Saturday, April 1, 2023

This Day in Classical Music History (Sergey Rachmaninov, Melancholy, Much-Imitated Maestro, Born)

Apr. 1, 1873— Sergey Rachmaninov, who established a worldwide reputation as a composer and conductor before political exile forced him to change career direction and become a virtuoso concert pianist, was born in Semyonovo, Russia.

“I reflect the philosophy of old Russia—White Russia—with its overtones of suffering and unrest, its pastoral but tragic beauty, its ancient and enduring glory,” this self-acknowledged “last of the romantic composers” said, in an interview published by Glenn Quilty in 1959, 16 years after Rachmaninov’s death.

It was the Bolshevik regime’s loss when it made life in Rachmaninov’s “White Russia” untenable by seizing his Ivanovka estate during the Communist takeover. Packing only enough belongings to fit in a few suitcases, he embarked on a Scandinavian tour featuring 10 piano recitals, then settled in America, where he built a reputation as arguably the greatest pianist that many concertgoers had ever seen.

It’s easy to imagine Rachmaninov as the kind of wistful aristocrat nostalgic for a lost estate envisioned by Anton Chekhov. But his melancholy strain has been more likely to have been experienced in popular culture less onstage than through recorded music—credited frankly, on film (Piano Concerto No.2, in David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter), or uncredited, at least initially (Eric Carmen—but more on that shortly).

Pick up almost any summary of the life of Rachmaninov—even a short article—and the author will probably remark on this musical icon’s remarkably large hands—how he commanded, even exploited, all the capabilities of the keyboard, so much that his own compositions often challenged subsequent pianists without his lengthy fingers.

It’s true that he could span 12 piano keys from the tip of his little finger to the tip of his thumb. But physical assets can only carry a musician so far, in the same way that quick wrists can help but not fully account for how fast a baseball slugger can turn on a pitch.

Just as important, in both cases, are intensive training, self-discipline, and an appropriate temperament.

The training came primarily by way of the Moscow Conservatory. The self-discipline came through the slow but diligent practice regimen he learned there and urged on later students. The temperament followed an early crisis, when conductor Alexander Glazunov—whom a persistent legend claims was drunk at the time—botched the premiere of Rachmaninov’s first symphony.

The 23-year-old’s trauma was so intense (he hid on a spiral staircase during the performance, then fled into the street with catcalls ringing in his ears) hid on a spiral staircase while it was going on and then ran into the street to escape the catcalls) that he underwent hypnosis while under a psychologist’s care to overcome). When he did, the result was a triumph: the Second Piano Concerto.

The public loved Rachmaninov—sometimes too much.

Maybe you’ve heard of authors groaning over apprentice works still out there that can no longer withstand their scrutiny, right? Like W. H. Auden tweaking his early verses, with not-always-happy outcomes? That was the case with Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, written in 1892 after his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory.

As Timmy Fisher notes in the popular “Life of a Song” column in The Financial Times early last month, Rachmaninov “considered this youthful piece unrepresentative — inferior to later efforts that were ‘not appreciated half so much.’” The composer’s lack of affection for the piece was so pronounced that he begrudged its popularity—even going so far as to risk an audience’s displeasure in 1923 by refusing to play it as an encore.

(I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Rachmaninov was always so grouchy or that he utterly lacked a sense of humor. Given the proper occasion, his ironic wit could be keen. During one performance, his friend violinist Fritz Kreisler, anxious over losing his place in the music, whispered, “Where are we?”  Rachmaninov quipped, “Carnegie Hall.”)

Even during his lifetime, Rachmaninov saw his work adapted in singular ways by pop musicians. In 1918, George L. Cobb’s “Russian Rag” transformed Prelude into—yes, ragtime music.  Twenty years later, Duke Ellington employed a swinging arrangement of the same work at the Cotton Club.

But few musicians have occasioned as much commentary for borrowing so heavily from the Russian as Eric Carmen. When I first heard that the former frontman of The Raspberries had done so for “All by Myself” for his first solo LP, I had assumed that the influence could be heard most heavily in the extended piano solo in that hit’s break. But as it happened, it was the melody itself form the Second Piano Concerto that had been used.

Then, several years ago, while listening to the Adagio movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, I sat bolt upright: that was Carmen’s “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” that I was hearing!

These borrowings can be viewed very differently by different people. A decade or two later, Carmen could have said that this was a case of “sampling.” Others might have claimed that he was paying tribute to an idol, in the manner of Brian DePalma with Alfred Hitchcock.

But because they saw no credits on the album sleeves, Rachmaninov’s descendants saw plagiarism—and they sued. Carmen has said he mistakenly believed the song was in the public domain. Before long, the lawyers got to work and everyone was happy.

“The reason that I used those things was twofold,” Carmen explained 16 years later, in an interview with Gordon Pogoda. “First, they happened to move me. That stuff gave me goose bumps every time I listened to it. Also, I thought that it's a crime that there are some spectacular melodies in classical music that the general public doesn't get exposed to. I thought this was a way for me to bring some of the classical music that I love, incorporate it into a pop song for a new decade of kids, and introduce them to those beautiful melodies that they might not otherwise hear.”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattering, that Rachmaninov would be thrilled by all the “flattery” he’s gotten since his death. Carmen is hardly the only pop postwar composer who’s looked to Rachmaninov for inspiration: Jeff Lynne and Barry Manilow, among others, have done so.

In the decade before his death in 1943, just a few days short of his 70th birthday, Rachmaninov may have wondered about the strength of his legacy in classical music. Such musical authorities as Virgil Thomson, Paul Rosenfield, and Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismissed his work.

The passage of time, though, has seen his work incorporated into the repertoire of most orchestras. Piano specialist Jeremy Nicholas goes further, writing without reservations in the January 2023 issue of Gramophone Magazine that the Russian was “perhaps the most complete musician of the past 150 years,” observing that he “operated at the highest level in three different disciplines: conducting, composing and piano playing.”

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