08 September 2003

Rachmaninov: serious composer with popular influence

Another of my favourite composers is Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), the Russian expatriate composer whose music breathes the spirit of his native land and retains the unique power, decades after his death, to influence the popular culture.

Rachmaninov is often viewed as a romantic composer, along the lines of his compatriot, Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). However, because the romantic era is associated with the 19th century and Rachmaninov is for the most part a 20th-century composer, he is sometimes thought to be harking back to an obsolescent style of music. It is true, of course, that Rachmaninov was a master at creating tuneful music, while many of his contemporaries, such as Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), were fashioning more impressionistic or abstract pieces. Indeed, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Anton Webern (1883-1945) were experimenting at the very fringes of tonality itself.

Yet Rachmaninov’s romanticism, if it can be called such, is far from the bourgeois optimism of the 19th century. It is characteristically Russian and thus bears something of the character of a dark and brooding people who are nevertheless seized by occasions of genuine delight and abandon.

One of the features of Rachmaninov’s music is that it is immediately recognizable, even to people who don’t know classical music. The most famous of his pieces are the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor and his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. The 2nd Piano Concerto was written in 1901 after something of a dry spell induced by the critical failure of his Symphony No. 1 in D Minor in 1897. So successful was this work that it has been mined for popular songs ever since. Two of these include “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” which topped the charts in the 1940s, and “All By Myself,” sung by Eric Carmen in the mid-1970s. Moreover, Carmen’s “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” uses a theme borrowed from the Symphony No. 2 in E Minor (1907).

As for the Rhapsody (1934), it is a series of variations on Niccolo Paganini’s 24th Caprice for Solo Violin, possibly the most famous tune ever composed by anyone. It is certainly the tune most quoted by other composers. Among those writing variations on it are Brahms, Liszt, Szymanowski, Lutoslawski, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Rachmaninov’s 18th variation is the best known within this larger work and was the basis for another popular song.

One of my personal favourites out of the corpus of Rachmaninov’s works is his Symphonic Dances, written in 1943 just before his death in Beverly Hills, California. Whether he sensed his own impending demise is unknown, but the piece itself bears all the marks of being written as a protest against death and as an affirmation of life and youth. The fact that he quotes the Dies Irae, from the Latin Requiem Mass, might be taken as one indication of the accuracy of this interpretation, except for the fact that the Dies Irae appears in a number of works composed throughout his life.

As a Russian, Rachmaninov was of course brought up with the Orthodox liturgy, echoes of which appear in several of his works, including the Symphonic Dances. He was active in the effort to renew Russian church music and to rid it of western influence. Accordingly he composed complete settings of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in 1910 and The Vespers in 1915.

Although Rachmaninov transliterated his own name as “Rachmaninoff,” musicologists nowadays tend to prefer “Rachmaninov” in accordance with more conventional transliterations.

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