Ed's talk: Jul 6, 2008

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Rachmaninoff, Medtner and posterity

An email concerning my blog on art music has made me re-exam what may be a crucial event in 20th Century music history. Namely the incredibly stupid article on Rachmaninoff by Eric Blom in the 5th edition of Grove's Dictionary (1954) and it's repudiation in a later edition:

"His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios.

''The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor. The Third Pianoforte Concerto was on the whole liked by the public only because of its close resemblance to the Second, while the Fourth, which attempted something like a new departure, was a failure from the start. The only later work that has attracted large concert audiences was the Rhapsody (variations) on a Theme by Paganini for pianoforte and orchestra.''

I have no quote from the "grudging" or "abject" apology in the 1980 Grove's though I've seen it some time ago. But they had to be embarrassed by the earlier article.

When I was at Yale School of Music, I had as my piano teacher Ellsworth Grumman who was a (piano?) pupil of the composer-pianist Nicholas Medtner (1880-1951), a sort of rival of Rachmaninoff's. Mr. Grumman was fond of saying words to the effect that Medtner was thought to be a "washed-out Rachmaninoff" but that the opposite was true. And he tried to convince his students to play Medtner but the effort was lost on most of us.

A few years later when I studied with Nadia Reisenberg, I got a group of Rachmaninoff piano pieces together but never had any interest in Medtner who I thought was indeed a "washed-out Rachmaninoff".

Rachmaninoff remains an interesting case! His music remains much used in films, Hollywood and otherwise, but is especially associated with the British film "Brief Encounter" from 1945 in which the Second Piano Concerto is used. The film is in black and white but the Concerto is defininitely "Technicolor".

Nowadays, though the Second Concerto is still played often, the Third is preferred, perhaps stemming to it's association with Van Cliburn's winning of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958. (The First and Fourth were never played much so Blom was not completely wrong.)

It must be said that Rachmaninoff's own recorded performances of the Concertos and of the equally famous "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" were never over-the-top. In the long run, these works as well as many others ("The Bells", the Second and Third Symphonies, "The Isle of the Dead", Symphonic Dances and much of the piano solo music) have shown their solidity and durability.

But I would maintain that the prevalent opinion in the mid-twentieth century that only "modernism" was really viable as new music, and I suspect Eric Blom was of this opinion, has proven to be wrong . (When he writes that "musicians never regarded it with much favor." one wonders which musicians he was referring to, or was this pure snobbery?) More on this later.