by Idil Biret

Preceding a new Millennium, the 20th century was a time of agitation, intolerance and extreme restlessness. In this environment the understanding and the purpose of art also changed. Music became, as with the other art forms, a field for very diversified experiments and it was seen necessary to produce a “new” sound. The roots of these experiments go back to the compositions of Wagner and Liszt whose visionary work in the 19th Century greatly inspired the modern era. This quest led ultimately to a break away from the tonal system. In this new environment there was an almost total absence of tolerance for the composers who were guided by their inspiration to work on the basis of the traditional tonal system. A composer like Rachmaninov who continued to use the more traditional post-romantic style was no longer understood or respected by many of his colleagues. A comparison of the attitudes towards Rachmaninov and his contemporary Scriabin provides interesting insights in this respect. They were friends and shared a common teacher, Zverev. But, their paths diverged musically. Scriabin explored new possibilities in the harmonic system which was to lead to his mystical vision of “Total Art”, while Rachmaninov remained anchored to a more conservative harmonic concept. Consequently, 20th century’s “modern” musicians often cited Scriabin, but it rarely if ever crossed their minds to mention Rachmaninov as an important composer. On the contrary, he was seen as an embarrassment for continuing to employ an outdated style, writing music more fit for films.(1) This negative attitude to Rachmaninov’s music continues in certain circles.(2)

The interpretation of Rachmaninov’s music raises special issues. His writing was very personal and deeply influenced by the music of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s folklore where strong oriental influences are felt.(3) The lyricism in Rachmaninov’s music lies essentially in the transformation of the rich Russian and Oriental elements.(4) Strong historical forces play an important role here. In the west Russia is known mostly from the time it appeared on the world stage in the aftermath of Peter the Great’s reforms to westernise this country with an immense land mass between the western and eastern worlds. But, the effects on Russia of the turbulent events of the centuries which preceded Peter the Great cannot be ignored. Since those times an incredible variety of peoples populate Russia from the Baltic coast to the Caucasus and on to Central Asia, Siberia and the Bering Strait. It must be understood that the Russian history and culture reflect the duality of its eastern and western components which is often displayed in the creative work of its artists such as Rachmaninov. Consequently, an interpreter may need to revise many ideas well established in the west before tackling the complicated musical world of Rachmaninov.

For a better understanding of the interpretation of Rachmaninov’s music the most revelatory experience is to listen to his own recordings. The rather austere, noble and distant manner of Rachmaninov’s performance of his works stems from the character of this music which is also that of the large spaces of Russia. Rachmaninov’s pianistic and musical perfection stand out in his playing which also provides a clear guidance to the approach to be adopted for the interpretation of his work. In this context one must also note the characteristics he found necessary in a consummate musician.(5) Rachmaninov’s approach to his music as conductor or pianist is always full of rigour and driven with an irresistible pulse while it always remains very noble. His virtuosity and knowledge of the keyboard are phenomenal and his sense of rhythm is exemplary. A vibrant sensitivity is hidden underneath the austere playing where the purity of the music is never lost and the unity of the musical line never broken.

The musicologist Deryck Cooke writes that “because of continued enthusiasm by both performers and listeners Puccini and Rachmaninov remain within our musical experience despite the most concentrated barrage of negative criticism”.(6) One can only agree with him.


(1) Grove’s Music Dictionary entry on Rachmaninov in the 1954 edition did not see a future for his music, saying “…as a composer he can hardly be said to have belonged to his time…The enormous popular success some few of Rakhmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour”. This statement became a source of embarrassment and was removed in the following edition.

(2) When I started playing Rachmaninov’s works during studies at the Paris Conservatory I had to do so almost secretly. My teacher Nadia Boulanger was mystified why I wanted to play this music which she greatly disliked (see Kendall, The Tender Tyrant pp. 48).

(3) According to one source, the family names of Rachmaninov and Butakov (that of Rachmaninov’s mother) have Oriental and Turkic origins, as do those of Rimsky-Korsakov, Taneev and some other eminent Russian families. (N.A. Baskakov, Russian families with Turkic origins, Baku 1992).

(4) For example, in the second movement of the op.18 C minor concerto the hauntingly beautiful second theme is apparently based on an Armenian folk song.

(5) Forming a proper conception of a piece; Technical proficiency; Proper phrasing; Regulating the tempo; Character in playing; Significance of the pedal; Danger of convention; Real musical understanding; Playing to educate the public; The vital spark. (Etude, issue no.28, March 1910.)

(6) Deryck Cook, The futility of Music Criticism (The Musical Newsletter, Jan. 1972)