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Rachmaninoff and His World
Philip Ross Bullock, Editor

Rachmaninoff and His World
Philip Ross Bullock, Editor
The University of Chicago Press, 2022

Reviewed by Greysolynne Hyman

Some of the most recognizable (and beautiful) melodies of twentieth century classical music were penned by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff and His World, the most recent release from the Bard Music Festival, examines the place of this Romantic composer in the pantheon of his contemporaries. Special attention is given to his relationships with other Russian composers and other composer-soloists.

This book consists of well-annotated but very readable chapters on particular topics such as Rachmaninoff’s songs, operas, and interviews, musical life in Moscow, and the émigré experience. Rachmaninoff wrote a large number of songs inspired by paintings and poetry. He often asked colleagues for recommendations of poems by Russian authors that might serve his purpose; as he himself said, “The sister of music is poetry…”(page 83). Some of these poems appear in the book. The paintings do not, but would have been a welcome addition.

Each of the three operas that he composed has its own chapter. His first opera, Aleka, was written as a student exercise when he was nineteen. The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini were based on two Little Tragedies written in blank verse by the quintessentially Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who, in turn, based his stories on Dante’s Inferno. Since these operas were not in the Romantic opera tradition, they were not well received initially and they are rarely performed today.

An entire chapter is devoted to the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, analyzing it musically and considering its widespread effects. This variation is structured as a Romantic piece of music and even becomes hyper-Romantic, perhaps evincing a wink and a nod from an author often accused of being an old-fashioned Romantic composer.  It is Rachmaninoff’s most recognizable work and has been used extensively in movies, cartoons, ice skating competitions, and video games. 

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had dramatic consequences for many twentieth-century Russian composers, including Rachmaninoff. A member of the aristocracy, he emigrated to the United States via a concert tour schedule in Denmark in 1918. Forced to leave everything behind in Russia, he made a living in the U.S.A. quite successfully as a concert pianist. Rachmaninoff actively courted this renown with frequent interviews and articles in music periodicals – The Etude, Musical America, The Musician, and other – and magazines like The New Yorker, Good Housekeeping, and Vanity Fair.  Many of these interviews and articles are reproduced and quoted in this book.

Rachmaninoff received a great deal of disparagement from other musicians and critics, not for being “lowbrow” but for being “middlebrow”. Rachmaninoff and His World deals with these critiques in detail. Although many of his colleagues faulted his music for being too traditional, several of this book’s contributors demonstrate through analysis of his music that he was actually quite innovative in his approach and technique.  

One of the appeals of this book is what we learn about Rachmaninoff the man along with Rachmaninoff the musician.  When he first toured the United States during 1909 – 1910, he was not much impressed by his concert audiences but he came to understand and appreciate them as he adjusted to his life in a new land. His financial success allowed him to indulge his tastes for fast cars, speed boats, and transatlantic liners but he supported many emigres as well as composers remaining in Russia. In gratitude, Mikhail Glinka composed a cantata in his honor and sent it to arrive in time for Russian Christmas on January 7, 1923.  Signed by 19 professors from the Moscow Conservatory, the message read, ”Long live Sergei Rachmaninoff!”