He was called a “six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.”
He was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.
He is one of the most popular classical-music composers with audiences.
And Lord, how the critics love to hate him. Still.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, the dour Russian emigre, wrote two of the most famous piano concertos ever (his Second and Third) and followed it with the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” with its rich and romantic 18th variation, a section so deeply and longingly romantic, he knew it would make audiences swoon.
“I wrote it for my agent,” he said, ironically.
The Phoenix Symphony will present a seven-concert, 10-day “Rachmaninoff Festival,” during which pianist Olga Kern will play all four of Rachmaninoff’s concertos and the “Rhapsody” — the kind of marathon that would leave most pianists with bandaged fingers. All told, there are more than 100,000 notes to be memorized and played.
“I ask myself how is it possible,” Kern says. “But when you want to play something, it just comes to your head and hands.”
Yet, there has been a kind of snobbery aimed at the composer. The 1954 “Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians” called his music “monotonous in texture” and said it consists “mainly of artificial and gushing tunes.”
Critic Paul Rosenfeld complained that Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto is “a little too much like a mournful banqueting on jam and honey” and that “there is something strangely twice-told.”
Modernist composer Robert Simpson complained of “lyrical inflation” and “forced climaxes.”
So, there is a tendency among the musical establishment to be just a little embarrassed by the composer’s sustained popularity with audiences. For them, it reeks of the vulgar adoration of Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church or the notorious Three Tenors. Noses elevate.
I mention this because it is something I have dealt with myself. I love Rachmaninoff’s music. I don’t hold it to be a guilty pleasure. I am straight-out a fan.
But I have several friends — deeply informed music lovers — whom I cannot convince. They dismiss Rach as a Tchaikovsky epigone. I have sent them recordings of some of the composer’s less-well-known music to try to pique their interest. One of those friends has refused even to listen to my pleadings or the recordings I sent him.
“Heart-on-sleeve stuff,” he says. “Why bother?”
Why bother, indeed. When your mind is made up, why listen to the evidence?
So, right here, I want to make the case that Rachmaninoff is not only a worthy composer, but that he has been grossly misunderstood. He is a 20th-century composer.
Of course, just by the calendar, that is prima facie the case: Although some of his early works were written before 1900, all of the music he is best known for was written in the 20th century, including the Second Piano Concerto, which premiered in 1901. But it is more than mere chronology.
Victim of revolution
Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born near Novgorod in Russia in 1873. He received his early training in St. Petersburg, and at the outset of the Russian Revolution, he fled first to Finland and, eventually, to the United States.
Most early-20th-century composers were impacted by the First World War, but Rachmaninoff’s scars came from the Bolshevik Revolution: It left him without a home.
To make ends meet for his family, he became a touring pianist and was a towering giant on the concert stage. With his long sunken face, cropped hair, gangly arms with gigantic hands, he looked perhaps more like an undertaker than an entertainer. Even now, his recordings remain in print and can be overwhelming experiences.
In between, he tried to find time to compose new music. He was not a prolific composer: three symphonies, four piano concertos, the “Rhapsody,” the “Symphonic Dances,” some choral music, songs and a pile of solo piano music, including the Prelude in C-sharp Minor that he came to loathe because audiences expected it of him at every concert.
He died in Beverly Hills in 1943.
What makes him a modern composer, despite the lushness of his harmonies and orchestrations, is that there is always an irony under the surface. A very 20th-century irony.
As he matured, his music became sparer and more concentrated. There is a squinty-eyed gaze at the world around him. It is most apparent in the later works, like the “Rhapsody,” with its clever twists on a simple tune, and the “Symphonic Dances,” which tweak waltzes and foxtrots. But it is always there.
There’s also a subtle influence of jazz. Rachmaninoff was there for the premiere of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and loved it. He played jazz for himself when at home. There is a surprising saxophone solo in the “Symphonic Dances.”
If there is a single characteristic of his music, it is that it is emotionally layered. While it might be possible to listen to it hearing only the prettiness, there is always something else going on.
You can hear it in the piling up of harmonies. In most music, there are notes that fit into the chords that underlie them, and the notes in between: “passing notes,” they are called.
In Rachmaninoff, there are passing chords: One set of chords, changing quickly, over another set of chords, moving slowly underneath.
One is reminded of Doc in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday.” At his microscope, Doc sees the paramecia wiggle under the lens and hears it as a surface voice, a kind of soprano, carrying the tune, but he also hears a second voice, that is the voice of all life, not just the microscopic ones he is observing. And yet, under it all is a profound bass that says to him, “lonesome, lonesome.”
Those piled harmonies in Rachmaninoff say something very like.
And far from being a failed Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff sounds like no one else in music. His musical voice is as distinct as Beethoven’s or Debussy’s.
Those who complain about a facile emotion in Rachmaninoff are mistaking emotion for sentimentality. All real art is about emotion on some level.
But sentimentality is pretending to feel the emotions you’re “supposed” to feel. Rachmaninoff’s emotions are never pretend. For Rachmaninoff, the longing is real. The nostalgia is for something he actually lost.
“It’s all about his heart and his feelings,” Kern says.
Exile left Rachmaninoff longing for his home.
“I grew up with grandparents, in a summer house close to the place where Rachmaninoff was born, not far from Novgorod — which is the oldest city in Russia,” she says. “And nature there is so endless. Land, land, land, with different colors of flowers and very green, and beautiful forests with different berries and different fruits.
“In summertime, it is just gorgeous, with beautiful lakes and rivers, and all this he was missing very much.
“It is very important to have a big heart to play his music.”
And that is what audiences have recognized for more than a century.