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Rachmaninoff's dark side: Can great artistry exist without the agony of perfectionism?

Rachmaninoff’s music is adored the world over, but he was plagued with self-doubt.

By Jessica Duchen (Journalist/Author)

26 January 2016 at 3.00pm | 9 Comments

When music magazines compile lists of the Greatest Pianists of All Time (or similar impossibilities), Sergei Rachmaninoff is often named as number one. As both composer and performer, he was unrivalled, matching inspiration with craftsmanship, brilliant technique with rigorous personal standards.

His contemporaries, on hearing him play, often remarked on the beauty of his tone quality, its singing nature and its variety of colour. ‘That is the most important thing for me in my interpretations, colour’, he once explained. ‘So you make music live. Without colour, it is dead.’

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the work to which Frederick Ashton’s ballet Rhapsody is set, exemplifies the joint marvel of Rachmaninoff’s crafts as composer and pianist. The piano writing – terrifically difficult – requires grace, flexibility, precision, tenderness and, of course, colour, within a casing of dazzling virtuosity. Ashton matches it throughout the ballet with the extravagant demands he places upon his dancers.

Rachmaninoff’s mastery, though, had a psychological dark side. Born in 1873, he came from a less than happy family – his father was a compulsive gambler – and early studies did not serve him well. He finally began to find his feet at the Moscow Conservatory, and an early friendship with the celebrated Tchaikovsky, who championed his works, was a valuable boost. But in 1897 the disastrous premiere of his first symphony plunged him into despair and resulted in a serious creative block.

‘My dreams of a brilliant career lay shattered’, he wrote. ‘My hopes and confidence were destroyed.’ The issue was only solved by a course of ‘autosuggestion’, a form of hypnotherapy, with Dr Nikolai Dahl; this enabled the suffering composer to write his now immortal Second Piano Concerto. It is dedicated to Dr Dahl.

By the time Rachmaninoff came to write the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, though, his life – and his world – had changed beyond recognition. Before the Russian Revolution of 1917 he saw himself as a composer first and foremost; performing took second place. But when the revolution broke out, he and his family were forced to flee first to Sweden and subsequently to New York. During the 1930s they lived in Switzerland until the approach of World War II sent them heading once more for the USA.

Rachmaninoff never saw his beloved homeland again. Exile was a painful state for him, for his inspiration was deeply rooted in Russia and its music. Besides, he needed to make a living – and found himself in unprecedented demand as a concert pianist. His busy international career soon left him little time or peace for composing. The rate at which he composed dropped dramatically.

Nevertheless, the works he did produce during his association with the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 1930s are among his finest – among them the Symphonic Dances, the Third Symphony and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for which Rachmaninoff was the soloist at the 1934 premiere. He himself envisaged it as a Paganini-related ballet and wrote to the choreographer Mikhail Fokine outlining ideas for it.

It was not necessarily the pain of exile, though, or the pressures of his performing career, that dragged the composer to occasional depths. According to the American music critic Harold C. Schonberg, Rachmaninoff once told the pianist Vladimir Horowitz that all his life he had ‘tried to succeed in three things – composition, piano playing and conducting – and had succeeded in none’.

Most audiences would beg to disagree, quite vehemently. But Rachmaninoff was his own harshest critic. ‘I am constantly troubled by the misgiving that, in venturing into too many fields, I may have failed to make the best of my life’, he once said. ‘In the old Russian phrase, I have “hunted three hares”. Can I be sure that I have killed one of them?’

Rachmaninoff’s perfectionism, interestingly enough, was echoed by Ashton – who apparently arrived for the premiere of Rhapsody in 1980 ‘absolutely pea-green’ with anxiety. He, too, was probably his own harshest critic. Can great artistry exist without that agony of perfectionism? The audience benefits; the artist is bound to suffer…

Rhapsody was performed as part of a mixed programme with The Two Pigeons until 30 January 2016.

This article has 9 comments

  1. Pam Bergner responded on 27 January 2016 at 5:44am Reply

    Any article highlights facts i never knew in this case about Sergei Rachmaninoff. Then, hearing him play, with what was just highlighted in the article, lets me listen for the writer's points of view. So of course I appreciate this article. Hearing him play? I extend total energy listening; sometimes im brought to tears. Other times he just leaves me in a gazillion pieces,and when they slowly come back together I am a new softer more humble and sensitive me. I know i share personal reactions. But his music totally makes me a better person.

  2. William Swales responded on 27 January 2016 at 12:11pm Reply

    Love your article (and thank you for the link to the Rachmaninov recording - spellbinding).

    Rachmaninov and other notables recorded ‘piano rolls’ for the Ampico ‘reproducing piano’. This is no ordinary ‘player’ piano such as the ‘Pianola’ upright piano found in refreshment establishments – the majestic Ampico is a full-size grand piano that faithfully records the FULL dynamic range of the instrument – including the operation of the three dynamic and sustain pedals. I have a CD containing performances from Liszt and others (including Rachmaninoff) and I suspect a search for ‘Ampico reproducing piano’ in YouTube will reveal many to behold.

    You deliberate ‘Can great artistry exist without that agony of perfectionism?’ I believe that perfectionism drives the dedication it requires to create great art – always assuming that the artist has the gift and capability within them to pursue the art in the first place – as Rachmaninoff clearly did. Segovia famously said ‘If you do not possess hard nails or independent flexibility of the fingers, you are wasting your time trying to learn the guitar because you will never master it’.

    On your reflection ‘The audience benefits; the artist is bound to suffer’, we have only to look at people such as Gustav Klimpt. Here was a man who was commissioned to paint ‘artistic representations’ of medicine; philosophy; and jurisprudence on behalf of the Vienna University – and all three were rejected because they spoke the TRUTH (so much for jurisprudence – the interrelationship between truth, justice, and law).

    Klimpt’s painting of medicine showed that through medicine we can DELAY death – but we cannot cheat it forever.

    Klimpt’s painting of philosophy showed ‘philosophers’ floating in a void of delusion and contradiction – with a woman (at the bottom of the masterwork) facing downwards in dismay, smiling knowingly - having turned her back on the idiots who have talked and written absolute balderdash and not contributed anything worthwhile to advance society or humankind.

    Klimpt’s painting of jurisprudence depicts three female figures – representing truth, justice, and law respectively – looking down at ‘the three furies’ and a bound MALE being held by an octopus – depicting the ‘entanglement’ – the same entanglement we see depicted in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ when – having learnt that Aurora will be sent into a deep sleep if she pricks her finger – the king passes a LAW that makes it illegal for anyone to possess a needle – like it is their fault Aurora is in her dilemma; and this carries the penalty of DEATH (so much for justice and fairness) rather than tell Aurora the TRUTH so that she may avoid such things – and woe betide her if she doesn’t listen – one of the many allegories contained within this marvellous prophetic fable.

    What happened? Klimpt’s astonishing paintings were rejected by the faculty; they were later seized by the Nazis and destroyed; and copies were installed on the roof of the university on the centenary of Klimpt’s birth.

    Truth will out!

  3. Steven Ledbetter responded on 27 January 2016 at 6:54pm Reply

    Rachmaninoff was certainly highy regarded as s conductor in Boston Indeed, the Boston Symphony twice offered him the music directorship and discussed making the offer a third time, afs=ter Walr War I, when it was decided that any Russian might be taken as as potential revolutionary (oh, the irony!) and therefore run into trouble in the USA.

  4. I am deeply impressed by the beauty of the music that Rachmaninoff wrote in spite of (or perhaps because of) what he had to go through. Thank you for sharing this!

  5. Wayne Redhart responded on 28 January 2016 at 12:33am Reply

    Far from recording the "full" dynamic range of the instrument, ampicos largely recorded no dynamics at all- which is why the piano rolls are almost all utterly dead sounding, compared to the acoustics. Only in later ampico recordings were they recorded properly at source, such as the roll of the Elegie. Even here the hints of a great performance are still a world apart from his true sound as a player. Don't be fooled by any hype.

  6. William Swales responded on 1 February 2016 at 2:05pm Reply

    @ Wayne Redheart

    To you sir I say this:

    The author of the article very kindly provided a link so that we could hear Rachmaninoff play.

    I provided little-known information about the Ampico reproducing piano to enlighten readers to other means of hearing the great man perform.

    Have you ever heard an Ampico reproducing piano being played ‘live’? I have on many occasions – and they are astonishing machines that effortlessly deliver a HUGE dynamic range. Listen to Percy Grainger playing George Gershwin’s ‘Love walked in’ and be amazed. Benjamin Grovener must have heard this roll – because he played the EXACT ‘note-for-note’ arrangement on ‘The last night of the proms’ last year to a hushed audience of many thousands – and a guy in the front row seat could be seen wiping away tears uncontrollably streaming from his eyes.

    Many of the rolls were recorded by musical GIANTS such as Chopin and Liszt – and bear in mind that this was the ONLY way to preserve their talent - so that what they wrote and played could be preserved forever and ‘reproduced’ ‘on demand’.

    Finally – these are remarkable machines - ‘the proof is in the pudding’ and readers need only visit YouTube to see and hear Ampico pianos for themselves – and be their OWN judge.

    Enjoy your day.

    [Edited by a moderator to conform to Community Guidelines]

    • Wayne responded on 11 March 2016 at 2:47am

      Congratulations on missing the point. Which was that dynamics were not RECORDED. The reason most rolls sound next to nothing like his acoustics is because the dynamics were added externally. Hardly a process that captures the subtlety of a pianists sound. Any fool can make a big dynamic range,by making some notes loud and some quiet. The point is whether it reflects the actual nuance of the true performance. Well, it doesn't, because the true nuance couldn't even be detected until the later and more sophisticated ampico technology.

      PS if you think chopin and Liszt recorded ampicos, you may want to do a little more research.

  7. On so many occasions I end up setting the record straight about player pianos. What a shame that forum correspondents are so frequently rude to each other! I have written an almost complete series of detailed articles on the recording of dynamics for the reproducing piano, published in successive issues of the Pianola Journal. I have one left to go, the Duo-Art, and the Ampico was the latest I have so far written. Wayne Redheart's use of English is imprecise, when he asserts that Ampico dynamics were not recorded. The verb "record" has a long history, and audio recording is only one of its many meanings. The recording angel, sitting at the gates of Heaven to record those who do not share my atheistic tendencies, was writing names down in a book, as I understand it, not holding a microphone so that the entrants could call out their identities as they passed through.

    Ampico dynamics were recorded in one of three ways, depending on the period in which they were made. The original inventor of the Ampico, Charles Fuller Stoddard, applied for a patent in 1908 (US 1095128) for a "Method of Recording Musical Tones", by means of which the duration of the downward travel of each relevant piano key (regarded at the time as the inverse of the dynamic content) was drawn as a line on a moving roll, with the duration of the resulting note as a continuation of that line, once the hammer had reached its rebound position. That is just as much a form of recording as a microphone and a tape machine, for example. You may not like the result, but your dislike does not negate the nomenclature of the process.

    There is not enough space here to go into the entire history of Ampico recording, but anyone interested can find out some of the detail on the Pianola Institute website, which I write. Those of us who value piano rolls, with all their faults (and any recording process has faults, which I, as a trainee Decca recording engineer in my teens, remember only too well), are beset by one enormous problem nowadays, namely YouTube. There is no supreme being who allows only good performances to make it on to YouTube, or on to CD, for that matter, and the reproducing piano has suffered greatly. There are very few indeed, in the whole world, which play as they once did.

    Somehow I don't think that Rachmaninoff was kidnapped by Ampico, and forced to record music rolls against his will. He had an Ampico grand piano at his house in New Jersey, and he had a foot-pedalled pianola at his country estate at Ivanovka, neither of which ownerships was used as any form of publicity by the relevant companies. Those are hardly the actions of someone who disapproves of his piano roll transcriptions or recordings.

    In an age when the likes of Lang Lang can perform piano music without a shred of subtlety, I for one am very glad to have Rachmaninoff's piano rolls, as a component part of his overall recordings, to remind me how wonderful piano playing once used to be. Since Jessica Duchen's article concerned the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for which Rachmannoff made no rolls, as it came more or less after the demise of the Ampico, I'll finish by mentioning that I once transcribed and perforated rolls of the entire work from the two-piano score. Rachmaninoff is the pivotal composer in my life, a gentle giant of a man, with a sense of mischief and a warm humanity that miraculoously survived the appalling destruction of Ivanovka in the Revolution, and it grieves me that his recordings are not understood and enjoyed for what they are, rather than rejected for what they aren't.

  8. Wayne Redhart responded on 21 January 2017 at 10:04pm Reply

    Rex, it says plain as day in the Decca issue of the rolls that dynamics were not captured at source until 1926. I don't know about this supposed patent, but judging from the poor results of most Ampico rolls it evidently wasn't in use.

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