“I do not like to play my own compositions”: Rachmaninoff 150, part I

Sergei Rachmaninoff

This year, I am delighted to say, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth. He will, I suspect, by a certain generation be forever associated with the film Brief Encounter starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Classic stuff! And I am sure that another work which will already have come to your mind is the “Rach-Pag Rhapsody”, that inspired work for piano and orchestra based on a theme by Paganini and from which we can all hum that wonderful slow 18th variation. Surely quintessential Rach? And his cello sonata always has me in pieces…

But, for this little piece, I thought that, rather than rehearse his life and works, I would spend a little time musing on just one aspect of his output: his Preludes for piano. Rachmaninoff, as you will know, wasn’t only a composer, but also a conductor and a fearsomely gifted pianist (rather like Benjamin Britten, but not a bit like him of course). And as a pianist, he was blessed (or is that cursed) with very large hands meaning that, unlike we ordinary mortals, he could stretch the most eye-watering intervals on the keyboard and play notes in between at the same time. Hands up how many of you, dear readers, can stretch a 12th?

So, to the Preludes, there are two sets opp. 23 and 32, preceded by the early C sharp minor. And how intriguing that this first in C sharp minor and the very last of his Op. 32 set in D flat major are the minor/major “same” key. The one, the minor key of the other and vice-versa. How intriguing also that the two sets of piano Preludes are opp. 23 and 32, the reverse of each other (the C sharp minor, I hasten to add, is a quite separate piece). And taken together, plus the C sharp minor, there are 24 altogether encompassing each tonality.

And what of this C sharp minor Prelude? It is so well-known and so well-loved and yet, Rachmaninoff earned next to nothing from its creation in 1892 and subsequent publication by Gutheil for the princely sum of 40 roubles. Such was its popularity that the composer was duty-bound to present it as an encore in almost every recital he gave! Now that’s true professionalism for you. All kinds of stories have been dreamed up concerning the creation of the work (a depiction of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is one such). But Rachmaninoff was adamant that it was pure music, full stop. The Deliniator magazine published an article on the work by him in February 1950 in which he explains that the work is simply “absolute music…intended, as its name signifies, to be played before a more important piece of music…in the work under consideration, I endeavour to arrest attention by the opening theme…a massive foundation against which the melody in the chords furnishes a contrast to lighten up the gloom…a middle movement intervenes quickly. The change of mood is abrupt, and for twenty-nine bars the music sweeps along like a rising storm…after this outburst has spent itself, the music grows gradually more quiet and a coda of seven bars brings the work to a close. The listener has been aroused, stimulated and then quieted. His mind is alert and open for what follows. The Prelude has filled its office.”

It would be over a decade before Rachmaninoff returned to the form, completing his Op. 23 set of ten in 1903 and dedicating them to pianist and conductor Alexander Siloti who did much to encourage the composer and to promote his works. Things begin gently enough (for Rachmaninoff, anyway) with the first prelude in F sharp minor, lulling the unsuspecting pianist into a false sense of security before letting rip with no. 2 in B flat major beginning with that wonderful, powerful, arpeggio rolling bass which doesn’t let up leaving the performer already gasping for breath. No. 4 in D major is, I think, my favourite of the set and – gasp, dear reader – I can actually play the first page and the last few bars. One of those wonderful Rachmaninoff melodies soars over and in-between a gentle arpeggiated accompaniment, sometimes in triplets, sometimes not. A delight. The next, in G minor, is probably the best-known (and was actually composed first…and so we go to nos 9 and 10 in E flat minor and G flat major respectively (yes, the observant of you will have noticed the six flat key signature for each – no coincidence), the latter with a haunting melody in the left hand. It is perhaps worth observing here that Rachmaninoff didn’t adopt the step-wise key progression that Bach, for example, did in his 48 preludes and Fugues.

The second set of Preludes followed in August 1910, with three of them being composed in a single day (nos. 5, 11 and 12). If possible, they are even more challenging technically, and here we see Rachmaninoff pairing major and minor keys not once, but four times in the course of the sequence of 13. David Fanning’s excellent notes for Stephen Osborne’s Hyperion recording wax positively lyrical in describing the character of each piece and I cannot resist sharing some with you: he describes the E major (no. 3) as a “neo-Bachian aerobic workout, almost like an updated version of a solo Brandenburg concerto…” the A minor (no. 8) is “implacably driven, as if with the wind at its back and the rain swirling round it…”, for the G sharp minor (no. 12) he describes the harp-like figurations as “running like water down the window panes of a Russian dacha”, delightful and so beautifully capturing the character of each piece. The final prelude of Op. 32 in D flat major is a complete show-off (show case?) for the composer-as-pianist in that it demands the utmost technical skill as well as a huge hand stretch which very few other than Rachmaninoff possess. You can almost sense him challenging others to “beat that” (and one has to feel for the poor piano being given such a rigorous work out). But, the wonderful thing is, that the piece isn’t just empty showing off, it brings all 24 together with great musical subtlety and technical panache.

And finally, let’s take a look at what life was like for Rachmaninoff in concert pianist mode, rather than as composer or conductor. Here is a little extract from a letter to his friend, the pianist and professor at the Moscow Conservatory Vladimir Vilshau:

15 April 1936: “…on April 2nd, I finished my season. I started on Oct 19th. I gave sixty-one concerts – thirty-five in America, fourteen in England, thirteen in Switzerland, three in Paris, two in Warsaw, and one in each of the other countries Vienna, Budapest, etc.” [and bear in mind that the travelling in between would have taken more time than today]. He goes on: “The programmes of my concerts generally consist of the works of other composers. I do not like to play my own compositions [that surprised me, I have to admit] I usually put just 2 or 3 little things of my own on the programme ‘just for the looks’… My favourite programme is a concert with two parts: in the first Chopin and in the second Liszt…but these are special programmes and one cannot play them often. Usually my programmes are well-known Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and at the end Liszt. I do not play the works of modern composers.”


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