Rachmaninoff’s Cinematic Romanticism

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is not only one of my personal favorite composers but also a general favorite of audiences worldwide. Rachmaninoff’s unique place in history, at the culmination of the Romantic period and the dawn of the 20th century, gave him a choice: would he continue in the Romantic tradition, already expounded by his forbearers, or would he explore contemporary sound and harmony? Rachmaninoff did both, and struck a magnificent balance not only between old and new but also between the orientalist and cosmopolitain poles in Russian music.

Rachmaninoff grew up hearing the dichotomy of Russian sound that we’ve already discussed, that of the orientalist school (Boradin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc) versus the cosmopolitain sounds of Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff took these elements and blended them with his own concept of lush, sweeping melodies atop inventive, melancholic harmonies. Rachmaninoff’s studies at Moscow Conservatory, as well as his international touring career and his later life in the United States, also gave him compositional inspiration. One can hear the dense, chord-based orchestration of Brahms, the harmonic innovations of Debussy and Ravel, and even elements of American Jazz, in Rachmaninoff’s later work. Despite all of these influences, Rachmaninoff’s own voice is clear and unique to anyone else’s, and hearing all of this coherently in his work must be one reason why his music is so timelessly popular.

Being one of the greatest pianists of all time, Rachmaninoff features the piano in nearly all of his compositions, and his idiosyncratic use of the piano is perhaps the most defining feature of his music. Rachmaninoff had unusually large hands, which meant he was capable of leaps, chords and extensions on the piano that other pianists struggled to execute. Rachmaninoff’s piano writing daringly utilizes the range of the instrument and chords have a distinctly far-reaching range between bass and treble notes.

This extended range is also related to Rachmaninoff’s interest in Russian sacred music. Russian Orthadox Chant is associated with impressively low-range bass singing, and we’ll look at an example of this in Rachmaninoff’s choral writing as well.

Piano Concerto no. 3 in d minor, op. 30

This concerto for piano and orchestra is one of Rachmaninoff’s most popular works. Pianists regard it as one of the most technically difficult concerti to play, related in large part to Rachmaninoff’s writing it for his own oversized hands.

In the first movement you will hear some key elements of a classic “Rachmaninoff” sound. He begins with a simple melody, taken from a Russian folk tune, one that has an unusual rhythmic cadence. This means doesn’t fit nicely into a rhythmic “box” of 8 symmetrical bars. Rachmaninoff often writes melodies taken from Russian (emphasis on the not-quite-western qualities) folklore, so this creates the effect of the melody meandering on past the point that the listener expects it to conclude. I especially enjoy this aspect of Rachmaninoff’s melodic writing; I am always surprised by how familiar yet unusual his melodies sound, no matter how many times I’ve heard them.

You will hear special attention being paid to low-range instruments, such as the low strings, bassoon, horn and low brass. This compliments lots of low-range playing in the piano. We will see relationships between this and the choral works we see next.

The harmonies in Rachmaninoff’s piano writing are gorgeous but also highly chromatic. This winding through uncomfortably-closely-related keys creates Rachmaninoff’s unique sense of tension, cycling around in a very narrative way, wondering where to go next. This is part of why Rachmaninoff’s music has been used in films. In addition to many other pop culture uses, his second piano concerto was the entire soundtrack for the 1945 film “Brief Encounter.”

Enjoy this truly gorgeous work, one of the finest examples of Rachmaninoff’s unique voice both on the piano and as an orchestrator. It’s a true pleasure to play this work every time it’s programmed!

All-Night Vigil, op. 37

The All-Night Vigil is a set of 15 movements for a capella (unaccompanied) choir, based on the texts recited at the traditional all-night vigil in the Russian Orthadox Church. Rachmaninoff claimed that this was among his very favorite of his own works, ironically one of the few without piano!

The influence of Russian Orthodox chant are overt, largely because the Russian government required a certain proportion of the work to be directly taken from traditional chant when Rachmaninoff composed it. Rachmaninoff was very interested in chant anyway, so this wasn’t a major setback for him creatively. The combination of traditional Russian church music and Rachmaninoff’s own lush harmonic language makes for an evocative, compelling listening experience.

Each musician, depending on what instrument or specialization they have, has a mental list of works to consider as a red flag when programmed. For instance, I would be weary of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” oratorio because I know that the viola part is exhausting, and despite the work’s beauty it lasts well over two hours without a break. I consider myself warned when I agree to play it. Perhaps a choral singer’s equivalent of this would be Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. Even I have long known of the logistical challenge of this piece—the bass parts are so low that many singers simply cannot reach the pitches required. Specialists are required in order to sing this work correctly and safely.

But once you have assembled the appropriate musicians, this work is entirely worth the logistical challenge. Enjoy!

Cello Sonata in g minor, op. 19

Our final look at Rachmaninoff’s writing will be an earlier work of his, featuring both his beloved piano and an instrument he knew little about. Rachmaninoff was not a cellist and felt very apprehensive composing for what felt like a foreign instrument. Unlike Tchaikovsky and so many other piano-trained composers, Rachmaninoff never wrote a violin concerto, cello concerto or any string-featured work. This cello sonata is all we have.

Luckily, it is enough. This is a gorgeous, distilled example of Rachmaninoff’s voice. Even without an entire orchestra on stage, Rachmaninoff manages to evoke a similar feeling to his piano concerti with epic, sweeping lines and meandering, woeful melodies. His love of low-range instruments is evident in his choice to write for cello, not violin. The piano part is, unsurprisingly, significant and domineering in comparison to other piano+single instrument sonatas. The cello generally has single-stopped lines and its primary role is to play melodies over the active, atmospheric and brooding piano texture. All three movements are epic and stirring, despite there only being two musicians.

I hope you enjoy the cinematic experience that is listening to Rachmaninoff. If you would like to hear more, I suggest his three symphonies, his tone poem, “In the Isle of the Dead,” his other two piano concerti, and the many works for solo piano that he composed.

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