Tag Archive: Rachmaninov


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.]

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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).

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In 1944 Nat King Cole recorded Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor with his Los Angeles-based piano trio.  What’s special about the moment is that it represents a meaningful meeting of classical and jazz, a convergence of the twain: music of worlds so-called “Old” and “New.”

While branded in the popular imagination for the great “Unforgettable,” it has at times fallen into forgetfulness that Cole was a pianist of prodigious skill.  In fact, in an age of the swinging jazz bands, his early trio of the 1930s was something of a rarity – the very first of its kind, even.  If piano greats Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson were instrumental in establishing the trio as a standard ensemble of jazz performance, then they did so following in Cole’s footsteps.  The vocal works for which he’s most often remembered were produced largely due to popular demand.  Those cuts sold; the market demanded them.

Listen to the trio’s recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”  The interplay of piano, bass and guitar (not, as would later become the standard, drums) is the stuff of magic.  Lest we forget: In the history of jazz, Nat King Cole was also instrumental as an instrumentalist.

There is so much great jazz to be discovered in the King Cole Trio’s output, but I’d like to bang even harder on the doors of forgetting.  For it’s really with his performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor that we’re invited to consider a side of Cole that’s largely fallen on deaf ears.

What’s especially cool to hear in this performance is the weight of the Russian soul reconceived by the freer, improvisatory spirit of jazz.  (Just listen to Oscar Moore’s guitar solo!)  There are inumerable great classically-oriented performances of the prelude.  (You can listen to Rachmaninov himself perform it here, in three separate recordings from 1919, 1923 and 1928.)  But that there are so many strong performances in the classical tradition of interpretation gives all the more resonance to this particular King Cole Trio session.  If unorthodox, I consider it as viable an interpretation as any other, but one of many legitimate ways of interpreting Rachmaninov.  Though not entirely faithful to the letter of the score, there’s no question to my ear that he’s true to the spirit of Rachmaninov’s music.

Let me push a bit more and say that Rachmaninov himself would agree.

To get concrete: Rachmaninov emigrated to the United States in 1918 and lived there intermittently until his death in 1943.  In those years he tirelessly toured America’s cities.  In a recent article by James Bash of the Oregon Music News, it’s said that Rachmaninov performed in Portland, Oregon, no fewer than five times between 1923 and 1933.

I mention Portland in this case because it was in a 1931 issue of its newspaper, The Spectator, that Rachmaninov spoke to the subject of the interpretation of his music:

‘To be quite honest, no,’ he replied.  ‘You see when it comes to the average pianist, I am perfectly willing to let him play my pieces just as he chooses – especially if I am not there to hear him.  As for a master pianist, he is justified in finding his own interpretations and in putting his own personality into the rendering of the composition.  I indicate my own feeling about tempo, phrasing, and dynamic shading in the music itself, and this is the outline of my own conception.  But some great pianist may play my piano pieces with many differences of detail, with nuances and shadings I might not use myself; and yet his conception of the piece as a whole will never be wrong because his own good taste and musical instinct would guard against it.

‘It is certainly most interesting, at times, to see how some other pianist will give a piece you have written yourself an entirely different musical color, or present it from quite another angle of interpretation than your own.’” (*See below for source information.)

It is with an eye to the composer’s open view of artistry and musical interpretation that I think he would have approved of Nat King Cole’s playful take on his work.  Cole’s is a freer approach to this music, of course; but that freedom is the spirit of jazz itself.  It is the very voice of the New World.

The King Cole Trio’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor is both a place for the jazz fan to encounter the riches of the classical tradition, and an occasion for the classical devotee to think more freely about jazz.

Given that Rachmaninov and Cole both lived in Los Angeles, I wonder if each had heard the other in concert.  Could they have met? (Readers please jump in!)

The Trio’s Rachmaninov session dates from January 1944, ten months after the composer’s death.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to see Cole’s recording of the Prelude in C-sharp minor as his small way of remembering, of paying homage to Rachmaninov.  That’s just one more way of remembering this forgotten side of Cole.

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Recommended Recording:

  • The King Cole Trio: That’s What (1943-47) (Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120826; originally recorded for Capitol Records)

Personel: Nat King Cole, piano, vocals; Oscar Moore, guitar; Johnny Miller, bass

*The Rachmaninov quote from the 1931 Portland Spectator is taken from James Bash’s “When Bartok, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff came to Portland,” (The Oregon Observer, July 12, 2010).

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