Earlier in the month I wrote about Alexander Scriabin, and how I was first introduced to his music by one of my best friends. That article can be read on this blog, at “Scriabin the Mystic”. Another favorite chunk of music I was first introduced to by my old buddy are the piano Preludes by Sergei Rachmaninoff. I remember when he was practicing and perfecting the shimmering g sharp minor Prelude opus 32 number 12, and the big booming chords of the b minor Prelude opus 32 number 10. I heard him flying over the 88 keys of the piano and thought to myself, “Wow, and here I am struggling with an instrument that only has three valves!”.
Rachmaninoff’s Preludes were not composed as one cohesive set, but taken together they do touch on all 24 major and minor keys. In earlier times, keyboard preludes were short pieces of an improvisatory character. They were often paired with something more strictly structured (see Bach’s many Preludes and Fugues). By the Romantic era, the piano Prelude had taken on a life of its own as a short character piece that freely explored a musical idea or mood. Rachmaninoff’s Preludes are longer than Scriabin’s or Chopin’s, and explore the possibilities of virtuoso piano writing.
I guess it’s easier to conceive of music like that when you have giant hands like Sergei that span well over an octave on the piano keyboard.
Rachmaninoff is a bit of a dilemma for a composition student. On the positive side, Rachmaninoff had his own personal musical voice, clearly evident in all of his compositions. Sergei was a virtuoso pianist, and his piano music explores the limits and possibilities of his instrument. This should also be a positive trait for a composition student to emulate. The trouble is, Rachmaninoff was considered a very dangerous and bad influence when I was a composition student. Although he lived until 1943, he had developed his compositional identity very early in his career. As a result, he ignored many of the musical innovations of the twentieth century. He may have been the last great Russian Romantic era composer.
Rachmaninoff’s music has lush, beautiful melodies and virtuosic writing that is adored by audiences and is a dangerous, seductive influence on the composition student. Here is a link to the third movement of his Symphony No. 2 to demonstrate what I am talking about. It takes a genius like Rachmaninoff with great care and tastefulness to keep these elements from degrading into a saccharine, syrupy schmaltz. This taste, genius and inspiration cannot be taught, like counterpoint and craft can be. I’m no Rachmaninoff and I shouldn’t try to be.
In the same vein, we shouldn’t be snobbishly critical of Rachmaninoff’s music. His reputation has risen and fallen at different times, but there is no reason it should. If it is beautiful and moving music, I should just enjoy it on its own terms. I shouldn’t ask Sergei to be Schoenberg, Stravinsky or even Elmer Fudd. He wasn’t trying to be anyone but himself. The 1954 edition of the scholarly Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians had famously predicted that Rachmaninoff’s popularity “would not last”. I will respond with the thought that many more people have heard and enjoyed the symphonies, concertos and piano music of Rachmaninoff than will ever read the 1954 edition of the Groves Dictionary.
If you happen to be in a bar on a cruise ship in the Caribbean and hear a piano player pounding the big slammin’ chords of the b minor prelude, be sure to tell my old classmate I said hello. Just don’t tell our composition teacher you heard us enjoying it! 🙂