Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings.
While better known for his writings on jazz, Max Harrison has penned reviews of classical music and took at least nine years to craft this updated biography, which focuses on Rachmaninoff's works and recordings (Paul Baker, "Max Harrison," Jazz Notes 8, no. 3 : 12-13). Three other standard Rachmaninoff biographies in the English language complement one another in that they all contain different perspectives on the composer. Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda's Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (New York: New York University Press, 1956) is an important publication in terms of Rachmaninoff's purely biographical details. Barrie Martyn's Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor (Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1990) comprehensively addresses Rachmaninoff's career as a composer, pianist, and conductor; it contains separate parts dedicated to the individual facets of his career, and features a very detailed discography of his recordings. The second edition of Geoffrey Norris's Rachmaninoff (New York: G. Schirmer, 1993) covers the composer's style and history behind his more significant compositions and cites many Russian sources (see Robert Cunningham, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Bio-Bibliography [West-port, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001], 88, 90-91). This current contribution by Harrison builds upon these sources, as well as others, with some new information, new approaches, and elaborates upon Rachmaninoff's recordings in the latter portion of the book.
Rather than organize the different facets of Rachmaninoff's career in separate chapters, as Martyn had done, Harrison addresses this biography in chronological order. He briefly outlines the composer's youth and schooling, and occasionally mentions other personal details while weaving in detailed descriptions of Rachmaninoff's career as a conductor, concertizing pianist, and composer. The main focus of this book is Rachmaninoff's compositions and Harrison approaches them in an encyclopedic manner. "Musical Examples" (pp. 356-81) follow at the end of the text along with a "Chronological List of Works" (pp. 382-84), "Classified List of Works" (pp. 385-89), a discography, bibliography, an index of Rachmaninoff's pieces, and another of names mentioned in the book.
Harrison provides only the basic aspects of Rachmaninoff's personal life. He intentionally decides not to focus too much on them for the following reasons (from his introduction): "Our continuing preoccupation with a composer's personal relationships is a leftover from the nineteenth century's investment in the artist as a deviant psychological type. Critical moments in a life are constantly in danger of being engulfed by a host of small irritations and distractions." (p. 2). Among relevant biographical events briefly mentioned in the text, Harrison provides a brief overview of some of Rachmaninoff's personal traits on page 3 of his introduction; for instance, his lack of self-confidence, strong work ethic, and need for privacy.
Rachmaninoff's lack of recognition as a composer is a topic addressed by other recent biographers, and Harrison tackles this to some degree in his biography. He gives several reasons as to why Rachmaninoff was not given such recognition. One reason is that many of his critics generally dismissed his music for not being progressive enough for its time: "A main argument against Rachmaninoff was that his work did not partake of the innovations embodied in the music of composers like [Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky]. Yet we do not reject [Johann Sebastian] Bach because he was a conservative in his own time, as was Rachmaninoff" (p. 1). However, Harrison does mention later in the text that not all of his music was conservative. Some examples include his descriptions of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony (pp. 77-80), which uses devices such as whole-tone scales, and the seventh movement of the Etudes tableaux op. 33 (p. 179), which hints at jazz influence. Rachmaninoff's talents in three distinct areas of music as a celebrated pianist, composer and conductor may have added to the difficulty of gaining more recognition for his compositions (p. 2). One reason why critics dismissed some of Rachmaninoff's symphonic works was that they did not necessarily conform to "Austro-German" models of form. The harmonic patterns drive the tension of the music in this model. However, in most Russian symphonic works, the "emotive power of specific motifs" does this instead (p. 136).
As Harrison describes Rachmaninoff's works, his intent is not to analyze them or to dissect them in any way. Instead, he wishes to view them in terms of their performance (p. 3). For the most part, Harrison stays true to his intentions by describing the music in an accessible manner without use of excessive jargon. For instance, he describes the opening of the Capriccio on Gypsy Themes by focusing on the entrance of instruments, various tempi, and their overall emotional effect:
"The Capriccio on Gypsy Themes ... opens with a steady timpani rhythm and over this suggestions of a melody enter on bassoons, then horns, then clarinets. These become more continuous, gather speed, and soon there is a brief, violent climax on the whole orchestra.... Cessation of the [MATHEMATICL EXRPESSION NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] drum rhythm marks the end of the introduction and the first section begins in [MATHEMATICAL EXRPESSION NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASSCII], marked lento lugubre, alla marcia funebre, with a beautiful chromatically inflected melody on violins, violas and cellos in an ardent unison.... This conveys great sadness and crystallizes out of melodic fragments of the introduction." (p. 65)
When appropriate, Harrison provides other kinds of background information for Rachmaninoff's works. For instance, his description of the Etudes tableaux op. 33 includes a brief paragraph of its complicated publishing history (pp. 179-80). Harrison mentions how Vladimir Horowitz's legendary advocacy helped place the Piano Concerto No. 3 in the standard repertoire since its dedicatee, Josef Hofmann, dismissed the work (p. 162). The index according to titles of Rachmaninoff's works helps readers locate these dense and valuable descriptions of his music.
Later in the book, Harrison includes information about Rachmaninoff's recordings. In order to help readers better understand the process of recorded music in Rachmaninoff's time, he briefly outlines the history of recorded music on player piano rolls and the gramophone (pp. 222-27). Next, he elaborates on Rachmaninoff's recordings as they appear chronologically. Within this part of the discussion, Harrison illustrates some interesting aspects of Rachmaninoff's recordings. He shows how Rachmaninoff was a perfectionist in recording works--he would repeatedly record a work until he was satisfied, a goal that often eluded him (pp. 231-32). Harrison provides details of Rachmaninoff's piano rolls; he states that some of them are preferable to his later recordings because they contain portions of individual pieces in Rachmaninoff's repertoire that may have been omitted in the latter format (i.e., Chopin-Liszt Maiden's Wish, pp. 242-43). Finally, Harrison demonstrates some of the challenges that orchestras faced when recording for the gramophone via an acoustic recording process. In order to achieve the best quality of sound while recording portions of his Piano Concerto No. 2, Stokowski and Rachmaninoff needed to reduce the number of players in the orchestra (p. 243).
There are several other aspects of this book that are particularly well executed. It is intensively researched, and Harrison acknowledges and cites previously published Rachmaninoff monographs. The bibliography and discography are very helpful, and the endnotes provide interesting anecdotes, sources, and supporting facts to readers. For example, Harrison states on p. 73 that Rachmaninoff and three other composers met with Sergei Taneyev to study the late works of Wagner and, in one instance, took turns with other colleagues improvising at the piano. These improvisations were published in a 1925 book on Taneyev and the accompanying footnote on page 75 gives information on a subsequent recording of them. When relevant, Harrison provides information on primary sources such as the fate of the original full score of the First Symphony (pp. 81-83), and the location of the manuscripts of 14 Songs op. 34 (which contains Vocalise) in Moscow (pp. 183-84). He even gives readers some of the details behind Rachmaninoff's first biography by Oskar von Riesemann (pp. 289-90).
While Harrison does many things well, there is still some room for improvement. One of the first things this reviewer noticed was that the music examples would have been more helpful if they were included in the text alongside his rich descriptions of Rachmaninoff's works, rather than placed in the back of the book. At times, Harrison ostensibly assumes that readers have immediate access to a complete set of Rachmaninoff's scores and recordings. While this may indeed be the case for some of his readers, those who do not have access to these materials may be disoriented or even discouraged by his many references to rehearsal and measure numbers with no accompanying examples (for a few instances, see pp. 243, 305, and 310). Perhaps a compact disc of some excerpts from Rachmaninoff's recordings would also have been useful. Harrison's overall organization of this book is, for the most part, straightforward, but it might have helped to include subheadings in chapters. Finally, indexes by subjects and Rachmaninoff's recordings would have proven very useful to readers.
Despite some shortcomings, this book is still a good resource for those needing more background on an individual piece by Rachmaninoff or on his recordings. Music libraries needing to update monographic holdings on Rachmaninoff and individual researchers interested in his music would be well served by adding Harrison's volume to their collections.
University of Houston
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2007|
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