By Sigurd Neubauer
In our tribute to the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who is known for his glorious piano concerti and symphonies, we have published four articles dedicated to examining his life and unmatched legacy.
In our third, we feature Rachmaninoff interpreter extraordinaire Anna Fedorova whose recordings of his Piano Concerto No. 2 has been viewed over 38 million times on YouTube.
In this piece, we examine the composer himself in a wide-ranging interview with Professor Philip Ross Bullock of the University of Oxford who last year edited Rachmaninoff and His World for the University of Chicago Press.
Bullock is one of the world’s foremost Rachmaninoff scholars.
Philip Bullock is a Professor of Russian Literature and Music at Oxford University. Photo credit: Courtesy
“Rachmaninoff, like many of the Russian elite came from the nobility,” the professor explains but points out that his father was “a terrible spendthrift,” who had to sell off all of the five family estates that came with his mother when they married to pay off his debts.
Rachmaninoff’s father would eventually abandon the family and the son was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother.
“Because of this, the young Rachmaninoff enjoyed high-social status but not the wealth and privileges that would once have come with it, which is why he eventually would have to earn a living as both a pianist and conductor to support his family once he married,” Bullock notes, adding that he’s cared for his family through a combination of conducting, performing and taking care of his estate. There, Rachmaninoff invested in tractors and new farming technologies and even owned the first car in the province; “he was not badly off but not wealthy. He knew how to run an estate while also working as a musician.”
In 1917, Rachmaninoff was forced to flee his native Russia because of the Bolshevik Revolution. “He lost everything but succeeded in exile to reestablish himself. He wasn’t just an inspired romantic but someone who was a hardheaded professional performing artist.”
Rachmaninoff came from the Russian nobility , but he didn't enjoy the wealth and privileges that came with it
Like many Russians during the nineteenth century, Rachmaninoff began studying music at home where his mother discovered his talent early on. “Rachmaninoff was very much influenced by women, including his female piano teacher who had been a graduate of the St. Petersburg Music Academy. Rachmaninoff’s sisters and even grandmother helped nurture his talents from a very early age.”
Eventually, Rachmaninoff would enroll at the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 10.
“The early Rachmaninoff, however, was not the one we would come to know,” Bullock explains as he “wasn’t terribly disciplined nor applied,” which is why he was forced to ultimately leave the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
It was only at the intervention of family members that Rachmaninoff was able to enter the Moscow Conservatory where he enrolled as a teenager to study under Nikolai Zverev (1833 –1893) who helped him develop his legendary technique through rigorous and comprehensive musical training.
“Zverev took his students to the theater and the opera and invited many of Moscow’s leading artists to attend salon dinners at his home, which enabled the youngster to acquire a broad cultural heritage that formed him as a person,” Bullock notes.
It is at this point that Rachmaninoff developed broad interests in opera, paintings and by the time he moved to Switzerland in 1932, he had also developed an interest in architecture.
At the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff completed two diplomas; one in piano performance and the second in composition. “Zverev, however, didn’t want Rachmaninoff to compose. Rachmaninoff, of course, would go on to prove Zverev wrong by becoming a great composer as well as a great pianist and conductor.”
Once Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892, where he composed his first opera, Aleko, which is the first of three operas that he would eventually compose. His other operas are: Francesca da Rimini (1893) and The Miserly Knight (1906).
Adds the professor, “With the premier of Aleko, Zverev congratulated Rachmaninoff on his great youthful success and apologized to him for having been wrong about his composition abilities. It was also at this time that he met Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) who effectively designated him as musical heir.”
During the early 1880s and 1890s, Tchaikovsky’s music was overwhelmingly influential on Rachmaninoff, including on his first opera where Tchaikovsky style melodies can be heard, the professor explains.
“Rachmaninoff ended up graduating with a gold medal from the Conservatory, which was a rare recognition and a tribute to his opera, but Tchaikovsky also praised his opera and even insisted that his very own one-act opera, Iolanta (1892), should be premiered along with Rachmaninoff’s.”
Rachmaninoff’s early music is inspired by Tchaikovsky. “His music, which expresses emotional intensity and inspired emotional reactions, was something that Rachmaninoff learned from Tchaikovsky above all,” Bullock says.
Rachmaninoff lived a busy life. He was providing concerts in Moscow and across cities within the Russian Empire – and even traveled abroad to London during in 1899 and eventually to America in 1909-10 — but composed during the summers at the country estates of his cousins. There, he would have time away from his commitments in Moscow as a performer. While in the country, Rachmaninoff would also examine the various family libraries to find literary inspiration for his compositions, he adds.
From 1906 to 1909, Rachmaninoff spent time in Dresden, Germany, where he sought inspiration from German music where he attended the great opera houses and concert halls of the time.
Rachmaninoff had initially liked Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) early tone poems but did not like the orchestration from Salome or Elektra but was fascinated by his modernist and experimental music, Bullock reveals.
“Throughout his life, Rachmaninoff claimed to have disliked modernism and thought that Strauss’ early operas were too gaudy and too sensationalist,” but the professor points out that the two didn’t have a personal relationship as they operated in very different worlds.
Tchaikovsky designated Rachmaninoff as his musical heir
As a composer-pianist, Rachmaninoff composed his four piano concerti for himself.
“Like Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Franz List (1811-1886) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) before him, Rachmaninoff combined his own keyboard virtuosity and love of line and melody with his own thorough training as a pianist. He could take those structures and give them his own drama and music.”
Bullock continues: “Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is full of drama; it is joyful, and often quite exuberant, yet also introverted at times. Its dramatic form pits the soloist – namely the pianist – against the orchestra.”
His Piano Concerto No. 2 “can be found everywhere in popular culture, Bullock explains, adding that “we love it because we hear it so often. It is even featured in The Seven Year Itch, a legendary film starring Marilyn Monroe from 1955. It is also featured in commercials and performed at concert halls around the world.”
His Piano Concerto No 3. is the high point of his grand romantic expressive style, Bullock explains.
Rachmaninoff’s piano concerti No. 1 and 4, respectively, are less performed today. For Bullock, the piano concerti No. 2 and 3 – which remains his two most popular works – “dominate at the detriment of his fourth in particular.”
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in contrast “is more intimate and more classical in style and less romantic,” Bullock says, adding that “it confuses us as it is not quite the Rachmaninoff that we know. It is more austere.”
When it was composed in 1926, “the world of music had changed, which explains why it received negative reviews. At the time, Arnold Schonberg (1874-1951), Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) defined what modern music meant.”
Responding to why Rachmaninoff’s fourth piano concerto received poor reviews, Bullock notes that the critics thought this concerto was music from another age. Rachmaninoff was “put out by the criticism and made some major revisions to it,” he adds, then quips: “It is a little more restrained and a bit coyer, which is why I love it; it is by far my most favorite of his concerti.”
Rachmaninoff is also known for his symphonies. Today, his Symphony No.2 remains one of his most popular and widely performed works. On how it compares to his Symphony No. 1 – for which Rachmaninoff also received poor reviews – Bullock explains that he was very proud of it.
“It takes Tchaikovsky and subjects it to greater intensification,” he says, but explains that “it was a failure possibly because the conductor may very well have been drunk during its 1897 premiere.”
Due to the negative reviews, Rachmaninoff withdrew the score.
As a composer-pianist, Rachmaninoff composed his four piano concerti for himself
“The second symphony was mainly composed in Dresden in 1906-7 and clearly shows that the composer has 10 years more maturity in his compositions. After the failure of the first symphony, Rachmaninoff went into a creative depression, which he worked through by conducting opera at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.”
The second symphony, along with his Cello Sonata (1901) is from his golden period, the professor says. What they have in common is that they “really explore his full mastery of musical dramaturgy.” At the time, he also composed plenty of songs that became popular among professional artists as well as those performing at home, which contributed to his financial success.
All of this changed, of course, when he left Russia in 1917. He finally settled in America a year later, where European classical music was very popular, especially Russian music and Tchaikovsky’s in particular.
“America was the land of opportunity in the early twentieth century for classically trained musicians. Pianos were to be found in nearly every middle-class household; there were also symphony orchestras in big cities and even small localities.” His access meant that he could not only support himself and his family, but others too.
“He made huge financial contributions to Russian emigres who were down on their luck after being forced to flee because of the revolution.” Whilst Rachmaninoff clearly had no times for the Bolsheviks, he was tended to keep his views to himself. In 1931, however, he signed a public letter attacking the Soviet government. The communists briefly banned his music, but in general, Rachmaninoff’s music was always enormously popular in the Soviet Union.
Responding to what Rachmaninoff’s overall legacy is, Bullock suggests: “Pianists are drawn to his music, which has gone global; Rachmaninoff is even one of the two to three most popular composers of all time.”
Yet until recently, musicologists looked down on Rachmaninoff because if his music was popular, they reasoned, it couldn’t be good. Bullock, however, sees the composer differently:
“I only feel admiration for the kind of composer that he was, including his personality as witnessed in his letter writing. In his letters, he doesn’t give much away as he’s more reserved about everyday matters.”
Still, Rachmaninoff, Bullock asserts, “was generous and funny and exhibited great dignity as well.”
On the role Villa Senar played in his life, the professor points out that he had loved his estate in Russia but was delighted when he could build a new home in Switzerland where he could take care of his family.
“One might think that a Russian composer living in exile wanted to recreate a Russian home, but he didn’t do that. Instead, Rachmaninoff built the most contemporary house at the time,” which surprised Bullock.
“Villa Senar became a space to compose, but from there he also took advantage of his interests in fast cars as he loved to drive from Lucerne to Paris. By the time he had built his villa, Rachmaninoff was “staggering wealthy.”
I only feel admiration for the kind of composer that he was, including his personality as witnessed in his letter writings: Bullock