Reblog Happy (belated) Birthday Mr Rachmaninoff! — Sophie’s Multiverse

Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was one of the finest pianists of his generation and the last great Romantic Russian composer. Rachmaninoff’s music, innately Russian in feel, possesses a profound expressive beauty. His contemporaries, on hearing him play, often remarked on the beauty of his tone quality, its singing nature and its variety of colour. ‘That is […]

via Happy Birthday Mr Rachmaninoff! — Sophie’s Multiverse

Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Vespers

At the mention of Rachmaninoff’s name, I always think “piano.” His first, second, and third piano concertos followed by the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, of course, place him at the pinnacle of composers for that instrument. But every so often, I come across a recording of his Vespers and remember that it contains some of the most beautiful choral music ever written.

I discovered this recording by accident and by luck. While combing through the bins of Rachmaninoff’s music at the local mall one day in 1974, I came across the recording of the Vespers. The lucky thing for me was that the two-record set had been mismarked as a single, so though unfamiliar with the music, I snapped up the album anyway.

What I heard completely astounded me. Written between 1910 and 1915, it is a series of A capella (voices only) choruses. They have a distinctly Russian flavor, being based on ancient slavic melodies. Some of them have a driving rhythm, sung at a slow tempo, which imitates the pealing of bells.

But by far, my favorite is the fifth movement, which is called “Lord, now letttest Thou Thy servant depart.” Supposedely the prayer on which the text is taken is used when Russian Orthodox children are presented to the church. As it nears the end, it slows and the bases take the melody. Their voices go low, lower, and finally so impossibly low that you can barely hear them. During rehearsals for the first performance, the conductor exclaimed: “Where can we possibly find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!”

In the liner notes of my recording, I read that when the priest receives the child, he places the child on the ground. The parents then retrieve the child, picking it up from the earth to symbolize it is the earth from which all things are made. The music is so fitting therefore, as the voices bring us down to ground level. Very earthy indeed.


Buy CD of Rachmaninov. Vespers or download MP3s on Amazon.

Sergei Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

There is something refreshing about the self-assuredness of youth. It’s almost, indeed, a requirement. Evolutionarily, we were designed to reproduce young because the life span was only about 30 years. So only the strongest and most quick-witted reproduced. I think money and class were invented for everyone else. If you couldn’t compete in tests of physical prowess, you could always become so rich or politically powerful that babes would flock to you. How else can you explain the trophy wives of Henry Kissinger, Prince Charles, and Woody Allen?

I bring this up, because as the years seem to speed faster the older I get, it makes me muse on my own contributions and those of the youth of today. Recently, a study appeared in some journal of psychology stating that an active mental life plays almost as important, if not more important, role as physical exercise in keeping Alzheimer’s and senility at bay. How many people though, once they hit a certain age or certain comfort level, actually work at keeping their brains active and challenged? Is it more than just a coincidence that the ascendancy of Alzheimer’s has seemed to follow the rise of television?

So far this week I’ve written about four pieces by Rachmaninov that feature the piano. They span his life from the age of 18 when he wrote the First Piano Concerto to age 36, when he premiered his Third. He wrote the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini when he was 61, an age at which today–even with longer life–spans, many people are already sinking into stupor and senility. What’s more, the Rhapsody is arguably Rachmaninov’s most incredible work, technically and melodically, and that shows his powers were virtually undiminished, indeed, even grew more impressive with the passing years.

The Rhapsody contains 24 variations on a theme by the composer and violinist, Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840). Paganini was such a master of the violin that he was accused of having sold his soul to the devil to become so. He once wrote a solo piece in which the violinist has to play 3,000 notes in just over four minutes. And listening to Rachmaninov’s variations on theme, you might think that he was similarly possessed.

The piece is as long as his piano concertos and like them contains lush melodies and incendiary keyboard work. What’s intriguing is how he takes the theme and varies it so many different ways that you never get tired of it. He inverts it, plays it loud, plays it soft, speeds it up, slows it down, gives it to the orchestra and then back to the pianist. In the final variations, he gives it to the pianist again and again who each time plays it even faster. It becomes almost possessed and toward the end you detect a kind of Slavic or even oriental mode, which reminds me a bit of Mussorgsky. Whenever this piece comes on the radio, for it still enjoys wide popularity, I find myself stopping whatever occupied me and giving the Rhapsody my full attention. And every time I do, new things pop out that I’d missed before.

Perhaps we are like that a bit. The older I get the more I find things falling into place. What was a puzzle at 20 suddenly became clear in my forties. My sixties are looming.  Check back in 20 years and I’ll tell you whether my mind is still as spry as it feels today.

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Number 2 in C minor

The major task for all adolescents is to work out their own personality. I realize that nowadays, the nature-nurture researchers have pretty much proven that many personality traits we once thought of as learned are actually determined by the genes one inherits. From my own high school experiences, however, I don’t find that to be the case.

Were I to choose a totem animal to represent my adolescent years, it would have to be the chameleon. I was exposed to so many different people in person and through books, classical music, and the popular media, that sometimes I didn’t know who I really was. For example, when I went through my Russian author phase and read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life Of Ivan Denisovich I made an aluminum spoon in my shop class, wrote the words, “Outer Mongolia” on it, and insisted on eating every meal with it. When I discovered James Joyce, I tried reading in poor light to destroy my eyesight so I could wear wire-rimmed glasses like him. When I saw Fellini’s Roma, I carried my jacket over my shoulder in an attempt to look as cool as the young swell in the film.

Perhaps I was too influenced by the stronger personalities–usually the intellectuals–in my high school who became my role models. I say “too influenced,” because though they knew a lot about books and music, they weren’t always the wisest in the way of relationships and human emotions. Intellectuals for one thing don’t always get the girls, and so have a lot of anger at the injustice of life (and at all those alpha male athletes who do score.) Intellectuals at this age also have another problem, they think that thinking can solve all the world’s (and one’s personal) problems. So they would not necessarily be sympathetic to, say, psychological counseling though they might desperately need it. Let me give you an example, which relates to today’s piece.

Critics had not liked Rachmaninov First Symphony and he became depressed and went into a lethargic slump. He would not compose or perform. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London had commissioned him to write a piano concerto, but his mental state kept him from doing so. His relatives became so concerned that they persuaded him to seek the help of a noted psychologist named Dr. Nikolay Dahl. Dr. Dahl used hypnotism and the power of suggestion to restore Rachmaninov’s self-confidence. During their sessions, the doctor would repeat to Rachmaninov: “You will begin to write your concerto.. you will work with great facility…the concerto will be of excellent quality.” Rachmaninov stated that the good doctor’s cure worked and by 1900 he had started working on the Second Piano Concerto. It remains the most popular of the four concertos that he wrote.

In high school, I had another friend named Eric T****** who also loved Rachmaninov’s work. He originally told me this story about Rachmaninov’s cure. When I said it was neat, he said something like “No, it’s not. It’s stupid!” I think his point was that if Rachmaninov needed someone to repeat mindless phrases to him over and over again, he wasn’t really a genius, and his work probably wasn’t that great after all.

Unfortunately, that tended to color my own attitude toward depression, which had grave consequences for me. When I became depressed in high school and college, I believed it would be a sign of weakness to seek treatment. If I couldn’t work it out for myself, then I was weak and certainly no intellectual. As I later learned reading Listening to Prozac  that if one doesn’t seek external treatment for depression, one usually ends up self-medicating-either through drugs, alcohol or addictive behaviors. Thus, I spent the next 20 years battling depression.

According to the research presented in that book, there is a kindling effect associated with depression. The emotion of depression are associated with certain chemical imbalances in the brain. If you repeatedly get depressed and don’t get treatment eventually your brain chemistry changes so that you become even more susceptible to it–like dry kindling is to fire. Eventually, I tried therapy, which helped a great deal for about a year, but then I fell back into depression. After reading the book, I sought treatment from a psychiatrist who prescribed Prozac.  Prozac, it’s said, has the ability to somehow reset the brain chemistry back to the state before the depression started. This occurred back in 1994 and it helped get me back on track, though life stresses later brought on bouts of depression and in 2005, I sought medication again.  Since 2006, I’ve been good, despite the loss of both parents and my best friend a year ago.  Maybe one day, I’ll need medication again, but it doesn’t scare me.  It’s a tool, that’s all, and I view it as a short term one.

Fortunately–maybe because of my own experience with depression–I never thought less of Rachmaninov because of his treatment and therefore still enjoy his works. Every time I hear the Piano Concerto Number 2 it perks me up. It starts out with a beautiful romantic melody with a Slavic feel to it. The piano and the orchestra go back and forth for about half of the movement and then the piano takes off and plays some of the most incredibly fast passages probably every written. Near the end, the piano leads the way through several mysterious sounding key changes, which still give me chills. The second movement has one of the most beautiful melodies ever written, which some minimally talented singer stole back in the 1970s and incorporated into his pop song, “All by Myself.” Sheer dreck.

The last movement starts out with a little march that then picks up, sounding a bit like Tchaikowsky (under whom Rachmaninov studied). Then the strings play one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful melody of all times, which the piano then picks up. The movement then unfolds into dialogs, solos, contrasts, harmonies, explosions, and tenderness. It really is one of the great works of all times.

Isolated, airy, dry intellect is certainly alluring. Sometimes we poke fun of the “ivory tower” intellectual, divorced and removed from the world. What shame is there in asking for help when one truly needs it? Didn’t someone once say “Pride goeth before the fall?” Imagine what would have happened had Rachmaninov not gone to the good Dr. Dahl? We all would have been deprived of this wonderful work.

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Number 3

Casting my mind back to my discovery of Rachmaninov in my high school days, for some reason I seem to draw almost a complete blank when it comes to his Third Piano Concerto. It’s certain that I listened to it a lot, because I instantly recognized it, despite not having sat down to listen to it for nearly 20 years, when the movie, Shine came out.

The “Rach Three” supposedly was the piece that the young pianist–completely dominated and then disowned by his father–became obsessed with mastering.  Immediately after performing it for the first time in concert, he collapsed and went into a psychotic episode that lasted a good number of years.

In college, I took a course in abnormal psychology. Back then, the reigning theory of its etiology stated that psychotics are born with the genes that predispose them to psychosis. Should they be born into a normal family, they end up normal. Should their family turn out to be severely dysfunctional, in which the child has no emotional anchors or points of reference of sanity, they descend into the hell of psychosis.

In the movie Shine, the boy chose the concerto against his father’s wishes to prove he could stand on his own. It painted the father as a sick, domineering man. In one scene you note a number tattooed on the old man’s arm. Maybe he was a concentration camp survivor. Having lost all his family in the war, perhaps he felt he had to hold onto his own children–in an unnaturally controlling way–to keep from losing them. Another insidious legacy of the Nazis.

The Piano Concerto Number 3 is supposed to be one of the most difficult pieces to play. In Shine, the boy’s piano teacher shows him a plaster cast of Rachmaninov’s hands. They were gargantuan and that made the piece incredibly difficult to play as few pianists have that kind of span. What’s more, Rachmaninov, who made his living as a concert pianist–to make up for all he lost in leaving Russia after the Revolution–wrote the piece to showcase his own virtuosity at the keyboard. The piece is so difficult that the pianist to whom Rachmaninov dedicated the work, (a Joseph Hoffman) could not even perform it.  Finally, Rachmaninov wrote even more difficult passages for himself than the ones found in the published score.

Rachmaninov premiered this piece in November of 1909 in the U.S. at the age of 36. He performed it again in January the following year with the New York Symphony Society, another titan of music conducting–Gustav Mahler.  He was at the height of his powers, just past the midpoint of this life.

The first movement starts out with a beautiful, brooding, Slavic theme in the D minor key. The incredibly fluid runs of the second movement stuck in my mind where they played over and over again during the countless laps I swam while practicing on my swim team. The final movement starts with a bang and then runs off full of life and energy until the orchestra kicks in with a lush melody. The piano then takes this theme and weaves it around in intricate curlicues, fast but playful and pretty. The orchestra swells up, which slows the pianist down for a while, but it eventually finds ways of bursting out with joy and energy. Toward the end, it starts to sound a bit like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and the Slavic feeling comes back rushing in to carry us along in a troika to the glorious ending.

Here is a cute story about Rachmaninov, from “Today in the World,” December 15, 1992:

Sergey Rachmaninoff was once honored at a dinner hosted by fellow pianist Arthur Rubinstein. During the course of the evening, Rachmaninoff said he thought the Grieg piano concerto the greatest ever written. When Rubinstein said he had just recorded it, Rachmaninoff insisted on hearing it then and there. During coffee, Rubinstein put on the proofs of the record and Rachmaninoff, closing his eyes, settled down to listen. He listened right through without saying a word. At the end of the concerto he opened his eyes and said, “Piano out of tune.”

It seems like in the past, every so often, a god would come down and walk among us poor mortals. I think of Albert Schweitzer, the good doctor, Bach scholar and interpreter. Or Ghandi, who practiced non-violence to move an empire. Rachmaninov surely sits on Mount Olympus now with his peers, not for having performed great feats of altruism, but for being such a genius who didn’t keep it to himself and gave us some of the most wonderful, exciting, life affirming music, despite his brush with mental illness. I wonder how long our current “cult of the victim” is going to last, and when the next Rachmaninov is going to arrive. I hope he or she shows up soon.

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Number 1 in F-sharp minor

Today, I begin writing about a composer who became my favorite in high school–Sergei Rachmaninov. His music, primarily the pieces he wrote for piano and orchestra, galvanized me. Not only were these full of compositional fireworks, they also seemed to be bursting with emotion. Lush romantic swells, demonic flights of intricate keyboard work, mysterious key changes, angst-filled phrases, and joyous, explosive finishes. In short, for me they provided the perfect soundtrack for the emotional state of an adolescent Midwestern boy trying to make sense of love and life.

Sergei Rachmaninov was born in Russia in 1873. He fled his homeland after the Russian revolution and eventually settled in the US, where he died in California in 1943. He was a gifted pianist, who was in high demand, and performing became his means of living during his exile. He felt some anguish over this since it meant that he couldn’t devote as much time to composition, but at the same time, it probably made his music more popular through exposure.

Among the cache of used classical records I bought once at a garage sale was a recording of his first and fourth piano concertos performed by Philippe Entremont with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Eugene Ormandy. Rachmaninov composed the first piano concerto at the age of 18, while still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Though he won a gold medal from the Conservatory for composition because of the piece, Rachmaninov was not satisfied with it and 25 years later reworked the score. Supposedly little was left from the origninal work save its major themes.

The work starts out with a brief statement by the horns (which sound a bit like the beginning of Tchaikowski’s Sixth Symphony), followed by an explosive entry from the piano. The movement is marked vivace and it alternates between rapid, demanding piano fireworks and lush melodies played by the strings. This concerto quickly became one of my favorites and I became so fascinated with the piano’s flights and runs of notes that I listened to it again and again. I mentioned earlier that I was on my high school’s swim team, and this was another piece that I would try to “hear” in my head while I swam the monotonous laps back and forth during practice. As I worked through all of his piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini I found myself less and less bothered by those hours of swimming.

The last movement is an allegro vivace, fast and happy, and contains more exciting sections by the piano. For a long time, though I liked it very much, it sounded a bit “Hollywood-like.” By that I mean the kind of lush, romantic music used back in the 30s. Maybe it was because around this time I was watching films from that era–especially the Marx Brothers, where they’d always have some musical number with Harpo or Chico backed up by a full orchestra. Hollywood may indeed have been influenced by Rachmaninov, who ended up living in California, where he died in 1943. It’s a bit anachronistic, to think of his music that way, since he premiered this piece in 1919 in the States. So we really should think of Hollywood music from the 30s and 40s as “Rachmaninov-like.”

Sergei Rachmaninov: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.3 No.2 (Redux)

I discovered this piece in high school around 1972, and I fell in love with it, as described in my earlier post.  I’m reblogging it today because a friend sent me a funny version of it on youtube. I hope you enjoy the comedic update as well as the astounding original.

My earlier post on Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor

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