Rachmaninov: An Appreciation

Rachmaninov - the last of the great Romantic composers - held true to his beliefs despite contemporary trends. We're delving a little deeper into his life and history in preparation for the London Philharmonic's Rachmaninov Festival, 'Rachmaninoff: Inside Out' and getting to know the man behind the music.

Is it true that for years Rachmaninov was virtually dismissed as a composer? 

Rachmaninov, it seemed, could do nothing right by contemporary critics and composers. As a person he appeared somewhat cold and aloof (“a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl,” Stravinsky called him), while his music was considered old-fashioned. Copland spoke for the anti-Rachmaninov lobby when he moaned that “having to sit through one of his extended symphonies or piano concertos tends, quite frankly, to depress me. All those notes, and to what end?” 

Did all this criticism hurt him? 

Probably more than we’ll ever know. In 1939 he reflected: “I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.” 

But it’s different now, isn’t it? 

We’re certainly making headway. Interest in Rachmaninov has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, and the appalling abuse that his music regularly endured just a few decades ago now seems a thing of the past. 

What’s all this about composer’s block? 

Following the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony, Rachmaninov virtually dried up, suffering neurasthenic pains in his back, legs and arms. Three years later a course of hypnosis got him back on the road in style with his Second Piano Concerto. 

Were Rachmaninov’s hands exceptionally large? 

In terms of flexibility, Rachmaninov’s hands were truly exceptional. His left spanned 11in enabling him to place it on the chord C-E flat-G-C-G. His thumbs could also extend under and comfortably beyond the width of each hand. 

Is it true that no film exists of Rachmaninov performing? 

It borders on the unbelievable, but despite the best efforts of collectors and researchers the world over (especially concerning rumours of a broadcast concert in Switzerland), no film of Rachmaninov actually playing has ever come to light.