What makes Rachmaninov so popular?

What makes Rachmaninov so popular?

Album Of The Week

norman lebrecht

April 08, 2022

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

Why, people have been asking for about 120 years, is Rachmaninov so popular? The music is morbid to miserable, the melodies are unhummable, and mere finger virtuosity does not explain the infallible and inexhaustible attraction. Rachmaninov remains a frontline bestseller. What does he have that Scriabin, say, lacks?

We ask the questions ….

Read on here.

And here.

En francais ici.

In Spanish here.

In The Critic.


  • DG says:

    ‘Unhummable’? I find myself humming Rach all the time, like the opening melody of the 3rd piano concerto.

    He’s way more hummable than most composers after 1900.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Scriabin lacks for very little; he and Rachmaninov just took very different paths in their adulthood, and Scriabin achieved his greatness in ways that would not have interested or attracted Rachmaninov.

    I’d put it this way instead: what did Rachmaninov have that Nikolai Medtner lacked? And this is no diss on Medtner or his music. It’s a serious question and not easy to answer, if there is an answer.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It’s personality, not talent. I think Medtner is much more reserved emotionally. But if you don’t like Rachmaninoff’s type of emotionalism, Medtner is a better composer.

  • Karl says:

    I still have his 3rd concerto in my head after a performance last weekend. I may go to another performance of it this weekend. Can;t get enough!

  • John Kelly says:

    “The music is morbid to miserable, the melodies are unhummable, and mere finger virtuosity does not explain the infallible and inexhaustible attraction.”

    Sounds like the kind of thing someone who doesn’t like Debussy would write…

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you for your comment, John, which is right on the money.
      I also have never understood Norman’s aversion to Debussy.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Marilyn Monroe explains it all for us in “The Seven Year Itch.”

  • Kenny says:

    The piano music is life-affirming brilliance à la puissance treize. Personally find the purely orchestral music vomitisious. Pretty much the same with Prokofiev.

  • 88 says:

    Norman, I appreciated your comments in support of the first sonata – a work worth hearing. I have long admired Sergio Fiorentino’s performance. When people deride Rachmaninoff’s music, I usually feel that the opinion comes from not knowing the body of literature well, and from not really looking in depth at the construction of his music (also as with Liszt.) The 2nd sonata is full of motivic development, and Rachmaninoff was quite skilled at developing intervallic motifs into larger works. I find the Etudes-Tableaux to be a wonderfully colorful listen/play. He also had that something “extra” that touches people. I adore Scriabin’s music. IMHO it takes a while to dig deeper into it, but once the “bug bites,” I find very few people who recover. As for people who think Rachmaninoff’s music is dreary, they perhaps need to listen to the finale of the 2nd symphony 🙂 I’ll shamelessly admit to loving the later version of the 4th piano concerto.

  • Ludwig's Van says:

    Unhummable? Variation 18 of the Paganini Rhapsody? The many melodies of the 2nd Concerto? As for the Moments Musicaux, no way can the 2nd or 4th be attempted by an amateur!

  • debuschubertussy says:

    I didn’t realize Rachmaninov’s melodies were “unhummable”…someone should let Eric Carmen know this!

    (Obviously this post is being sarcastic….right? Either that or it is just clickbait).

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Perhaps that’s all it is, debuschubertussy: mere clickbait.
      If that is actually the case, it’s shameful.

  • PaulD says:

    Where would Brief Encounter be without Rachmaninov pumping up the emotion?

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “The music is morbid to miserable, the melodies are unhummable, and mere finger virtuosity does not explain the infallible and inexhaustible attraction.”
    This statement is, on its face, completely and utterly absurd.
    Where do you come up with this stuff, Norman?

  • Daria Rabotkina says:

    Mr. Lebrecht,

    Pitting the fans of Rachmaninov and Scriabin against each other is funny. Scriabin does not lack anything that Rachmaninov has, and vice versa. They both are just that different and that massively important.

    Taking a disrespectful tone to describe someone whose complexity and greatness would never match your chiseled pomp must be tiring. It is tiring to read.

    “Morbid to miserable” – did you spend precious seconds of your night to come up with this succulent description?

    “Unhummable melodies” – umm, you must be hard on your ears to write this.

    “Mere finger virtuosity”? Referring to Rachmaninov as a composer and a pianist in such way highlights everything that you do not possess. I would put on your writing glasses, get a musical hearing aid and get help of, say, a caring musician who would kindly explain to you the reasons why you should keep your empty sarcasm from the things which do not require your rhetorical excursions.

    From the bottom of my heart, go for a walk.

    • True North says:

      An undeservedly thoughtful response to a blog post that was probably dashed off in five minutes!

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Dear Ms. Rabotkina,
      I would sincerely like to thank you for your very heartfelt response to Norman’s bizarre posting.
      I have no doubt that you have stated my own position better than I could ever have done.
      – with my best wishes and regards, Greg

  • John Borstlap says:

    But the main reason of R’s popularity is its cheap sentiment: it is emotional without profundity, so everybody can engage with it without too much soul searching and it is also easily accessible, the moods are easily joined-in. You feel vaguely sad and in the same time, pleasantly so. It is not deep sadness or some painful tension in the soul that wants to come-up to the conscious level, to be sorted out or ackownledged, like often in Wagner. A perfect example of this awful cheap sentiment is the 1st mvt of his 2nd symphony which is mere depiction of hapless worrying and indulging in powerless nostalgia. It is all fake emotion and Russian indulgence and lethargy, emotion on the cheap: no price to be paid.

    But with the stunning exception of the first movement of the third piano concerto which is a masterpiece on all accounts: masterful work; deep, authentic (!) sentiment; brilliantly in structural narrative, beautifully balanced as a whole, spontaneous emotion combined with drastic discipline and logic, and telling of all the real, true sorrows of life, merciless, and without any touch of cheapness or sentimentality. Especially striking is the baroque figurations in the piano part and the depiction of a desperate ‘cimbing the mountain’ in very small, cumulative periods, like little steps on a long and painful trajectory, until relief is found and a resigned redemption.

    Maybe it helped Rachmaninoff that he wrote the movement under the therapeutic guidance of a psychiatrist who helped him out of a severe depression which went even further than the usual Russian masochistic pessimism. I think the immense effort to overcome a suicidal mood inspired the movement, giving it the true sound of indepth music. (The other movements don’t keep up the level, alas; they sound as if written by another composer..)

    • christopher storey says:

      John Borstlap : you need to get your facts straight before wading in on this . The psychotherapy of Dr Dahl was to put Rach back on the rails when he was writing the Second Piano Concerto , not the third. On the wider topic, it is clear that you are not a pianist. If you were, then you would recognise that with very few exceptions the music is quite beautifully written, lying wonderfully under the hands even when it is technically very difficult. The Preludes when you look at them carefully have much in common with JS Bach’s keyboard music, with phrases repeated with just one note changed in each repetition giving a forward motion to the music which is not often encountered. Overall, his music is wonderfully crafted which is one of the reasons for its approachability and indeed its popularity . As far as criticism of emotion is concerned, isn’t that what music is about ?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, sorry – it was the 2nd concerto. Too bad!

        As for pianism: I don’t think it is relevant for the meaning or quality of any music whether it lays well or badly for the hands. Beethoven’s sonatas often lay badly for the hands (something Debussy commented negatively upon), but that does not matter at all.

    • Andrew Petersen says:

      Emotional without profundity? For a moment I thought you were talking about Bruckner.

    • Ludwig's Van says:

      Mr. Borstlap, it was the 2nd Concerto which Rachmaninoff wrote while under the care of Dr. Dahl. As for the rest of your verbiage, you are long overdue for a laxative.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      Unfor-tune-ately, you Sir, seem to have mux up your con shirt hose. Twas numbore two- the masterpiece which resulted from SVR ogling (and probably more- no evidence tho..) Dr Dahl’s daughter. Outright masterpieces: 2nd Conc, Pag Rapsody (lots of tunes & masterly construction). Many other major works, orchestral, choral, chamber &vocal…. but never mind; stick with your received ideas.

    • Nick says:

      I think we always have to allow that people respond to music differently – what for you is emotion without profundity is for me deeply affecting. Perhaps the problem is that his music is often played with a lot of schmaltz, suggesting indeed that there is little depth there.

  • Michael Model says:

    Great (and very hummable) melodies; Nothing miserable or morbid (just melancholy sometimes);

    But I don’t think the appeal of any music, be it Rachmaninov or anyone else, can be explained in words. It’s some kind of mysterious resonance between sounds and something in our brains

  • Gus says:

    2nd concerto alone has at least 5 big tunes.

    Preludes are full of good melodies.


    Zdes khorosho.

    Could go on, but his melodic ability is probably one of the main reasons for his success.

  • fflambeau says:

    He has terrific melodies and not just great scales.

  • fflambeau says:

    This has tp be a joke it is so dumb.

  • fflambeau says:

    Rach is so bad that the Philly Orchestra, no less, according to the Hub: “Superstar pianist Yuja Wang will perform all four Rachmaninoff concertos” during their next season. https://hub.americanorchestras.org/todays-news/

    He was a piano superstar to everyone but the idiot who wrote this.

  • Minnesota says:

    Michael Steinberg, the late and eminent musicologist and critic, has an elegant essay about Rachmaninoff in his book “For the Love of Music.” He notes Rachmaninoff’s long-time bad reputation among certain critics and professors but then reviews the many things that he does extremely well.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Rachmaninoff was long severely criticised for not being ‘of the time’ and cultivating late-romantic Russian nostalgia during the first half of the 20th century when almost every composer was either progressive or stopped altogether (SIbelius). Which is entirely unfair: he did develop, the style of his late works is different from his early music. He should have been criticised for very different things, not for his ‘oldfashioned style’. But all in all, he was an original composer with an authentic voice and superb craftmanship.

  • PRK says:

    There’s a 12’ tall statue to him in Knoxville, Tennessee not far from the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Gymnasium where he performed his last recital before cancelling the rest of his tour due to his cancer. If I’m correct, he spent the night in Knoxville and took a train to Los Angeles where he died weeks later. For some unknown reason, I like to stop and contemplate the statue on those rare occasions when I pass through Knoxville. It seems an odd location for him to end his performing career but it shows how much effort great performers like him made to take their music to remote places.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Unhummable? Maybe to people with no ear for music!

  • Esther Cavett says:

    “The melodies are unhummable”.

    Huh ? We talking about the same guy ?

  • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

    Of the many odd things I’ve read on this site, the suggestion that Rachmaninov is ‘unhummable’ has to be the oddest.

    And ‘miserable’? The exultant finales of (off the top my head) the 2nd and 3rd Syms, Symphonic Dances and all four piano concertos aren’t miserable.

    The question ‘what is that Rachmaninov has that Scriabin lacks’ is quite easy to answer – deep emotional engagement and some of the best and most melodies by anyone.

    BTW, Norman, the farmer called – he wants his strawman back 🙂

    Don’t know why you have to write weird things like this; surely you can just praise Steven Osborne’s superb playing without?

  • Alex says:

    Hmm, just listen to Var. 18 of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations and you have your answer.

  • NYMike says:

    Two themes from the 2nd piano concerto became popular songs

  • Michael Kaykov says:

    I find that Scriabin finest output (imo the late works after Op 59) are still not “accessible” to many audiences…

    As for Rachmaninoff, his own performances of his works are often unmatched, in terms of sheer artistry.

  • Stickles says:

    I was terrified by the opened of the 2nd piano concerto when I first heard it. I was about 5 at the time. His best melodies all have long arching lines. They all sound immediately familiar and hummable at first but hard to actually memorize. A little like Bolero. Listeners always want to come back for more. As for the morbidity, how fantastical it can be to an adult listener. The most morbid of them all being the symphonic dances is also the most fantastical. From the dirge like saxophone solo to the beautiful dancing wraith portrayed by the flute and the final day of judgment, its all wonderful.

  • gerald brennan says:

    “After me… nothing.”
    –Sergei Rachmaninov

  • Uncle Sam says:

    His melodies may (or may not) be “unhummable”, but quite a few of them are truly unforgettable, that’s for sure – after the very first listening! An example (one of many):



  • Paul Carlile says:

    Memorable melodies, hummable tunes, compositional craft, brilliant, poetical, colorful expression, equally epic or intimate…. Words are always inadequate when faced with music of the best (lots!) of Rachmaninoff’s output. Part of his quality is indeed just this mystery: how his music moves the human spirit…(unless you are Alfred Brendel!)

  • Joel Kemelhor says:

    Rachmaninoff is often gloomy (“Isle of the Dead” and many “Dies Irae” quotes), but he is certainly not “unhummable.”

    Listen to John McCormack or Jussi Bjorling singing “In the Silent Night” — or any number of sopranos in the “Vocalise.”

    Other tuneful favorites for me are his “Symphonic Dances,” the Third Symphony, “The Bells” and “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

  • horbus rohebian says:

    Only having to spell his name with a V instead of FF (which he insisted on). Saves time…

  • fflambeau says:

    Sorry, but this is the worst column here since the one assuring us that Sibelius had lost his popularity. That too was incorrect and could not be taken seriously.

  • hank says:

    I always assumed it was because Rachmaninoff didn’t belong to the correct school or tribe. He gets left out of the university music history textbooks altogether in favor of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, etc.

    His music represented then (and still does now) a looking backward to the Great Romanticism of European past, rather than the new Modern music that academia was dead set on promoting. It infuriated those academics then (and apparently still does now) that the insolent masses dare enjoy beautiful music instead of their theoretically-driven noise.