Zhou Ming (China)
К. Somov. The Portrait of S. Rachmaninoff. Canvas, oil. 1925

Piano compositions by Sergei Rachmaninoff hold a special place in the world’s contemporary music art. An interest in the work of this great master grows from year to year; new aspects of the artistic content of his pieces are discovered, as well as the new ways of their interpretation by performers.

The reason for the unrelenting spiritual and aesthetic demand for Rachmaninoff’s music is the extraordinary scope of its musical thought, its beautiful form and refined style, as well as the powerful appeal of the author’s personality, which, according to Joseph Hoffman, was made of “steel and gold: steel in his hands, and gold in the heart.”

An outstanding pianist and composer, Rachmaninoff was a follower of the synthetic tradition of the XIX century romanticists, such as Schumann, Liszt and Rubinstein who, in addition to composing and performing, also engaged in musical criticism and public activism, which promoted these artists to the rank of the most prominent exponents of progressive ideas of their time.

In his life-ascertaining piano music, this titanic figure of a powerful and strong-willed character, Rachmaninoff expressed the triumphant energy of human spirit. Being amazingly sensitive, he let his music communicate the rich world of feelings and emotions: from romantic excitement and dreams to the subtlest movement of human heart-strings — hesitation, premonition and psychological nuances.

Rachmaninoff’s music is a daunting score of emotions, and emotions are the most delicate instrument to have an insight of the man’s inner world. The composer equally embraces dramatic experiences, elatedly ecstatic and melancholically elegiac moods and contemplative lyrical static, which diversely and colourfully represent the wide-ranging palette of the soul’s experiences.

This unique and vivid emotional contrast reveals the essence of the aesthetics of Rachmaninoff’s piano music, allowing each pianist and each new generation of instrumentalists to search for ever new profundity and dimension in it.

Sharing romantic gravitation of the XIX c. composers, Rachmaninoff did not stay indifferent to the Oriental world. As a follower and successor of oriental trends rendered in the pieces of Schumann, Liszt, Berlioz, Mahler, Glinka, Rimsky- Korsakov and many other composers, he turned to the music of Eastern nations, giving it a new quality and saturating it with new aesthetic content that determined the style of many of his musical compositions.

The magnetic appeal of the mysterious East attracted Rachmaninoff’s predecessors and contemporaries as a powerful force to renew and enrich expressive means, to formulate new musical vocabulary that would be equally interesting and understandable to different nations truly willing to learn and spiritually comprehend its meaning.

Oriental theme was especially pronounced in the composer’s early piano pieces, marked by psychologically complex and romantically spiritualized colours and images. It was implemented in programmatic instrumental works such as “Prelude and Oriental Dance for Cello and Piano”, Op. 1 (1892); “Romance and Hungarian Dance for Violin and Piano”, Op. 6 (1893) ; “Capriccio on Gypsy Themes for Orchestra”, Op. 12 (1894) ; “Oriental Sketch for Piano” (1917), and in his other compositions, which open a wonderful world of oriental images with their aesthetic finish and richness of rhythm and intonation.

Oriental musical traditions are most tangibly felt in Rachmaninoff’s melody, its modal nature and principles of development, as well as in its meditative and reflexive quality, which has become signature of the author’s individual style. Immersion into a state of meditation is found in the Preludes, picture-etudes and series of pieces with their profoundly philosophical content and contemplative lyrical image. A long- drawn, gradual “germination” of the melodic story also refers to the cyclic forms of professional oriental music, such as rag, tal, nub, maqom, mugam Particularly indicative in this regard is a main part theme in the first part of the “Third Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”, unique in its scale, representing a sample of a meditative melody. “I wanted to “sing” the melody on the piano, like singers do”, Rachmaninoff wrote on the subject. Infinite in its run, it causes a variety of auditory associations, but its eastern origin is undeniable. And this is what explains the originality and power of emotional impact produced by the piece.

Another good example of Rachmaninoff’s orientalism is a second theme in the finale of the “Second Piano Concerto”, which sounds in the coda as apotheosis and a key image that declares, with anthem-like solemnity, the humanistic idea of love for a human being.

In the musical language of Rachmaninoff’s small form piano pieces, in marvellous preludes -sketches of emotions and impressions, in picture-etudes and in chamber pieces one can also find a number of oriental elements — not only in the melody structure, but also in harmony, rhythm, texture and rich ornamentation.

For example, in “Prelude, Op. 23 No 5 in G minor”, the rhythm with a powerful energy of eastern drums not only plays a dramatic role, but, being used freely in various groupings and register combinations with introduced syncopation, is also a semantic element of the piece. This helps the composer to achieve a variety of bold rhythmic patterns characteristic of performance on percussion instruments of Oriental nations.

The magic of rhythms has a peculiar manifestation in Rachmaninoff’s piano sonatas. In the “First ‘Faustian’ Sonata Op. 28 in D minor” (1907) oriental flavour is achieved through the rhythm that comes into complex polyrhythmic interactions with melodic structures growing from the primary helical motif — the intonation kernel of the entire composition; the rhythm is individualized and acquires the significance of the fate motif.

S. Rachmaninoff at a grand piano

Oriental features in Rachmaninoff’s music also show through in the phonic nature of piano sound, the originality of which lies in its melodic, linear basis that goes back to the principles of oriental melodic development. Meditative quality of the musical fabric is particularly well implemented in piano Preludes that abound with interesting textural finds, poly- melodic structures and exquisite harmonic colours. The abundance of chromatic scale tones in an interval composition of melody lends oriental sophistication and mysterious exoticism to Rachmaninoff’s melos.

Skilful command of expressive means enabled Sergei Rachmaninoff to create unique soundscapes, images and emotional states, which deeply move the listener and offer pianists an opportunity to improve their performing skills and to give multi-faceted interpretation of the pieces created by the great pianist and composer.

The aesthetic phenomenon of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano music is also in its immense spiritual and ethical power that uplifts and ennobles the human soul, filling it with awareness of interconnectedness with beauty and wonderful creations of human talent and genius. The art of Sergei Rachmaninoff too, serves to educate young people and help them develop high spiritual and moral standards, which are fundamental for harmonious development of a person living in the new era of information technology, integration and progress.