Rachmaninov has never failed us yet

Rachmaninov has never failed us yet


norman lebrecht

March 20, 2023

Shortly before the first expiry of Rachmaninov’s copyright in 1992 (it was later extended by 20 years) the boss of Boosey & Hawkes shared with me the profit and loss account of his composers. Sergei Rachmaninov accounted for 90 percent of the publisher’s profits.

Rachmaninov, born 150 years ago today, has never list the public touch. Disparaged by academics and high-minded critics, his music transcends the vagaries of fashion and touches the parts few composers since his time have ever managed to reach.

The classics put-down in the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, by the British critic Eric Blom, stands the test of time only for its utter wrong-headedness:

Blom wrote: ‘His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour.’

These withering sentences are Blom’s sole posterity. Rachmaninov, by contrast, needs no advocacy. Even a mediocre performance of his concertos outshines most successor composers.




  • J Barcelo says:

    I’ve been looking at the 2023/2024 programming for American orchestras. I suppose this being the 150th anniversary has something to do with it, but there are quite a few doing the second symphony. And the three most popular concertos: 2, 3 and the Rhapsody, but then they’re always on programs. So where the heck is the rest of the music? Why are Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Dances, The Bells, or the other two symphonies missing? Where’s the early Prince Rostislov, Caprice Boheme or the operas? I love the second symphony, but there’s so much else.

    • M2N2K says:

      Just last month, at least one major American orchestra – the rather well known one that resides in the Walt Disney Convert Hall – devoted two full weeks of its concerts to Rachmaninov exclusively, performing five different programs that included Symphonic Dances and The Bells, in addition to all four piano concertos and the Rhapsody too.

      • Hal Sacks says:

        2 weeks earlier, Yuja Wang performed all 4 Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick.She also performed all 4 Concertos and the Rhapsody at 1 marathon Carnegie Hall Concert.. The Philadelphia Orchestra also played “Isle of the Dead” in Philly and on tour in Europe last summer.

    • Joel Kemelhor says:

      The “Spring Cantata” is also well worth hearing.

  • Anthony Fountain says:

    Some year’s ago after moving into smaller quarters, I realized I should have to thin my considerable book collection. I remember stopping at my old edition of Grove’s Dictionary, debating whether it stayed or went. Eric Blom’s words on Rachmaninoff, those same words above, then popped into my head. It went.

  • David A. Janello, PhD, CFA says:

    Not long ago Chopin was considered a minor composer by musicologists and theorists, he did not write symphonies and operas, and much of his work is over a miniaturist time frame.

    When theories of linear counterpoint (aka Schenker) became widespread in the 1970s this forced a reinterpretation of Chopin since his works stand alongside Bach and Beethoven at the absolute pinnacle of contrapuntal art. At the same time, there was a push back against the overwhelming Germanic bias in the academy.

    As a composer it is not difficult to foresee a reappraisal of Rachmaninoff based on deeper understanding of his contrapuntal technique, which extends the linear concept of Chopin/Beethoven/Bach and directly contributes to the transcendent quality many listeners observe in his virtuoso instrumental works — and even more so in his liturgical works for choir a capella.

  • Juan Feijoo says:

    Rachmaninoff is attacked by”academics”, because they are not capable of hearing what he is doing technically to give life to these utterances.
    Rachmaninoff realized that Music is an “Emotional/Sound Experience”. It “lives” in a language, which cannot be articulated in speech.
    Rachmaninoff undestood some-
    thing which is either, slighted, scorned, and/or scorned, and/or beyond Composers’, Critics’, and Academics’ Neurochemical capa-
    bility to “see”, “hear”, and “feel” !!!!
    Rachmaninoff realized thst a Composers’ mission is to avail
    himself, and, EXPLORE—- ALL—-
    technical devices to perceive, how, an “Emotional/Sound Experience”, might, may, or could be created !!!!
    The “cerebral ‘hard work’ ” of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner was never “sweated” just to impress “the world” with their tech-
    nical prize-winning “wizardry” in the
    manipulation of “notes”!!!! Rather, it had always been intended as a
    “Scientist’s/Explore’s ‘Dare’ ” into the exploration of this new
    “Dimension”—- “worked” for the purpose of expressing/creating new utterances in this newly-dis-
    covered “language” of Music !!!!

    What I have perceived as “The
    ‘Comic’ Purpose of The Art of
    Music” has always been–thrashed–
    by “theoreticians”, in particular,
    Music Teachers. This is what Beet-
    hoven, against which Beethoven was rebeling, what caused the
    Archbishop of Salzgurg to, EVICT, Mozart, violently, what has caused Debussy to be derided as just someone who is shallow and gives the public “soft, pretty sounds”!

    The Twentieth Century, popularized
    snotty sarcasm against “Romanti-
    cism” as a calling card of one’s own “higher” cerebral capability!!!!
    Ufortunately, this lead to the cosmically false “Neo-Aesthetic” of Music having to be “cold” and/or
    “acid”(“dissonant”), and/or “mecha-
    nical to be—- “good”!!!!
    In summary, Sergei Rachmaninoff
    has been slighted, or, trivialized, on
    account of his creation “speaking
    to Humans!!!!
    This is a serious “warning shot” to Humanity to be always conscious of its “closed-mindedness,
    stubbornness, and, miss-directed
    personal aggression towards those
    who enjoy that verbally undis-
    cribable, transcendent,
    Existentisl Experience of—- ART !!!!

  • Nicholas says:

    Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective is a fun book to read for the vituperative essence of some of the criticism hurled at composers by critics. Well, actually any book by Slonimsky is fun to read.

  • Paul Sekhri says:

    I could not agree with you more Norman. Rachmaninoff is, and will forever remain, a shining star in the musical firmament.

  • Ilio says:

    Blom’s comments were of his time. How about present day commentary. Rachmaninoff has had a major resurgence over the last 70 years.

  • Smiling Larry says:

    At least orchestras are playing Rachmaninoff’s music. Pianists sorely neglect it, and shockingly so in this anniversary year. I can’t remember the last time it turned up on a recital program. What’s the problem? It’s great music!

    • Christopher Storey says:

      Larry, I don’t really agree with you : the Second Sonata has always been played and since its recrudescence as a result of John Ogdon’s performances, so has the First Sonata . The shorter works also are played but more as selections rather than complete sets. Incidentally, it was when I came , rather late in life, to study the Preludes, particularly Op 23 , that I came to realise what works of genius they are . The C minor Prelude , for example, essentially consists of an ostinato phrase repeated insistently, but with one note changed in each repetition. There is nothing quite like it that I can think of except in some of the Preludes of the 48 . It is true that R can be disparaged by describing most of his music as “mood” music ; but it required a true gehius to create those moods

  • Mr. Ron says:

    I am now enjoying R’s third piano concerto with Lang Lang. A tremendous piece and such artistry. Such great melodies; it was easily apparent to audiences that the composer was great.

    The Groves man was lost. No one remembers him.

  • SK says:

    I must offer what is most likely a minority opinion. I believe that Eric Blom was partly right, especially when he refers to “artificial and gushing tunes”: Rachmaninov’s works, at least much of the orchestral pieces and the concerti, are played and heard more often than they merit.

    Why, you ask, would I say such a thing?

    It is not because he was writing 19th century music in the 20th century (Richard Strauss did too). We can all forgive musical anachronism. It is mainly because his music too often resorts to a sickly-sweet sentimentality, a shallowness and cheapness of musical gesture that does not wear well and that I find repellent.

    Yes, I know, Truth is Subjectivity: what is cheaply sentimental to one may be deeply felt to someone else. In my youth I found some of Chopin to be sentimental too. I no longer feel that way about Chopin, nor do I find Tchaikovsky to be sentimental, but both of these composers have sometimes been performed that way. In Rach’s case I find the saccharine sentimentality inherent in the music.

    Also, why did he inject the Dies Irae into so many of his works? When you use a well-known quotation that often, it becomes a cliche.

    To be fair, my comments don’t apply to all his works. The Isle of the Dead is an exception, as are some of the solo piano works I’ve heard. But works such as Sym 3, the slow movement of Sym 2, and most passages of the concerti I don’t care to hear again. There are many, many composers I’d rather listen to, including some who don’t enjoy as much popularity because they don’t have Rach’s “easy listening” appeal.

    • Herbert Pauls says:

      It all depends on how you define “Twentieth Century Music”. I think that by now, with all the Twentieth Century Music that has been revived and recorded by Chandos, Hyperion, Naxos/Marco Polo, Albany, BIS (to name only some of the largest independent labels of the past 40 years who have covered the first half of the 20th C thoroughly), I would argue that Rachmaninoff is far from an anomaly and fits comfortably into his era when one thinks of hundreds of minor composers (Alfven, Atterberg, Bax, Bowen, Bantock, etc…..) who also resisted the most extreme modernist revolutions of the time, not to mention the golden age film music genre which is replete with “artificial and gushing tunes” which people happened to really enjoy.

      Some CD collectors and music explorers here will have probably the best idea of the vast sea of composers I am talking about. Rachmaninoff is a composer in his era and of his era, and one of the most gifted (versatile at least on a Bernstein level), successful and enduring to boot. The big mistake historians and textbook writers made is that they did not let him help define the sound of the century in which he lived and (except when they were putting him down) wrote him out of history almost entirely.

      Blom was only one of many culprits, and I must say that his kind of invective (what is an “artificial tune”, anyway? Rachmaninoff was as sincere a musician as they come) was very common and could be collected and made in to a very entertaining book some day.

    • Ian Sutton says:

      One could hardly regard Rachmaninoff’s 2nd sonata as “easy listening.’

  • Tim Walton says:

    At least Boosey &Hawkes spell the composers as Rachmaninoff wished rather than this blog which continues to show a complete lack of respect for the composer’s wishes.

  • Rick says:

    I’m a big fan of Claudio Arrau- with the exception of his opinion of Rachmaninov, whose music he disdainfully referred to as movie music. I wish movies were scored at anywhere near the standard set by Rachmaninov!

    • Christopher Storey says:

      I’ll bet that Arrau only said that because he wished he could have collected Eileen Joyce’s royalties from Brief Encounter !

    • Ian Sutton says:

      I, too, am a big fan of Arrau, especially his Debussy recordings, but he was clearly wrong in his assement of Rachmaninoff.

  • Ian Sutton says:

    This is a totally justified defence of the composer. Though Rachmaninoff was regarded among the last of the romantics, and disparaged by many fellow composers from the same era (some seen as groundbreakers…among them his fellow countryman, Igor Stravinsky, who indeed was) his music will last for generations to come. Indeed, Gustav Mahler had a high opinion of him, which was mutual, and took great care in rehearsal for the accompaniment with the composer (would that we had a recording of that!) The Rach 3, as it’s known, is now virtually as popular as his 2nd, even though only he and Vladimir Horowitz performed it much before the 1950s. Emil Gilels’ terrific recording with Kondrashin was the first Lp of the 3rd that I bought back then. I later acquired close to 40 different versions of the work, virtually all of them excellent for different reasons, including (naturally) five by Horowitz, who was said to ‘own’ the piece. Eric Blom has been justifiably forgotten…but his stupidity hasn’t. Norman Lebrecht, on the other hand, will be known not only insightfull, but also historically accurate.

  • Stewart West says:

    About 80 years ago, on a BBC music programme, the music of Richard Strauss was derisively described as like being dipped in treacle. I am so glad that it did not put me off.

  • gerald brennan says:

    “After me, nothing.” — Sergei Rachmaninov

  • Jonathan says:

    Norm ought to dig up Rachmaninov’s candid assessment of the classical music biz, written to his friend Medtner. The facts he mentions will make many aspiring musicians become plumbers instead. (It’s in the biography by Leyda.)