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“Why it will always be Sergei Rachmaninov for Me”

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

 

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“Music is enough for a lifetime – but a lifetime is not enough for music” – Sergei Rachmaninov

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Rachmaninov Main Quote

Sergei Rachmaninov (also spelled Rachmaninoff, 1873–1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Rachmaninov, it seemed, could do nothing right by most of his contemporary critics’ and composers’ standards. As a person, he appeared somewhat cold and aloof – Stravinsky once called him “a six-and-a-half foot tall scowl“.

Life and Music

  • Sergei Rachmaninov was born on April 1st 1873 in Semyonovo, north-west Russia.
  • Rachmaninov’s student years were nothing short of phenomenal. He consistently amazed his teachers with his jaw-dropping ability as a pianist and composer.
  • In 1891 at the age of just 18, he created a storm with his First Piano Concerto, an incredibly accomplished student work.
  • Music continued to flow from the young genius, including an apprentice opera, Aleko, in 1892.
  • Rachmaninov seemed unstoppable, composing a great run of pieces including the Cello Sonata and the Second Suite for Two Pianos, both in 1901.
  • However, his First Symphony from 1896 was roundly panned by critics, and caused the composer to enter a deep depression.
  • Rachmaninov’s masterpiece was surely the Second Piano Concerto from 1901. It’s subsequent use in the film Brief Encounter have made it a constant favourite.
  • With his phenomenal conducting skills, Rachmaninov was appointed Principal Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904 and offered several major posts in America, most notably with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
  • He left Russia for good after the 1917 Russian revolution, first heading to Helsinki and finally ending up in the US.
  • Rachmaninov died of Melanoma on 28 March 1943, in Beverly Hills, four days before his 70th birthday.

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A Rachmaninoff Documentary – “The Harvest Of Sorrow”

An interesting documentary about the life story of Sergei Rachmaninoff through the use of home movies, concert footage, and interviews. Valery Gergiev as narrator and Sir John Gielgud voices Rachmaninoff’s diaries, directed by Tony Palmer.

 

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Did you know?

Rachmaninov in his late mid years at his grand piano in his house

In 1931 Rachmaninov’s music was officially banned in the USSR as ‘decadent’ with the chilling warning: “This music [The Bells] is by a violent enemy of Soviet Russia: Rachmaninov“. I didnt know this!!

Now that we’ve got the brief history over about Sergei Rachmaninov, lets move onto where it matters the most – Why I like his music, listening and performing it. I have for over three decades since returning from the United Kingdom and upon discovering his music, found that Rachmaninov outshines any other 20th century Romantic composer.

Let alone he’s one of the finest pianists of his day and even today his skills are pretty much unsurpassed. Yeah of course there are great pianists now but its something about the classic pianists like him, Horrowitz, Ashkenazy, Kissin, Pollini, Martha Agerich Etc, where today’s pianists loose out to. Maybe I am being a little hard on them?. Perhaps. Im from the Old School, so I do take a liking to old school technique, interpretation and style. Maybe this is it?.

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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873 – 1943) is one of the greatest Russian composers
This is the one of his audio clips.
The recording of Rachmaninoff’s voice is also included.

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What is it that makes me love all of Rachmaninov’s works? 

Kid Rachmaninov
A young Sergei Rachmaninov
  1. What does his music mean to me upon listening to it ?. It doesnt matter if its a symphony, prelude or a concerto. It comes down to this:

“His music tenderly glorifies the beautiful in life. It has static moments of long contemplations, when it seems as if the tonal flow has come to a standstill or hardly moves. At times, the music storms and roars in passionate and exciting scales of anger or indignation. Then follows a holiday celebration of a ‘ringing’ of joy or gloomy chimes. This is how Rachmaninov’s music uplifts, lets down, and lulls the emotions of a listener.

And this is what his music brings for me, a fervent follower and disciple of his for over thirty years. Its like a culmination of a multitude of emotions, all thrown in at once, yet not in the least confusing or a mess. Very flowing and coherent in nature. It is at times, very magical.

Not many will understand all of this, mainly because its all about being extremely infused with passion, emotion and eccentricity which I can easily relate to as I myself am very eccentric and dont take my word for it, its what countless people have told me. I see my own self in his music. His music is a true reflection of our world, who we are and what the future might hold for us all. As he grew older, he became more interested in his new world he was living in, the United States and like in his last orchestral work, The Symphonic Dances, it shows that he “knew his time was coming to an end”. Listen to it again and listen to it very carefully. Can you sense it?

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2. What is the Essence behind all of Rachmaninov’s piano and orchestral work?

Number one, I am an insatiable romantic so anything that encompasses melodic lines that pull one up and down emotionally, and messes with your brain so to speak sparks even more fervent enthusiasm within me.

Early photo of the young man
Around his mid 20’s

The technical side of all Rachmaninov piano pieces excite me to the point when I wanna go and research on how he really played them. My reference would always be, back then in the Academy, the famed Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. Then after that…still Ashkenazy!. This mainly focusing on interpretation.

I didnt really rely on or refer to Horrowitz even though as compared to Ashkenazy, he’s been considered by many to be more of an expert on Rachmaninov. He actually knew Rachmaninov. But..I beg to differ. I’d rather log onto youtube and locate an Ashkenazy performance and emerse myself into it..all night long in fact. Technically, Rachmaninov has got to be one of the most technically demanding ever. We must first understand that Rachmaninov was a product of the Russian School of Piano Technique.

When discussing the Russian piano school, above all we should not forget its most important characteristic, that of individuality. The individuality of each performer is the hallmark of the Russian piano school. This means that all that see written down by Rachmaninov is heavily influenced by a man called Samuel Feinberg – the “artist-innovator”, who became Professor at the Moscow Conservatoire.

Photo of Rachmaninov in color
The Veteran Pianist and Composer

A wonderful teacher, Feinberg established his own school of pianism, distinguished by its special virtuoso technique. One of his students, Victor Merzhanov, shared first prize with Sviatoslav Richter in the first post-war All-Union Musicians Competition in Moscow. Merzhanov’s incredible performances combine an unusual warmth of sound and richness of colour with a dazzling technique. Merzhanov conquered foreign critics in the late 1940’s and 50’s. They found his performances as something supernatural, recalling the performances of the great masters Siloti and Rachmaninov.

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The international success of the Russian piano school has strong connections with one more name. The “poet of the pianoforte”, Heinrich Neuhaus, an artist of great culture, passionately in love with his art. Neuhaus was not only a talented performer, he was also a great teacher. He created his own highly intellectual, and at the same time very romantic, school of pianism. He forced the hands of his students to submit to artistic expression, to “obey the intellect“. Neuhaus brought up a brilliant generation of musicians. The names of his students speak for themselves. Richter, Gilels, Zack, Malinin, Kastelsky, Petrushansky, Lubimov, and so on.

It’s without any doubt that his pieces are very hard to play but not impossible technically but the hardest part is the way to understand what he is trying to say, the story behind each piece and the pianistic nuances one has to bring out. Interpretation is the hardest thing to get right when it comes to Rachmaninov. Very few can get it unless they study the man and his background properly. For me, Ashkenazy amongst some others have seem to have grasped the essence of his music and it shows in their performances of all his piano compositions and orchestral works. Alot simply fail. That’s why I have always said that if you dont undertsand the piece, its history, its story and what the composer is actually “saying” when he composed this piece, then you can be the most technically sound player in the world but will never grasp the true essence of it.

Original Rachmaninov manuscript
Autographed photo

Study what you play, dont just read the notes and follow what others are doing unless youre researching into the piece itself like stated above. Listen to what youre learning, practising and playing, not merely playing it because you like it or your teacher told you so. Too many play like robots with no “feel” whatsoever. This is certainly not Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov has a far deeper intention when composing and it all stemmed from his originality, emotional depth and sensitivity to all things good and bad in this world and of course, his natural genius.

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3. Why is Rachmaninov the most plagiarised classical composer?

Rachmaninov’s compositions used without permission or consideration or “stolen” = Plagiarisation. Some modern day songwriters, artists and composers blatantly plagiarise works of his and below is a list of some (I bet there’s plenty more!);

1. Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.1 in D Minor – Opening bars motif which makes it’s presence felt throughout the first movt. But doesnt it sound familiar to a movie soundtrack youve recently heard?

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rachmaninov first symphony
The Opening Bars of Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony

 

The “Enemy At The Gates” Movie Soundtrack (plagiarised by a now deceased American movie composer who didnt make the effort to cover it up. Not once, but at least two times) – Enemy At The Gates (starring Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins and Joseph Fiennes).

enemy at the gates poster

Short Bio on this American Composer: ***** began studying piano at the age of five, and trained at the Royal College of Music in London, England, before moving to California in the 1970s. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in music at USC, he would go on to earn his master’s degree at UCLA and teach music theory there. He later completed his Ph.D. in Music Composition and Theory at UCLA. ****** began scoring student films for the American Film Institute in the late 1970s, which paved the way for scoring assignments on a number of small-scale films. His first large, high-profile project was composing music for ***********, which would lead to numerous other film offers and opportunities to work with world-class performers such as the London Symphony Orchestra.

The blockbuster hit movie Troy features the same motif – called the “Death motif” but was also used excessively in Enemy At The Gates. For what reason would he do such a thing (when he knows that it is so) when he can stick to being original like so many others around him and yet Hollywood continue to hire such composers probably knowing full well of their plagarising habits?. I’m dumbfounded. However…In defense of this American movie composer someone on the net wrote this:-

 

“******’s vulnerability is that he borrows from the more popular classical composers, so everyone leaps on the clear similarities. Yet there are countless borrowings by almost all film composers, the only difference being that many lean on classical composers whose music is far less well known and so escapes the recognition of those with only a more “popular” knowledge of the classics. To spot a theme derived from Mahler or Beethoven isn’t too difficult considering the exposure such famous pieces get. If ***** wanted to disguise things more, it wouldn’t be too hard for him to do so. Perhaps he’s simply enthralled by the music he chooses to be the source of his inspiration and is not too proud to show it openly” – B.W”

And further more he writes;

“I’ve lost count of themes that are borrowed/inspired by/stolen by film composers from obscure baroque operas or concertos, or even renaissance pieces very often composed by anonymous songsters or created for a single instrument, but few people will have heard the originals or recognize the modern translation into a fully orchestral piece – B.W”

Here is the soundtrack composed by the above American composer for a movie blockbuster about a Russian sniper during World War Two. If you’ve listen to the audio above and then listen to this from the movie, give me your verdict. Its so apparent that – a cited so many times in so many articles on the world wide web – this man didnt care to cover up his plagiarisation of the main motif from Rachmaninov’s First Symphony.

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2. That’s two covered, so lets move on to a third and fourth for the time being. This being such a hot topic of discussion across the web and even on official website of abrsm.org, (ABRSM) perhaps we might be going a tad too far and perhaps should call all this “Unconscious Plagiarism“?. It happens all the time.

How about the following?:

Classical: Piano Concerto No.2 – Rachmaninov (2nd movt) – main theme motif 
Pop: All By Myself – Eric Carmen

 

Or even perhaps…

Classical: Second Symphony in E minor, Op. 27 – Rachmaninov (3rd movt) – main theme motif

Pop: If I Should Love Again (Chorus) – Barry Manilow

 

young rachmaninov
Casual photo of Rachmaninov in his livingroom

I had one piano teacher (decades ago in the United Kingdom) who taught classroom music in secondary school. He used to ask pupils to bring in their favourite pop songs and ask them to pick out the bit they liked best in the song. He would then come back the following week with a piece of classical music which had a similar passage. He was one of the few teachers in the school who managed to interest pupils in his subject. He had a huge choir and the few pupils who learnt an instrument all played in a group that he wrote the music for (it was too unusual a combination of instruments to be able to use existing arrangements).

Let’s face it, Rolf Harris’s hit single “Two Little Boys” was surely inspired by the march-like theme in the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony no 3. Interestingly, the song which Rolf made famous (and British folks should know this?) was originally written back in 1902 (according to wikipedia), not long after the symphony. Hmm.

A very early photo of Rachmaninov – age around 23?
Rachmaninov with family and pet dog

Im a composer myself, so I cannot even confirm whether any of my original compositions possess a few notes or even a full phrase short of two bars? (a full four bars copied (melody-wise) is punishable under international copyright laws btw). So far so good…I have not been hauled in as yet. This has been a pretty lengthy do and I think it’s time to wrap it up for now… BUT wait!! There is a 2nd part to all this…and the second part on Rachmaninov will be less serious in nature, more interesting photos and facts about Sergei and probably some of it will make you laugh. Well, almost.

Oh by the way….before I forget

Do you have any favourite – or most despised! – examples of contemporary writers of music borrowing themes from the great works of the past?

I would be interested in your views, too, as to whether you think these” quotings” are deliberate or accidental. My question is prompted by an observation from another online forum, as to the suspected inspiration in one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words for the Harry Potter theme” (?)

 

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My Hands

Just a last minute thought…how do my own hands compare to the master’s hands??

Hands of Sergei Rachmaninov Feature Image
His Hands

When it comes to Rachmaninov’s performance of his own Variations On A Theme Of Niccolò Paganini

His playing is effortlessly elegant and he evokes a crystalline transparent timbre from the piano that is gorgeous. And his interpretation is romantic without sounding overly sentimental and mawkish. Overall a wow experience!

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Dont forget to keep your wits about you and keep a lookout for the 2nd part!!

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