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A Doorbell Rings in Hollywood

March 22, 2017

Meet Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of our most loved composers.

A doorbell rings in Hollywood. Answering, the owner, five foot one, has to tilt his head back to look into the face of his unexpected and tall, tall visitor. A "six-and-a-half-foot scowl" is how Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff. But on this spring evening, Rachmaninoff is not scowling. He has come to present an immense jar of honey to his fellow-expatriate and fellow-composer.

The year is 1942. If I were making a movie about Rachmaninoff or Stravinsky, I would cheat and say this was their first meeting in umpteen years, but it wasn't quite. I don't know how much time had elapsed between their last encounter in Europe and their first in California, which preceded this one by some days. In any case, as a result of the upheavals in Europe they had both landed in Hollywood, Stravinsky in 1940, Rachmaninoff two years later.

Greater Los Angeles and Hollywood in particular had become the magnet not just for expatriate actors, but for musicians, writers, and intellectuals, some of them among the most brilliant in their generation. The climate was kinder than any they had ever known, the heating bills were low, and besides, there was always the hope of work in the studios. Many of these new Californians at once split into cliques and cabals, not speaking to but ever ready to badmouth each other, feeding and watering all the aesthetic and political differences that had separated them in Europe. Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky were on opposite sides of the fence that separated the modernists from the anti-modernists. Rachmaninoff regarded The Firebird and Petrushka as works of genius but had no use for Stravinsky's later compositions; Stravinsky had no interest in Rachmaninoff's music at any time.

But Rachmaninoff was not a petty or a jealous man. Thinking about Stravinsky, he saw a Russian, an honorable (if wrong-headed) musician, and above all, a father whose children, like his own, were caught in occupied France. He telephoned his biographer, Sergei Bertensson, and said: "As I know how much Igor Fedorovich has always disliked my compositions . . . and he must know my attitude to modern music, I'm not sure whether I could invite him and his wife to my house—which I'd love to do—because I don't know how he would receive my invitation. Would you be so kind as to send out a feeler?"

Vera Stravinsky's response was positive and led to cordial dinners at both houses. One can imagine the atmosphere, the passage back and forth across the table of the stately and sonorous patronymics—Sergei Vasilievich, Igor Fedorovich, Natalia Alexandrovna, Vera Arturovna. At the first of these dinners, Stravinsky mentioned his fondness for honey; hence Rachmaninoff's surprise visit a few days later. Bertensson, who was also one of the dinner guests, writes that "besides comparing notes on their families in France, they had a very lively discussion of musical matters—but not a word about composition. They talked about managers, concert bureaus, agents, ASCAP, royalties."

Common ground on which they did not touch was what it felt like to be composers who seemed to have lost their hold on their audience. Stravinsky, then far from being the adored and prosperous media figure he became in his old age, was resented by the public and battered in the press because he had moved on from the style of his great pre-war dance scores, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring.

As for Rachmaninoff, since the end of World War I and except for the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934, his compositions had been rejected by those who yearned for more of the lushness of the Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Second Symphony. When audiences coughed restlessly during his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which he wrote in 1931, he would leave out the next variation; on one tour he was able to play the entire set just once. Of his Symphony No. 3, whose final version came out in 1938, he said that he did not need all the fingers of one hand to count its admirers. Moreover, Rachmaninoff was in a double bind. As an almost exact contemporary of Schoenberg and a slightly older colleague of Bartók, Stravinsky, Webern, and Berg, he had come to think of himself as an absurd and useless anachronism.

Rachmaninoff's conservatism as a composer is a prime fact about him, and it is central to his reputation. The public loves him, and in recent years its love has become more embracing of at least some of his later music: the Symphonic Dances, for example, have become a repertory piece and a major hit.  On the other hand, the academy and most professional criticism thinks little of Rachmaninoff. I don't recall hearing one word about him in any music course when I was a student, and I did no better in the music history classes I myself taught later. I loved to listen to his music, but it was the love that dared not speak its name, and I kept it private. A bit of unsystematic inquiry suggests that, overall, the situation in schools hasn't changed much.

Rachmaninoff is one of many composers we know too narrowly. Once, when I gave a talk on Rachmaninoff, I titled it "Beyond Full Moon and Empty Arms” and began by playing Frank Sinatra's 1945 recording of the song Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman concocted from the last movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2. It is a great tune in a style Rachmaninoff had learned from Tchaikovsky, and it is the kind of generous, heart-on-sleeve music that first comes to mind when you hear Rachmaninoff's name.

Coming up with such tunes is a rare gift, but Rachmaninoff could also invent more subtle melodies that don't stick to the ear quite so immediately. One that stuns me every time begins the slow movement of the Symphony No. 2. Violins lead off with a yearning phrase. Then the clarinet unwinds a long thread of melody, a quiet musing on just a few notes. The violins continue it, turning the heat up, until they come back to the yearning phrase from the beginning. By this time, nearly four minutes have gone by, four minutes of continuous melody in which Rachmaninoff never repeats himself. How often do you find something like that?

In part it is the quiet of this passage that is so moving. Often, the Rachmaninoff we think of is the splashy last pages of his concertos or the Second Symphony. He can pull that sort of thing off to a fare-thee-well, but he also knows the beauty of restraint. You hear that in his songs.  His range in that world is remarkable, and being restricted to one voice and two hands on a keyboard stimulates his invention. The piano is a fully participating partner, now leader and inciter, now unobtrusive but firm and essential lender of support, and in the most exquisite moments—and always supposing the right pianist—the magical second singing voice. The great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, who gave many recitals with Rachmaninoff, said that it was never a matter of "I am singing" but always of "we are singing."

In his later years, Rachmaninoff came more and more to like lean music with sharp outlines. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini has its irresistible Variation 18—“This one is for my agent," he said of that expansive tune—but most of that work is crisp and spare. It is witty, too. An especially charming touch in its opening pages, cadaverous as Paganini himself, is the image of one of the world's great pianists playing just a few notes—sixteen measures of a Rachmaninoff concerto that anyone can play!

And listen to a much earlier piece, the E-minor Prelude, Opus 32, no.4, of 1910, in which the most diverse ideas interrupt each other and are intercut in a dazzling sequence of delicious unpredictabilities and productive discontinuities. Here is music that seems to look ahead to the Stravinsky of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

What will amaze someone brought up on Rachmaninoff’s concertos and symphonies, his Preludes and Études-Tableaux, and the songs, is the first encounter with the All-Night Vigil. This is more than an hour of music for a cappella chorus, intended for a night-long service in Russian Orthodox churches on the eve of holy days. The world of secular yearning, melancholia, and virtuosity is far away. This rapt masterpiece was Rachmaninoff's own favorite among his compositions.  One of its alleluias finds its way into the Symphonic Dances, and he asked to be buried to the sound of its fifth hymn, "Now thou lettest thy servant depart in peace."

It is only by fortunate chance that we have these compositions at all. The premiere of the Symphony No. 1 was a disaster, the performance terrible, the reception brutal. Rachmaninoff, just about to turn twenty-four, ran from the hall and soon destroyed the score. After his death, someone in Russia found first a two-piano reduction and later the orchestral parts that he had not stayed to collect on that terrible evening in 1897. The symphony was reconstructed, and to many who now know it, it is the most powerful of his three symphonies. The catastrophe of that premiere left Rachmaninoff convinced he could not compose again, and only a course of psychotherapy and hypnosis with an exceptionally understanding doctor released him to emerge with the Piano Concerto No. 2.

Rachmaninoff the composer was only one of three Rachmaninoffs. He was one of the great pianists in history and, by all accounts, hardly less remarkable as a conductor. He did a lot of conducting in his early years, opera as well as concert, and was highly regarded enough to have been asked to take over both the Boston and Cincinnati symphonies. But in fact he rarely conducted after leaving Russia for good in 1918, when, sacrificing time he would have liked to use for composing, he became virtually a full-time pianist to support his family. The concentration, clarity, nobility of style, and beauty of sound of the few recordings he made as a conductor, all with his favorite orchestra, the Philadelphia (the great Philadelphia of the Stokowski and early Ormandy years)—The Isle of the Dead, the ”Vocalise,” the Symphony No. 3—make believable every superlative one reads about his work on the podium.

On the other hand, Rachmaninoff the pianist is well-documented. The recordings he made for Victor, including those of his conducting, are widely available, plus transfers of some piano rolls. They include his four concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody, sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert, and Grieg with his friend Fritz Kreisler, and a large sampling of solo works. Unfortunately, he was allowed to record only two of the big pieces in his solo repertory, Chopin's Funeral March Sonata and Schumann's Carnaval. The dozens of little pieces include many transcriptions by himself, his cousin and teacher Alexander Siloti, Franz Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, and others. And, in Mount Rushmore sized majesty, there is even a Star-Spangled Banner, with which he would have begun every recital during the war years.

Rachmaninoff the transcriber made dazzling solo piano versions of movements from Bach's E major Partita for Unaccompanied Violin (of which Bach himself had made a singularly bold version for solo organ with full orchestra), Schubert's Wohin?, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music, The Flight of the Bumblebee, and wonderfully inventive, larger-than-life transcriptions of Fritz Kreisler's Liebesfreud and Liebesleid—all of them startling with harmonies that were not in the vocabularies of their original composers. Yet these excursions never fail to highlight something salient and characteristic in the pieces. They have all the special charm of hybrids, but they never betray the original composition. Even when his conscious aim was only to provide himself with spectacular or charming encore pieces, Rachmaninoff always thought as a composer.

Much of what makes Rachmaninoff so extraordinary a pianist is that there, too, his perceptions and choices are those of a composer. He sometimes takes bold liberties with the text—by our standards, not by those of his day, when he was thought a rather severe interpreter. For instance, he invents a completely new distribution of louds, softs, and crescendos for Chopin's Funeral March, and it makes so much sense and is so convincing that some pianists today really wish they dared emulate him.

Rachmaninoff is among those performers who always give you the sense that, preparing to sound the first note, they know exactly when and how the last is to arrive—and that the closing event is already implicit in the first. The characteristics of concentration, clarity, nobility of style, and beauty of sound that I pointed to as hallmarks of his conducting are equally present in his piano playing. He had an encompassing technique when it came to power and marksmanship. That he could play what he himself wrote attests to that. His rhythm was phenomenal. The little sequence of chords with which the piano responds to the orchestra's proposal of a new theme in the first movement of his Third Piano Concerto has, as he plays it, an incredible panther-spring. No other pianist has come close.

The music world has changed much in the more than seventy years since March 28, 1943, when Rachmaninoff died of a rapidly progressing melanoma.  When he went, the world lost a man and musician of uncommon human and artistic integrity, sincerity, and decency. "My poor hands," he said on one of his last days. Perhaps he would no longer be surprised—just happy—that he was not swept away by history after all, and that, thanks to what those hands did, whether they held a pencil or touched keys of ivory and ebony, he is still a presence among us, vivid, exciting, and commanding our love.

— Michael Steinberg

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