Lyudmila Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, “Sergei Rachmaninov” (2015)

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We lead ourselves to believe that our time is somehow unique in how fast it moves — that the current pace of technological and societal “progress” has no precedent in any previous time period. This view artificially separates us from the past history of culture, by default implying that the latter has nothing relevant to say to us, and consequently should be forgotten.

But, when Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was born, it was in a rural province of the Russian Empire, into a poor noble family, in whose decline could still be heard the aftersounds of some Napoleonic-era military code of honour. When he first became famous as a composer and musician, he lived in St. Petersburg, a rapidly industrializing European capital and one of the world centers of musical thought, and there belonged to a small circle of leading musical innovators and thinkers; he wrote one or more major works every year, spent his money on cars and travel, and leisurely vacationed in the country every summer. In 1917, during the Russian Revolution, he barely escaped with his family while the city turned into a mass grave. In the 1930s, he toured the world as a professional pianist and built an upscale villa in Switzerland, which he later also had to leave behind at the onset of World War II. He premiered his work in Philadelphia and Baltimore, attended jazz shows, argued with agents, received invitations to gala dinners, bought more cars; when he died in Beverly Hills, in 1943, the world outside his window was recognizable at least as a version of our world, with business lunches, morning traffic, telephone calls, and seemingly ubiquitous advertisements. The other world in which he had lived, by that time, existed only in his memory.

If I were to have a life like this, I would have trouble believing, by the end, that any of it was ever real. But it was real, and so it seems to me that Rachmaninov has much more to say about our future than about his past. Because he says it through music, it can be perceived more directly than if he had written a book. In a way, contemporary audiences are in a better position to understand him, since they don’t know anything about the fashions and prejudices of 20th-century avant-garde classical music, and therefore do not feel compelled to synchronize their opinions with those of long-dead, long-forgotten critics.


Lyudmila Kovaleva-Ogorodnova is a contemporary Rachmaninov enthusiast and scholar (and professional pianist). Her recent book is a comprehensive account of factual events in the composer’s life, meticulously researched, written in a simple and energetic way and accompanied by extensive visual material. Despite the overall wealth of detail, many aspects of Rachmaninov’s music are left out of the story — in a sense, his music is only tangentially handled. The author does not try to articulate his place in the history and development of music, or review any prior efforts to do so by anyone else. She occasionally describes her own interpretations of a few pieces, or anecdotally cites those of other pianists, but although this is sometimes interesting, it is completely unsystematic and the reader is ultimately left alone to try and make sense of Rachmaninov’s work.

The question of where exactly Rachmaninov belongs in history is not as straightforward as it may sound. Some of his work (Symphony No. 2, for example, or Piano Concerto No. 2) is universally loved by audiences, with dozens if not hundreds of recordings by the world’s best orchestras, and yet this very popularity also hurt his critical reputation and precluded a more comprehensive understanding of his work. Late in his life, he clearly did not fit into then-popular experimental trends in classical music, and he vocally rejected more modern forms, creating (in part, deliberately) an image of himself as a relic who had outlived his relevance. Although this is no longer the consensus opinion, still, contemporary articles about Rachmaninov’s music often have an oddly apologetic tone, attempting to defend the composer against charges of excessive sentimentality, or praising certain performers for restraining this alleged quality. In general, classical music writing mainly focuses on comparing various performances against each other, and is spectacularly uninformative with regard to the actual music. I am looking at the liner notes of a 2010 recording of Symphony No. 2, by the LSO with Valery Gergiev conducting; the writer, who is described as a “freelance music journalist,” heroically tries to explain what the music sounds like, but the best that he can come up with is, “All sympathetic listeners agree that the Second Symphony contains the very best of Rachmaninov. Deliberately paced and rhythmically flexible, it is, above all, propelled by the wonderfully fertile melody of which he was such a master…Rachmaninov deals in varied shades and combinations, producing a full, sonorous orchestral blend, with horns and low woodwind…supporting the middle of the texture, and the tuba doubling the long-held bass notes that frequently underpin the music.” He is subsequently reduced to helplessly following the music and giving a play-by-play of what happens in each movement (“The turbulent development…spills over into the reprise of the first subject, which then leads to the movement’s most intense climax“). Ultimately none of this means anything.

Kovaleva-Ogorodnova’s musical writing does not rise far above this level either, but nonetheless her book is a significant improvement in the overall quality of Rachmaninov studies, as many previous books in English are either unreliable (even the one that claimed to have been authorized by the composer) or simply uninterested in understanding his world pre-1917. Previous books in Russian have a weaker factual foundation, partially due to Rachmaninov’s ambiguous status in Soviet musical historiography, and often prefer to spend time on impressionistic literary descriptions of scenes from Rachmaninov’s life. Some of these are interesting in their own way, but one might prefer to start with a piece of serious research and only then let one’s mind wander.

Let us start, then. Rachmaninov’s father, Vasily Arkadyevich, had a character suitable for a Dostoyevsky novel — a retired military officer who married for money and squandered all of his wife’s property, “played cards and believed that ‘tomorrow’ he would win two hundred thousand, yet invariably was penniless, always in debt but never lost his good cheer. Everyone gave in to his thoughtless optimism and lent him money, although ‘these loans were never repaid.’ In this frivolous manner he may also have been taken with [Rachmaninov’s mother], without any thought of marriage.” (Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, I/30-32) The marriage could not have been entirely calculated — relatives recalled that Vasily Arkadyevich was easily moved by impulsive, yet heartfelt emotion, that he could not bear to see anyone cry and was incapable of premeditated malice — but…

“But there was no happiness in the family. The fights became more heated, and, when little Sergei was seven or eight, his parents separated…Rachmaninov could never forget that day. Outside, for some reason, they had cut down his favourite beautiful fir tree, under which he had liked to hide. For him this became a bitter symbol of the family’s collapse.”

(Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, I/32)

Vasily Arkadyevich left his family for good in 1893 and lived with another woman, whom he never officially married, but with whom he fathered at least one other son. Rachmaninov was sympathetic toward his half-brother Nikolai, and later they formed a friendship, which was cut short with Nikolai’s death in combat during World War I (he had volunteered to serve in the nascent air force). Their father died in 1916, possibly by suicide. About Nikolai’s mother, Kovaleva-Ogorodnova only remarks, in a footnote, “The subsequent fate of M.V. Olferyeva is unknown.” (I/55)

vasilyrachmaninov.jpgVasily Rachmaninov.

And yet, Vasily Arkadyevich is the most likely source of Rachmaninov’s musical talent. There were musically talented people on both parents’ sides, but Sergei’s father had an improvisational gift and “would play the piano for hours, not any famous pieces, but God knows what, but you could listen to him forever.” (I/29) Rachmaninov had an eidetic memory for music, and, many years later, in 1911, transcribed one piece that he remembered his father having played at some point during his childhood. He called it “Polka de W.R.” and occasionally played it in public, unaware that it apparently had been originally written by a minor German composer named Franz Behr (but, who knows, his father may have modified it).

Rachmaninov treated his mother Lyubov Petrovna with respect, but they were not very close. In 1913, she visited Rachmaninov’s family in their country home and got a cold reception; a friend of the family observed, “I was surprised that, among all the residents of the house, only Sergei Vasilyevich ever spoke to her…relations between everyone became strained. [Rachmaninov’s wife and mother-in-law] did not even seem to hide the fact that they were displeased with Lyubov Petrovna’s arrival.” (I/265-267) When Rachmaninov emigrated, his mother stayed behind in the Soviet Union; he learned about her death in 1929 from a letter written by a relative.

In fact, Rachmaninov was not particularly close to anyone in his family, with the possible exception of his older sister Elena, who was also musically talented and showed the promise of becoming an opera singer, but died before she ever got the chance, of leukemia at age 17. Many years later, he recalled, “Elena had a magnificent voice, and I never heard anything like it again in my life. Although she did not yet study formally, she could sing practically anything, because Nature herself had granted her with a remarkable contralto. The pleasure with which I listened to her singing cannot be described. That was the time when Tchaikovsky’s reputation and popularity was being consolidated…it was my sister who first brought me into the world of his music, which totally captivated me.” (I/22) Also among the happier family experiences were Sergei’s visits to his grandmother during summer vacations, in the country outside Novgorod. There he spent entire days, from morning to late evening, floating down the river in a small fishing boat, listening to the echo of church bells drifting across the water. (If it were me, and if I lay dying in Beverly Hills, I would surely be trying to call these summer afternoons back to memory — and maybe I would be left wondering if they had ever really happened…)

volhovriverVolhov River, Novgorod Province, Russia.

Rachmaninov’s musical ability showed itself very early. At his father’s request, he was admitted to the St. Petersburg conservatory, but he was not very interested in studying. Most likely, he would have been expelled and that would have been the end of it, if not for his cousin Alexander Siloti, a professional pianist who recognized his talent and brought him to Moscow, where there was a kind of live-in school run by music professor Nikolai Zverev. Students at this school gave recitals at the Moscow Conservatory, got to know other professors there and eventually joined it to formally complete their studies.

zverevZverev with his students.
Third from left, back row: Sergei Rachmaninov.
First from left, front row: Alexander Scriabin.

Zverev lived up to his name (“Animal”), being a tyrannical disciplinarian who worked his students from 6:00 AM to midnight every day and, according to Rachmaninov, was “madly quick-tempered.” (I/63) In the long term, however, it was this harsh routine that made it possible for Rachmaninov to instantly reinvent himself as a world-famous professional pianist, when he suddenly found himself penniless and exiled in 1917. In the short term, it granted him entry into the musical world, in which Zverev was well-known and respected: for example, Rachmaninov first met Tchaikovsky in person when the latter was a dinner guest at Zverev’s house. Tchaikovsky actively encouraged Rachmaninov to pursue composition (over Zverev’s objection) and enthusiastically supported him in his early career, for example by mentioning him in interviews and arranging for Rachmaninov’s juvenile opera “Aleko” to be premiered together with his own one-act opera “Iolanta.” After the performance, according to Rachmaninov’s later reminiscences, “Tchaikovsky, leaning out of his box, applauded with all his strength, out of kindness, [since] he understood how much this would help a novice composer.” (I/114)

tchaikovsky.jpgPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

As a young man, Rachmaninov was supremely confident, even arrogant. Kovaleva-Ogorodnova cites the following scene from some long-forgotten autobiographical novel written by one of his classmates: “Sapunov [The author’s pseudonym for Rachmaninov. -FL] ran up the piano and joined [the others]. But soon this was no longer enough for him, and, accompanied by the quartet, he started to improvise one variation after another, finishing with a polyphonic march in the style of Schumann’s ‘Carnaval’. We applauded thunderously, and Sapunov remained at the piano. He greatly enjoyed his triumph. He started to play one of the preludes by Ryabinin [Scriabin. -FL] that he had heard earlier this evening. His remarkable ear and memory allowed him to repeat this short piece after having heard it just one time. But he could not restrain himself from translating Ryabinin’s prelude up by one tone.” (I/95-96) It is easy to believe this account after listening to Rachmaninov’s early work: his first published opus, Piano Concerto No. 1, which was written in 1891 as a kind of graduation thesis, begins with a triumphant, aggressive brass fanfare heralding the sudden, crashing arrival of the piano — a deliberately loud, blatant statement of intent. The following year, he wrote Op. 3, a set of five short pieces for solo piano; the second of these, the Prelude in C-sharp minor, became one of the most famous and recognizable works of his entire career, and thus offers an even better expression of his youthful ambition.

The first point to remember from this piece is that Rachmaninov was not a “gentle” composer. The Prelude’s signature beginning — three deep, ponderous chords, dipping two octaves below middle C — should be loud, or “solemn and menacing” as the composer himself put it in an interview late in life. Although this slow opening is followed by a languid and relatively calm, melancholy tone, around 1:50 the pace picks up considerably and, at 2:30, culminates in a frenzied rush downward across three octaves back to an even louder reprise of the opening theme. In other words, much of Rachmaninov’s music is built on extremely harsh contrasts of volume (quiet/loud), tone (low/high) and tempo (slow/fast). The change from one extreme to the other also tends to occur very quickly.

Very often, Rachmaninov’s music is ferociously aggressive. His performances of both his own and other people’s music have the same quality. Virtually any piece, when played by him, is finished much faster than usual: the fast parts are really fast and the slow parts are handled with ruthless efficiency. His rendition of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, which contains the famous Funeral March, turns it into the most violent funeral on record, coming in at just under 19 minutes when most performers would spend 21-25. As for the Prelude, his own performance of it lasts 3:47, when Nikolai Lugansky in the previous video spent 4:30.

The second point to remember is that Rachmaninov had no compunctions about using deliberate, unsubtle theatrics when he felt that they served his purpose. The opening of the Prelude crawls with stylized, oppressive gloom, which then turns into a feeling of intense introspection, followed by mounting anxiety and a final outpouring of rage. Rachmaninov is often called a “Romantic” composer; what this means is that his music conveys (or is seen to convey) the impression of a highly individualized emotional experience. The earlier classical sense of music as a reaction to something existing outside the individual — God, nature, musical harmony, emotion as an abstract universal idea — is replaced in Romanticism by the individual’s minute, disharmonious emotional impulses. The Romantic hero does not tell us his story, but we are shown a glimpse of his emotional state, from which we are supposed to infer that something important happened, and we know that it was important only from the intensity of the emotion. In that sense, Romanticism is the first “modern” movement in music, and has much in common with contemporary forms, in which singers are justified purely by the power of the emotions that they allegedly feel (or induce in their admirers).

Personally I don’t think it’s entirely fair to include Rachmaninov in this category — and he, himself, openly told listeners to resist the urge to identify any piece of music with the personal feelings of the composer — but yes, there is certainly something of it in the Prelude. By the end, it feels as if a massive crisis has occurred, but there has been no resolution; the final chords of the Prelude have dwindled away, but we are left exactly where we started. One can easily imagine bohemian youths in the early 20th century feeling that this music “speaks” to them, much as their grandfathers felt about Byronic poetry. Its mass appeal was surely aided by the fact that, although technically it is quite demanding, compositionally it is relatively straightforward: there are three parts, of which the first and second are each based on a single central idea, and the third largely repeats the idea of the first but just throws it around the scale more aggressively. The central idea of the first part is a progression of eight chords, inside which the opening three-chord theme is embedded; this line is moved around the scale and modified in various ways (one of these is a kind of descending “mirror” progression which resembles the medieval Catholic “Dies Irae” chant — Rachmaninov continued to quote it in his work throughout his whole life), but it is clear that all of these are iterations on one single concept. The second part is a sequence of similarly-structured groups of four notes; each group is unusually timed, with the left hand playing a quarter note and the right hand playing a triplet (three notes in the space usually allotted for two), creating an off-kilter stumbling rhythm that generates the sense of growing anxiety. This construction is likewise modified and moved around the scale, but again it is clear that a single idea is being repeated. So, in other words, one may have to dig into the sheet music to understand all the nuances, but the overall appeal of the piece is instantaneous, relying on a small number of rhythms that are easy to remember, and very little musical sophistication on the part of the listener is required.

Similarly, the Elegy, one of the Prelude’s companions in Op. 3, also creates an atmosphere of elegant, stylized gloom, in which the left hand provides a steady ebb and flow while the right hand sounds out forlorn high notes, which at one point speed up into a choked sob:

These short, moody pieces are rightfully famous; they are representative of certain aspects of Rachmaninov’s aesthetic and have introduced many listeners to his work. The Prelude in particular followed Rachmaninov for the rest of his life, to the point where he became annoyed by the audience’s requests to play it. It was, however, still on the setlist during his final tour, in 1942-1943.

In 1895, after a string of increasingly massive successes, Rachmaninov started composing his first symphony (Op. 13). Its premiere, which took place in St. Petersburg, in March of 1897, was an unmitigated (and, to the composer, completely unexpected) disaster. Critics savaged the work and Rachmaninov went into depression for a long time, with no published work until 1900. The symphony was not performed again during his lifetime. He never revisited or edited it, unlike much of his other early work (for example, he revised Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1917, probably to its benefit), and it may even have been lost completely if the original manuscript had not been unexpectedly recovered in the Soviet Union during World War II. The next time that anyone performed Symphony No. 1 was in Moscow, in 1945.

One of the most hostile critics of the 1897 premiere was the largely undistinguished B-list composer Caesar Cui, who wrote: “If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students had been tasked with composing a programme symphony on the theme of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninov’s, then he would  brilliantly achieve his goal, to the delight of Hell’s inhabitants. But we, for the time being, are still here on Earth, and to us this music makes a disheartening impression with its broken rhythms, its obscurity and vagueness of form, the complete lack of purpose behind its most jarring excesses, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crack of the brass, and above all with the total absence of simplicity and naturalness, the total absence of themes, the sickly perversity of its harmonization and its quasi-melodic sketches.” Other critics also chimed in; a review in the leading conservative newspaper The New Times disdainfully remarked, “As a result, it is like reading a work of decadent literature; images are piled on top of one another, but all are dull and pretentious,” as well as, “Based on this symphony, one might think that Mr. Rachmaninov could be any modern German, especially one who had been poisoned by Nietzschean views, but hardly that he could be a Russian composer.”

Of course, Kovaleva-Ogorodnova mentions the failure of Symphony No. 1, but she largely glosses over it and its effect on Rachmaninov, perhaps because her book does not heavily engage with the music in general, or perhaps because she felt protective of her hero. In any case, over time, critical and public opinion has softened; the symphony is now better-regarded, and Rachmaninov enthusiasts have developed a set of defenses against the original negative reviews. One of them is to blame everything on the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, who apparently did not study the score or rehearse the performance with sufficient diligence. It is often claimed that Glazunov was drunk during the premiere (well, if that were true, it would only put him in the good company of many performers throughout the ages).

scruffyrachmaninovRachmaninov in the 1890s, showing off the scruffy look.

The simpler explanation, however, is that Cui had a point. Of course, his negative tone was gratuitous; he could instead have chosen to interpret the “flaws” of the symphony as a sign of its originality. Overall, the harsh attacks on Rachmaninov probably had more to do with the desire to take the arrogant boy genius down a notch than with the actual content of his music. Nonetheless, the things that Cui talked about were really there, and can be found even in a more complimentary performance. The symphony really does have a certain “decadent” quality, being even more reliant on overblown theatrics than the Prelude or the First Concerto. Parts of it do not fit well together, like how the beginning of the final movement suddenly breaks with the previous dark, uncertain tone and starts a cheerful march, only to abruptly end it a minute later and return to the dark theme, later bringing in what sounds vaguely like a quote from Russian Orthodox Church hymns, speeding it up into some kind of off-kilter dance, and finally interrupting it by a cymbal crash and a long silent pause. Undoubtedly this is what Cui must have meant by “broken rhythms.” It is evident that the 22-year-old composer was deliberately showboating and trying to thrill the audience.

Ironically, contemporary audiences are in a much better position to appreciate this, now that they have had 50 years of rock music behind them. A modern listener, coming to the symphony with an idea of music that is very different from Cui’s, might find much of it surprisingly enjoyable, particularly the first movement. It certainly has no trouble getting the audience’s attention: the opening bars form a snarling, startling alarm call on woodwinds, which was plagiarized decades later in the score of a well-known science fiction film — see if you know which one. After this introduction, the main melody appears, first around 1:00 in a relatively restrained form, and later (after a shrill reprise of the “alarm” at 5:40) as a big, repetitive “riff” that dominates the remainder of the movement.

In fact, many bits and pieces of the symphony could serve as film music, and probably have at various times. In the third movement (“Larghetto,” starts around 23:50 in the video), the strings serve entirely as pensive texture behind the woodwinds. The incidental fragments wafting into the background (for example, at 25:48), and the murky horns toward the end, are probably what Cui meant when he referred to a “nasal sound” — one can easily imagine them in the background of some seventies art film. So, one can find enough to enjoy about Symphony No. 1. Even Cui had to admit that the composer “does avoid banality, and probably feels strongly and deeply, and tries to express these feelings in new forms.”

My personal opinion is that the symphony does not rank among Rachmaninov’s best work; however, I deeply and sincerely appreciate its failure. What I mean is that Rachmaninov’s career was not an unclouded procession from one glorious success to another; its highs were interrupted by very severe lows, and to me personally that is very important, and gives additional weight to his life in my eyes.

rachmaninovpiano.jpgRachmaninov in the early 1900s.

Although the subsequent three-year interruption in composition was no doubt painful for Rachmaninov, it ended up bringing him closer into the broader music world. Later in 1897, he was invited to the position of assistant conductor at a prominent opera theatre in Moscow; by October of that year, the Moscow Journal was noting how he “firmly and decisively grasped the reins of the orchestra and wasted no time in showing the richness of his talents as a conductor…The public appreciated Rachmaninov and repeatedly called for him throughout the whole evening.” (Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, I/134) Although Rachmaninov was annoyed by the lack of creative freedom and free time ensuing from this job, it was responsible for his meeting with the legendary opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin, as well as many other famous musicians. Early in 1899, he was invited by the London Philharmonic to give his first international performance, as the conductor of his early symphonic poem “The Rock” (Op. 7) and solo performer of, naturally, the Elegy and Prelude. There is an often-heard story about how Rachmaninov underwent hypnotic therapy around this time, and how this allegedly caused him to focus long enough to finish writing the famous Piano Concerto No. 2. Kovaleva-Ogorodnova (following many other biographers) speculates that the inspiration actually came from the fact that the therapist had an attractive female relative that caught Rachmaninov’s eye, although there is no documentary evidence of their supposed affair, and in fact even her full name is not known precisely. In my opinion, the much simpler and more plausible explanation is that, by the time the concerto was finished in late 1900, the composer had simply regained his confidence after another taste of success.

In any case, Piano Concerto No. 2 marked the beginning of 17 years of non-stop composition, the most productive and successful period of Rachmaninov’s life. Out of 45 published works, about half were written during this period. Almost all of his most famous pieces — the ones you’re most likely to have heard of — belong to this group, for example Piano Concerto No. 2 itself, or the landmark Symphony No. 2, the gothic symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead,” and the notoriously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3.

Their fame has somewhat eclipsed the variety of Rachmaninov’s composition. He tends to be viewed as a piano composer with occasional orchestral leanings. But, immediately after Piano Concerto No. 2, he wrote a sonata for cello and piano, in which the cello clearly takes the leading role and is given virtually all of the main musical ideas. The use of the cello is not incidental to these ideas; they reflect a great deal of novel thinking about the capabilities of this specific instrument. You might consider 14:50 in this video:

The second movement (“Allegro scherzando”) begins with an aggressive, dark rhythmic figure with loud and prominent pizzicato (finger-plucking). Most likely this muted thump is not the sound that one expects from classical cello. The rhythm is tense and commanding, full of dramatic darkness. The sonata as a whole has many inventions like this; someone who only knows the piano concertos may be surprised to find something so original buried in Rachmaninov’s catalogue. (My personal favourite is the 2006 recording with Kniazev and Lugansky.)

Piano Sonata No. 1 (Op. 28), written in 1908, is perhaps more in line with the piano-centric view of Rachmaninov, but its brutal technical difficulty and relative lack of audience-grabbing “big moments” has made it somewhat obscure as compared to the concertos. Nonetheless, the final movement unleashes an impressively furious 11-minute torrent of notes, augmented with deep, cavernous bell-like echoes from the left hand and interrupted twice by returns to a disarmingly simple main theme, like brief moments of calm in the middle of the storm, or brief feelings of respite in between waves of anger. Here it is played by the great Valentina Lisitsa with a manic intensity that no doubt would have met with the composer’s approval (the main theme comes in at 3:40 and 8:25):

Western audiences are mostly unaware that Rachmaninov wrote a large volume of vocal music. Ops. 4, 8, 14, 21, 26, 34, and 38 consist entirely of songs for one vocalist accompanied by light instrumentation (usually solo piano), based on poems, folk motifs and religious hymns. Virtually none of these works is well-understood or widely performed today. When someone tries, the songs are invariably interpreted as operatic arias; one wonders if it has to be that way.

That is not all, however — Ops. 24 and 25 are one-act operas. The first of these, “The Miserly Knight,” is based on a short play in verse (written in 1830) by Alexander Pushkin, describing a hostile relationship between a father and son in a stylized, somewhat generic medieval European setting. The opera is extremely faithful to the text, and yet Rachmaninov finds new depth in it essentially by turning the music into one of the performers, so much so that contemporaries complained that it was drowning out the singers. The title character’s long monologue, which takes up a full third of the running time, is turned into a disturbing evocation of mental illness — the music is claustrophobic and dark, but when the Baron is imagining all the glorious and beautiful things that he could create with his money, if he so chose (but which are actually non-existent), the instrumental backing breaks into bright, delicate melodic fragments, only to snarl violently when the character remembers his spendthrift son.

Rachmaninov also experimented with large choral ensembles, starting with the relatively short cantata “Spring” (Op. 20) in 1902, followed in 1913 by the four-part choral poem “The Bells” (Op. 35), which he liked to count among his symphonies. This interest, perhaps combined with his childhood impressions of church services, led him to the pure choral music of the Russian Orthodox Church — in 1910 and 1915, he wrote arrangements of the two most fundamental Orthodox services, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the All-Night Vigil. These works (Ops. 31 and 37) use many authentic ancient Byzantine and Russian rhythms, and sound similar to what you might hear at any weekly Orthodox service, though, for the same reason, a part of me thinks that it might be better to just go to the service instead. The best performances are those that downplay the typical style of opera singing, so that the music does not sound like a set of unusually somber arias, and deemphasize each individual voice relative to the choir; this creates a distant calm, as if the music you are hearing were some higher form of silence.

rachmaninovworking.jpgRachmaninov in 1910, looking over Piano Concerto No. 3.

An American interview, late in Rachmaninov’s life, reported that, “he believes that his best compositions are ‘The All-Night Vigil’ and ‘The Bells,’ unknown in our country.” The serious listener will no doubt find it rewarding to delve into Rachmaninov’s vocal and choral music. For now, however, let us put it aside and spend some time on Op. 27, Symphony No. 2, undoubtedly one of his all-time most famous pieces. No doubt he felt vindicated by its instant, universal success among both audiences and critics — the polar opposite of their reaction to the last symphony.

On the surface, Symphony No. 2 scales back the excesses of Symphony No. 1. It is arguably the smoothest listening experience in Rachmaninov’s catalog, with relatively few of the jarring contrasts that are so common in his work. The second, third and fourth movements might be interpreted as an instance of the classic fast/slow/fast symphonic structure. However, the monumental, 20-minute first movement is long enough to be a self-contained symphonic work in itself. If you have time, listen up to at least 20:13 of the following:

The movement is marked “Largo,” which is usually interpreted as “very slow,” but literally means “broadly,” and the entire orchestra appears to glide, glacially, in total unison across some vast expanse. Multiple instruments blend together into a single lush and seemingly monolithic (but actually meticulously assembled) “texture” of sound, whose surges and swells seem to emanate from some immense mind that is completely unaware of the audience.

By 5:30, the music is entirely lost inside the thoughts of this consciousness, which are entirely self-directed and self-sufficient; there does not exist any world outside this mind. Through the string section, melodic fragments emerge from the depths and abruptly break off, like fragments of remembered images or emotions. They alternate for some time, like circling between the same unfinished thoughts, perhaps with no real desire to complete them; yet, every such self-reaction, however inconclusive, feels enormous, carrying the weight of the entire orchestra. This colossal size gives power to the emotional swells in this inner monologue, but also a certain absolute calmness — the all-knowing sorrow and eternal introspection of divinity. Eventually a feeling of anxiety coalesces and mounts, punctuated by sharp stabs of brass; this seems to be the time to be jolted out of contemplation and into action, but it never quite happens. Around 14:45 the crescendo simply subsides with no resolution; by 15:30, we drift back into the eternal reverie.

This is one time when Rachmaninov’s music does not benefit from being played as fast as possible. (The second movement does, however.) But dragging it out would not work either. The first movement should convey a slow, but intense concentration — a state of rest, not sleep. The success or failure of any performance of Symphony No. 2 is determined by how the conductor handles this.

rachmaninovcar.jpgRachmaninov in 1912.

By the 1910s, Rachmaninov was an internationally acclaimed star, sufficiently well-off financially to do whatever he wanted. His one indulgence, perhaps, was expensive cars, but other than that there is not much to say about his day-to-day life; many journalists over the years have tried and failed to find something there to gossip about. From his marriage to Natalia Satina in 1902, to, at the earliest, the beginning of World War I in 1914, his life was happy and completely focused on the artistic challenges that he set for himself. (Even in 1915-1916, among the gathering storm clouds, he spent his time staging a series of memorial performances of Scriabin’s work.) He liked to spend time in his wife’s country estate of Ivanovka, where he could alternate between composition and gardening.

Sergei Vasilyevich always worked well in Ivanovka. Often, the grand piano would not be silent all night long. The summer [of 1909], at first so gratifying with ‘magnificent’ weather, by mid-July had become ‘menacing and uneasy’ due to frequent rains and storms. Irina Brandt recalled how, one rainy day, everyone gathered in the sitting-room of the large house: ‘Outside the rain was pouring, the thunder crashed. When the storm had quieted down, Sergei Vasilyevich sat down to the piano, and again we heard both the thunder and the rainfall. On the piano he reproduced everything that happened outside. We were all astounded.’

(Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, I/219-220)

rachmaninovinivanovka.jpgRachmaninov in Ivanovka, late 1900s.

To this, Kovaleva-Ogorodnova adds her opinion that this was the first movement (“Allegro ma non tanto”) of Piano Concerto No. 3, which was finished later that year. She then gives a detailed description of her view of this movement as a musical depiction of a thunderstorm. Any such interpretation of classical music is bound to seem a bit fanciful, especially with regard to something as abstract as a piano concerto, but here I think it fits. This movement involves extreme tonal contrasts, ranging from the delicate, understated opening (a single cloud in the sky, casting a light shadow) to the wild violence of the latter third, but at the same time the fury easily recedes back into a subdued reprise of the theme, much like how a thunderstorm might be over in a few minutes.

In mid-April of 1911, Sergei Vasilyevich went back to Ivanovka. Aside from the quiet and calm of country life, he was also drawn by household work…He wanted to ‘radically restructure the household and make various improvements, so that everything followed “the latest word of science and technology.”‘…Rachmaninov enjoyed watching the springtime field work and made the rounds every morning.

(Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, I/239-241)

But, by March of 1917, all of a sudden — or at least, that is how it must have felt — the countryside began to feel unsafe. “The residents of Ivanovka told them about agitators who had come to frequent the village and were giving out liquor. They anxiously urged them to leave the estate as soon as possible. Several of the farmers were openly rude and made threats. Rachmaninov finally understood that it was time to leave, and not only Ivanovka.” He left that April and never came back again. One of the residents recalled, “It was raining when Sergei Vasilyevich left…On the outskirts of the village, the carriage stopped, Rachmaninov came out of it and looked back for a long time.” (I/295) Piano Concerto No. 4, which Rachmaninov had started in 1914, would not be finished until 1926.

ivanovka1960sRoad leading out of Ivanovka. Photograph taken in the 1960s.
(Kovaleva-Ogorodnova, I/296)

To be continued.

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