Rachmaninoff: “A Ghost in a World Grown Alien”

In these weeks between semesters, I have been preparing for an 8-week Special Topics course that I am about to co-teach. The topic my colleague and I have chosen is “Musical Outliers,” and our focus will be on three composers who are thought to have lived outside of their times in one way or another: Carlo Gesualdo, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and John Cage. Gesualdo’s late madrigals betray a chromaticism that, while not entirely unheard of in the music of his contemporaries, reaches a level of saturation that distinguishes him. (This is not to mention his being set apart by the grisly details of the premeditated murder of his unfaithful wife.) Gesualdo is often seen, whether entirely accurately or not, as being a kind of progenitor of ultra-chromaticism, beginning a lineage that leads to the chromaticism of Wagner and ultimately the atonality of the 20th century. Many 20th and 21st century composers have been drawn to Gesualdo and have written works based on him or his life, one such work being the very recent premiere of Marc-André Dalbavie’s opera, Gesualdo. John Cage was in many ways very much of his time. Yet his status as maverick and challenger of all pre-existing notions of what music is, or of what it should be, qualifies him as a candidate for the course. Furthermore, the plethora of available Cagean scholarship to choose from provides plenty of potential in facilitating fruitful and wide-ranging class discussions.

Sergei Rachmaninoff is included for another reason altogether. If Gesualdo and Cage are included in the course for their forward-thinking, envelope-pushing ideas, Rachmaninoff is included for his regressive stance. He is perceived by many, including himself, as being a fish out of water, alienated from his surroundings. It was my recollection of the following quotation that prompted me to consider including Rachmaninoff an appropriate “outlier” in the first place:

“I feel like a ghost in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me… Even with the disaster of living through what has befallen the Russia where I spent my happiest years, yet I always feel that my own music[.] and my reactions to all music, remained spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty…”
(Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda. Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, 351.)


Rachmaninoff’s felt alienation had as much to do with living in an age of musical modernism, the landscape of which was dominated by Schoenberg and his disciples, as it does with Rachmaninoff’s then recent immigration to America following the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In contrast to the Cagean scholarship, the Rachmaninoff scholarship is scant, especially the theoretical scholarship. While there have been several recent doctoral dissertations on Rachmaninoff’s music (two intriguing examples are by In-Chiao Huang and Blair Allen Johnston), there is still scant theoretical work available in journal and book form. Several explanations can be given for this neglect. First of all, the wide public appeal and popularity that Rachmaninoff’s music has gained from the start has often been accompanied by skepticism. The late critic and author Harold Schonberg put it this way in a chapter devoted to Rachmaninoff and his Moscow Conservatory classmate Alexander Scriabin:

“There was never a time when the music of Rachmaninoff was out of the repertory. This is in sharp contrast with the music of Scriabin… Not until the late 1960s was there the beginning of a Scriabin rediscovery. Scriabin suddenly began to be studied very seriously. But Rachmaninoff, so often played, has had hardly any critical appraisal at all. He was a composer who unabashedly used nineteenth-century models for his music, and as a result has been all but dismissed by scholars, historians, professionals, and tastemakers.”
(Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, p.519)

In the 1930s, critic Robert Simon reviewed of an early performance of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini conducted by the famed Bruno Walter. The review is humorous in the backhandedness of its “compliment,” but it reveals the skepticism that often accompanies wide popularity:

“The Rhapsody isn’t philosophical, significant, or even artistic. It’s something for audiences, and what our orchestras need at the moment is more music for audiences. More music for audiences means more audiences for music, and with sage apothegm, I conclude another salute to Mr. Rachmaninoff.”
(Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, p. 309.)

A second reason for the scholarly neglect of Rachmaninoff’s music is his supposed adoption of traditional, tonal harmonic language—one considered to be worn and out-dated during his time. It is much more glamorous for theorists to wrestle with the new, with those composers who push the musical envelope at any given time. As a result, composers such as Rachmaninoff are ignored.

The best example of this sentiment comes ironically from a source that is purported to be one of the most reliable and objective. In the now infamous entry under the composer’s name in the 4th edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music published in 1940, an entry which Harold Schonberg referred to as “one of the most outrageously snobbish and even stupid statements ever to be found in a work that is supposed to be an objective reference,” this description of the composer is given:

“As a pianist Rachmaninoff was one of the finest artists of all time; as a composer he can hardly be said to have belonged to his time at all, and he represented his country only in the sense that accomplished but conventional composers like Glazunov or Arensky did. He had neither the national characteristics of the Balakirev school nor the individuality of Taneiev or Medtner. Technically he was highly 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 Rachmaninoff’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.”

Schonberg characterizes this view of Rachmaninoff and his music as being both “nonsensical” and “prevalent.”

A third reason for Rachmaninoff’s neglect is related to the second. To many, it seems that above the very traditional harmonic framework in Rachmaninoff’s music is spread a barrage of superfluous notes—a veneer of endless filigree intended only to demonstrate the technical prowess of the performer.

It is perhaps surprising that one of the best possible quotations reflecting such an attitude comes from a composer such as Aaron Copland:

“One can even get a certain perverse pleasure out of hating the work of a particular composer. I, for instance, happen to be rubbed the wrong way by one of today’s composer-idols, Serge Rachmaninoff. The prospect of having to sit through one of his extended symphonies or piano concertos tends, quite frankly, to depress me. All those notes, think I, and to what end? To me Rachmaninoff’s characteristic tone is one of self-pity and self-indulgence tinged with a definite melancholia. As a fellow human being I can sympathize with an artist whose distempers produced such music, but as a listener my stomach won’t take it. I grant you his technical adroitness, but even here the technique adopted by the composer was old-fashioned in his own day. I also grant his ability to write long and singing melodic lines, but when these are embroidered with figuration, the musical substance is watered down, emptied of significance.
(Aaron Copland, Copland on Music, p.34)

(In fairness to Copland, his point in the context of this passage is that music should be listened to actively, not passively, and that a sharp negative reaction such as the one he demonstrates here in a rather over-the-top manner is better than no reaction at all. We should react to music.)

Considering the prevalence of reductive “top-down” analytical approaches that have influenced the music theoretical landscape, the scholarly aversion to music such as Rachmaninoff’s is perhaps understandable. If the goal of the analyst is to ultimately strip away the surface textures of a given piece in order to reveal is true content, then the theorist will probably be dissatisfied by what they find in Rachmaninoff’s music. (This is the same reason why some theorists do away with the term “non-chord tones” in favor of “embellishments”, since the latter diminishes the implication that such tones are unessential and therefore should be disposed of. (In light of the fact that the term “embellishment” is also not devoid of its own baggage, perhaps we should follow one theorist’s lead in referring to these tones as “elephants.”))

But if any music can be used to demonstrate the deficiency in unidirectional top-down approaches, it is Rachmaninoff’s. For it is the surface textures, the veneer above the structural framework, that gives Rachmaninoff’s music its character, its expressivity, and its deep power. And once we look begin looking at the surface, we see a composer who is far less regressive and a music that is far less traditional than is usually supposed.

To demonstrate what is meant by this, consider the suspension figure. A simple suspension is one of the most expressive basic units of music: a sharp strong-beat dissonance which resolves downward on a metrically weaker beat. If reducing a texture featuring suspensions removes all “NCTs,” then all the expressive power the suspensions add is also lost. (Textural reduction is an essential part of analysis, but it is important to remember the reasons for reducing and to remember what is lost by doing so.) One of the dominant characteristics of Rachmaninoff’s textures is his shifting of resolutions through appoggiaturas, suspensions and anticipations (not to mention the prevention of resolutions altogether). Many such expressive surface features must not be ignored in an investigation of Rachmaninoff’s music if the investigator hopes to get a glimpse of the expressive power of his music.

Since there are so few sources available that offer an exploration of the Rachmaninoff Style, I wanted to embark on my own exploration. In my cursory investigation, I have noticed several defining features of the Rachmaninoff Style:

  • Pedal tones
  • Conjunct, singing melodies
  • Mode mixture
  • (Mostly-descending) chromatic harmonic voice-leading (at times accompanying ascending melodic lines)
  • Apparent harmonies created by such chromatic voice-leading
  • Multi-level counterpoint (temporal stratification)
  • Chord alteration and reinterpretation
  • Altered dominants

The first three are more readily apparent aurally and examples have been linked. The last five are more intriguing and warrant further investigation which will be taken in subsequent posts.


About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae. http://www.lukedahn.net.
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4 Responses to Rachmaninoff: “A Ghost in a World Grown Alien”

  1. Pingback: Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.39 No.5, “Vocalise” & uncanny resemblances to Chopin Op.28, No.5 « For M is Musick

  2. Pingback: Tzimon Barto and Aberrant Tempi in the Rach 3 « For M is Musick

  3. Getting chromatic notes is a big important and much interesting things to do music, that’s I feel. thanks for shear it.Thanks for such a great blog.I am thoroughly surprised after reading your article. In fact I have experienced a condition something like this but I am just not able to tell you how better I feel after reading this.
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  4. Tzvi Feifel says:

    Outstanding post! Looking forward to your future treatment of his work.

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