Feast of Saint Valentine

Feast of Saint Valentine

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116


Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, soon enough that one should begin planning now to make a success of it.  Since the high Middle Ages when Chaucer began to associate Valentine’s day with courtly love, I think the original Saint Valentine has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle.  In fact, one popular depiction describes Saint Valentine as a man who was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry.  Remaining accounts may actually merge a couple of different martyrs into a portrait of Valentinus.  No matter what the origins, if you are in a romantic couple it is a day that cannot be safely overlooked.  Dinner reservations should be made now.  If you do not have them, stop reading,  call the restaurant, make your reservations and then come back to this blog.

Romantic love is such a powerful emotion that it is no wonder that all sorts of depictions of love can be found in every genre and mode of artistic expression that human beings create.  Old Billy Shakespeare, of the above Sonnet, went a long way to promoting the romantic ideal of marrying for love, an ideal that is still a part of at least Western culture today.  I had a conversation with a young person recently, whereby I was trying to determine the Shakespeare play that my young friend had been exposed to in her short years.  My first question was “ Did everyone die in the end of the play, or did they all get married?”  If everyone dies at the end, it was a tragedy.  If they all get married, it was one of the comedies.  Fortunately, I did this out of earshot of any of our divorced colleagues, who would have confused the matter by describing marriage as a sort of tragedy in itself.  

Nowadays, as deep as I find Shakespeare’s musings about love, I find the direct language of old blues music to be more physically moving.  Perhaps it is a holdover from my urban upbringing, but I am not convinced that is entirely true.  These songs weren’t on the radio when I was in high school.  I met the music of Etta James, for example, much later on in my life.

Etta James, “ I Just Want to Make Love to You”

Another great genius of music that just makes your body move is Ray Charles, The Genius, The High Priest of Soul.  Ray Charles was a pioneer, and his music was influenced by blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, country, early pop music.  Ray was a sponge, that soaked up everything around him, and in turn has influenced every recording artist that has come after him.  You are doing yourself a great disservice if all you have heard is the opening of “Georgia on my Mind”

Ray Charles, “A Fool For You”

Looking through my collection of jazz albums, I have another endless supply of ballads that would make a great playlist for a romantic Valentine’s day dinner.  I am going to resist the urge to repost the Miles Davis version of “My Funny Valentine” and instead give you two other slow songs by two masters of ballad playing.  

Donald Byrd, “I Got It Bad, and That Ain’t Good”

John Coltrane, “My One and Only Love”

Now in the event that your attempts at romance have been well planned and are a great success, you may need a few tunes that are longer than three minutes.  Something where you don’t have to stop what you are doing to put on a new song.  I will humbly offer up the slow movement to Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, if you are not already familiar with it.  Best wishes.   
Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2, Adagio

We Will “Rach” You!

Thirteen Preludes Opus 32

Thirteen Preludes
Opus 32

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!”.


Here is a performance of the g sharp minor played by the great Vladimir Horowitz.

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.

Here is a performance of the b minor prelude, by another great Vladimir, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

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.

Here is a performance of all 10 Preludes published as Opus 23. 



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! 🙂