In Twentieth Century Music, an admirable and much-used survey written in 1974, Eric Salzman devotes 13 pages to Stravinsky, 11 to Schoenberg, and 6 to Berg versus 2 for Ravel, 2 for Shostakovich, 1 for Sibelius, and 1 for Richard Strauss. To Sergei Rachmaninoff, he allots a single sentence, consigning him to the “older Romantic tradition” of Russian music.
Today, 37 years later, Rachmaninoff is an expanding twenty-first century presence. Shunned by modernists for deficits in originality and influence, he is newly admired alongside other twentieth-century Romantics. In fact, he possessed a musical personality so strong he could not possibly have failed to create (however unfashionably) a voice of his own. And we have begun to listen to this voice with fresh fascination. When in 1997 the ubiquitous Third Piano Concerto was attacked in The New York Times as “a cozy piece of schlock,” an eminent musicologist, Joseph Kerman, rose to Rachmaninoff’s defense in The New York Review of Books. “Novel, persuasive, expressive” was Kerman’s shrewd revisionist verdict, surveying the structure of the concerto’s vast first movement.
My own Rachmaninoff epiphany occurred a decade or so ago when I found myself listening on a car radio to a 1934 Rachmaninoff piece I thought I knew — the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini — and thinking: this is at least as good as anything Stravinsky was writing in, say, the 1940s. It partakes in the Stravinskyan virtues: concision, piquant scoring, rhythmic variety. And (of course) it conveys a distinctive emotional charge Stravinsky shuns.
In contradistinction to the twentieth century icons Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff was long debunked as a composer who never evolved, whose decades in exile were a creative wasteland. It’s true his compositional output plummeted after he left Russia in 1917. There are only five pieces. But the Rhapsody is one of them – it’s the Rachmaninoff concerto for people who don’t like No. 2.
And the Symphonic Dances of 1940 – Rachmaninoff’s last opus – may be his magnum opus. Certainly, it’s his valedictory, a musical testament whose keynote is metaphysical intensity. The three movements originally bore titles: “Midday,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight.” These are stations of life. The finale ends in a blaze of glory, effacing strains of Dies Irae; near the close, the composer inscribes: “Alliluya.”
I’m barely familiar with the Three Russian Songs for chorus and orchestra (1926). I don’t have strong feelings about the Corelli Variations (1931). The Third Symphony (1936) seems to me a work whose long gestation betrays failing inspiration. The case of the Fourth Piano Concerto, which underwent alteration over a period of 15 years, is far more tantalizing. Having for the first time encountered the original 1926 version – released for publication by the Rachmaninoff Estate in 2000 and rarely heard since — via Texas’ Round Top Festival, I still find the melodic material for the middle movement banal. In the outer movements, however, Rachmaninoff’s diminishing melodic gift translates as a kind of virtue: they bristle with interesting material, deployed in surprising ways. In Eteri Andjaparidze’s potent Round Top performance, the concerto lasted fully eight minutes longer than Rachmaninoff’s own 1941 recording of the final, 1941 version, with its slashing abridgements. No less than Rachmaninoff the composer, this concerto, once consigned to oblivion, is music that will not go away.
And then there is “early Rachmaninoff.” Only recently has his 50-minute First Symphony (1895) entered the outskirts of the repertoire. It is heroic confessional music: a successor to the big Tchaikovsky symphonies, as different from the second and third Rachmaninoff symphonies as the Tchaikovsky suites are from the Pathetique.
Rachmaninoff destroyed the First Symphony after its disastrous premiere. My guess is that this volcanic effusion violated his intense privacy. He could not have anticipated that the score would be discovered in Russia long after his death. The most piercing, most poignant moment in all of Rachmaninoff is the coda to the first movement of the Symphonic Dances, which pacifies the “vengeance” motto that ultimately pounds the First Symphony into silence. This private allusion – the First Symphony was wholly unknown in 1940 – is a closing of the circle, the completion of an unlikely creative odyssey, courageously aloof from contemporary fashion and taste, begun in pre-revolutionary Russia and ending, Russian still, in southern California.