Sunday, April 01, 2007


Sergei Rachmaninoff’s fame could have rested upon his performances as a pianist and conductor alone, but he was driven to be a great composer from an early age.

Born on this day in 1873 in Semyonovo, Russia, by the time he was 19, he had finished a successful First Piano Concerto and a one-act opera, Aleko, but the critical failure of his First Symphony (1897) sent him into a debilitating depression, from which only hypnosis and a patient psychoanalyst were able to rescue him. During most of his career, however, Rachmaninoff battled against critics who saw his compositions as emotionally overwrought, technically exhibitionistic echoes of Late Romanticism which had been wholly replaced by the Modern explorations of rivals such as Igor Stravinsky. Worse than being told he was born into the wrong musical age, he was depicted by serious critics as being irrelevantly at the trailing edge of current music -- something like Pat Boone during the rise of Elvis Presley.

The fact that he fled Russia during the revolution of 1917 and settled in the U.S. probably also affected his critical reputation, branding him as a reactionary. While Stravinsky and Schoenberg were off turning concert halls into dens of "difficult listening," Rachmaninoff achieved great popularity with mass audiences. His Prelude in C# minor became so popular, in fact, that Rachmaninoff himself grew tired of playing it in public, and Van Cliburn’s recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini were international mega-hits.

Without the critical baggage, Rachmaninoff’s works can be characterized as lush, personal pieces displaying a cosmopolitan, rather than nationalistic, vibe. The Soviets, in their inimitable way of turning harmlessness into courage, banned Rachmaninoff’s music as representing the "decadent attitude of the lower middle classes" and "especially dangerous on the musical front in the present class war." Ironically, at least one Christian journal used the hypnosis episode, along with Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony based on an Edgar Allan Poe poem, The Bells (1913), as evidence that Rachmaninoff and his music were tools of Satan. With Soviets and Fundamentalist Christians debating his value as an artist out on the critical fringes, Rachmaninoff died on March 28, 1943 in Beverly Hills, California.



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