The Rach(maninoff) Rules
By Victoria Looseleaf
Bombastic. Brilliant. Bloated. Beautiful. Beatific. Mention the name Sergei Rachmaninoff and the camps are rabidly either for or against the music that Grove's Dictionary notoriously dismissed in 1954 as “monotonous in texture…consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes…” predicting that his popular success was “not likely to last.” No one, it seems, can be blasé about the Russian composer born near Novgorod in 1873 into a noble family of Tatar descent. His father, an army officer who gambled, drank and squandered his wife's inherited wealth, deserted the family when Sergei was nine, the year the gifted pianist entered the College of Music in St. Petersburg. Graduating from the institution with high honors, Rachmaninoff earned a special commendation from Tchaikovsky on his thesis project, the opera Aleko (other pieces written while still a student include his first piano concerto and the popular Prelude in C-sharp minor). For his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909 (the virtuoso's 12-inch hand span covered the interval of a thirteenth), he composed the Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30. Making him a virtual superstar, the work would, in 1996, polarize both movie and piano buffs as the centerpiece of the Oscar-winning film Shine. Fiendishly difficult and affectionately dubbed “The Rach 3,” whose opening melody the composer insisted had “written itself,” the music became a kind of cultural touchstone in the Scott Hicks-directed biopic of the schizophrenic ivory-tinkling prodigy, David Helfgott. Hollywood, scouting for another hit, has tapped another Aussie, Bruce Beresford, to helm Rhapsody, a flick based on Rachmaninoff's life as seen through the eyes of his widow, Natalia Satina. Until that time, however, we can content ourselves with the fact that the composer's beloved All-Night Vigil (also known as Vespers), recently blasted its way onto Billboard's top five classical chart. Vespers, at number three, was in the parallel company - classical crossover - of perennial favorite Andrea Bocelli and relative newcomer Il Divo, the latter a creation of American Idol bad boy Simon Cowell. Tonight, though, we revel in the real thing, Rachmaninoff's crowning achievement of the “Golden Age” of Russian Orthodox sacred choral music. Written in 1915, during World War I, when the composer was 41, the 65-minute opus was also an affirmation of nationalism, as much politically motivated as anything else. Rachmaninoff, whose oeuvre is stamped in an elegiac, late Romantic style a la Tchaikovsky (with smidgens of Chopin and Liszt apparent), gave the world, among others, four piano concerti, three symphonies, two piano sonatas and three operas. Composing only a few choral works, he penned the Vigil for unaccompanied choir with a remarkable feel for freshness and daring. Indeed, comprised of texts for the services of Vespers, Matins and Prime, the work was probably intended for concert performance rather than for liturgical use. To wit, nine of the 15 movements make use of authentic Russian chant melodies as compositional foundation, with seven of those genuine znamenny (“written in signs”) chant, where there is a tendency for phrases to move within the rather small confines of the interval of a third. As Rachmaninoff was not particularly religious, it's no surprise that his approach to the Vigil, which was dedicated to the Russian church music scholar Stephan Vasilevitch Smolensky, followed suit; the other six movements are “chant-like” only in execution, the composer referring to those sections as “conscious counterfeits.” In character, all these chant forms are markedly different from the popular Western medieval chant, a form that would later be pop-culturized in the 90s by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo. Linked by use of repetition, whether straight or varied, they match the rhythms of the text. Vespers, in keeping with other works from the so-called New Russian Choral School, also made use of “choral orchestration,” in which the singers employed a range of techniques. From choral color diversity and carefully placed articulations to palettes of controlled dynamic nuances, the opus also includes techniques found in Russian folk song. Termed counter-voice polyphony and shunning Western European counterpoint, this technique is burnished with parallel voice leading, imitation among voices, droning melodic lines and formal structures based upon text. Talk about virtuosity: While there is no bass solo, the formidable choral bass tessitura, perhaps the most famous and lushly Russian element in the work, covers more than two and a half octaves. From high F, descending over three bars, to the abyss of a low Bflat (below low C), it is heard at the end of No. 5, the “Nunc dimittis.” At the work's first performance, the conductor allegedly needled Rachmaninoff by saying, “Where can I find basses like this? It's like looking for asparagus at Christmas!” (Alas, there were no Whole Foods markets back then.) The women, too, embrace a deep richness of tone, with Rachmaninoff calling for an alto soloist as opposed to a soprano. Tune in to the luminous line in the second movement, “Praise the Lord, O my soul,” the embodiment of Russian sorrow coupled with a shattering serenity that borders on stillness. Encompassing moods of profound introspection to exalted praise, Vespers inspired one critic to write, “Perhaps never before has Rachmaninoff approached so close to the people, to their style, to their soul, as in this work.” And when the composer himself heard its initial performance, he gushed: “Even in my dreams I could not have imagined that I would write such a work.” The dream, however, took time to catch fire. Only two years after its 1915 premiere, the Bolshevik revolution hurled Rachmaninoff into voluntary exile, the ensuing odious religious repression under Stalin and his successors silencing voices for years to come. With the end of Russia as he knew it, Rachmaninoff and his family left for Stockholm in December 1917, never to return to his home country. After leaving, his compositional output slowed. Not only did he become more melancholy, but, as a virtuoso pianist, he was forced to spend much of his time performing in order to support his family. Between 1918 and his death from melanoma in Beverly Hills, California, a few days before he turned 70 in 1943, Rachmaninoff completed only six works. One of these, however, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written in Switzerland in 1934, became one of his best known. But it was the composer's fondness for the Vigil that deepened over the years, with the alleluias from the end of No. 9 quoted in the coda of his last work, Symphonic Dances. He also requested, albeit unsuccessfully, that the entire “Nunc dimittis” be played at his funeral. Today, nearly a century after Rachmaninoff's masterwork was unveiled - though in the broad context of 20th century European music it might be considered “conservative” - it is, undoubtedly, one of the composer's enduring triumphs. While Rachmaninoff so astutely said, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music,” his continues to live through the ages. “Vespers,” a magisterial work of infinite grace that buoys the soul as it seduces the ear, transcends time and place. Beckoning us in an age some might deem a “trickle down era,” this music has the transformative power to heal, touching us, if only fleetingly, with splendor and goodness.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the Program Annotator for the Geffen Playhouse as well as the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, The Looseleaf Report. This is her third season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.