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Contradictions in Rach

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The (re)appraisal of Rachmaninov's music:

contradictions and fallacies

The year 2003 marked the 130th anniversary of Rachmaninov's birth and the 60th anniversary of his death. During that year, I had the

opportunity to lecture on his music in Canada, the United States and

England. In preparation for these lectures, I studied many of Rachmaninov's

works, from different genres and stylistic periods, and concluded that what was more striking than the differences between them were their similarities.

Rachmaninov's stylistic imprint is clearly evident from his first work to

his last. I would go so far as to say that Rachmaninov is more recognisable than almost any other composer, and that his distinctive voice is evident

much earlier than in the works of other, more influential, figures. It is almost

impossible to confuse Rachmaninov with anyone else ? the blend of chant

inspired melodies, expansive, soaring tunes, sombre harmonies and melan

choly ostinati identifies Rachmaninov's music as uniquely his own.

The opening of the First Piano Concerto, dating back to 1890?91 and revised extensively in 1917, is typical. A body of juvenilia precedes this work, but the concerto is his 'official' opus 1. There are five principle elements in the opening 31 bars. A dotted rhythmic fanfare (bar 1) ignites a flourish in the

solo piano (bar 3) that is similar, as everyone seems compelled to point out, to the opening of Schumann's and Grieg's piano concertos. Next comes one

of Rachmaninov's most characteristic gestures ?

great leaps, alternating octaves with chords and sounding like a massive bell (bar 9). This figure is

prominent in Rachmaninov's two most popular works, the Prelude op.3 no.2

and Second Piano Concerto op. 18, but there are countless other examples, in

cluding the ending of the Second Piano Sonata op.36. Another flourish in the

piano ? a single bar of fleet filigree (bar 13)

? culminates in a reference to the

bell motive (bar 14). After this impressive introduction, the first subject ap

pears, stated by the orchestra (bar 16) and then by the piano (bar 24). These few bars, written when the composer was a teenager, are a com

pendium of features that make Rachmaninov Rachmaninov. It is these self same stylistic hallmarks that account for a singular phenomenon that's con

founded critical assessment of Rachmaninov's music for almost a century ?

and that is, that what Rachmaninov's advocates applaud, and what his de tractors decry, is frequently one and the same thing.

The oft-quoted Rachmaninov entry in the 1954 Grove's dictionary of music

and musicians provides a case in point. Eric Blom tells us that Rachmaninov's

Page 3: Contradictions in Rach

music evinces 'artificial and gushing tunes, accompanied by a variety of

figures derived from arpeggios.'1 Whether these melodies are gushing and their accompaniments are hackneyed is not germane to the present dis cussion. What is relevant is that such themes have great audience appeal on

first hearing and, perhaps even more so, on successive hearings, when antici

pation of the melody is almost as satisfying as its consummation. Indeed, Rachmaninov's awareness of this circumstance may explain his frequent re course to thematic foreshadowing.

While Rachmaninov's detractors find the 'big tunes' in the finale of the First Symphony op. 13, adagio of the Second Symphony op.27, first move ment of the Third Symphony op.44, and so on sentimental and cloying, a

correlation can be traced between such themes and the widespread appeal of certain works. No doubt the Second Piano Concerto, to take the most obvi ous example, is so incredibly popular, in part, because memorable melodies

appear in each movement.

It is not only the anticipation and arrival of these melodies that is satisfy ing, but also their subsequent working-out. Because the tunes are so memor

able, they are immediately recognised when combined with new material,

rhythmically altered, reharmonised or developed in any number of other


Repetition, whether varied or not, plays a major role in Rachmaninov's music. His supporters welcome not only frequent repetition within works ?

a sticking point with his detractors ? but also the reappearance of ideas from one work to the next (e.g. the Dies Irae and sounds of bells). Rachmaninov's critics have identified this sharing of motives, themes and gestures between

works as incontrovertible proof of a paucity of ideas. In other words, recur rence of material, within or between works is, like 'big tunes', a

strength or

weakness, depending on one's vantage point.

It is true that the great popularity of Rachmaninov's music has been, and to some extent continues to be, a real liability, although less so in England and

America than in Germany or France. The rhetoric Rachmaninov's music en

genders is often far removed from a cogent and defensible critical stance. I've written elsewhere that Rachmaninov's 'supporters tend toward hyperbole, without benefit of critical distance.'2 The same could be said of his de tractors. Fence sitting is not something commentators on Rachmaninov's

music do. It is, on the contrary, remarkable how much literature, in the popu lar press and in scholarly journals, takes a side for or against Rachmaninov.

Arguments (when present at all) range from purportedly objective to un

abashedly subjective, and many writers are purportedly objective and

unabashedly subjective at the same time. Two articles appearing in British journals in the 1950s, by Jonathan Frank

and Joseph Yasser, are illustrative. In 'Rachmaninov and Medtner' Frank

i. Rosa Newmarch, additons

by Eric Blom: 'Sergey Vassilievich Rakhmaninov', in Groves dictionary of music and musicians, fifth edition

(New York, 1954), vol.7, p.27.

2. Glen Carruthers:

'Rachmaninoff, in Readers

guide to music: history, theory and criticism (Chicago, 1999), pp.582-83.

THE MUSICAL TIMES Autumn 2006 45

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46 The (re) appraisal of Rachmaninov 's music: contradictions and fallacies

adopts a comparative tack. Barely the pretence of objectivity is evident here. One composer is pitted against the other with Frank as referee. His decision? That 'Medtner, so far from being in the shadow of Rachmaninov is, in fact, vastly superior to [him].'3 Frank's opinion is that while a gift for melody is

readily discernible in Medtner, 'melody is either non-existent or of almost comic vulgarity' in Rachmaninov. He cites the Prelude op.23 no.4 and the

'appallingly banal middle section' of 'Polchinelle' op.3 no.4 as examples. Although Frank's conclusion ? that Rachmaninov had no gift for melody ? is easily refuted, subjective opinions like this, masquerading as objective

assessments, helped shape the critical reception accorded Rachmaninov's music in his lifetime and, even more so, in the years following his death.

Yasser, in 'Progressive tendencies in Rachmaninoff's music', takes a revi sionist stance. This article, which appeared in Tempo in 1951?52, is an 'ampli fied version' of one published in Musicology in 1948

- that is, only five years after Rachmaninov's death. Yasser was already primed for a reappraisal of

Rachmaninov's music.4

Like Schoenberg vis-?-vis Brahms, it is the conservative label so often

pinned to Rachmaninov to which Yasser objects.

Progressive tendencies [in Rachmaninov's music] have been pointed out sporadically by a

number of notable writers from the very beginning until the end of Rachmaninoff's career

[...]. This fact alone, which no impartial observer can possibly disregard, evokes already a

serious suspicion that a certain inaccuracy must have crept into the common conception of

Rachmaninoff's true creative leanings.5

Yasser bolsters his claim by referring to several Russian musicologists, es

pecially Solovstov, who detects a foreshadowing of Stravinsky's Petrouchka

(1911/4o) in Rachmaninov's 'Polchinelle' (1892)!6 This is, most would

agree, far-fetched. None the less, writers who seek to relocate Rachmaninov

squarely in his own time have long pointed to his laudatory comments about

Stravinsky in The Etude of December 1941.7 Based on several arguments, some stronger than others, Yasser concludes

that 'Rachmaninoff should be placed somewhere among the moderately pro

gressive composers, and in no wise among those who are frankly con

servative'.8 This is not the place to debate Yasser's conclusions (and others

have since taken up the challenge). What is of interest is that periodically, critics and musicologists, like Yasser, feel compelled to address the question

whether Rachmaninov's music is, to paraphrase Goldilocks, too romantic, too modern, or just right. While the notion that Rachmaninov is 'too mod ern' seems bizarre today, in his own time his First Symphony was considered

by some very influential people, including Cesar Cui, to be too adventurous

(especially harmonically). I draw attention to Cui, not only because his assessment of Rachmaninov

is often quoted, but also because he's a composer and composers have played

3- Jonathan Frank: 'Rachmaninov and Medtner: a comparison', in Musical

Opinion (March 1958), p.387.

4. It is worth noting that both the title and substance of this article call to mind

Schoenberg's study 'Brahms the progressive

' that also

appeared in 1950.

5. Joseph Yasser:

'Progressive tendencies in Rachmaninoff's music', in

Tempo 22 (Winter 1951?52), p.12.

6. Yasser also mentions Kuznetsov and Zhitomirsky.

7. Serge Rachmaninoff: 'Music should speak from the heart', an interview with

David Ewen, in The Etude

vol.59 no. 12 (December i94i),pp.8o4-48.

8. Yasser: op. cit., p.20.

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a not inconsequential role in the Rachmaninov debate. Writing in a special Rachmaninov edition of The Etude in 1919, John Alden Carpenter assigned Rachmaninov a place between two musical epochs: 'to me Rachmaninoff's

importance in contemporary music lies in the fact that he is a sensitive

touchstone between the new and the old, and a strong and logical link be tween the great music of the past and the newest tendencies of the present times.'9

More usual in terms of early valuations of Rachmaninov's music is Percy Grainger's. Grainger, who should be able to spot an iconoclast if anyone can,

relayed in the same edition of The Etude that 'the very absence of the ex

perimental and the iconoclastic from [Rachmaninov's] works lends them a

certain quality of [...] inevitability and "naturalness" that makes their appeal singularly wide and immediate.'10

It is fascinating that as early as 1919 two individuals with an inside track on the composer's art came to such different conclusions concerning Rach

maninov's place in music history. This dichotomy lies at the centre of the Rachmaninov debate that smoulders constantly but flares up conspicuously every quarter century or so. A generation after Carpenter and Grainger, for example, Yasser published his revisionist arguments. A generation after

that, debate continued at the behest of musicologists like Stephen Walsh and Richard Coolidge.

Walsh, in his reappraisal of Rachmaninov from 1973, like Yasser, invokes

comparison with Stravinsky, but to a very different end. Walsh acknow

ledges that there may be some 'slight musical evidence' in Rachmaninov's Three Russian folksongs op.41 of the influence of Stravinsky's Les noces, but concludes 'if anything these two works only emphasise the unbridgeable gulf between the two aesthetics'.11

Another revisionist writing in the 1970s is Richard Coolidge, who con cerns himself with structural innovation in Rachmaninov's concertos.12

Coolidge believes that most critiques of Rachmaninov flounder because they build on flawed premises. To support his position, he refers to Fallacy: the

counterfeit of argument by Fearnside & Holther.13 Coolidge identifies in the Rachmaninov literature 'Fallacies of non-exhaustive classification', 'Reifi

cation', 'Over-precision', 'Appeal to tradition', 'Apriorism', 'Unnecessary

vagueness' and 'Faulty generalization'.14 Coolidge's revisionist conceit extends to specific compositions. He is the

odd person out in his appraisal of the Fourth Piano Concerto op.40, which

Walsh, in the company of just about everyone else, asserts 'verges on the in coherent'.15 Coolidge considers this concerto 'a great work in every re

spect',16 in which 'there is not a superfluous, ill-advised or misplaced note V7 Whether Coolidge or Walsh is right is not the point

? what matters is that Rachmaninov's revisionists part ways on

important issues.

9- 'Appreciations of Rachmaninoff from famous musicians in America', in The Etude vol.37 no. 10

(October 1919), p.617.

10. ibid., p.617.

11. Stephen Walsh: 'Sergei Rachmaninoff 1873-1943', in

Tempo 105 (June 1973), p. 17. To my way of thinking, Yasser's 'Polchinelle'/ Petroushka comparison leads to the same conclusion.

The juxtaposition of Rachmaninov's vignette with Stravinsky's influential ballet says more about two

composers functioning in discrete universes than about the sharing of compositional or aesthetic ground.

12. Richard Coolidge: 'Architectonic technique

and innovation in the Rachmaninov piano concertos', in Music Review

vol.40 no.3 (August 1979), pp. 176-216.

13. W. Ward Fearnside & William B. Holther: Fallacy:

the counterfeit of argument (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1959)

14. Rather than examine these arguments here -

it takes Coolidge 40 pages to elucidate his points


the reader is referred to the article itself.

15. Walsh: op. cit., p. 13. See also Robert Threlfall: 'Rachmaninoff's revisions

and an unknown version of his Fourth Concerto', in Musical Opinion vol.96

no. 1145 (February 1973), pp.235-37.

16. Coolidge: op. cit., p. 198.

17. ibid., p.202.

THE MUSICAL TIMES Autumn 2006 47

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48 The (re) appraisal of Rachmaninov 's music: contradictions and fallacies

It is not necessary to search as far afield as Cui, Carpenter, Grainger, Yasser, Blom, Walsh and Coolidge to find conflicting views of Rachma ninov. No discussion of this topic would be complete without reference to the composer's revisions, often undertaken many years after a work's evident

completion (for example, the First and Fourth piano concertos, and Second Piano Sonata).

The once widely-held opinion that Rachmaninov 'used his powers of self-criticism and his obvious willingness to be wise after the event

[...] to considerable advantage in his [...] revisions'18 has been chal

lenged many times, especially since the 1960s. Most controversial in this re

gard is the Second Piano Sonata, completed in its first version in 1913. Barrie

Martyn maintains that Rachmaninov 'emasculated' the sonata, 'amputating' much of worth in the revision of 1931.19

[I]t almost seems as though Rachmaninoff operated on the principle of retaining intact only those core parts of the work which had perhaps proved most effective in performance and

of eliminating anything [...] that was not strictly indispensable, a procedure recalling the

cavalier attitude he showed to the integrity of the text in the performance this same year,

1931, of the Corelli Variations.20

In an attempt to make the Second Sonata more coherent, Martyn and others conclude Rachmaninov excised the 'glue

' that bound the work together. The

longer version, rejected by the composer, seems more to the point than the shorter one.

This work has propagated no

unanimity among performers either. Many

pianists, including John Browning, concur with Martyn, while others, having compared the two editions, a task facilitated by the publication by Boosey &

Hawkes of both versions in one volume, prefer the leaner and shorter second edition. Still others, including (famously) Vladimir Horowitz and (less fa

mously) Canadian Robert Silverman, performed and recorded their own

amalgams of the 1913 and 1931 versions (in Horowitz's case, with Rach maninov's blessing).

Even works that were not revised engender this kind of controversy.

Martyn provides a chart comparing Rachmaninov's one (1939/40) and Horowitz's three (1930,1951 and 1978) commercial recordings of the Third Piano Concerto op.30.21 In Rachmaninov's own

recording there are five cuts

(two in the first movement, one in the second, and two in the third). Horowitz made different cuts in each recording. He made six cuts in 1930, four of which

correspond to cuts Rachmaninov made ten years later. In 1951 Horowitz

made four cuts, one of which he had not made before. In 1978 Horowitz made

only one cut (the second one in the first movement). In other words, neither the composer nor the work's leading exponent ever played the work as


18. Norris considered the Fourth Piano Concerto an

exception. Geoffrey Norris: 'Rachmaninov's second

thoughts', in The Musical Times vol.114 no. 1562 (April i973),P-3<$8.

19. Barrie Martyn: Rachmaninoff: composer, pianist, conductor (Aldershot,


20. ibid., p.322. At the

premiere of the Variations on a theme of Corelli

op.42 and in subsequent performances, Rachmaninov omitted some variations,

depending on his perception of the audience's response. Three variations are marked

optional in the score.

21. ibid., p.215.

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There are two cadenzas to the first movement - a longer one (written first, but appearing in the published score as the alternate version) and a shorter one. Rachmaninov and Horowitz played the shorter second version, as did other important pianists including Byron Janis in both his recordings (1957 and 1961). Van Cliburn, however, in his legendary Tchaikovsky Competition performance and subsequent recordings with Kondrashin, played the longer original cadenza and several other pianists have followed suit, including Vladimir Ashkenazy in his recording with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1976.

Structural conundrums are compounded by stylistic ones. Several music

ologists maintain that discrepancies between Rachmaninov's early and later

styles produce incongruous second thoughts. Aphoristic elements in the later

works, evident most conspicuously in the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini op.43, are incompatible with the broad, romantic brushstrokes of his earlier

works. Robert Threlfall believes that stylistic idiosyncrasies, in tandem with

changes in harmonic vocabulary, account for shortcomings in several revi

sions, including the First Piano Concerto.22 That Rachmaninov's musical

language had changed is only natural, since more than a quarter of a century had elapsed between the original and revised versions of the work.

We must also recognise that, in creating a taxonomy of motives, themes and gestures as I did in connection with the First Piano Concerto, we down

play the depth, variety and development over time in Rachmaninov's musical

language. One of the earmarks of Rachmaninov's music is the sound of bells. It is not enough to say that the church bells of Novgorod, St Petersburg and

Moscow influenced Rachmaninov and feature prominently in his music. This much is self-evident. What is extraordinary is the variety of bell sounds and breadth of structural and other functions they fulfil. In the same way as

Rachmaninov's The bells op. 3 5 evokes sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells and church bells, so other works feature a myriad of bell sounds, including gentle oscillations, descant figurations, bold punctuating strokes, reverbe rant clanging, and vast pendulum-like swings.

There are oscillating quaver bells in the central section of El?gie op. 3 no.i

(bars 4iff ). Echoing, glockenspiel-like bells appear in the third section of the Prelude in D major op.23, no.4 (bars 53ff). The Prelude in B minor op.32 no. 10 presents a melody punctuated with bell-like tolling (bars iff). In the central section of this prelude repeated chords simulate the reverberant clan

gour of massive iron bells (bars 22ff ). Several varieties of bell sounds appear in succession in the second movement of the Second Piano Sonata.

Glockenspiel-like echoing at bar 12 gives way to oscillating semiquavers at bar 16. Three pages later (in the revised edition) occur massive pendulum like swings that immediately identify this passage as Rachmaninov (bars ?3ff). 22. Threlfall: op. cit., p.236.

the musical times Autumn 2006 49

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50 The (re) appraisal of Rachmaninov 's music: contradictions and fallacies

Finally, how these bell sounds are perceived - in short, their 'meaning' for

us ? factors into our appreciation of Rachmaninov's music. The more fami liar we become with his style, the more self-referential bell sounds become.

The same is true of other characteristics. Simple neighbour-note figures, such as occur in the works of all composers, are often linked in Rach

maninov's music to the Dies Irae. The Dies Irae, in turn, has obvious extra

musical associations, so that seemingly innocuous melodic figures become

fraught with meaning. Scholars agree that parody, generally not present in the earlier works,

plays a significant role later on. As Walsh notes, this is especially evident in

the treatment of the Dies Irae. 'In the Paganini Rhapsody, and still more in

the last of the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff disarms his spiritual foe, the Dies Irae, with the weapon of mockery.'23 Martyn puts it this way: 'In

both the final movement of his swan-song, the Symphonic Dances, and the coda of the previous work, the Third Symphony, the manner of [the Dies

Irae's] setting is buoyantly confident, as though Rachmaninoff had at last come to terms with the implications of the motto which had haunted him for so long.'24 It is evident that to speak of bell sounds and the Dies Irae as fea tures of Rachmaninov's music, without establishing their context and func

tion, is to ignore crucial developments in the composer's musical style.

Critical rhetoric rife with misconceptions that, in its passionate

subjectivity, failed to achieve critical distance, triggered the re

appraisal of Rachmaninov's music. As Yasser explains: 'Generally

speaking, there is nothing unusual in the fact that the creative output of an

eminent artist is subjected from time to time to greater or lesser evaluation. For all sorts of errors and blunders?to say nothing of open or hidden partial ities ? in the appraisal of any significant phenomenon, are not only perfectly natural but, at close historical range, perhaps inevitable.'25

There can be no doubt that Rachmaninov's technical competency (espe

cially his handling of form and structure), his sources of inspiration and

stylistic development are understood more completely today than 50 years

ago because of intelligent and probing critical reassessments. But, as this

study has shown, the case for an ongoing, impartial and in-depth reassess

ment of Rachmaninov's music is a compelling one, since extant reappraisals have, more often than not, become mired in the same paradoxes, contra

dictions and fallacies - plus some new ones - that gave rise to the need for

reappraisal in the first place.

Glen Carruthers is Professor of Musicology and Dean of the School of Music at

Brandon University in Canada.

23. Walsh: op. cit., p.14.

24. Martyn: op. cit., p.29.

25. Yasser: op. cit., p.24.