Rebirth of Reason


Rachmaninoff: Musical Hero
by Adam Buker

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), born in Oneg, Russia, was an excellent pianist, and an even better composer. His work is revered for enormous complexity as well as sweeping use of melody and tone color.

After years of private lessons with Nikolai Zverev, Rachmaninoff entered the Moscow Conservatory of Music, studying under Alexander Siloti. While there he won many prizes for both performance and composition. Works from the period include his famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, his one-act opera Aleko, and his first piano concerto written when he was only 18 years old.

When the premiere of his first symphony failed, Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression and was unable to compose. After some struggle, helped by one Dr. Nikolai Dahl and by a great visit to London, he was able to write his most popular Piano Concerto, No. 2 in C-minor. The C-minor concerto is one of the most coherent pieces of instrumental music from start to finish. The unity of thought that went into each of the composition's three movements is astounding in terms of how the themes interact with each other.

In 1909, Rachmaninoff completed what is commonly referred to as the "Nightmare Concerto." Written for his tour of the United States, this Piano Concerto in D-minor is over forty-five minutes in length! Because of its complexity, scope, and overall difficulty, it is often considered his magnum opus. I would venture to say that it is the musical equivalent of Atlas Shrugged in terms of its musical scope and grandeur. The first movement alone is over fifteen minutes (which is already longer than many concertos before and since).

Shortly after the October Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff left Russia to begin a new life in the United States. Because he had abandoned most of his wealth and possessions to do so he was obliged at first to earn his living primarily as a performer—for seven years producing almost nothing. Finally he was able to borrow the time to write his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G-minor. A radical and sweeping break from his past work, the new concerto had a much more aggressive and violently colorful feel to it—an American feel. The concerto still has Rachmaninoff's trademark sweeping themes, but he explores them in new ways by manipulating orchestral texture and timbre, complex harmonies, form, and rhythms.

Another great work of his later life is the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In this piece, Rachchmaninoff takes a theme from Paganini's Caprice in A-minor for solo violin and demonstrates an uncanny ability to expound upon it, subjecting the theme to complex rhythms and tonalities.

On March 28, 1943, Rachmaninoff died in his Beverly Hills home. His music remains in the repertoire of performers around the world, including myself. In a time when others were plunging into avant-garde, Rachmaninoff took Romantic forms and added a uniquely individualistic sense of sweeping melody that soars higher than anything I've ever seen.
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