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Jane Jones is fascinated by the sense of longing in the Rachmaninov’s music.
He gives you emotion and drama. He gives you wonderful melodies and long lyrical passages. There’s the intensity of his choral music and the charming intimacy of his songs. There’s epic scale to his grandest orchestral works and there’s complexity and clarity in his piano pieces. Rachmaninov does it all, but for years after his death he was dismissed as an overbearing romantic who wrote unimaginative, gushing melodies.
OK, so “six-and-a-half foot of scowl” (according to Stravinsky) and an austere and taciturn personality whose deep sense of displacement was matched only by terrible bouts of depression and professional uncertainty is hardly an indication of the beauty of his music, but that’s part of the fascination of Rachmaninov.
Here was a hugely talented child born into a wealthy aristocratic family, but his father squandered his wealth – forcing the family to move into a cheaper home. It’s no wonder that so much of Rachmaninov’s music seems to evoke a lifestyle that’s slipping away. Usually these musical feelings of regret and nostalgia are attributed to the fall of Imperial Russia that led to Rachmaninov fleeing the country, but there’s a sense of personal sadness that began in his childhood and was exacerbated by professional failure and self-doubt.
The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was a disaster, and after composing the hugely successful Vespers in 1915, he was so depressed and anxious about political developments in Russia he wrote nothing more for over 18 months. By the end of that time Rachmaninov was sure about one thing: the need to get both him and his family out of Russia.
It was a tremendous wrench and created that ever-present sense of longing in his music, but Rachmaninov the pragmatist recognised that security and safety could be assured in the US. Happiness, however, was something that he left behind him.
Rachmaninov the performer found tremendous success in the States with a gruelling tour schedule, broken by European holidays. But the relentless travelling left little time for composition, with a notable exception being the hugely effective Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini. On one of these never-ending concert tours, Rachmaninov became so ill he had to return home to Los Angeles, where he died of cancer within the month.
His is a life of two halves: Imperial Russia and Modern America, family poverty and personal success, devastating professional failure at a crucial stage in his early career, then endless acclaim for a single work – the Prelude In C sharp minor.
It’s these contrasts that make Rachmaninov’s story endlessly fascinating and compelling. Rejected for years as unoriginal and populist and for relying too heavily on his Russian past, in his own defence Rachmaninov declared simply that he wrote what was in his heart, reflecting his feelings of sadness and bitterness, of love and emotion. And those are feelings we all share.