Welcome to Komposers for Kossacks! Today I am filling in for droogie6655321 as your humble host in the continuing journey through time and the music of yesteryear.
First, a little about me. I actually come at this project from a different perspective than does droogie. I have some fairly extensive music training in my background -- about 15 years of piano, where I learned to play a lot of Classical, Romantic, and Impressionist music; about 10 years of choir and voice training; and I've dabbled in composition and music theory for about 11 years. I even have a gift known as perfect pitch, the "ability to name or reproduce a tone without reference to an external standard." I'm not a professional musician -- I've been sorely out of practice, and I can't even afford a piano at home.
None of these things, however, are necessary for sharing our appreciation and love for the titans of music history. After seeing droogie's fine work on discussing the life and music of various composers in previous diaries, I decided to jump in. I hope we can both learn something together.
Today I will be reviewing my absolute favorite composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Nota bene #1: In addition to the YouTube videos, you can find all of the referenced music in the Grooveshark widget shown beneath the composer profile.
Nota bene #2: In case you missed them, here's a recap of droogie's recent Komposers for Kossacks diaries:
July 07: Frederic Chopin**********
July 08: Franz Liszt
July 22: Antonio Vivaldi
July 24: Johann Sebastian Bach
July 29: Domenico Scarlatti
Composer: Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (sometimes spelled "Rachmaninov" or "Rakhmaninov")
Born: April 1, 1873 (birthplace: Semyonovo, near Novgorod)
Died: March 28, 1943 (place of death: Beverly Hills, California)
Occupations: Composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor
Influences: Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Tanayev, Rimsky-Korsakov
Influenced: Scriabin, Shostakovich
When I was 13, I had begun to lose interest in playing the piano and taking lessons for it. I had been playing since I was 5, but from the ages of 9-13, I had gone through piano teachers like a revolving door. In a period of four years, I had four different piano instructors. I frequently argued with one of them when I was lazy with my practicing.
The piano at my parents' house, a 6-foot wooden Knabe, was incredibly old and fragile, certainly nothing like the state-of-the-art grand Steinway in the music school where I took lessons. The Knabe's keys were chipped from years of use, the strings would frequently fall out of tune, and you had to press slightly harder on the keyboard in order to get a tonal quality even somewhat comparable to the grand Steinway. It made practicing very frustrating, more like a chore than a joy. And on top of it all, I had to bear the ever-increasing burdens of schoolwork, keeping a social life in junior high, physical changes in my body, and raging hormones.
It was all part of that awkward, rebellious, adolescent phase of my life. It was also the first time I had ever heard of Rachmaninoff.
My first introduction to the man was at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. I went to see a performance by the Danish musician and comedy legend Victor Borge. I'd known about Borge since I was very young, and was pretty wise to his musical jokes, having seen his routine multiple times on various videotapes and TV specials over the years. His comedy schtick was enjoyable as always, but towards the end of the show, Borge played something remarkable which stuck with me for the rest of my life.
It was Rachmaninoff's famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor (Op. 3 No. 2). What a mesmerizing anthem, dominated by the dark three-chord tonality that rings throughout the piece like bells. It is a perfect blend of haunting beauty, fiery agitation, and grim finality.
After I heard this piece for the first time, I had to learn it. I had to practice it, play it, perform it, and master it. Instead of neglecting my practice, I spent hours in front of the piano just playing the passages over and over. When I wasn't sitting in front of the piano trying to bang out the notes, I was listening to it on CD, again and again. I didn't care how noisy it was, how late I stayed up, or how long it took perfect. I had to get it right. It was that wonderful a piece to me.
Rachmaninoff wrote this prelude when he was only 19, shortly after graduating from the Moscow Conservatory. It would become synonymous with Rachmaninoff for the rest of his life. It became so popular that audience members at his recitals would demand that he play it -- perhaps to the frustration of the composer himself, who is said to have grown to hate the piece. You'll be happy to know that the recording of this prelude in the Grooveshark widget (the first one in the list) was recorded by the composer himself -- he makes it seem effortless.
Rachmaninoff is sometimes considered one of the last composers of the Romantic Period, bridging the gap between 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Neoclassicism (made famous by Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev) and Modernism (made famous by Arnold Schönberg and John Cage). Besides the immortal C-Sharp Minor prelude, two other notable Rachmaninoff preludes include the G Minor (Op. 23 No. 5) and the G-Sharp Minor (Op. 32 No. 12), both of which have roots in Russian Romanticism. The former is characterized by heavy, staccato, almost militaristic sixteenth-note chords in its main theme, followed by a more serene, mystical melody with various arpeggios (ascending and/or descending scales) in the bass, then returning to the march-like theme again, only to end with a playful arpeggio to the top of the keyboard. The latter prelude is a gem which features a silent yet agitated figure in the treble clef, underscored by a melancholy theme in the bass. One of my favorite recordings of any piece anywhere is Vladimir Horowitz's wistful interpretation of the G-Sharp Minor prelude in one of his final concerts in Moscow.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family immigrated to the United States, never to return to their homeland. It was also during this time that Rachmaninoff rarely composed any music, instead focusing most of his efforts as a virtuoso concert pianist as well as a conductor. As a pianist, one of Rachmaninoff's most characteristic physical traits was his enormous hands, which allowed him to maneuver through complex passages and chords with ease.
You might also remember that Rachmaninoff's music is featured prominently in the Academy Award-winning film Shine, starring Geoffrey Rush as the Australian pianist David Helfgott. Midway through the film, you'll remember that Helfgott is depicted as suffering a severe mental breakdown immediately after performing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto (Op. 3) in D Minor, colloquially known as the "Rach 3" (tracks 7-9 in the Grooveshark widget).
In real life, Helfgott's mental illness did not occur as a result of tension with playing the Rach 3. However, this concerto is renowned for being one of the most technically challenging concertos in the repertoire. Rachmaninoff composed the work in 1909 at his family's country estate in Ivanovka, Russia (shown in the picture to the left), and debuted it in New York. He practiced the piece while on the ship over to the U.S., but used a silent piano out concern that the noise would disturb other passengers.
Personally, I prefer the "Rach 2," the Second Piano Concerto (Op. 18) in C Minor (Grooveshark tracks 4-6). Much like the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, this concerto opens with grim, bell-like tolls, which then progress into the main C Minor theme. The peaceful E Major theme of the Adagio sostenuto movement (Track 5) has one of the most beautiful recurring melodies in all of Romantic music, in my opinion.
There are many Rachmaninoff pieces I would love to analyze in greater detail in future Daily Kos diaries. After spending several years in musical training either practicing or listening to his work, I don't think one diary would do it justice. Some prominent 20th-century music critics panned his music shortly after his death. Here's what Eric Blom wrote in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (5th edition) in 1954:
"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.How time has proven Blom so very wrong. Rachmaninoff's music continues to endure and astound audiences more than 66 years after his passing. To this day, I credit Rachmaninoff with reviving my love for playing the piano. I practiced that Prelude in C-Sharp Minor so much over the years, that I never forgot how to play it. My muscle and tonal memory have failed me in many other pieces, to the point where I would need to basically learn some of my old repertoire from scratch. But not that prelude. I have not even tried playing it in more than five years, but I can guarantee you that if you sat me down in front of a piano and asked me to play it straight through, I know I could.
"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. The Third Pianoforte Concerto was on the whole liked by the public only because of its close resemblance to the Second, while the Fourth, which attempted something like a new departure, was a failure from the start. The only later work that has attracted large concert audiences was the Rhapsody (variations) on a Theme by Paganini for pianoforte and orchestra."
I think Paul-John Ramos sums it up best:
"Amidst many talented musicians who have come and gone in the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff stands as a giant who combined dazzling virtuosity with stunning efficiency and ease. His recordings shed light on an era of pianists who had mostly died out before the arrival of gramophone-making, leaving their performances in a vast, silent library of myth."Borge would later say that his performance of the C-Sharp Minor prelude at Ravinia when I was 13 was the first time he had played it in over 50 years. It stuck with him. Rachmaninoff stuck with him, as he did with me. I'm ever thankful for it.
1. Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, Sophia Satina (2002).
2. Rachmaninoff by Robert Matthew-Walker (1984).