Linda and John uncover details about Rachmaninoff's life, like early influences that stayed with him his entire career, his comeback story after a disastrous symphony premiere, and what led to him emigrating to the United States. Plus, we hear some recordings of Rachmaninoff himself at the piano from the early 1900s.

Show Notes

Ivanovka, Rachmaninoff's family estate where he often composed

Ivanovka, a country estate of the Rachmaninoff family

Rachmaninoff sitting outside and working on his music


Great performances!

Rachmaninoff - Symphony No. 2

Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 3 (Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic with pianist Yefim Bronfman)




John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From classical WETA in Washington. We take you behind the music. In this episode, I'm joined by Classical WETA's Linda Carducci, and we're diving into the life and music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. There is a lot to uncover, like how early influences stayed with him his entire career, why he immigrated to the United States, and of course characteristics of his music. Plus, we'll hear actual recordings of Rachmaninoff himself at the piano, and stay with us to the end as we read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. When I think of Rachmaninoff, Linda, I think of those long, drawn out melodies and rich, almost nostalgic sounding harmonies too. But after listening to a lot of Rachmaninoff recently, I forgot how film score like his music was before we even had films at this point. Maybe it was just that Russian storytelling quality.

Linda Carducci: Yes, long melodic lines, storytelling in music and big chords. But you're talking about the scores for music. Of course, sometimes they would borrow from sounds like Rachmaninoff.

John Banther: Oh, yeah.

Linda Carducci: And there were many years when people maybe didn't consider Rachmaninoff an A- list composer because they thought, well, these sort of sound really romantic, and almost like film scores. But when you dig a little deeper, you can see that there is some wonderful innovation going on in his music.

John Banther: Definitely. And there's a little bit of trivia that I can already just tease a little bit about Rachmaninoff, and that is the question, where was his final concert? The location is not something you would think of right away for this big Russian composer, but we'll answer that as we go along towards the end of the podcast. Rachmaninoff a tremendous influence on composers, musicians, especially pianists as we'll hear. He was born April 1st, 1873. Young Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff, born into aristocracy, wasn't he? A musical family. He started piano early at age four, but shortly after here, his father totally mismanaged the whole family's finances and estates.

Linda Carducci: Yes. He didn't have a strong relationship with his father. He did with his mother though, and his aunt and his grandmother, and his grandmother made a very important impression on him. She would take him to Russian Orthodox Church Services, and it was there that this very young Sergei would hear this music that would be coming out of these church services, liturgical chants, church bells. And maybe that's, too, where he first became exposed to the Dies Irae chant, the middle medieval chant that he would use in some of his later compositions.

John Banther: Oh, definitely. And like so many composers, they're exposed to something when they're young and it just takes them through, or is part of their career in some way as they compose and write music for the rest of their life. He was, of course, talented, but worked very hard taking lessons, practicing the piano. His parents ended up splitting up, of course, with the father's mismanagement of estates and money. But he, at age 10 years old, I think he was 10 when he first got a scholarship to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and it was there he discovered pretty quickly, I think he said, " I must become a composer."

Linda Carducci: Yes. And he did have a talent for playing piano, but there are some stories that maybe he wasn't the most diligent student while he was at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He had failed his general studies there. People noticed that he had talent at piano, but maybe he was just not living up to his potential. And he had a relative, I believe it was a cousin of his mother maybe, or his grandmother, who was a famous pianist, and was with the Moscow Conservatory and so recommended that young Sergei now go to the Moscow Conservatory to finish his studies there, because there was a notoriously strict professor of piano there. And maybe that extra discipline is what little Sergei needed.

John Banther: Yes. And I think you're talking about his name was Nikolai Zverev.

Linda Carducci: Yes, yes. And his relative was Siloti, by the name of Siloti, S- I- L- O- T- I. But the professor at the Moscow Conservatory that you're talking about who was notoriously strict was Nikolai Zverev.

John Banther: Okay. And we'll mention him again in just a moment. And this is also at the same time, I guess, with his aunt and uncle as he's spending time in Moscow at the conservatory, he first visits this private country estate of the family, Ivanovka. And this is where he had a huge influence, or introduction to a lot of folk music, too, I think in the area, following along with the influences that he would get from the Orthodox church as well.

Linda Carducci: Yes. And this all played into his fascination with composing his own music that was based on all of these wonderful influences that he was hearing. Yeah, certainly he was a talented pianist, but he had this drive to compose.

John Banther: And when he is in Moscow at the conservatory, you mentioned how strict this teacher, Zverev, was. I guess he was also living with him too, which maybe that was a thing at the time. But he was very upset with Rachmaninoff because Rachmaninoff was wanting now to really steady composition in addition to playing piano. But of course Zverev is thinking, " No, you really can't do that. You need to focus on piano." I believe he even stopped talking to him completely. And this is something that, not to this level, but happens in conservatories today. It's usually out of good interest on the teacher, for the student, in that they don't want them to be distracted with something else besides their principal instrument or study, whether it's piano, or a string player wanting only to focus on chamber music, as opposed to their orchestra classes, things like that. But this was pretty extreme, not talking to him at all after he just kept composing.

Linda Carducci: Yes. And as you say, Zverev was looking out for this young man, this teenager's best interests, maybe thinking that, well there there's a little bit of a risk in becoming a composer in making a living at that. But if you were a great pianist, just think. You can tour all over the world, and play all of the great piano music. And Zverev was very strict with him too. He used to get him up at six o'clock in the morning every morning to practice and work and work and work. And it was this behavior, this discipline, that is thought that led to Sergei Rachmaninoff being a wonderful pianist.

John Banther: So it sounds like although Zverev was pretty strict, it was helpful in Rachmaninoff in keeping him focused. And as a composer, he also writes at this time a hugely successful work, his first opera, right? It's a one act opera, Aleko. He thought he would fail completely. He didn't have any hope in it, but at the premier Tchaikovsky was there, it was a huge success. He got the highest mark on the conservatory, won a prestigious award, and now that strict teacher, Zverev, who would not talk to him, he gives Rachmaninoff his gold watch.

Linda Carducci: Yes. That shows, that shows what a great work can do, or at least the potential of it. Tchaikovsky took notice of this work that you would talk about that Rachmaninoff wrote, and Rachmaninoff revered Tchaikovsky. He grew up listening to his music, so this was a wonderful boost for the teenage Rachmaninoff.

John Banther: And yes, as Rachmaninoff, he's a great composer, we know that, but it's still a little unusual to have someone like Rachmaninoff, right, in this Aleko, such a command... He has such command over orchestration, harmonies, color, over everything. It's like, I mean, this is a pretty huge work to debut yourself with.

Linda Carducci: It is thought that he had a great command of counterpoint, of harmony. These were things that he was interested in and obviously had a great talent in.

John Banther: And soon after he graduates from the conservatory and that's when he writes another work that ends up being basically, I think his most popular right for the rest of his life. And that is, it's from a set of preludes, but his Prelude in C Sharp Minor. We hear such great influences, I think, of... I hear Mussorgsky, I hear Rimsky Korsakov in this opening, it's this Russian sound. Sounds like church bells, although Rachmaninoff may have said that's not what it was at all. But this was so popular he had to play it at his concerts until he died, and he got sick of it.

Linda Carducci: You mentioned church bells. That's exactly what I hear with the Prelude in C Sharp Minor, and the beginning, of course, of the piano concerto number two, I mean that's obvious bells. But yeah, growing up he would go to the church services with his grandmother and hear these church bells and hear the chant, but we hear this, shall we say, a thought of bells, a memory of bells in the music. And this Prelude in C Sharp Minor, which was an early work of his, opens up with these large chords that are very similar in rhythm. They're all pretty much the same rhythm that evokes a church bell. And I think that there are many composers who will say, whether they wrote something maybe earlier in their career or maybe middle career that they didn't really think was that great of a work, and it gained so much popularity that sometimes the rest of their life, they shake their head and scratch their head and wonder why this is so popular. Ravel's Bolero is a great example.

John Banther: Yes. Rachmaninoff said, " I wasn't really thinking about bells," he said that later. I think you're exactly right with that. My uneducated opinion and guess here, if I have to make one, is that that was just him displaying a little bit of control over the piece, maybe having a go at it, because it definitely sounds like bells, and I think he was just annoyed that it became so popular. It was his way of having some fun, even though he had to play it.

Linda Carducci: Right. That's right. To his credit, he went on to write quite a number of preludes for solo piano.

John Banther: Yes. Another work at this time, absolutely beautiful, the Trio élégiaque No. 1. He's only 18 years old still when we're hearing this, and this is when I think we really start to hear these long stretching melodies. We can hear how Rachmaninoff is already doing that. Melodies, and we're saying long and stretched out, of course, a lot of melodies are long and stretched out, but with Rachmaninoff, he's using at times as few notes as possible and he's just letting them sustain, but they're still moving forward in a way that a lot of composers, I think just would not be able to do.

Linda Carducci: A long, sustained melodic line. And he was able to do that even in piano, too. It's difficult to do that in piano because the sound decays and you can't sustain it. Well, you can sustain a little bit with the pedal, sustaining pedal, but it's difficult to play sustaining lines in piano. Easier to do it with violin, or a wind instrument. He was only 20 years old when he wrote that, and he wrote it with thoughts of Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky had just died, and it stunned the young Sergei Rachmaninoff. And so he wrote that in thoughts of the death of Tchaikovsky.

John Banther: And this is something that I always forget. Rachmaninoff, of course, lived into the 1940s, but he was 20 years old in the late 1800s when Tchaikovsky died. I don't think of people being alive in World War II having also been alive for Tchaikovsky.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, that's an interesting point. And also, Rachmaninoff spent his formative years during the Russian Empire, so it was not the type of government that it became ultimately. So there was a very different sense of his life from say 30, younger, to when the Russian Revolution happened, and then going forward.

John Banther: Now, we've already heard a little bit of his early style and characteristics, that prelude the trio, looking at orchestra now, shortly after this point in his early 20s, he writes this symphonic poem called The Rock or sometimes The Crag. It's a beautiful work, and we can hear how he just already has a command of just giving us this glittering, sweeping, very richly textured sound. He's a great pianist and we know that, but it's so amazing to hear someone being such a great pianist, but also have such command at this time over the orchestra.

Linda Carducci: Yes, and it's a transparency, do you notice? It's not overcrowded, he has the exact perfect balance, so there's transparency, there's some shimmering there. He knows which instruments would create the exact sound he wants. It really is something that he heard in his brain. And of course this was taken from years of listening to music, and not just piano music, but from all of his life.

John Banther: And later in the work, he's able to do almost the opposite, have at the right time, very thick, very heavy, and a huge sound. He's able to balance all of this stuff already in his early 20s, and already after having a blow with his huge hero's death just a year or two before. Now, this is where I think of his career in two parts. Part one, what we can think of now as he's in his 20s and he's growing into it, and he had a good start with the opera, and the trio, and the symphonic poem we just heard. But things went pretty downhill after Tchaikovsky's death, when he lost a big contract with a theater for his music, he had to go back to teaching private piano lessons. And in 1897, it went very poorly, didn't it, when he had his Symphony No. 1 premiered.

Linda Carducci: Yes, it was a work that, again, was based on the chants that he had heard in the Russian Orthodox Church services. He was a young man at this point and was putting together all of these sounds that he had heard growing up, and his thorough knowledge of Tchaikovsky. Put together this Symphony No. 1. And it was presented as part of a concert series for young Russian composers. So we would have every reason to believe that this young Sergei Rachmaninoff was very confident of this work.

John Banther: Yeah. But the premier was an absolute disaster. I mean in almost every sense of the word. And a lot of the blame lies with the conductor, and great composer, too, Alexander Glazunov. He had a drinking problem, and people were saying he was drunk in the concert, he was drunk in the rehearsals. And the main conductor's job is time management in rehearsals. That's the biggest thing that they do. They need to make sure that all the time is used to rehearse everything that needs to be rehearsed, all of the transitions, all of the difficult parts, and this is a difficult symphony. None of that really happened. And Rachmaninoff, even in the rehearsals thought, " Wow, this is going to be a disaster." And at the premiere, they couldn't play together. It was a mess. Critics ripped it apart. Rachmaninoff didn't even stay during the concert. He left halfway through his symphony and just ran out of the hall.

Linda Carducci: It was said that he said that at that moment that he wasn't affected by its lack of success. He wasn't affected by its critical disapproval. It was said that he thought to himself that maybe the work wasn't as good as he thought it was.

John Banther: I've seen that too. I mean, I definitely agree with that. There's part of me that thinks, we hear this symphony today, it was never played in the rest of his lifetime, but we do hear it today. It is recorded. It is interesting. There's so much great textures. The opening of each movement is almost the same rhythm. It's a nice contextual thing that carries itself throughout, but it's just a shame. I think if it went better, he would've would've liked it. A lot of Russian composers, also Tchaikovsky, would hate the symphony when it was premiered, and then a year later would love it. Rachmaninoff never even got that chance.

Linda Carducci: As you say, it has very interesting textures to it. I agree with that too. And we can look at it now and listen to it differently than the original audience did during the premiere, because we're hearing now the professional performances of this, well- rehearsed performances of it, but it does have wonderful texture to it. But Rachmaninoff like Tchaikovsky was self- critical.

John Banther: Yes.

Linda Carducci: And he could get down on himself and depressed if he felt that maybe he wasn't working well, if things weren't working well for him.

John Banther: Depression is the word here, because for three years he went into a pretty deep depression, stopped composing. I'm not sure he was really playing or keeping up with playing as he should have been. He was still playing, but maybe not as much as he should have been doing. No composing at all. It was very, very dark period for himself. And then thankfully in 1900, in his later 20s now, he starts going to therapy, and after many, many, many months of therapy, he starts to compose again. And then his first work he completes shortly thereafter, his second piano concerto, dedicates it to his therapist, and it's an absolute comeback work, isn't it?

Linda Carducci: A masterpiece.

John Banther: Yes.

Linda Carducci: Can you imagine? So maybe a psychologist would tell you that in all those three years where he was hibernating, if you will, and secluding himself and in depression, there were ideas still stirring in his brain. He was still maybe working. His brain was working on putting things together, and so maybe somehow his doctor, Dr. Dahl, was able to unlock some of that that was there, get him past this block that he had of being self- critical, and down on himself, and they finally emerged into a masterpiece, his Piano Concerto No. 2.

John Banther: I mean, the opening is beautiful. It's so Russian sounding as well, and just this sweeping background with a melody just floating over top. I mean, it's just an absolute comeback work, thankfully one that went very, very well, and catapulted him back into the light. Now, he also gets married at this time, too, and he gets married to his cousin Natalia Satina, I think is how we say her name. And even in 1902, this was not looked well upon. The church didn't like it, the family didn't like it, it wasn't that accepted by the society and his inner circle that he would marry his cousin, but they did get married. He wrote a bunch of songs to pay for the wedding too, I think, and pay for the priest. And that countryside estate, Ivanovka, that we mentioned before where he first visited the family, gave them two small houses on this estate, and this is basically where he would come back to for many, many summers, relax and compose.

Linda Carducci: Rachmaninoff had to compose in almost isolation. He has said that he would be distracted easily, and that that would disrupt his writing process. So he needed total seclusion, and this estate, a country estate where there's not much going on, and it's a rural estate, was a perfect environment for him.

John Banther: And the discipline that he learned from his schooling years pays off, because you're saying he needs to be so focused on one thing at a time. We think of Bernstein in an episode we just talked about, Bernstein was stretched paper thin, doing everything at once, and he was frustrated by that at times. Rachmaninoff is conservative in his approach. " I'm composing now and that's all I'm doing," or, " I'm performing now and touring, and that's all I'm doing." He was able to really sit down and do that, which is why I think he had the career he had. But we start to see something in him that I think carries him through the rest of his life.
And that is he gets this job to be a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in 1904. He's 31. After two seasons, he quits. He becomes disillusioned with the job even after one year. He resigns the following year because of the unrest around the revolutions at the time, and it was affecting the actual staff of the theater. But what I'm saying is we start to see him be a kind of wanderer, and I forgot about this with Rachmaninoff. He rarely stays in one place for a long time after this. He's going from one estate to compose to somewhere else. " I'm going to go here and rest. I'm going to go here and compose. I'm going to go here and perform." He was just a wanderer at that point.

Linda Carducci: Yeah. I think there was a period of transition when he became married now, and he was settling in, and he was on this estate, and he considered this maybe his home. But as you say, he was starting now to work a little bit. They took a tour of Italy, he and his family, and they started wandering a bit, but I think still in that transition period, they considered Russia home.

John Banther: Oh, yeah.

Linda Carducci: And he would return home to Russia and to this estate that you're talking about. So in his mind, Russia was still his home, even though he was traveling other places. And let's remember that the 1917 revolution, Russian Revolution, had not yet happened.

John Banther: Yes.

Linda Carducci: There were stirrings, and there was a lot of political upheaval now, a lot of social upheaval starting to happen in Russia, but it was still Czarist Russia. And for Rachmaninoff, this was his home.

John Banther: Yes. Another very popular work that's played quite a lot is his second symphony around this time as well. This one, thankfully he wrote another symphony. He didn't leave it at his first, which didn't do so well. This one, I think the orchestration is a little bit cleaner. It's a little more buttoned up, and we get one of his most beautiful and beloved melodies, long, drawn out melodies in the third movement, the clarinet. It is just, it stretches and it goes on and on and on.

Linda Carducci: It sure does, and that shows us the talent that Rachmaninoff had for writing melodies, but also we see him now, as you say, with different orchestration in his Symphony No. 2 than his Symphony No. 1. Symphony No. 1, very exciting. And as you say, it had a lot of nice textures. Symphony No. 2 now, which was composed 12 years after Symphony No. 1, a little bit more polished now. We can see a little bit more polish. As I say before, there's a little bit of a transparency, I think, to Rachmaninoff's orchestral writing.

John Banther: Yes.

Linda Carducci: I never find it heavy or thickly textured in any way. There's a transparency and a beauty, and he lets the melody shine through, and he's become a master orchestrator at this point.

John Banther: Yes, I love it. He goes on, at this point, in 1909, his first tour of the United States, and he takes with him a new piano concerto, his third one. He's in Massachusetts. He goes down to New York City. He premiers that piano concerto. It's a big success. Even the following year, doing it again, doing it again with the New York Symphony, with Gustav Mahler conducting. I can't imagine that sitting in the audience, Mahler's conducting, it's the precursor of the New York Philharmonic, and Rachmaninoff is playing one of his piano concertos.

Linda Carducci: Can you imagine the evolution that Rachmaninoff has taken here from someone who was very insecure, and for years, for three years, couldn't write and was depressed and all? Now he comes up with, say, for example, Symphony No. 2, which was a great success for him, and it shows a polish and a mastery of orchestration. Then he comes up with the Piano Concerto No. 3, which is a wonderful masterpiece, and everybody acknowledges that it was. Can you imagine the boost to his confidence? Now he realizes that he is at his heart a composer, and that's where he will make his name. He's a great pianist, too, but he had it inside of him, these ideas that he wanted to put out on pen and paper.

John Banther: Now you're a pianist, of course. What about his third piano concerto? Maybe his most performed one? What about it for you is just so great?

Linda Carducci: I've never played it, but I can probably sum it up in one word. Fear.

John Banther: Fear?

Linda Carducci: Yeah. It is so difficult, and so demanding and even just looking at the score is just miraculous. He wrote it for the pianist Joseph Hofmann, who was a friend of Rachmaninoff's, and Hofmann didn't play it. He said it wasn't for him. Gary Graffman, who is a pianist and a teacher in our lifetime, I think had a wonderful quote about the Piano Concerto No. 3 of Rachmaninoff. Gary Graffman lamented that he had not learned this third piano concerto as a student when he was, quote, " Still too young to know fear."

John Banther: Wow.

Linda Carducci: It's a difficult work, but it's an exciting work, and it's a varied work. Rachmaninoff continues with his talent of writing wonderful melodies that are in here, moving melodies that just sweep you away, and yet he can weave them in with very dramatic moments, with large chordal segments, and still keep the melody going. It's a varied tapestry of a work, I would say.

John Banther: After this very successful tour, he goes back to Russia. He takes this great position. He's vice president of the Imperial Russian Music Society. He becomes a conductor of the Philharmonic Society of Moscow, I think it's called. But he quits two years after that, again, he moves from one thing to the next. He goes to Switzerland to compose, and it's just... I think he's just on a high coming back from that United States tour, and we'll get to next what I think we can call part two of Rachmaninoff's career. That's right after this. Let's take a quick break. Classical Breakdown is made possible by Classical WETA. Join us for the music anytime day or night to listen live. Just go to our website, classicalweta. org, or download our app. It's free in the app store.
So looking at Rachmaninoff's career now, I think of it as part two, a reset, because we get in 1917 this revolution, which was also violent in Russia, and this was a turning point for Rachmaninoff. I mean, just for instance, that beautiful country estate in Ivanovka, it became occupied by the Revolutionary Party. It was eventually, basically, mostly destroyed. He wanted to escape this somehow with his family to safety, and he found his out, didn't he, through a concert tour in Scandinavia, because there were no permits to really leave the country at this time. He wasn't able to do that, but through this tour, he was able to basically say, " Okay, I'll take my family. We're just going to go on a tour of Scandinavia and come back." But of course, they never came back.

Linda Carducci: You could imagine how devastating this would be for Rachmaninoff and his family. He was born in Russia, he was Russian. He was born during the Russian Empire when people had a lot of patriotism, the Russian Empire, Czarist, Czarist Russia. And now to see these two revolutions that happened in the year of 1917 that were just very upsetting to the whole society of Russia, and people not knowing where they were or what they had anymore. They did not know if they had security anymore. We saw people whose homes were confiscated, not just Rachmaninoff, they were confiscated by the socialists who were moving in.

John Banther: So he thankfully finds himself an out through this tour. So he leaves Russia, and it seems like pretty quickly, word got out Rachmaninoff is not going to return, and he got these very lucrative job offers in the United States, conducting posts with the Boston Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphonies, huge positions, and he turns them down. It's amazing. And after this tour, he does, of course, make it to the United States. He's already a rockstar. I read that people were crowding wherever the ship comes into port. People were crowding just to see Rachmaninoff and his family come off of this ship.
And he found himself quickly able to basically land in New York and then start up a full- time, huge performing career in the United States. He enjoyed an upper class lifestyle, he had a chauffeur. He had a great apartment. I think the same building where the Gershwins would then also live a few years later. I mean, he really found himself at home in New York City, but of course he missed Russia. I think he said that when he left Russia, he lost his desire to compose. He said, " I left behind my desire to compose. Losing my country, I lost myself also."

Linda Carducci: It was devastating for him to see Russia in such upheaval. Also, though, he wasn't completely happy with coming to New York. From what I've heard he said that he thought we were all a little bit too business- like, there was too much business going on.

John Banther: Oh, yes.

Linda Carducci: He wanted to see maybe a little bit more of an arts world. But as you say, eventually he settled in and began to enjoy living in New York and other places in the United States. He visited San Francisco for a while, and he was greeted so well here. People very much appreciated him.

John Banther: And a couple of things. One, he lost his country, but he did everything he could to bring the country to him. When he got this, I forget where it was, he had an estate or a nice house, and he hired all Russian employees. The people who are, whatever, cleaning, they're Russian. The cook, they're Russian. Everyone's Russian. They speak Russian. They celebrate holidays, big festivities. It was like a little bit of Russia was brought into his own little world. But this meant while he's in the United States, he was a performing concert pianist. He was touring. And knowing his discipline that we've talked about so far, that's really all he focused on. We only have six more works for the remainder of his life over these next 20 years. He's performing over 1000 concerts.

Linda Carducci: Right, because that was when he had said, as you said, that he left behind his desire to compose when he lost his country of Russia. So with that in mind, he was setting out now to be a concert pianist.

John Banther: And thankfully, although he only wrote six more works, some of them are absolute masterpieces. Thinking of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and later on we'll hear a bit of the Symphonic Dances, one of the last works that he composed. So he finds himself doing very well here in the US. He also in, I think it was 1920, he signs a recording contract. You don't think of recording contracts in 1920, but he did sign one. And we can actually listen to a little bit of how Rachmaninoff sounded. Here's a little bit of him playing his own Prelude in C Sharp Minor.

Linda Carducci: It's fascinating to hear Rachmaninoff play his own music, and we sometimes on Classical WETA will play recordings of him that were made in the '20s and in the '40s of his transcriptions of other composers' music. But as you mentioned earlier, John, Rachmaninoff had a very large hands. You'd have to, to play his own music, and he was known for playing very crisply. Definition. So no blurry sounds with his work, it was very crisp with definition, a lot of finger technique. And that goes back to that early training that he had. So sometimes it's interesting to hear him play his own piano music because it may be a little bit more crisp, and a little cleaner, and not as maybe muddy-

John Banther: Muddy, I think.

Linda Carducci: Yeah, muddy or even legato.

John Banther: Connected.

Linda Carducci: Yes. As we hear other pianists play Rachmaninoff music. We're so used to hearing the other pianists, but they're interpreting it. It's fun to, and it's important to, listen to Rachmaninoff play it the way he heard it.

John Banther: And I think we're just so lucky. Even that recording in 1920, I mean, it's a little rough, but that's so much better than it could be, the recording quality. So I think we're just... It's one of the greatest things we've ever had is recording, I think. So we can hear this legend play his own music. The rest of his life is a lot like this. He's performing, he's touring. He has this recording contract. Although he would record, he hated broadcast, unfortunate for us, but he did not want any of his concerts live on the radio. So that was sometimes even a stipulation in a contract for playing with an orchestra. It cannot be broadcast.

Linda Carducci: But during this time, now, if we're talking about the 1920s now going into the '40s, he was living in New York and he liked to visit some of the jazz clubs that were going on in New York City at the time. Again, it's music, and it fascinated him, and it's well- known that he attended the premiere of a Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

John Banther: Oh, yes.

Linda Carducci: He enjoyed jazz. He used to listen to Art Tatum who had a wild technique, very clean playing of Art Tatum in the '20s, and would also amuse himself a little bit by playing jazz on the piano. So Rachmaninoff was getting influenced by other things that he was hearing in the United States, such as Gershwin and jazz.

John Banther: And he's hearing all these things. He's taking it all in, but he's keeping it and absorbing it into his music in his own conservative, not, I want to say old school, maybe old school at this point, but in his own conservative style that he's developed over those years. And just six works left in his lifetime. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, perhaps one of his most famous works, especially in recording. It's so tremendously difficult this one, of course, taking a theme of Paganini who was a virtuoso violinist in his own right. But with this, we also get one of the most beautiful melodies, too, in one of the final variations.

Linda Carducci: Yes, the 18th variation.

John Banther: He's also, at this time, this is the 1930s now, he is having health problems. That's another thing I was surprised about was even before this, he had a lot of surgeries. You got to be pretty brave. I mean, what else are you going to do, I guess, and I mean even in the 1920s, to get a surgery. But he had several.

Linda Carducci: And some of his health issues may have affected his mood. So when we talk sometimes about how he was self- critical, or would get into blue periods, some of that may be related to the health problems that he was having.

John Banther: Definitely. And he did go back to Europe, not Russia of course, but he did visit back in Europe and perform. He bought a home on Lake Lucerne. You said he loved boats. He got this boat, and apparently he would just drive it as fast as possible all day long or something like that around Lake Lucerne.

Linda Carducci: Yes, with his daughters and his grandchildren. That was a wonderful thing for him. He bought a villa there, and it's called Villa Senar or Senar. The name comes from the letters of his first name and his wife's first name, and then R for Rachmaninoff at the end.

John Banther: Right. I love that.

Linda Carducci: But it was a peaceful time for him. This was a beautiful, tranquil area for him, and that's where he composed his Symphony No. 3, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

John Banther: He loved boats. He also loved fast cars, from what I also saw, also loved horses. He had a desire for adrenaline, I think. This continues into the 1940s, early 1940s. His final work, basically, his Symphonic Dances, one of my favorite works in general, but still one of his most performed works today. It is one that seems to encapsulate everything he's done in his life. It has so many elements from his early time. Like this bell sounds in the beginning, fast rhythm as everyone's playing together on these downbeats in the opening. But I just hear so much in his music from his youth, all the way up to now, included in this final work.

Linda Carducci: I agree. It's very creative work, very innovative. It's not as conservative as some of his other things. It's not a conservative piano concerto, or a sonata, or a symphony. This is going back to this almost symphonic poem, or a tone poem. In fact, he had intended to be a suite of three dances, and each one of the movements would have a different name. There was going to be noon, twilight, and midnight. But here we also see the use of the Dies Irae chant that we talked about earlier, that he probably heard growing up while he was a child, going to the Russian Orthodox Services. The Dies Irae chant is an old medieval chant that is associated with death. And Rachmaninoff used the Dies Irae chant in several of his works, including at the very end, the very last, very end in his Symphonic Dances.

John Banther: And that's what I mean by he seems to just include so much, and do a little more, like you said. It's not so conservative. He adds the saxophone. This is one of the few works for orchestra that includes a very big excerpt for a saxophone as a solo in the first movement, that long, beautiful melody again that we find here. He's just absolutely mastered it. There's also, in the opening of the second movement, this muted brass sounds very Rimsky Korsakov to me.

Linda Carducci: Do you think maybe the use of the saxophone and the muted brass might be an influence of some of the jazz that he was visiting in New York City?

John Banther: Saxophone, I think definitely. It was used in only in a couple of works before this, like Ravel's Bolero, but I think that may have something to do with it. The muted brass, I'm not so sure. But definitely the saxophone I think is in there.

Linda Carducci: Because I think Miles Davis would use a muted trumpet, didn't he sometimes?

John Banther: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there's so many. There's a dozen different kinds of mutes for a trumpet, for instance, as well. Also, one of my favorite moments in this work is this moment in the final dance where it's got this groove and this drive to it that reminds me, if you've ever seen Russian men's dance. Not ballet, not quite folk, it's something in between. I forget what it is. It's something that they do where these guys are... I mean, they're dancing, I need knee surgery after watching them dance, and they're flying and floating through the air. This reminds me of that. So that's what I mean. I mean, it's just including everything. His Russian heritage, the Dies Irae, saxophone influence from what he's hearing in New York, and more, it's just all encapsulated here in a work that he composed. His final one. After this, he had a diagnosis with advanced melanoma, and died shortly after at age 69 in March of 1943.

Linda Carducci: But his Symphonic Dances, as you say, are a culmination of a life of music, and encapsulating so many different styles of music that he was hearing. From Tchaikovsky, the romantic Russian of Tchaikovsky, to what he was doing in his later years, which showed some interesting things with rhythm and maybe even some influences of jazz a little bit. He put this all together, it was an encapsulation in his Symphonic Dances, and I think it shows a mastery of orchestration.

John Banther: And in the beginning, we mentioned so briefly, that trivia question, where was his final concert? It was, I believe in early 1943, a couple months before his death. His final concert was just a recital, and it was at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. That's just so fascinating. This big Russian composer who is... He's toured the world, he's done everything, and his final recital for presumably the next generation of musicians at this university.

Linda Carducci: Who would've thought that this man who was born in Russia in 1873, in Czarist Russia, and living on an estate, and probably thought his life would be like that for the rest of his life, would end up having a wonderful career in the United States, and doing his last recital at the University of Tennessee?

John Banther: I'm sure they brag about that at the university. They have to, right? I mean, how could you not?

Linda Carducci: Sure, sure. And the recital, by the way, included Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, which has a funeral march in it.

John Banther: And we can leave it with this, a little bit of Rachmaninoff playing Chopin, not the one you just mentioned, but this Waltz in E Flat.

Linda Carducci: And you can hear the crisp, clear articulation of his technique and his playing that.

John Banther: Probably going all the way back to his early studies with that cruel but necessary Zverev instructor at the conservatory. Well, that's Rachmaninoff in a nutshell. Of course, there's so much more to this composer. There's a lot of choral music that we didn't quite get into, some songs. We'll put all that and more on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. But now it's time to read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. So what do we have, Linda?

Linda Carducci: Here's a review from Love KXT, who said, " Informative and entertaining," in the title, and then wrote, " As a classical music neophyte, this podcast is a gift. My appreciation for music has deepened greatly since subscribing."

John Banther: Thank you so much Love KXT for the review and the five stars on Apple Podcasts. And of course, if you've been enjoying Classical Breakdown, leave a review in your podcast app, especially Apple Podcasts. There's more information about this episode on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org, and if you want to send an email with any comments or ideas, you can send that to classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. I think that's all I have for Rachmaninoff, Linda.

Linda Carducci: Thank you, John.

John Banther: Thank you.