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16 April 2023

Rachmaninoff’s enduring melodies

In his lifetime, his music was an escape from modernity – 150 years after his birth, the Russian composer bridges a gap between old and new.

By Leah Broad

A train screams through a station, billowing steam as it shoots past the platform in a flash of paint and steel. As it disappears into the distance, the opening chords of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto begin – expansive, powerful, and sombre – the piano sweeping like a pendulum through the orchestra. This is the start of David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, about a doomed love affair between two married people who meet by accident and agree to part rather than tear their lives and families apart. Throughout the film, it’s left to Rachmaninoff’s music to tell us how they are feeling. The concerto encapsulates their longing for what cannot be; this is music of exquisite, all-consuming, passionate and impossible emotion. 

The same qualities that made Rachmaninoff’s music useful for Lean’s film have ensured that, 150 years after his birth, he remains one of the most enduringly popular composers of the 20th century. His works are characterised by luscious orchestrations and memorable melodies that express heartfelt melancholy. Rachmaninoff once said that “melody is music – the integral foundation of all music”, and this conviction is evident in all his works. Even those who don’t know Rachmaninoff’s name might be able to recognise one of his tunes from adverts, films, and even pop music (the song “All by Myself”, which has itself appeared in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Friends and more, is based on the second movement of the Second Piano Concerto).

This gift for melody proved especially attractive to early 20th-century audiences. Over the course of Rachmaninoff’s lifetime the musical world changed almost beyond recognition. Other composers would explore atonality, 12-tone composition, serialism and jazz, moving far away from the sounds of Rachmaninoff’s formative years. He, however, staunchly refused to embrace what was then called “futurist” music, later “modernism”. Well into the 1940s, his music remained steeped in the older sound worlds of Tchaikovsky and Liszt. “I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien,” he lamented. “I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new.” Many shared his sense of alienation in this new musical world, and eagerly embraced the overt lyricism of works such as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934). Just as in Brief Encounter, by the 1940s Rachmaninoff’s music had come to symbolise something of an escape from encroaching modernity.

[See also: The rise and fall of the British music press]

But this is at least partly a retrospective view. At the start of Rachmaninoff’s career his music was considered both progressive and modern – it was only around the time of the First World War, when he was in his forties, that he began rejecting the more severe forms of modernism that were emerging. Composer and critic César Cui thought Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony far too modern in 1897, denouncing its “sickly perverse harmonisation” and the “complete absence of themes”, complaining that it left “an evil impression”. The American composer John Alden Carpenter observed in 1919 that Rachmaninoff’s significance “lies in the fact that he is a sensitive touchstone between the new and the old”. It was this ability to bridge musical worlds that made Rachmaninoff, like Sibelius, a composer of choice for many more aesthetically conservative musicians and listeners. The British composer and pianist Dorothy Howell took a similarly dim view of “futurist” music, and when she made her concerto debut in 1914 she chose Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, finding in him a potential model for music that was modern but not modernist.

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Politically, too, Rachmaninoff’s career spanned a period of enormous upheaval. Born into the aristocracy of tsarist Russia in 1873, Rachmaninoff became one of the many aristocrats who fled Russia during the Revolution, spending the rest of his life in Europe and the US. Within Russia, Rachmaninoff’s work was scorned. After a 1931 performance of The Bells (1913), the choral symphony was excoriated in the Proletarian Musician as “the pompous pathos of an individualist who stands aloof from society, and the affectations of a decadent aesthete”. Outside Russia, Rachmaninoff’s works took on particular significance for fellow émigrés. His biographer Rebecca Mitchell writes that Rachmaninoff was seen “as an embodiment of ‘old Russia’” – helped by the composer himself encouraging such associations. “I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has inevitably influenced my temperament and outlook,” he said in 1941. In this context, works such as Three Russian Songs (1926) became a lament for a lost homeland, shot through with mournful nostalgia. “Only a man who loves his country could compose this way,” remarked one of his old friends. 

The image of Rachmaninoff the austere, exiled Russian was boosted by his formidable stage persona as a pianist. He was a tall man with close-cropped hair, always impeccably dressed, and there was no flamboyancy about his performances. He had a reputation as a perfectionist, and played with such seriousness that Stravinsky memorably described him as resembling a “six-and-a-half-foot scowl”. Such was his popularity as a pianist that audiences often verged on hero-worship. Auditoriums were regularly packed, with multiple curtain calls, and the Daily Telegraph reported at a 1933 London performance that even when “the lights had been put out, a fervent remnant remained to persuade the famous Russian musician to play once again – which he did in the semi-darkness”. His hectic performance schedule contributed to his ill health towards the end of his life, but it also made him a famous man (and a wealthy one: he indulged his love of gadgetry with a Mercedes and later a speedboat that he drove on Lake Lucerne). 

[See also: The identity politics of the coronation quiche]

For a pianist, Rachmaninoff’s works are a complete joy to play (if you have hands nimble and large enough to manage them). They are full of unashamedly virtuosic passages and thundering chords that allow the performer to flex their interpretational muscles and stamp their own personality on the piece. The piano works are unlikely to fall from favour any time soon – not least his Prelude in C-sharp minor (1892), which has been played by Mickey Mouse in The Opry House (1929)and lampooned by the musical comedy duo Igudesman and Joo. (It was so famous in Rachmaninoff’s own lifetime that the composer came to hate it, not least because he received no royalties from its publication.)

For the listener, at least part of Rachmaninoff’s musical power comes from how visually evocative his works seem. He once said that “a poem, a picture, something of a concrete nature at any rate, helps me immensely” when coming up with musical ideas. The mysterious, lilting opening of the orchestral Isle of the Dead (1908) was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name – Rachmaninoff’s composition suggests the oarsman’s rhythmic pull and water lapping against the side of the boat as it crosses the river. He combines this with quotations from the Dies Irae (a Gregorian chant associated with the Requiem Mass), making explicit the piece’s connection to the afterlife. It’s hard to imagine a more haunting theme.

Even in less explicitly pictorial pieces, though, a cinematic quality remains. Besides being a composer and pianist, Rachmaninoff was also an accomplished conductor, working at both the Moscow Private Opera and the Bolshoi Theatre. He loved the theatre, and saw several of Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre productions. His operas and songs are less famous now than his instrumental works, but he was nonetheless a talented dramatic composer. These stage influences are perhaps behind the theatricality of much of his instrumental music, allowing listeners to hear their own stories and ideas in his pieces. Listeners have heard everything in the Prelude in C-sharp minor from Moscow bells to the sound of nails being driven into a coffin – and Rachmaninoff never discouraged imaginative listening, saying that he “would not disillusion” a listener if a piece “conjures up a certain picture”.

Rachmaninoff’s music wasn’t always universally beloved – he divided critics from the start. In 1908 the Second Piano Concerto was judged “a little dull” by the London Evening Standard, and in 1954 the critic Eric Blom dismissed his music as “monotonous”, adding that “the enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last”.

In his 150th anniversary year, however, audiences show few signs of Rachmaninoff fatigue. His embrace of tradition and modernity allows his music to continue to bridge the old world and the new. Few composers appeal to such different audiences that they can appear on horror soundtracks, have their work voted number one in the Classic FM Hall of Fame, and inspire a marathon concert by the pianist Yuja Wang at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In an era that is as tumultuous as Rachmaninoff’s own, his music is still encouraging listeners to discover their own imagined worlds.

Leah Broad is the author of “Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World” (Faber & Faber)

[See also: How music helps us to feel]

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats