Portrait of Rachmaninov, by Konstantin Somov, 1925. (Source: New World Encyclopedia.)

“Don’t get sentimental / It always ends up drivel” ~Radiohead, “Let Down,” OK Computer

A recent blog post on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio 2 website invites readers to consider the merits of Rachmaninov’s music.   “Shamelessly romantic or gushy sentimentality?” it asks.

It’s true that the integrity, the worth of Rachmaninov’s music has often been questioned, despite – or maybe simply because of? – its immense popularity.  In his own lifetime, Rachmaninov was persistently perceived to be out of fashion, a nostalgic throwback to the music of the 19th century.  And as in life, so in death: Rachmaninov has since had plenty of post-mortem opportunity to spin in his grave in response to the criticism that his music is lightweight, syrupy or Hollywoodesque.  And though his reputation as a composer has been revitalized in recent decades (and it would seem that performers have always championed his music) one will occasionally hear echoes of that chorus of criticism once-strong.  So here I find myself chiming in with a few words in his favour.

Part of the reason that Rachmaninov is singled out when this topic arises is that he was considered something of an anachronism in his day.  His music was defiantly non-experimental; he wasn’t part of any progressive wave or current in the musical culture of the early decades of the twentieth century.  This is to say that Rachmaninov was not “modern” in the academic sense of the term: modernity as a reaction to the 19th century, as the conscious attempt to rethink or to disintegrate the aesthetic values of the past.  Listen to the famous Adagio from his Second Symphony: The apparent “problem” is that his music happens to be conventionally beautiful.  And so taste-makers have often been critical of Rachmaninov or have chosen to pass over him in silence when considering classical music of the last century.

To bring up but one example: In his enormous Music in Western Civilization Paul Henry Lang mentions Rachmaninov only once – and even then, he does so disparagingly and in passing, casting him as a mere imitator of a bygone age, unable “to derive from Chopin’s heritage more than ephemeral compositions, dated at the time of their creation.” I suppose the sting is lessened slightly by the consistency of Lang’s lack of judgment in this case: he lumps in Rachmaninov with Scriabin as a composer of supposedly derivative music.  It is an instance of someone who is staggeringly knowledgeable about music lacking in foresight, in distance.

The Grove Incident

You can find one of the more entertaining sparring sessions in New Yorker critic, Harold Schonberg’s Lives of the Great Composers.  Schonberg stands squarely in Rachmaninov’s corner and cites the following passage from the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians as an example of the wrongheadedness with which history has sometimes judged Rachmaninov:

As a pianist Rachmaninoff was one of the finest artists of his time; as a composer he can hardly be said to have belonged to his time at all. . . .  His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes. . . .  The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor.  The third pianoforte Concerto was on the whole liked by the public only because of its close resemblance to the second, while the fourth, which attempted something life a new departure, was a failure from the start.  The only later work that has attracted large concert audiences was the Rhapsody (variations) on a Theme by Paganini. . . .

The stilted tone aside, there’s something mildly strange happening here: On the one hand, the Grove Dictionary points to the popular success of certain Rachmaninov works as a sign of their apparent lack of substance.  On the other hand, it suggests that the general lack of popular success of other Rachmaninov works testifies to their artistic shortcomings.  Frothing at the mouth, Harold Schonberg greets the Grove verdict head-on, and characterizes it as  “one of the most outrageously snobbish and even stupid statements ever to be found in a work that is supposed to be an objective reference.”

Snobbery or Stupidity?

I appreciate that Schonberg delivers a much-needed bop on the nose of the Grove team, but is it really a plain matter of snobbery or stupidity? Let’s bring things a little closer to home – Rachmaninov’s first home, Russia.

It’s unfortunate that circumstance alone should have it that Rachmaninov be compared with his contemporary and compatriot, Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev, whose music is more dissonant and progressive in spirit, is generally considered the more “modern” of the two.  Prokofiev’s own dislike for Rachmaninov echoes loud in the grapevine, and Rachmaninov, so it goes, was kind enough to reciprocate. But why compare, why the animosity?  Perhaps Prokofiev himself felt the circumstantial pull of competition? In Bruno Monsaingeon’s 1998 biographical documentary on Sviatoslav Richter, Richter: The Enigma, the pianist chalks up Prokofiev’s hostility to “jealousy.”  Whatever the case, there’s a light that cuts through the fog: Prokofiev’s stunning and sympathetic 1920 interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor.

The Benefit of Hindsight

It is true that Rachmaninov didn’t fit neatly into the trends of early 20th century classical music.  But we now have the advantage of hindsight: And to my ears, his music has settled well.  If Rachmaninov’s musical meditations were once untimely, if his thoughts were once out of season, they have since found their place in the flow of recent history.

It’s no longer a matter of having to choose, as silly as it sounds, between Rachmaninov and the 20th century.

“Rachmaninov or Prokofiev?” “The Beatles or the Stones?” Much in the way that I choose to see the latter question as meaningless when posed by anyone other than schoolchildren on the playgrounds of the 1960s, I also hope that the former can be safely relegated to a bygone age of music criticism.

Editors of more recent editions of the Grove Dictionary have sobered up, and now remember Rachmaninov as “the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism.”  They even suggest that, “at its most inspired, Rachmaninoff’s lyrical inspiration is matchless.”

The development of music will always force us to appeal the initial verdicts of history.  If Rachmaninov was once reviled in some circles, it was due to a presumed belief in the necessary direction of classical music, the self-conscious attempt to break once and for all with the past.  But that’s all a chasing of the wind: For in the end, there can be no necessary principle of development in music.  And because there is no principle of necessity of historical development, there is no need to choose between, say, tonality and atonality: Each is an entirely valid, challenging and rewarding idiom.  The development of music will always remain, like Rachmaninov’s own, organic.

Listen to this sampling from the Vespers, one of Rachmaninov’s greatest achievements. 

It’s clear that, once the dust settles, there’s beauty to be found in an otherwise very ugly century.[Note: In saying “ugly,” here, I’m not referring to the music of the 20th century.]

__________

Books I quote above:

  • Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1941).
  • Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970).
  • The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (online access via Oxford Music Online).

The “past is inside the present” tag in the title of this piece comes from the beginning of “Music is Math,” a track by Scottish electronic duo, Boards of Canada.  You can listen to it here (from the album Geogaddi; Warp Records, 2002).

Advertisements