Who was Rachmaninov?

"A composer's music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books that have influenced him, the pictures he loves. It should be the sum total of a composer's experience."

So saying, Sergei Rachmaninov unwittingly became an object of ridicule in an age obsessed with artistic objectivism. For someone to be extolling such sincerely held value was risible in the ice-cold intellectual climate of the interwar period.

Rachmaninov, it seemed, could do nothing right by most of his contemporary critics and composers. As a person, he appeared somewhat cold and aloof - Stravinsky once called him "a six-and-a half- foot-tall-scowl" - while his music was considered distinctly old-fashioned. Aaron Copland effectively spoke for the anti-Rachmaninov lobby when he moaned that "the prospect of having to sit through one of his extended symphonies or piano concertos tends, quite frankly, to depress me. All those notes, and to what end?" Yet before 1917, things had seemed so very different.

Rachmaninov's student years were nothing short of phenomenal. He consistently amazed his teachers with his jaw-dropping ability, first as a pianist and then as a composer. Following one particular end-of-year examination, Rachmaninov was entered in the Moscow Conservatory register as having achieved a '5+'', the highest possible mark. Tchaikovsky, as external assessor, had excitedly added three further '+' signs above, below and beside, the official figure - a moving tribute from Russia's greatest living composer, to the man destined to carry his mantle into the next century.

Alexander Goldenweiser, a fellow pupil, later recalled Rachmaninov's prodigious pianism: "Rachmaninov's talent...surpassed any other in my experience - almost unbelievable, like the young Mozart. He memorised new pieces at an almost unprecedented rate." Meanwhile, Rachmaninov had created a storm with his First Piano Concerto, an incredibly accomplished student work.

Music continued to flow from the young genius, including an apprentice opera Aleko which once again won Tchaikovsky's unreserved admiration. With the older man's death that same year, 1893, all eyes fell on Rachmaninov to produce his first great masterpiece. He more than succeeded with his groundbreaking First Symphony, although he had not reckoned for the unsympathetic - and apparently inebriated - efforts of the premiere's conductor, Alexander Glazunov. The performance was a near fiasco. As the cataclysmic final bars were hammered home, Rachmaninov fled in a state o total bewilderment. The critics had a field day, especially Cesar Cui, who gleefully stuck the knife in: " If there was a Conservatory in Hell, and one of its talented pupils was asked to composer a programmatic symphony based on the Seven Plagues of Egypt, if he were to write something resembling Mr Rachmaninov's symphony he would surely have arrived at the perfect solution."

As a direct result Rachmaninov composed virtually nothing during the next three years. Indeed, had it not been for the intervention of the pioneering Moscow hypnotherapist, Nikolai Dahl, his creative talent might have faltered altogether. Unbelievably, Dahl soon had Rachmaninov up and running again with his richly melodious Second Piano Concerto.

For the next decade and a half, Rachmaninov appeared invincible. On the creative front, he poured forth an almost seamless flow of masterpieces, starting with the Cello Sonata and Second Suite for Two Pianos. In addition to such celebrated large-scale masterpieces as the Second Symphony, Third Piano Concerto and The Isle of the Dead, there were solo piano preludes, a Second Piano Sonata, The Bells, Vespers, and a treasured series of almost 50 songs. Meanwhile, as a result of his phenomenal conducting skills, Rachmaninov was appointed Principal Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre and offered several major posts in America, most notably with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Together with Koussevitzky, Rachmaninov was the most outstanding Russian conductor of his generation.

Additionally, Rachmaninov was now widely celebrated as one of the world's most remarkable concert pianists, culminating in an invitation to play in New York for which he specifically composed his Third Piano Concerto. By 1915, bearing in mind Scriabin's premature death in the April of that year and Stravinsky's defection to Western Europe, Rachmaninov was indisputably Russia's principal musical figure.

The Revolution then came. With the political situation looking increasingly bleak, on 7 January 1917 Rachmaninov made his last appearance as a conductor in Russia; he was destined not to conduct again in public until December 1939 - in Philadelphia. Following a tour of northern Europe in the autumn, Rachmaninov collected his family together in Oslo. On 1 November they boarded the Bergensfjord and set sail for New York. They would never set foot in Russia again.

On arrival in the New World, Rachmaninov turned his attention to how he could earn a living. Dislocated from his homeland, he could not even face the idea of composing. As he later explained: "When I left Russia, I left behind me the desire to composer: losing my country, I lost myself also. To the exile whose musical roots, traditions and background have been annihilated, there remains no desire for self-expression." Times were also changing fast, particularly in America with its free creative spirit and the emergence of jazz and popular dance music.

It hardly helped matters when in 1931 Rachmaninov's music was officially banned in the USSR as 'decadent' with the chilling warning@ "This music [The Bells] is by a violent enemy of Soviet Russia: Rachmaninov." With potentially half of his creative life still in front of him, Rachmaninov composed just five new major works: the Fourth Piano Concerto, Corelli Variations, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Third Symphony and Symphonic Dances. Of these, only the expressively self-contained Rhapsody won any degree of popularity.

Conducting appeared even more precarious an option, so Rachmaninov turned to the one thing guaranteed to bring in a steady income: the piano. In the event he was triumphantly proved right - his concerts and recordings made him a small fortune. In an age that saw some of the greatest pianist at the very peak of their powers, Rachmaninov stood out as perhaps the most outstanding of this so-called 'Golden Age'. Arthur Rubenstein considered Rachmaninov "a god" rather than a mere pianist, further enthusing that "he had the secret of the golden, living tone that only comes from the heart." Yet if no-one has ever seriously questioned Rachmaninov's awesome pianistic capabilities, his music, despite - or perhaps because of - its extraordinary popularity, was for over half a century mercilessly jeered at by critics and academics alike. The general attitude was summed up in a recollection of the legendary record producer and Rachmaninov biographer John Culshaw in his autobiography, Putting the Record Straight. Upon asking an Oxford don his opinion of Rachmaninov's music, the dismissive reply was: "nothing by nostalgia".

It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that academia's frosty resistance began to show gentle signs of thawing. Several world-class musicians - most notably Andre Previn, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Howard Shelly - began recording his music widely and with considerable success, whilst The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians of 1980 emerged with a well-considered reassessment by the leading Rachmaninov scholar, Geoffrey Norris.

Since then interest in Rachmaninov has reached unprecedented levels. The appalling abuse that his music regularly endured just a few decades ago now appears scarcely believable. Yet appalling abuse that his music regularly endured just a few decades ago now appears scarcely believable. Yet it was real enough at the time, as this haunting reminiscence given to The Musical Courier in 1939 - so deeply personal that Rachmaninov forbade its publication until after his death - shows: "I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me...I always feel that my own music and my reactions to all music remained spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty...The new kind of music seems to come not from the heart but from the head. It composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exult...They meditate, protest, analyse, reason, calculate, and brood - but they do not exult." We shall never see his like again.



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