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NineleenlI-Cenluv Music?

TIe Case oJ BacInaninov


AulIov|s) CIavIes FisI
Bevieved vovI|s)
Souvce 19lI-Cenluv Music, VoI. 31, No. 3 |Spving 2008), pp. 245-265
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245
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
19th-Century Music, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 24565. ISSN: 0148-2076, electronic ISSN 1533-8606. 2008 by the Regents of the
University of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article
content through the University of California Presss Rights and Permissions Web site, at http://www.ucpressjournals.com/
reprintInfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/ncm.2008.31.3.245.
I wish to thank Janet Schmalfeldt and two anonymous
readers for their helpful suggestions about this article.
CHARLES FISK
I
Having crowned the climax of the opening
section in the rst of the Symphonic Dances
(ex. 1), the descending C-minor triadic gures
now fade awaybut not completely. Their
sparks kindle a new, slowly rippling gure,
rallentando, also triadic and at rst unaccom-
panied. Each of its ripples brings an upward
chromatic shift to one of the triads constitu-
ent pitches, until another voice begins to echo
and then blend in with the same gure, rst at
a third, then at a fth below. From this back-
ground, which palpably retains a memory of
the earlier music by transforming it into an
accompanimental gure, a new melody emerges
in C

minor, lento and molto espressivo (m.


99). Like the brisk, vigorous melody of the pre-
vious section (see ex. 4b, mm. 1621), this con-
trasting melody begins with a triadic motive,
at rst rising instead of falling as did the rst
motive, but now introducing an undulating,
gradually sinking melodic line in which the
descending triadic gure twice recurs quietly
but prominently. This new theme comprises
three long phrases of seven, six, and nine mea-
sures in an aab conguration that resembles in
some ways a modied bar, and in others an
expanded sentence form. The second of these
phrases begins at m. 106 by echoing the triadic
^
1
^
3
^
5 opening of the rst phrase with a triad in
the next higher position,
^
3
^
5
^
8. The third, longer
phrase (mm. 11229, not shown) begins still
higher, by rising from that upper tonic pitch to
the scales third degree. Through this triadi-
cally rising succession of phrase beginnings that
invert the succession of falling triads in the
rst sections melodic climax, Rachmaninov
provides the scaffolding for an extraordinarily
sustained melodic line. Both the harmonic
idiom and the rhythmic disposition of this new
theme play a role in spinning it out, allowing it
to hover with the almost Debussyean inde-
niteness of a mood that never suggests crystal-
lization into a discretely specic thought or a
completely lyrical utterance. While primarily
diatonic, the harmony of this theme is more
modal than tonal and hence more reective
Nineteenth-Century Music?
The Case of Rachmaninov
246
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
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79
83
87
93
Climactic statement of opening theme
q,
q,

grazioso





dim.

dim.


_




poco a poco rallentando

) (
cresc.
cresc.
Example 1: Rachmaninov, Symphonic Dances, op. 45, movt. I, mm. 79109.
247
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
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97
101
105
cresc.
cresc.
Lento
molto espressivo
^
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^
1
^
5
dim.
cresc.
dim.
^
3
^
5
^
8
dim.
than dynamic in feeling. The subtle irregular-
ity of its accentual pattern, obscuring its metri-
cal organization, only enhances this aura of
quiet reection. Not only in the way it derives
itself from the earlier music and emerges against
the background of that musics ickering em-
bers, but also in its own quiet stillness and
open-endedness, this music conveys an unmis-
takable nostalgia, as if it were being overheard
or remembered rather than sung for the rst
time. The persistence of the ostinato, the resi-
due of the preceding music, bathes this theme
in a half-light, casting it into a dream world.
II
Unusually scored at rst for alto saxophone,
the new theme now comes a second time, richly
scored for strings. Although it is far less chro-
matic than much of his other music, many
would characterize this theme in its fuller or-
chestration as prototypical Rachmaninov. Com-
posed in 1940, when the composer was already
sixty-seven, it can be taken as a nal exempli-
cation of his opulent, traditionalist, and un-
abashedly emotional musical language. Often
disdained by serious musicians on account of
its conservatism, and even with special vehe-
Example 1 (continued)
248
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
mence because of both its remarkable uency
and its popularity, this purportedly old-fash-
ioned and, by Rachmaninovs own admission,
anti-modernist music came to be regarded as an
exemplar of unsophisticated, even philistine
musical taste. In America and Western Europe,
a commonly held critical view of Rachmaninov
still persists today: that he was fundamentally
a blinkered nineteenth-century composer, a
holdover from the past, who was able to achieve
spectacular success far and wide with audi-
ences who shared his reluctance to advance
musically into the twentieth century. For cul-
tural historian Orlando Figes, Rachmaninovs
music was not merely old-fashioned but
trapped [my emphasis] in the late Romantic
mode of the nineteenth century.
1
For music
historian Francis Maes, this music gave ex-
pression to the sentiments and musical values
of the lower strata of the [Russian] aristocracy:
the world of salon romances and the romantic
character piece.
2
Even Richard Taruskin, al-
though recognizing Rachmaninov as a tower-
ing gure, characterizes his music quite sim-
ply as maintaining the familiar and presti-
gious style of the nineteenth-century classics
into the twentieth century.
3
Despite his ac-
knowledgment of Rachmaninovs command-
ing stature, Taruskins assessment of the
composers musical style still offers no grounds
for contention with Virgil Thomsons asser-
tion, in his foreword to Victor Seroffs 1950
biography of Rachmaninov, that the only kind
of success he never achieved was that of intel-
lectual distinction.
4
Thomson did not mean in
any way to disparage Rachmaninovs mastery
of compositional craft, which indeed he praised.
His implication was rather that Rachmaninov
in his obliviousness to contemporary trends
contributed nothing of lasting signicance to
the development of music as an art form.
III
Even more symptomatic, perhaps, of Rach-
maninovs alleged anachronism is the well-
known and widely beloved eighteenth Varia-
tion from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
(ex. 2). This theme, its detractors might claim,
is pure Hollywood; no wonder that Rachmani-
nov eventually moved there (but then again, so
did Schoenberg and Stravinsky). Not even ven-
turing into the modal harmony and metrical
irregularity of the central episode in the rst of
the Symphonic Dances, the eighteenth Varia-
tion instead adheres almost entirely to func-
tional root progressions, avoiding any striking
dissonance until its penultimate measure. Some
might claim that this famous theme, like the
one from the Symphonic Dances, could have
been composed fty or more years earlier. This,
moreover, is the Variation that leaves the most
vivid impression on most listeners and is hence
the most denitive, for many, of the character
of the Rhapsody as a whole.
And indeed this Variation can be said to
constitute the expressive core of the Rhapsody,
not only in its effect on the experience of the
piece when realized in performance, but even
in Rachmaninovs conception of the piece long
before he actually began to compose it. It is
well known that Rachmaninov derived the lyri-
cal melody for this Variation by inverting the
theme by Paganini on which the Rhapsody is
based. For this somewhat paradoxical reason, it
becomes the one musical example that accom-
panies Taruskins discussion of the composer
in his Oxford History of Western Music:
5
the
compositional technique by which it is gener-
atedwhat Rachmaninov himself, in an un-
published letter disparaging musical modern-
ism, might have called a calculation
6
is gen-
erally considered more characteristic of Schoen-
berg. But the extent of the derivation is not so
widely acknowledged: the inversion closely fol-
lows the original, with only subtle diversions,
until the end. Moreover, through study of
Rachmaninovs sketches, David Butler Cannata
has determined that the composer already had
5
Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, IV, 554.
6
Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A
Lifetime in Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
2001), pp. 35152.
1
Orlando Figes, Natashas Dance: A Cultural History of
Russia (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), p. 542.
2
Francis Maes, A History of Russian Music: From
Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans and
Erica Pomerans (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2002), p. 204.
3
Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), IV, 497, 553.
4
Viktor I. Seroff, Rachmaninoff (London: Cassell, 1951),
p. x.
249
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
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7
10
Andante Cantabile

dim.

cresc.

Example 2: Rachmaninov, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43, from Variation 18.
scription of the notebook in question, shows
how Rachmaninov rst sketched out the inver-
sion, with literal accuracy and without lyrical
allure, in A, the parallel major of Paganinis
original theme. But on the next staff Rachmani-
nov already took the liberty of transposing his
newly discovered melody into its eventual key,
D
,
major, the enharmonic equivalent of A
discovered and worked out the inversion in the
mid-1920s, nearly ten years before undertaking
the actual composition of the Rhapsody in
1934.
7
Example 3, taken from Cannatas tran-
7
David Butler Cannata, Rachmaninoff and the Symphony
(Innsbruck: Studienverlag, 2000), pp. 5659.
250
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
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13
rubato
dim.
Example 2 (continued)
9
One of the earlier Variations, no. 12, Tempo di menuetto,
also produces a dream- or oasislike effect in relation to the
Variations that surround it. As its tempo marking sug-
gests, this Variation is more lyrical and traditional in its
musical language than its neighbors.
8
See Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, II, 267
for a rst denition of this term, a term he invokes repeat-
edly in the ensuing text.
majors third degree, and began to make it more
songful. Thus Rachmaninov already had D
,
major in mind as a secondary tonalitywhat
Taruskin would call a far out point
8
long
before he began work on the Rhapsody. More-
over, the literalism of the inversion led natu-
rally to an expansion of this lyrical melody, a
doubling of its length, because the inversion,
instead of ending on the tonic like its thematic
source, can more easily be made to end on the
dominant; thus the new melody is no longer a
closed progression as in the surrounding Varia-
tions, but an antecedent phrase calling for a
continuation. Rachmaninov took advantage of
this characteristic by giving the antecedent
phrase with its half cadence to the solo piano,
only bringing in the orchestra for the conse-
quent. The Variation thus gains a spaciousness
that allows it even to linger on in a reective
codetta.
This most lyrical, most impassioned of the
Paganini Variations thus fades away like a
dream. And its beginning, too, in the way it
emerges from the preceding Variation, is dream-
like. That Variation, in B
,
minor, consists en-
tirely of upwardly arpeggiated chords articu-
lated as slowly rolling triplet gures, rising and
falling, often chromatically, from one chord to
the next as if to evoke a slowly swirling mist,
or perhaps even the near-stillness of sleep. At
the Variations end, the harmony oats up to
D
,
major as the triplets metamorphose into the
accompanimental gure for the famous melody.
In this way, as with the lyrical theme in the
rst of the Symphonic Dances, a trace of the
immediately preceding music is retained pal-
pably as the background against which the
newly arrived theme must inevitably be felt,
making it seem at least in part illusory, again
like a memory or a dream, rather than fully
actualized.
9
As I have already demonstrated, the central
episode of the rst of the Symphonic Dances is
also intimately connected, both motivically and
through immediate linkage, with the music
that surrounds it. Again like the famous
Paganini Variation, the new theme comes in a
similarly remote key, C

minor in a C-major
context. In both cases, the remoteness of the
key only underscores an affectiveand even
stylisticdisjunction, because the surrounding
music is distinctly more modern. Although
in both pieces the music remains anchored to
tonal cadences, and the sonorities to triadic
foundations, the treatment of dissonance and
the harmonic progressions that it engenders
251
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
are extremely free, often virtually unanalyzable
by traditional harmonic methods, and thus ini-
tially comprehensible only as explorations of
chromatic voice leading.
One need only examine the opening progres-
sions of both works to substantiate this claim
(ex. 4ab). Although these passages lead to au-
thentic cadences, the pre-dominant progressions
in both are understood more readily as prod-
ucts of chromatic voice leading than as func-
tional progressions. In the Rhapsody, a
^
5
^
6
gure, twice repeated in successively higher
octaves, is accompanied in the bass by a
stepwise ascent that rst produces parallel sev-
enths, then parallel fths, and nally parallel
tenths supporting root-position dominant-sev-
enth chords. These chromatically ascending
dominant sevenths engender three more in the
ensuing measures (mm. 68), culminating in
the dominant seventh of the home key, A mi-
nor, and leading to the rst Variation, a fore-
shadowing of the themes bass reminiscent of
Beethovens Eroica Variations. In the rst of
the Symphonic Dances, after the quiet opening
measures have four times anticipated the tri-
adic head motive of the theme-to-be on differ-
ent pitches (G
,
, D, A
,
, and A) against a chro-
matically descending background, a fortissimo
chain of major thirds descends chromatically,
interspersing major triads with minor through
an entire octave (ex. 4b, mm. 1013). The rst
half of the passage moves from
,
II/V to V
7
/V,
and the second half is a sequence leading from
,
II to V
7
of C minor, the home key. Two explo-
sive one-measure gestures intervene between
this dominant seventh and its resolution, the
rst articulating the vi of C major, the second
the VI of C minor. The entire passage comes
across as a reworks display of chromatically
linked coloristic triadic sonorities.
Although chromatic progressions prevail in
much late tonal music, very little of that ear-
lier music is so fully saturated with dissonant
or nonfunctional sonorities as in these ex-
amples, or in the music that ensues from them.
In their contexts, both the eighteenth Paganini
Variation and the central episode in the rst of
the Symphonic Dances emerge as dreams or
nostalgically lyrical oases, closely linked with
their surroundings motivically and gesturally
but set in palpable opposition to them not only
in their affective character but even in their
musical language. It is as if Rachmaninov is
revisiting in them not only a lost time and
place, or a lost love, butmore concretelya
lost musical style: the style of his early pub-
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8
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[3]

[3]
Example 3: Rachmaninovs initial manipulation of the Paganini theme,
adapted from David Butler Cannata, Rachmaninoff and the Symphony
(Innsbruck-Bozen: Studienverlag, 2000), p. 57. Reproduced by permission.
252
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
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6
Allegro vivace
INTRODUCTION
bassa
minor 7ths
P 5ths
M 10ths

VAR. I (Precedente) 1
a. Rachmaninov, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43 (reduction for two pianos by composer), mm. 112.
lished songs and of the enormously popular
Second Piano Concerto and Second Symphony.
10
In spite of these lyrical episodes, then, the
Symphonic Dances and the Rhapsody on a
Example 4
10
These speculations stand despite Rachmaninovs own
words about the Rhapsody. In 1937, three years after com-
pleting it, the composer wrote to the illustrious choreogra-
pher Mikhail Fokine to suggest that the Rhapsody might
serve for a ballet project that the two had discussed two
years earlier. Rachmaninov proposes a scenario for the
ballets realization: Why not resurrect the legend about
Paganini, who, for perfection in his art and also for a
woman, sold his soul to the Devil? All the variations on
the Dies Irae represent the Devil and those in the middle
from variation XI to XVIII are the love episodes. Paganini
himself appears in the Theme and, defeated, appears for
the last time, but conquered, in variation XXIIIthe rst
12 bars [these are the measures in A
,
]after which, until
the end of the composition [the music] represent[s] the
triumph of his conquerors. The rst appearance of the
Devil will be in variation VII [the rst emergence of Dies
Irae]. Variations VIII to X are the progress of the Devil
while XI is a transition to the domain of love. Variation
XII, the minuet, portrays the rst appearance of the woman,
XIII is the rst conversation between Paganini and the
woman, who is also present in the variations up to XVIII.
Variation XIX is the triumph of Paganinis art and his
diabolic pizzicato. (Quoted in Max Harrison, Rachmani-
noff: Life, Works, Recordings [London: Continuum, 2005],
p. 317.) Although Rachmaninovs scenario suits the music
reasonably well, one portion of it seems strikingly inapt:
the characterization of Variation 13 as the rst conversa-
tion between Paganini and the woman. With its percus-
sive and increasingly dissonant chords in the piano, what
kind of conversation might this ominously stentorian
reassertion of Paganinis theme conceivably represent?
Wouldnt seduction, rather than sadistic coercion, be
Paganinis ploy? It is also difcult to sense the asserted
presence of the woman, or of the presumably seductive
virtuoso, in the deep, slowly eddying chromaticism of Varia-
tion 17 from which the famous song of Variation 18
emerges. In assessing Rachmaninovs scenario, it is impor-
tant to remember that he devised it several years after
completing the Rhapsody, and that he devised it for the
specic purpose of realizing it as a ballet, in which every
musical gesture would become bodily movement. If
253
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
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q, q,
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II
V
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iv V
V
7
V VI
iii IV V VI
II
,
I vi VII iv V II
,
V
7
II
,
of
breaking of pattern
delays resolution of V

i
molto marcato

molto marcato
2








of VI
b. Rachmaninov, Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (reduction for two pianos by the composer), movt. I, mm. 1021.
Example 4 (continued)
Paganini rst sees the object of his desire in Variation 12,
then it is only practical and balletically feasible to read
Variation 13 as an interaction arising from that rst en-
counter, and one that can lead plausibly to the love scene
to follow. But Rachmaninov surely had no post-minuet
conversation in mind as he composed Variation 13, since
he allowed it to tread so heavily and ominously on the
heels of such delicate dancing shoes.
Theme of Paganini give ample evidence of a
marked stylistic evolution in Rachmaninovs
music, an evolution often overlooked in criti-
cal assessments of his compositional achieve-
ment. Even a cursory examination of his best-
known pieces for solo piano, the Preludes and
tudes-tableaux, shows this evolution quite
254
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
clearly. The Preludes, op. 23, composed in 1903,
two years after he reached his maturity with
the Second Piano Concerto, resemble it in their
opulent tonal idiom; richly textured and full of
expressive chromaticism, these Preludes are
fully comprehensible in terms of functional
tonal harmony. The second set, op. 32, com-
posed shortly after the Third Piano Concerto in
1910, contains passages more saturated with
chromaticism: note especially no. 1 in C major,
no. 2 ambiguously in B
,
minor, no. 6 in F minor
(a kind of musical equivalent to Auguste Rodins
Gates of Hell), no. 7 in F major, and no. 13 in
D
,
major. In addition, this second set of Pre-
ludes exhibits more motivic compression and a
more active engagement of textural elements
in the compositional process (e.g., the ostinati
in no. 5 in G major, and no. 12 in G

minor).
These later Preludes, while often still project-
ing a sense of ternary form, are nonetheless
almost completely through-composed, convey-
ing a feeling of narrativity or temporal irrevers-
ibility beyond that of their earlier counterparts.
11
The extent and freedom of chromaticism is
taken still further in the tudes-tableaux of
1911 and 1916, especially in the Prokoev-like
A-Minor tude, op. 39, no. 6, but also in the E
,
Minor, op. 33, no. 6, and in the rst and last
tudes of op. 39, in C minor and D major.
IV
Although giving evidence of these evolving
stylistic characteristics, a piece like the G

-
Minor Prelude from op. 32one of the more
old-fashioned of the setmight still be heard
by some as essentially nineteenth-century mu-
sic: melodious, minor, its harmony richly chro-
matic but never functionally ambiguous, its
textures lush and pianistic (ex. 5). But is this
piece from 1910 as fully in a nineteenth-cen-
tury idiom as one might take it to be? Close
scrutiny of this music conrms how beauti-
fully it exemplies nineteenth-century compo-
sitional ideals of harmonic and motivic devel-
opment within a Romantically poignant, chro-
matic idiom; but even here, Rachmaninov ar-
guably takes certain musical parameterstex-
tural variation especially, and perhaps even the
treatment of dissonancebeyond late-nine-
teenth-century norms.
The Prelude begins with a driving, open tonic-
and-fth ostinato, a galloping gure that swells
and diminishes before the melody, whose iam-
bic rhythm it pre-echoes, enters beneath it to
fall, and then immediately fall again, from
^
5 to
^
1, the second time already reaching a full ca-
dence (ex. 5a, m. 6). The main theme thus
begins with a closural gesture, conveying a sense
of pastness that suggests the beginning of a
narrative. But instead of furthering a sense of
that narrative right away, the phrase lingers
after its apparent cadence, as if already rumi-
nating on the story it is about to tell, or as if
the third-person narrator were also the rst-
person subject of a lyrical utterance, telling a
personal story but resisting the inevitable out-
come portended by the Preludes cadential open-
ing gesture. Especially poignant in the exten-
sion of the phrase is the low E (
^
6) with which it
begins, prolonged as a dissonance against the
ostinato for nearly four beats before it resolves
as the dominant of the Neapolitan, leading to
the phrases second fullbut somewhat attenu-
atedcadence. In the ensuing phrase, a yearn-
ing but eeting allusion to the relative major
(m. 12not shown) displaces the second of the
opening
^
5
^
1 melodic descents and leads to a
new continuation arising from the descending
^
3
^
1
^
5 cadential gure rst heard at the end of
the opening phrase (cf. mm. 8 and 13). This
time, another E, still dissonant against the con-
tinuing D

of the ostinato, supports a complete


E-minor triad, introducing a sonority that will
play a crucial role later in the Prelude. From
this E the melody rises through E

and F

to the
tonic and then beyond to the dominant degree
(ex. 5b, m. 16), a goal already intimated by the
D

in a B-major triad heard in m. 12.


These two opening phrases already suggest a
struggle between a musical protagonist and its
environment or its fate. Rachmaninov sets in
motion a conict between two temporal modes:
the languishing lyrical mode, suggested by the
falling melodic lines, and the directional, quasi-
narrative mode, suggested by the driving
ostinato. The temporal conict reveals itself in
the constant uctuations of tempo during the
11
On the linking of musical narrativity to temporal irre-
versibility, see especially Karol Berger, A Theory of Art
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 196202.
255
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
j

12
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7
Allegro

rit.
Meno mosso
accel.
a tempo rit.
Meno mosso
accel.
dim.
ten.
,

II
6
V
6
4 VI
(7)
7
5
3
II
6
V
7
i
dim.
i
a. mm. 18.
Example 5: Rachmaninov, Prelude in G

Minor, op. 32, no. 5.


opening section. For the rest of the Prelude, the
tonic-minor key becomes inescapable, not al-
lowing any brighter alternative to glimmer for
more than a brief moment.
The two-phrased opening section culminates
on the dominant (m. 16), which is then pro-
longed throughout the middle section, estab-
lishing a contrast with the falling tonic ca-
dences of the opening. Like an inexorable force,
the energy of the ostinato dominates this cen-
tral episode and impels the melodic motion,
which hesitates for breath for only two brief
moments (mm. 20 and 24). The texture thick-
ens and the voice leading intensies chromati-
cally, but the harmony remains xated on the
dominant, allowing for only the merest sugges-
tion of any other harmonic position, as if to
suggest a protagonist striving but unable to
break free of external forces and nd inner peace.
Hence, by harmonic criteria, there are no
phrases but only phases. In the rst of these
(ex. 5b, mm. 16ff.), it is as if the melodic pro-
tagonist attempts to take over the ostinato and
harness it to the individual will, driving it four
times into the same arching melodic call of a
minor third, D

, over a chromatically
descending inner-voice motion in parallel
sixths. Another B-major triad supports the rst
256
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
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(III) V
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V III
b. mm. 1621.
Example 5 (continued)
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quasi-vi present until m. 30
hemiola
c. mm. 2631.
257
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
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Meno mosso
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6 5 6
V
6
II
V
6
5

II

III
d. mm. 3639.
e. mm. 4244.
Example 5 (continued)
of these calls and lends its poignancy to the
following ones, which attempt to attenuate the
insistent drive of the ostinato. The chords
generated by the falling sixths have a distinc-
tive poignancy altogether characteristic of
Rachmaninov, quite like those that conclude
the early C

-Minor Prelude or open the C-Mi-


nor Piano Concerto of 1901.
After the fourth call, the ostinato recedes
temporarily into an accompanimental role, al-
lowing the melodic voice to ow forth more
freely, now in the upper register. In the sweep
of the ensuing phase (starting at mm. 20ff. in
ex. 5b) chromatically rising bass lines overlap
with and buoy up a sequence of diatonically
falling melodic gestures. From the fading of
these gestures, a new and longer phase emerges
(mm. 24ff.). Here the contrary motion of the
outer voices reverses direction, upper and lower
voices now pitted against each other as equals
in a series of voice exchanges, and the passage
rises sequentially as the ostinato, in a new guise,
recovers its force. In the approach to the cli-
max, Rachmaninov builds dissonant tension
by reintroducing the sound of the E-minor triad
against the D

dominant pedal (ex. 5c, m. 26),


allowing this sonority to intensify for nearly
ve full measures, at which point the level of
dissonance grows still greater in the climactic
measure (m. 30). The chord in the second beat
contains B, C

, D

, E, F

, and G, to which the


following beat adds a low A, thus simulta-
neously sounding a complete acoustic scale.
From this sonority the dominant background-
harmony reemerges into the foreground
(m. 31), becoming more tense and insistent as
the passage culminates in a veritable explo-
sion. A still insistent, chromatically descend-
258
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
ing hemiola gure reinforces the momentous
effect of this culmination.
The outcome is a forcible reestablishment of
the tonic harmony, marked by a fortissimo re-
turn of the ostinato at its original level (m. 34).
Apart from that return, with its implication of
a ternary formal plan, the quasi-narrative ur-
gency of this music allows for no strictly literal
repetition. The opening of the theme reemerges
an octave lower than before, doubled by a still
deeper octave (ex. 5d, m. 36), but is then imme-
diately mirrored by the correspondingly higher
octave transposition of its second subphrase
(m. 38), as if the resignation that this theme
both betokens and resists has now overtaken
the entire registral space. Returning to the lower
register, a new answering phrase recalls and
develops the melodic ascent rst heard at the
end of the opening section (cf. mm. 1415, not
shown, with mm. 3940). Still meno mosso
and entirely given over to the sighing, iambic
motive with which the theme began, the
melody now rises up gradually and imploringly,
rst via an ascending 65 series, then via
arpeggiation of the tonic triad, through that
registral space, culminating in a bleak E-minor
harmony (ex. 5e, m. 43), in which the lyrical
protagonist meets its destiny, its voice nally
fused with the fateful narrative implications of
the ostinato. The G

of this chord immediately


transforms itself into an F

, the leading tone of


the structural dominant. The resulting har-
monic progression from vi to V composes out
the opening
^
6
^
5 melodic motive of the Prelude,
after which a nal quiet return of the ostinato
sweeps the music into the distance, only con-
rming a sense of its remoteness in time, its
lyrical voice lost.
Whether or not one agrees with my particu-
lar characterization of this Preludes course,
one cannot deny, I think, the presence of a
highly nuanced musical drama unfolding from
its rst note to its last, a drama to which no
aspect of the musicmelody, harmony, tex-
ture, register, dynamics, or tempois inciden-
tal. The music is unusually well composed, a
not especially original observation since even
his harshest critics are willing to concede that
Rachmaninov really knew what he was doing.
And what he was up to was not merely the
painting of a mood picture, but the unfurling of
a tightly controlled line of dramatic develop-
ment. The Prelude is unique, of course, and
imbued with Rachmaninovs individuality; but
is there anything new about it, anything that
reects its actual date of composition? As rela-
tively novel features I might propose the degree
of independence of the ostinato (which func-
tions as a virtual agent with shifting roles rather
than as a mere background gure), the con-
stantly evolving play of pianistic textures, the
unusual richness of foreground harmonic and
contrapuntal activity, and the extended prolon-
gation of striking dissonances against an audi-
bly stationary harmonic background. In these
respects Rachmaninovs music certainly had
developed since the time of his rst Prelude,
and even since the time of his Second Piano
Concerto and the rst collection of Preludes.
And as his music continued to develop after
1910, the evolutionary changes it underwent
became more obvious. Many of these changes,
evident in the passages from the Rhapsody on
a Theme of Paganini and the Symphonic
Dances, had already occurred by the time
Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. The opening
stanzas of Son, a song composed at about that
time and discussed in the next section of this
article, will provide further evidence for this
claim.
In identifying this evolution, I do not mean
to devalue Rachmaninovs earlier music any
more than I would devalue the early music of
other composers. Rachmaninov was too accom-
plished a musician not to draw on a broadening
range of stylistic possibilities as he grew older;
some of them inevitably stem from the musi-
cal exploration and experimentation of his con-
temporaries. But it does Rachmaninov a disser-
vice to claim that his musical evolution brought
him closer to a modernist aesthetic. He never
abandoned functional tonality, for example, as
a fundamental structure; he simply managed to
bring an ever-wider range of foreground and
middleground harmonic progressions and tonal
effects under its control. It was in his ability to
draw so many new and original tonal congu-
rations and textures into a traditional tonal
framework, to a degree that surpassed the more
traditionally minded of his contemporaries, that
Rachmaninovs special talents came to their
fullest fruition.
259
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
V
I would like to underscore the extent of this
evolution by comparing Rachmaninovs use of
a highly characteristic device, extended chro-
matic motion, in a well-known song of 1893 to
his use of the same device in a song composed
in 1916, the year before he left Russia forever.
The early song is Ne poi, krasavitsa, a set-
ting of a classic poem by Pushkin (ex. 6) in
which the speaker implores a woman who sings
in his presence to stop, insisting that the memo-
ries her singing evokesmemories of a maiden
he was forced to leave behindare too painful
to bear. In one of his essays in Dening Russia
Musically, Taruskin disparages this song as an
exaggerated musical expression of nega, the
erotic lure of the East.
12
I have to confess that I
have always liked this song and consider it a
remarkable enough achievement for a nineteen-
year-old composer. In any case, the theme of
loss and homesickness predominates in the text
over that of nega; and for the expression of that
predominant theme, Rachmaninovs long, la-
menting chromatic inner-voice descent in par-
allel thirds is completely appropriate and
unexaggerated, even as it metamorphoses into
the singers inarticulate wail at the songs cli-
max. Rachmaninov admitted that brighter
moods did not come easily to him, and the near
ubiquity in his music of such chromatic voice
leading helps to substantiate that claim. Even
so, the range of moods to which this chromati-
cism became apposite for him, and the har-
monic experimentation that it permitted, ex-
panded enormously in the course of his compo-
sitional career. Eventually such chromaticism
could embrace both the savagery of the already
mentioned tude-tableau, op. 39, no. 6, in a
barely recognizable A minor, and the quiet won-
der at the opening of the song Son, op. 38, no. 5
(ex. 7).
13
In this song, as in the tude, the root
progression underlying the rst two verses is
almost impossible to discern; but the gradual
chromatic descent that subtly connects each
12
Richard Taruskin, Dening Russia Musically: Historical
and Hermeneutical Essays (Princeton: Princeton Univer-
sity Press, 1997), pp. 15866.
13
The primary meaning of this Russian word, usually ren-
dered as Dreams in English translations of the poems
title, is sleep.
gesture to the next confers on the opening
phrases a delicate, again Debussyean sort of
coherence.
It is worth pausing over Son since the set-
ting of the second and nal pair of its stanzas
contrasts markedly with that of the rst pair in
a way that reects Rachmaninovs stylistic evo-
lution and anticipates the stylistic disjunctions
I have identied in the Paganini Rhapsody and
the Symphonic Dances. Whereas the setting of
the rst half of the poem is spare and harmoni-
cally elusive, that of the second becomes ex-
traordinarily full and tonally grounded. Con-
sideration of the poem itself (by Fyodor Sologub)
illuminates some of the different meanings
these styles might have held for Rachmaninov:
Son (Sleep)
V mre net nichev
Vojdelnniye sn
Char est u nev
U nev tishin
U nev na ustkh
Ni pechl i ne smkh
U v bezdnnich ochkh
Mnoga tinikh utkh
U nev shirak
Shirak dva kril
I legk, tak legk
Kak polnchnaya mgl
Ne panyt kak necyt
I kud i na chym
On krilm ne vzmakhnyt
I ne dvnet plechm
(In the world is nothing
More desired [than] sleep
Enchantments has it
It has peace
It has on [its] lips
Neither sorrow nor laughter
And in [its] fathomless eyes
Many secret pleasures
It has wide
Wide two wings
And light, so light
As midnight mist
[One] cannot understand how [it] carries
And where and on what
It [with its] wing does not ap
And does not move [its] shoulder)
(my translation)
260
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
The rst two stanzas evoke the magical still-
ness of sleep, personifying it as a desired but
silent companion with sublimely discreet lips
and fathomless, benevolently seductive eyes.
In the ensuing two stanzas, which open from
the stillness of sleep into the world of dreams,
we learn that sleep also has wings, and conse-
quently the capacity for movement; but, para-
doxically, this winged companion can carry us
far and wide without ever opening those wings
or even lifting its shoulders. Music, of course,
has neither wings nor shoulders, yet Rachmani-
nov avowed in an interview that he could never
accept the dependence of certain modernist
styles on calculation, and that the purpose of
music was to exult, to transport us: in other
words to lend us its wings.
14
In Rachmaninovs setting, after the evoca-
tion of stillness in the rst half through slow
chromatic descents (from D
,
to B
,
in the melody,
and all the way from G
,
to B
,
in an inner voice:
the pitches are circled in ex. 7), the pianistic
guration proliferates. When the voice reenters
in canon with a line in the pianos tenor regis-
ter (mm. 2223), the two voices in imitation
presumably represent sleeps two wide wings.
The music returns here to a luxuriant idiom
14
Bertensson and Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff, pp. 35152.
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Example 6: Rachmaninov, Ne poi, krasavitsa, op. 4, no. 4, mm. 111.


261
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
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ln - ni - ye sn, Cha - r est u ne -
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11
Lento

dim.
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Example 7: Rachmaninov, Son, op. 38, no. 5, mm. 127.
262
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
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ch kh Mno - ga ti - nikh u -
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17
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poco cresc.
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20

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dim.

j
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, `
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U ne - v shi - ra - k, Shi - ra
Shi - ning wings do they bear, Far out -
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22

rit.
cantabile
Meno mosso
legato
marcato la melodia


`
rit. et dim.
Example 7 (continued)
263
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
j
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k dva kri - l, I leg - k, tak leg -
spread - ing, so light, As they float thro the
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k, Kak pol - nch - na - ya
air In the sha - dow - y
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mgl. Ne pan yt nec - yt -
night Tho their pi - nions
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24
26
27

cresc.
be
more characteristic of the younger Rachmani-
nov, its more functionally dynamic harmony
also responding to the implication of directed
motion in that poetic image. The rst two vo-
cal gestures begin to soar, and the third ascends
all the way through a major tenth from G
,
to B
,
before falling back to the tonic pitch, D
,
(m.
27). But the cadence beneath the voice is decep-
tive, its harmonic goal wrenched away. A full
cadence on the tonic ensues discreetly at the
end of the next and nal stanza, its quiet glow
perpetuated in an elaborate coda. But the most
affecting moment of the song, for me, is that
deceptive cadence, reecting not only the illu-
soriness of sleeps wings and of the journeys on
which they take us, but also the transience of
musical styles and the ethereal magic of musi-
cal resolution.
Example 7 (continued)
264
19
TH
CENTURY
MUSIC
The music and text of this song provide a
template for interpreting Rachmaninovs sub-
sequent returns to an earlier, more purely tonal
style in his later instrumental works. In the
song, the more opulent, more directed harmony
of the last two stanzas transports the subject of
the text from one meaning of the Russian word
son to the other, from the disembodied still-
ness of sleep into the world of dreams, a world
of magically transformed memories. In the
Rhapsody, the way the famous D
,
-major theme
emerges from the slowly eddying shrouds of
the darkly chromatic Variation preceding it also
suggests a transport, in this case from a death-
like sleep into an animated dreaming, or from
an indenite brooding rumination into a cher-
ished memory. By contrast, the recovered
memory in the rst of the Symphonic Dances,
with its modal harmonies, its oating, proselike
rhythms and its reliance on short repeated mo-
tives is more Russian in character. As the driv-
ing, relentlessly chromatic mirskaya muzika
(worldly music) of the rst section subsides,
the subject journeys back into the nostalgic
serdechnuyiu musiku (music of the heart) of
the middle section. The more old-fashioned
music, the music redolent of an earlier style, is
thus diffracted and contextualized through the
more contemporary sounding music that sur-
rounds it.
VI
It would be misleading, however, to claim
that as Rachmaninov grew older his music sim-
ply became polarized into the two styles I have
contrasted as modern and traditional. Even
within this dichotomy, I have already suggested
that the more modern style, which retains a
functional harmonic framework, can hardly be
called modernist. Now I might add that the
traditional passages I have described, for all
their lushness and predominantly diatonic har-
mony, are nonetheless discernibly distinct in
character from Rachmaninovs earlier music.
They are more purely diatonic harmonically
and disjunct melodically in both cases in part
because of the ways they are derived from, and
at the same time set in opposition to, the mu-
sic surrounding them. The musics traditional
and modernist elements are stylized in ways
that might be viewed as paralleling the styliza-
tions of classical and modernist elements in
the roughly contemporaneous Art Deco move-
ment.
15
At the same time, much of Rachmaninovs
music, even in his last compositions, is at nei-
ther of these extremes, but instead negotiates a
more gradual and continuous trajectory between
them. This is the case both in Rachmaninovs
late music, as in the second and third of the
Symphonic Dances, and in much of the earlier
music as well. An especially striking example
is The Isle of the Dead, composed in 1909, in
which strands of vaguely suggested melody
gradually emerge from a haunting and all-per-
vasive ostinato in quintuple meter. The aura of
indistinctness in this music once again has
much in common with the music of Debussy,
even though the obsessively melancholic effect
is altogether un-Debussyean. Some passages in
The Bells, the choral-orchestral cantata of
1913, even sound like Debussy, but they are
seamlessly integrated into musical surround-
ings that only Rachmaninov could have envis-
aged.
In a letter of 1932, Rachmaninov expressed
an unapologetically Romantic conception of his
art: What is music!? How can one dene it?
Music is a calm moonlit night, a rustling of
summer foliage. Music is the distant peal of
bells at eventide! Music is born only in the
heart and it appeals only to the heart; it is
Love! The sister of Music is Poesy, and its
mother is Sorrow!
16
His comments in a 1941
interview for the periodical The Etude, although
more down-to-earth, are consistent with those
just quoted:
I have no sympathy with the composer who pro-
duces works according to preconceived formulas or
preconceived theories. Or with the composer who
writes in a certain style because it is the fashion to
do so. Great music has never been produced in that
wayand I dare say it never will. Music should, in
the nal analysis, be the expression of a composers
complex personality. . . . A composers music should
15
I owe this comparison to a comment made by Thomas
Grey in the discussion following a talk on Rachmaninov
that I gave at Stanford University in November 2004.
16
Bertensson and Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff, p. 291.
Rachmaninov wrote this passage in response to Walter E.
Koonss request for a denition of music.
265
CHARLES
FISK
The Case of
Rachmaninov
express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his
religion, the books which have inuenced him, the
pictures he loves. It should be the product of the
sum total of a composers experience. . . .
In my own compositions, no conscious effort has
been made to be original, or Romantic, or National-
istic, or anything else. I write down on paper the
music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. . . .
What I try to do . . . is to make it say as simply and
directly what is in my heart when I am composing.
17
As articulations of an aesthetic philosophy,
these words can easily be taken as intellectu-
ally unsophisticated, even naive. Considering
them seriously can make one wonder how
Rachmaninov came to produce music of such
great complexity, covering as wide a stylistic
range as, in fact, it did. But perhaps the most
revealing word in the lines above comes in his
reference to a composers complex personal-
ity. Although Rachmaninov longed for the
Russia where he had come of age, retreating
whenever possible into an ostensibly simple
and traditional domestic environment, his pro-
fessional, musical, and therefore emotional, life
was complicated and demanding in modern
ways that made it difcult for him to nd the
time and energy to compose, or even to rest for
any signicant period. In his later years, com-
position became a kind of refuge from his ex-
tremely demanding schedule of travel and con-
certizing; composing became an opportunity to
gather himself, to recall and reimagine who he
was and whence he had come. In the passages
from the Symphonic Dances and Rhapsody
with which I began, the conict that Rach-
maninov must have felt between his outer and
inner lives, between worldly care and inner
necessity, nds especially poignant expression.
Drawing from the extremes of his stylistic
range, reverting temporarily to an earlier com-
positional manner and juxtaposing it with the
kind of musical language he developed later in
his career, Rachmaninov captures in his music
the poignancy of his longing for a never-to-be-
recovered world and mode of expression, and
thus the existential complexity of his own cul-
tural and historical position: that of an endan-
gered species in a new world, a composer who
responded to every new discovery by adapting
it to the musical language he had learned in his
homeland at the end of the nineteenth century;
but one whose music not only was written but
could only have been written in the
twentieth.
Abstract.
In two of Rachmaninovs last works, the Rhapsody
on a Theme of Paganini of 1934 and the rst of the
Symphonic Dances of 1940, a stylistic contrast
between an opulently scored lyrical theme and the
more angular, dissonant music that surrounds that
theme throws into relief the extent that Rach-
maninovs musical language had changed and devel-
oped since his rst great successes thirty years ear-
lier with the Second Piano Concerto and the Second
Symphony. The words that motivate a similar sty-
listic contrast in the song Son (Sleep), composed in
1917, near the end of his most compositionally pro-
ductive years, suggest an interpretive reading of such
a stylistic contrast: the earlier, lusher style is associ-
ated here with dreams, and hence with memories;
while the later, sparer, more tonally ambiguous style
accompanies an evocation of something more im-
personal, in the case of the song the stillness of a
dreamless sleep. Some of the developing aspects of
Rachmaninovs style revealed in these later examples
are already evident even in the more traditional-
sounding pieces of the last decade (190717) of his
Russian period, which is shown in an analysis of the
piano Prelude in G

Minor of 1910. Even this seem-


ingly traditional Prelude, but more and more in his
later music, Rachmaninov emerges as an indisput-
ably twentieth-century composer.
Key words: Rachmaninov, Symphonic Dances, Rhap-
sody on a Theme of Paganini, Son, Prelude in G

Minor.
l
17
Ibid., pp. 36869. The interview was conducted by David
Ewen.