Is Rachmaninov a Waste of Time?

I recently read, generally with pleasure, Alfred Brendel’s book Me of All People. In passing, I’d like to remark that Brendel’s book Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out are among the admittedly large number of musical commentaries I return to with considerable frequency. This book, Me of All People (Cornell University Press 2001) pleased me less than Brendel’s other books, but probably because it’s a series of conversations in contrast to the exceptionally erudite books of his I had earlier read. (Alfred Brendel on Music is a compilation of essays from his earlier two books.)

As I am in the process of preparing a Rachmaninov/Prokofiev class, a comment from Me of All People caught my eye:

“…I am not a Rachmaninov fan. The piano repertoire is vast, and Rachmaninov to me seems a waste of time.”

This comment isn’t interesting in itself. Not my view, but Brendel is not here to be a Rachmaninov fan. His specialty is German masters from Haydn to Liszt. Paradoxically, what is interesting about his comment is that it’s boring. And it’s boring because it’s the old tune of the German pedant or would-be pedant.

It might be the necessary opinion for an artist like Brendel to hold — and if I comment that the president of the Rachmaninov Society, Vladimr Ashkenazy, is at once a more versatile and technically gifted pianist, doesn’t invalidate the point. And I’ve never heard Ashkenazy play Schubert the way Brendel is able to play Schubert.

But Brendel’s cool. Just don’t go to him to learn about Rachmaninov. There is no problem with Brendel’s comment, but it is unlikely to teach us anything about Rachmaninov. In fact, I don’t even question the legitimacy of  Brendel’s statement, I just find it boring, because it’s just what you would expect from a Germanic specialist. And generally, the classical music world is extricating itself from the doctrines of 18th and 19th-century Teutonic sjpecialists.

So, for the purposes of this article, I want to consider if there are valid reasons to find Rachmaninov worthwhile.

One of the ignorant claptraps about Rachmaninov is that he’s a sentimental Slavic melodist. Some of us would only prefer that he really was! Not me, however. In fact, in the corpus of Rachmaninov’s piano works, there are reasonably few memorable melodies. And most of those are in the concertos or, in fact, borrowed from other composers or that inestimable reservoir of pseudo-folk Russianness that, likewise, inhabits the music of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev if not Scriabin or Shostakovich.

Preparing for my class, I have had occasion to play most of Rachmaninov’s piano music, and naturally I’ve heard the great interpreters of this oeuvre from Richter to Horrowitz to Ashkenazy — and, especially, Rachmaninov himself: The best pianist I’ve heard in person or on record.

Brendel shows an ignorance (which he acknowledges) when he writes that he doesn’t know the late works of Rachmaninov. He doesn’t specify which works he’s missed, but if they include the Etudes Tableaux, shame on him for commenting in a public forum on Rachmaninov en general.

I’d like to enumerate the especial strength of the two sets of Preludes, Op. 23 and 32 and the Etudes Tableaux Op. 33 and 39, with occasional reservations:

  1. These works rely more on texture and counterpoint than on melody — an essentially sound strategy for piano music (as opposed to vocal or string music).
  2. Oddly, there’s tons of Bach in Rachmaninov. Consider the figurations in the minuet pastiche of Op. 23 No. 3, and the Corelli Variations, for example. And the C Minor Prelude Op. 23 No. 7 sounds like a fantastical updating of C.P.E. Bach’s famous (or infamous) Solfegietto.I could go on — Rachmaninov was a devotee of the Baroque.
  3. And I will go on: inner voice canonic imitation is de rigeur in Rachmaninov’s piano style. Don’t believe me? I ain’t got the time, pal. It’s everywhere.

    Does this make Rachmaninov an honorary German that Brendel ought to admire? No. Like more than a few romantics and post-romantics (Schumann and Brahms, for example — not to mention Schoenberg) Bach was probably his most significant master. There’s more Bach than Tchaikovsky in these works.

  4. There are those who consider Rachmaninov a reactionary because he didn’t use fancy (au courant) harmonies. Why should he? Contemporaries like Scriabin and Szymanowski et al, were doing plenty of that without him. And the piano isn’t a fundamentally harmonic idiom — if only because its homogeneity of tone renders spicy dissonances less important than textural and dynamic contrasts (which Rachmaninov excelled at).
  5. Like Chopin, Rachmaninov combined the principles of the etude and the characteristics of the prelude seamlessly. Naturally, not all are equally successful. The A flat prelude Op. 23 No. 8, is a stinker. The E flat minor prelude, Op. 23 No. 9 is an etude-esque masterpiece.
  6. Brendel loves Liszt: why doesn’t he love the C Major prelude Op. 32 No. 1, which invokes the opening essay in Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes?
  7. In all fairness, rhythmic ostinati are all too prevelent in Rachmaninov’s oeuvre. The dotted rhythm of Op. 32 No. 2 is maddening in its insistency.
  8. Purely subjectively: Rachmaninov’s greatest gift is in combining voluptuousness with morbidity. (Not that kind of voluptuousness, you!)
  9. The Etudes Tableaux are a brand new form. Naturally, they are related to Nikolai Medtner’s Skazki (Tales). While they fully retain the Skazki’s storytelling connotation, they do not rely on a specific narrative.
  10. There’s precious little virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake in Liszt. That element in Liszt’s style is too often exaggerated (by players as well as critics) in his major works. And Rachmaninov has very little as well. The works are hard because they’re hard: delineation of inner voices, careful climax-building, etc. provide the difficulty. I personally have often struggled more with awesomely great composers like Gottschalk and Thallberg than I have with Rachmaninov — which is convenient for us “spiritual players” who value soul over fingers( ‘cause our fingers can’t move fast enough).  But I admit that unlike Chopin, the difficult pieces in Rachmaninov don’t generally correspond with the best pieces.
  11. There is a manufactured quality to the preludes and etudes. This is a tribute to great craftsmanship; Rachmaninov wasn’t Chopin,whose music almost never betrays the laborious process of creation in the finished product.  But doesn’t craftsmanship count? Even Rachmaninov’s more reasonable detractors don’t argue with the craftsmanship of works like the second and third concerti — only with their popularity!
  12. To call Rachmaninov a reactionary is a historical prejudice. Hindemith, Respighi, Ravel could earn the same sobriquet. Even, occasionally, Haydn, Mozart and Brahms could be tagged thusly. Rachmaninov was the living continuation and culmination of the Tchaikovsky - Rubenstein - Taneyev strain of Russian lyricism. Rachmaninov didn’t have his finger to the wind, like certain notorious contemporaries (Stravinsky, I’m looking in your direction…) but it is unassailibly true that music history would have taken its evident course if Rachmaninov had never lived. He’s not Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, Wagner or Schoenberg. But certain contemporaries equally can be described by poindexter-types as cul-de-sacs (Scriabin, Medtner and Miaskovsky, for example).

Waste of time? If it’s a “waste of time” to have Rachmaninov instead of more Schubert and Beethoven, then it’s a waste of time to read any Turgenev or Chekhov, as opposed to Gogol and Tolstoy. Theoretically, you can fill your time only with the greatest of the great. But you can never do them sufficient justice, anyway, and you compromise a lively adaptability to individual voices.