Success as a pianist and conductor placed heavy burdens on Sergey Rachmaninov.
The composer's crowded concert schedule during the autumn and winter of 1912
certainly offered little space for rest or recovery. Exhaustion temporarily checked the
flow of his demanding career that December. He cancelled the last in a series of
conducting engagements in Moscow and travelled soon after with his wife and
daughters to Switzerland for a month's holiday and on to Rome. The change of scene and release from performance commitments supplied Rachmaninoff with ideal
conditions for creative work, the energy of which he channelled into the sketches
for a new choral symphony, Kolokola (The Bells). When both his daughters contracted typhoid fever in Italy, Rachmaninoff took them to Berlin in search of
expert medical help and remained there until the girls were well enough to make the
journey to his country estate, Ivanovka, around 250 miles south east of Moscow.
"My children are now, thank God, quite well," he wrote to the poet Marietta
Shaginyan in July 1913. "As for myself, I have been able to work [at Ivanovka] the
whole day for the last three months. Whenever this work is too much for me, I get
into my car and fly about 50 versts [one verst = 0.66 mile] from here to the open
air of the highway. I breathe the air and bless freedom and the blue sky. After such
an air bath I feel bolder and stronger." Life's full intensity was mirrored in The Bells
and flowed into the score of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Sonata. The composer
completed the sonata's opening at Ivanovka in August and set the seal on its two
companion movements following his return to Moscow in September.
Four days after conducting the first performance of The Bells in St Petersburg on 30
November, Rachmaninoff gave the premiere of his new sonata in Moscow. One
hostile critic, a partisan supporter of modern developments in music, declared that
the work "has no interesting or profound ideas, and exterior pianistic virtuosity
dominates its musical potential ..." He did, however, commend the "fresh, and for Rachmaninoff, rather unusual harmonies and counterpoint". Even the composer found
fault with his work in later life, declaring dissatisfaction "with the setting" and
comparing it unfavourably with Chopin's celebrated B minor piano sonata. "Chopin's
sonata lasts nineteen minutes and all has been said," he confessed to the
musicologist Alfred J. Swan in the early 1930s. Rachmaninoff returned to his original
score in 1931 and systematically revised its contents, trimming extended virtuoso
passages, thinning textures and reducing the composition's overall length by 120
bars. Much of the revision process involved condensing existing material, although
Rachmaninoff also deleted long passages in the first and final movements and
compressed more than twenty bars of the slow movement into the space of thirteen.
It left a taut work, still romantic and technically demanding but more focused in form
than its predecessor of 1913.
Strong echoes of The Bells sound in the Piano Sonata in B flat minor, clearly so in the
bell-like descending scales present in its Allegro agitato. The opening movement's
main theme, with its emphatic introductory iamb rhythm (da-dum) and yearning
melodic line, supplies rich material for the elegiac second subject and generally
serves as a unifying force throughout the work. Rachmaninoff makes good use of
counterpoint to develop his thematic material, building dramatic intensity as the
movement progresses toward its chiming climax. A tender melody, marked Non allegro, meanders and modulates its short course from the second movement's
opening to the statement of its Lento theme in E minor, source of a wonderfully
fluent set of variations. The movement closes with a return of material based on the
first movement's main theme, cast here as a languid melody that fades away to leave
the final say to its gentle E major accompaniment. The seven-bar Non allegro melody
surfaces again as the finale's introduction, modulating to C major to provide the
launch pad for a spectacular B-flat major Allegro molto. Rachmaninoff develops
aspects of his Non allegro and Allegro molto themes, interweaving them with other
ideas before crowning his work with a thrilling presto coda.
Within days of Rachmaninoff's arrival in New York in November 1918 as an exile
from Bolshevik Russia, the Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler arrived at the Sherry-
Netherland Hotel on Fifth Avenue to greet his famous Russian colleague. The two
men went on to become good friends, performing and recording together and
reflecting their mutual appreciation in transcriptions of each other's compositions.
In May 1931, having revised his Second Piano Sonata, Rachmaninoff began a set of
variations for solo piano. It appears likely that Kreisler supplied the work's theme,
complete with its false attribution to the virtuoso violinist and influential composer
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). Rachmaninoff in return dedicated his new score to
Kreisler. The Variations on a Theme of Corelli, completed on 19 June 1931 at the
composer's rented holiday villa in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines, to the south west of
Paris, opens with an unadorned statement of the first sixteen bars of Corelli's
Sonata No.12 in D minor, Op.5, itself based on the anonymous 'folia' melodic and
Over the span of twenty brief variations, Rachmaninoff evolves and gradually
deconstructs his chosen theme using a dazzling array of melodic, harmonic and
modal elaborations. "All this mad running about is necessary in order to efface the
theme," he told Alfred J. Swan while playing his Variations. When he had finished he
looked at his hands and said, "The blood-vessels on my fingertips have begun to
burst; bruises are forming." While Rachmaninoff suggested that the damage was
probably the consequence of old age, many younger pianists have emerged wounded
from close encounters with his Corelli Variations. The work's dashing display and
pianistic fireworks emerge from four slow variations and are punctuated by the
introspective meditation of Variation 8, the 'misterioso' nature of which flows from
its meandering chromatic bass line, and two Andante variations, the second of
which is cast in the remote key of D-flat major. The Coda, noted Swan at first
hearing, is "neither a climax nor a return to the beginning"; rather, it transcends
what has gone before, reconciling minor and major tonalities to create an
atmosphere of calm concentration.
Rachmaninoff was only thirteen when he first met Tchaikovsky. The latter, an
acclaimed composer among late Tsarist Russia's greatest cultural ambassadors,
inspired in the youngster a lifelong devotion to the Romantic spirit of beauty and
truth in music. In later life, Rachmaninoff made an exquisite recording of
Tchaikovsky's Lullaby Op.16 No.1 for solo piano. The work was conceived in the
winter of 1872-3 as a setting of Apollon Maykov's 'Cradle Song' for high voice and
piano. Tchaikovsky soon made two arrangements of the song for solo piano - one in
A-flat minor, the other in A minor - preserving the original's tender lyricism and
compassion in both. Yulia Chaplina's interpretation takes its lead from the dream-
like imagery of Maykov's poem:
CRADLE SONG (KOLYBEL-NAJA PESNJA)
Sleep, my baby, hushaby! sleep, hushaby!
Welcome sweet sleep:
Nannies three watch over you
Wind, sun, and eagle.
The eagle flew home;
The sun hid over the water;
The wind, after three nights,
Comes racing to his mother.
His mother asked the wind:
Where have you been hiding all this time?
Were you playing battle with the stars?
Or just pushing waves around?
I wasn't pushing any sea waves around,
I didn't touch the golden stars;
I was keeping a baby safe from harm,
I was rocking a little cradle!
Sleep, my baby, hushaby! sleep, hushaby!
Welcome sweet sleep:
Nannies three watch over you
Wind, sun, and eagle.
Apollon Maykov (1821-1897)
The art of arrangement, cultivated by composer-pianists throughout the vast
Russian empire before the Revolution of 1917, survived under the Soviet system of
music education. Shortly after his triumph at the Tchaikovsky International Piano
Competition in 1978, Mikhail Pletnev gave fresh life to the transcription tradition
with his Concert Suite from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. His virtuoso arrangement
of the ballet's Andante maestoso retains the melancholy of the original composition
while intensifying its spirit of heroic defiance.
Individual heroism is transcended in Sofia Gubaidulina's Chaccone to reveal deeper
levels of individual and collective consciousness, beyond and beneath the limits of
its venerable formal structure. The piece, a product of the composer's student years
at the Moscow Conservatory, was completed in 1962. "I really can't say that any
radical shift has taken place in my work, or any unexpected change in my way of
thinking...," Gubaidulina recalled over three decades later. "It seems to me that I
have been travelling through my soul the whole time, in a definite direction, always further and further and further...." The Chaccone was written for the Georgian
pianist Marina Mdivani, first-prize winner at the 1961 Marguerite Long-Jacques
Thibaud Competition in Paris and a star pupil of Emil Gilels. Gubaidulina's
composition opens with an eight-bar chordal theme, presented in stately fashion
and voiced in the key of B minor. Its note values are diminished in the variations
that follow and its eight-bar frame gradually eroded until its reestablishment
towards the work's close; the theme's melodic material, meanwhile, is reordered and
freely repeated by Gubaidulina to give a 23-note tone row. The composer employs
inversion, retrograde motion and other serial techniques to unleash storms of
pulsating energy and deliver contrasting episodes of meditative reflection.
While Sergei Rachmaninoff's later years were conditioned by nostalgia for his
homeland, those of Alexander Scriabin were directed by insatiable interest in
metaphysics and mysticism. Scriabin's outlook, that of a universalist, reached far beyond music to embrace the pre-Revolutionary aesthetics of such contemporary
poets as the symbolists Konstantin Balmont and Vyacheslav Ivanov, the mystical
philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov and the theosophy of Helena Blavatsky. The
complexity of Scriabin's worldview embraced aspects of ancient eastern wisdom,
albeit sketchily absorbed from equally sketchy early translations of Vedantic and
Buddhist texts; it was also directly influenced by the occult ideas of Madame
Blavatsky's magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine of 1888.
Scriabin's openness to the occult was, according to the Russian musicologist
Leonid Sabaneev, central to the composer's work: "Undoubtedly, the entire
spiritual and creative physiognomy of [his] consciousness was conditioned by
Satanism," observed Sabaneev in his essay "Scriabin and the idea of religious art".
The Taoist concept of universal harmony and ancient Russian mysticism, however,
were arguably more influential on Scriabin's philosophy than western ideas of the
fallen angel. Whatever the nature of the composer's interest in the occult, his
Ninth Piano Sonata of 1912-13 projects a sinister, often troubling soundworld. Its
opening motif, stated in the right hand and echoed by the left, is built from
consecutive tritone intervals, the so-called 'Devil in music'. The work's
chromaticism, its technical demands and unsettling fervour directed Scriabin's
friend and fellow theosophist Alexey Podgayetsky to refer to it as a 'Black Mass',
the dark-hearted antithesis of the Seventh Piano Sonata, which the composer had
subtitled White Mass. Although the single-movement 'Black Mass' is sectional in
form, with the opening motif returning at the midway point and for the work's
conclusion, the music's restless anxiety consistently trumps any sense of