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 Sergei Rachmaninoff’s popularity is surging


By Sigurd Neubauer


She’s one of Britain’s most prominent classical music critics. Now, Fiona Maddocks, the classical music critic of The Observer, is out with a new book on Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943); Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile (Faber, 2023).

In our tribute to the great Russian composer, who is known for his glorious piano concerti and symphonic works, this is the second part of our multi-part series dedicated to celebrating Rachmaninoff’s life and legacy. 

In our first part, we cover the restoration of the composer’s villa in Switzerland overlooking the magical Lake Lucerne and its idyllic surroundings. It is formally known as Villa Senar.

Responding to what prompted her to write a book on Rachmaninoff, Maddocks explains that it all originated during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020.

Fiona Maddocks is one of Britain’s foremost classical music critics. Photo credit: Courtesy 

“I had a hunch that there was possibly much more to be said than what has been covered about the composer, most of which was written some twenty-plus years ago,” she says, pointing out that the momentum leading up to the 150th anniversary since the composer’s birth has generated “new energy about his music and a renewed interest in Rachmaninoff studies.”

Though Maddocks is not a musicologist, she’s the author of Hildegard of Bingen, Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks and Music for Life

Her interest in Rachmaninoff comes from a different vantage point: “I am a music critic and an interested music journalist. My interest coincides with this musicologist awakening that Rachmaninoff is experiencing.”

On what surprised the distinguished music critic the most from her research, Maddocks reveals that she didn’t realize what an abrupt change the Russian Revolution of 1917 had had on the composer as he was forced to leave his beloved fatherland. “He was middle aged and enjoyed a formidable career as conductor, pianist, and composer. In exile, Rachmaninoff had to rebuild his career.” 

Maddocks also sees a parallel between Rachmaninoff’s story and the many people who are refugees and forced to leave everything behind. 

With the surging interest in the Russian composer, scholars are increasingly focusing on the multifaceted person that Rachmaninoff was

Returning to the renewed awakening in Rachmaninoff, the author points out that during the immediate aftermath of his death he was “unfashionable” as the musical world had been experimenting with atonality at a time of artistic fragmentation. 

Rachmaninoff in contrast “was seen as tune spinning, emotional and romantic.” In the late 1940s and 1950s, “it was a bit embarrassing within the so-called ‘serious music’ world to like his music,” she explains, but quips: “Rachmaninoff’s music was always popular within the mainstream.”

But returning to the subject of how the classical music establishment viewed the composer, Maddocks points to her predecessor at The Observer, Eric Blom (1888-1959), who wrote in the 1954 edition of Grove that “Rachmaninoff won’t last as there is not much going for him.” 

Bloom was a distinguished music lexicographer, music critic and writer who is best known as the editor of the 5th edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954).

“In a funny and modest way, I wanted to address this as critics do get things wrong,” she says while adding that “people who are interested in Rachmaninoff are familiar with this essay.”

At the same time, she points out that at the Classic FM’s Hall of Fame Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2.  is listed as the most popular piece. “A long-time favorite in the world’s biggest survey of classical music tastes, the monumental work has reached the No.1 spot eight times since the chart began in 1996,” the classical radio station notes on its website.

Returning to the complex dichotomy between the scholarly world of classical music and those simply enjoying the artform, Maddocks argues that “the interface between serious and popular is an interesting one because the assumption is that popular isn’t very good musically. That is certainly not the case when it comes to Rachmaninoff.”

Rachmaninoff's Villa Senar was recently restored to its grandeur. Photo credit: Canton Lucerne/Yannick Roeoesli
Rachmaninoff’s career 

On what people should know about the Russian composer, the renowned music critic stresses that he had three careers; he was a conductor, composer, and pianist. His life was also broken up into what Maddocks describes as “two halves.” The first was in Russia prior to the revolution and the second was in America where he had gone into exile in 1918. 

“Rachmaninoff was not stuck in the nineteenth century,” Maddocks says, pointing out that he was always interested in the latest gadgets and that he enjoyed fast cars. “He was not stuck in the past world as some have said when they characterized his music as old fashioned. The truth is far more interesting and complicated.”

Rachmaninoff, it should be known, was an early investor with Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972), the Russian-American aviation pioneer whose namesake company Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation was established in 1923. The composer was also known for his keen interest in architecture as we have seen from our feature on Villa Senar in Switzerland. 

At Villa Senar, one of Rachmaninoff’s favorite activities would be to drive his motorboat on Lake Lucerne with his daughters and grandchildren.

With the surging interest in the Russian composer, scholars are increasingly focusing on the multifaceted person that Rachmaninoff was, including on his artistic vision and demonstrated ability to be a forward thinker with special interests in architecture and the latest state of technologies.

“Rachmaninoff wasn’t stuck in the nineteenth century”  

Musical inspiration

Emphasizing that it is difficult to discern from where Rachmaninoff drew his inspiration, Maddocks nonetheless points out that it was from various aspects of Russian culture as most of his compositions were completed prior to his exile. 

She cites the bells from the Russian Orthodox Church as a recurring theme in his music but points to what she calls an “obsession” with the ancient chants of dias de eres, which is prevalent in Rachmaninoff Vespers.

“Dies irae” is Latin for the “Day of Wrath,” which is according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the opening words of a Latin hymn on the Last Judgment, ascribed to Thomas of Celano (d. c. 1256) and once forming part of the office for the dead and requiem mass.” 

To draw home her point, Maddocks points to Rachmaninoff’s Requiem of the Dead, which he uses time and again: “Was it because of his morbid or monkish mood, or because it worked for him as a starting point to build on? We have to leave that as an open question,” she explains.

He had nonetheless fallen out of fashion during the latter part of his life.

The celebrated composer was known for his exquisite style: Photo credit: Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation

Responding to what makes his piano concerti unique, Maddocks doesn’t mince her words:  

“They are unique because they are by him,” then pauses and explains that Rachmaninoff  “composed for the piano in a way that was very challenging [for the pianist] as it requires enormous virtuosity, musical instinct, and intelligence. We shouldn’t forget that he wrote his concerti to be performed for himself and he had enormous hands, which made it easier for him to stretch across the keyboard.”

At the same time, “while he was an introvert, the act of performance was vital to Rachmaninoff as he must have enjoyed the virtuosity that he had in his fingertips,” Maddocks adds.

She goes on to argue that “this comes out in some very exciting music, certainly in his second and third piano concerti where the most gorgeous melodies are irresistible.”

Rachmaninoff’s four piano concerti were composed across his life. He composed his first in 1892 when he was 18; his second in 1901; his third in 1909; and his final in 1941 at the age of 67. 

Rachmaninoff, however, “couldn’t quite let things go as he always returned to his works to revise them.” For those with what Maddocks describes as an “applied interest” in Rachmaninoff’s music, one may “go back and listen to whatever version of the various concerti one likes the most.”

Rachmaninoff is less known today for his symphonic work, especially his first and third symphonies. His Symphony No.1 was composed in 1895 at his Ivanovka estate near Tambov, Russia. “It caused him great emotional distress as he appears to have suffered an emotional breakdown from its negative reception and reviews.”

His Symphony No. 2, remains, of course, one of his most beloved works until today as it continues to be widely performed. It was composed in 1907. 

“His second symphony is wonderful, and it is a hugely lyrical and epical work,” Maddocks says, but notes that his Symphony No. 3, which he composed in 1936, was not well received in the United States. “People thought that it was too Russian.”

Rachmaninoff was disappointed with the reception his third symphony received, she adds, but quips: “In the end, one has to listen to the music and not apply the various interpretations that people gave it at the time.”

For those interested in Rachmaninoff’s lesser-known works, Maddocks recommends his Sonata for Cello and Piano, which he composed in 1901. “It is simply remarkable,” she says, adding that “cellists like performing it and that it has a huge piano part to it because he was after all a pianist.”

She also recommends Isle of the Dead, which he composed in 1909, describing it as “a quite melancholic and experimental work.”

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