all the themes of the Second Symphony.

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The performance of the third piano concerto from the film "Shine"

Celebrity and criticism

The Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (5th edition, 1954) states, "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."

As a composer he was sometimes held in low esteem by critics, yet we find many positive reports about him, not only about his pianistic and conducting activities, and he achieved real popularity during his lifetime. He was also famous for his great hands: Like Liszt, Rachmaninoff was able to play a twelfth with one hand on the piano without difficulty, some even report: a thirteenth. Rachmaninoff's virtuosity as a performer was also reflected in the composer, and even today his Second Piano Concerto is considered one of the most difficult, but at the same time most beautiful, compositions written for the piano.

Not only talented pianists but also cinema contributed to his fame. The Piano Concerto No. 3 D minor op. 30, for example, is the central piece in "Shine" (1996). The film is based on the story of Australian pianist David Helfgott and tells of his victory in a competition with the famous "Rach 3" and his subsequent nervous breakdown, which was also due to the obsessive and constant practising in preparation for the concerto.

Rachmaninoff's music has fortunately never suffered the calamitous fate mentioned above; on the contrary, it continues to be an integral part of the study and programmes of concert halls and theatres, despite its great technical complexity. I would like to conclude with the words of another great composer who was also appreciated by Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann: "Rachmaninoff was made of steel and gold: steel in his arms, gold in his heart. I can never think of this majestic being without tears in my eyes, for I not only admired him as a supreme artist, but I loved him as a man."

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