Contradictions in Rach

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TIe |Be)AppvaisaI oJ BacInaninov's Music Conlvadiclions and FaIIaciesAulIov|s) OIen CavvulIevsBevieved vovI|s)Souvce TIe MusicaI Tines, VoI. 147, No. 1896 |Aulunn, 2006), pp. 44-50FuIIisIed I Musical Times Publications Ltd.SlaIIe UBL http://www.jstor.org/stable/25434403 .Accessed 26/02/2012 1715Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspJSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.Musical Times Publications Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to TheMusical Times.http://www.jstor.org44 GLEN CARRUTHERS The (re)appraisal of Rachmaninov's music: contradictions and fallacies The year 2003 marked the 130th anniversary of Rachmaninov's birth and the 60th anniversary of his death. During that year, I had the opportunity to lecture on his music in Canada, the United States and England. In preparation for these lectures, I studied many of Rachmaninov's works, from different genres and stylistic periods, and concluded that what was more striking than the differences between them were their similarities. Rachmaninov's stylistic imprint is clearly evident from his first work to his last. I would go so far as to say that Rachmaninov is more recognisable than almost any other composer, and that his distinctive voice is evident much earlier than in the works of other, more influential, figures. It is almost impossible to confuse Rachmaninov with anyone else ? the blend of chant inspired melodies, expansive, soaring tunes, sombre harmonies and melan choly ostinati identifies Rachmaninov's music as uniquely his own. The opening of the First Piano Concerto, dating back to 1890?91 and revised extensively in 1917, is typical. A body of juvenilia precedes this work, but the concerto is his 'official' opus 1. There are five principle elements in the opening 31 bars. A dotted rhythmic fanfare (bar 1) ignites a flourish in the solo piano (bar 3) that is similar, as everyone seems compelled to point out, to the opening of Schumann's and Grieg's piano concertos. Next comes one of Rachmaninov's most characteristic gestures ? great leaps, alternating octaves with chords and sounding like a massive bell (bar 9). This figure is prominent in Rachmaninov's two most popular works, the Prelude op.3 no.2 and Second Piano Concerto op. 18, but there are countless other examples, in cluding the ending of the Second Piano Sonata op.36. Another flourish in the piano ? a single bar of fleet filigree (bar 13) ? culminates in a reference to the bell motive (bar 14). After this impressive introduction, the first subject ap pears, stated by the orchestra (bar 16) and then by the piano (bar 24). These few bars, written when the composer was a teenager, are a com pendium of features that make Rachmaninov Rachmaninov. It is these self same stylistic hallmarks that account for a singular phenomenon that's con founded critical assessment of Rachmaninov's music for almost a century ? and that is, that what Rachmaninov's advocates applaud, and what his de tractors decry, is frequently one and the same thing. The oft-quoted Rachmaninov entry in the 1954 Grove's dictionary of music and musicians provides a case in point. Eric Blom tells us that Rachmaninov's music evinces 'artificial and gushing tunes, accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios.'1 Whether these melodies are gushing and their accompaniments are hackneyed is not germane to the present dis cussion. What is relevant is that such themes have great audience appeal on first hearing and, perhaps even more so, on successive hearings, when antici pation of the melody is almost as satisfying as its consummation. Indeed, Rachmaninov's awareness of this circumstance may explain his frequent re course to thematic foreshadowing. While Rachmaninov's detractors find the 'big tunes' in the finale of the First Symphony op. 13, adagio of the Second Symphony op.27, first move ment of the Third Symphony op.44, and so on sentimental and cloying, a correlation can be traced between such themes and the widespread appeal of certain works. No doubt the Second Piano Concerto, to take the most obvi ous example, is so incredibly popular, in part, because memorable melodies appear in each movement. It is not only the anticipation and arrival of these melodies that is satisfy ing, but also their subsequent working-out. Because the tunes are so memor able, they are immediately recognised when combined with new material, rhythmically altered, reharmonised or developed in any number of other ways. Repetition, whether varied or not, plays a major role in Rachmaninov's music. His supporters welcome not only frequent repetition within works ? a sticking point with his detractors ? but also the reappearance of ideas from one work to the next (e.g. the Dies Irae and sounds of bells). Rachmaninov's critics have identified this sharing of motives, themes and gestures between works as incontrovertible proof of a paucity of ideas. In other words, recur rence of material, within or between works is, like 'big tunes', a strength or weakness, depending on one's vantage point. It is true that the great popularity of Rachmaninov's music has been, and to some extent continues to be, a real liability, although less so in England and America than in Germany or France. The rhetoric Rachmaninov's music en genders is often far removed from a cogent and defensible critical stance. I've written elsewhere that Rachmaninov's 'supporters tend toward hyperbole, without benefit of critical distance.'2 The same could be said of his de tractors. Fence sitting is not something commentators on Rachmaninov's music do. It is, on the contrary, remarkable how much literature, in the popu lar press and in scholarly journals, takes a side for or against Rachmaninov. Arguments (when present at all) range from purportedly objective to un abashedly subjective, and many writers are purportedly objective and unabashedly subjective at the same time. Two articles appearing in British journals in the 1950s, by Jonathan Frank and Joseph Yasser, are illustrative. In 'Rachmaninov and Medtner' Frank i. Rosa Newmarch, additons by Eric Blom: 'Sergey Vassilievich Rakhmaninov', in Groves dictionary of music and musicians, fifth edition (New York, 1954), vol.7, p.27. 2. Glen Carruthers: 'Rachmaninoff, in Readers guide to music: history, theory and criticism (Chicago, 1999), pp.582-83. THE MUSICAL TIMES Autumn 2006 45 46 The (re) appraisal of Rachmaninov 's music: contradictions and fallacies adopts a comparative tack. Barely the pretence of objectivity is evident here. One composer is pitted against the other with Frank as referee. His decision? That 'Medtner, so far from being in the shadow of Rachmaninov is, in fact, vastly superior to [him].'3 Frank's opinion is that while a gift for melody is readily discernible in Medtner, 'melody is either non-existent or of almost comic vulgarity' in Rachmaninov. He cites the Prelude op.23 no.4 and the 'appallingly banal middle section' of 'Polchinelle' op.3 no.4 as examples. Although Frank's conclusion ? that Rachmaninov had no gift for melody ? is easily refuted, subjective opinions like this, masquerading as objective assessments, helped shape the critical reception accorded Rachmaninov's music in his lifetime and, even more so, in the years following his death. Yasser, in 'Progressive tendencies in Rachmaninoff's music', takes a revi sionist stance. This article, which appeared in Tempo in 1951?52, is an 'ampli fied version' of one published in Musicology in 1948 - that is, only five years after Rachmaninov's death. Yasser was already primed for a reappraisal of Rachmaninov's music.4 Like Schoenberg vis-?-vis Brahms, it is the conservative label so often pinned to Rachmaninov to which Yasser objects. Progressive tendencies [in Rachmaninov's music] have been pointed out sporadically by a number of notable writers from the very beginning until the end of Rachmaninoff's career [...]. This fact alone, which no impartial observer can possibly disregard, evokes already a serious suspicion that a certain inaccuracy must have crept into the common conception of Rachmaninoff's true creative leanings.5 Yasser bolsters his claim by referring to several Russian musicologists, es pecially Solovstov, who detects a foreshadowing of Stravinsky's Petrouchka (1911/4o) in Rachmaninov's 'Polchinelle' (1892)!6 This is, most would agree, far-fetched. None the less, writers who seek to relocate Rachmaninov squarely in his own time have long pointed to his laudatory comments about Stravinsky in The Etude of December 1941.7 Based on several arguments, some stronger than others, Yasser concludes that 'Rachmaninoff should be placed somewhere among the moderately pro gressive composers, and in no wise among those who are frankly con servative'.8 This is not the place to debate Yasser's conclusions (and others have since taken up the challenge). What is of interest is that periodically, critics and musicologists, like Yasser, feel compelled to address the question wheth