Rex Burgess investigates the music of Rachmaninov

The first of April marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the last great representative of Russian romanticism. Although born just a year before Schoenberg, only eight years before Bartok and nine before Stravinsky and Prokofiev, as a composer, Sergei Rachmaninov showed little interest in the emergent impetus towards modernism. After his first efforts in the late 1880s and early 1890s, he continued composing at intervals up to the early 1940s. However, even his mature period works remained grounded in the romantic idiom of the late 19th century Russian composers he so greatly admired, the first and foremost unsurprisingly being Tchaikovsky.

This is not to say that he merely imitated Tchaikovsky and the others, but only that he left music very much the way he had found it: progress was something for others to pursue. It has also been pointed out that while it is easy to discern Russian elements such as pessimism, nostalgia, and instability in Rachmaninov’s music, it is not so easy to relate this to any consciously held nationalist beliefs.

Considering his personal reserve and rather insular outlook, it will not surprise that critics and the cognoscenti at large have been rather dismissive of Rachmaninov as a composer; the more outspoken of them may even have been tempted to apply to him Vaughan Williams’ spiteful observation about Mahler, that he represented “a fair imitation of a composer.”

So much for the critics, though. The more benevolent public has long held a different view, and it is no coincidence that many of Rachmaninov’s works quickly found and have since retained their place in the contemporary music lover’s heart. As Lawrence Gilman pointedly remarks: “The possibility must be allowed that the C minor and D minor concertos, the Paganini variations, the E minor symphony, the shorter piano pieces and the songs have already meant more to more people (a criterion not to be despised) than the music of, say, Stravinsky, will have meant at the end of time.” One might readily apply this observation to Schoenberg and various other ‘modernists’ as well!

Of course, Rachmaninov’s reputation does not rely solely on his standing as a composer. From early in his career his prowess as a conductor had already assumed quite legendary proportions. In addition, he was indisputably one of the finest pianists of his day, being regularly mentioned in the same breath as Hoffman, Horowitz, and other luminaries. The problem plaguing him though, throughout his fifty-year career, was as Laurence Davies observes, that while he was succeeding at one or other of these concerns, he was either failing or impotent at the others.

Reverting to his compositions, while those already cited are the best-known and most frequently performed, there are several others, arguably of a higher musical quality, which are worthy of mention. Most notable are three fine choral works: The Bells, Vespers (All-Night Vigil), and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

This article originally appeared in the April issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine

Rachmaninov – A Musical Giant – our complete guide to 15 programs that exemplify his craft and the era. These programs will also be posted to this page for you to Listen Anytime.