Happy 147th Birthday, Rachmaninoff

Happy 147th Birthday, Rachmaninoff

John Mangum, Houston Symphony executive director/CEO and Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, shares a few favorites from composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s birthday, April 1. You can also enjoy John’s selections as a YouTube playlist.

So as I stay at home, like the rest of you, our devoted fans, I’m looking for music wherever I can find it in the hours that I’m not on the phone or at my laptop at our kitchen table. I enjoy hearing and seeing our wonderful musicians in their daily video updates and hearing our broadcasts on Houston Public Media. And I’m finding wonderful things on YouTube and posted by our peer orchestras around the world. The creativity this crisis has unleashed gives me hope that when we get back to doing what we do best—making music for audiences in Jones Hall, at Miller Outdoor Theatre, and in settings across Greater Houston—we’ll be able to channel that energy into truly astounding performances.

A request to write a blog post for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 147th birthday has given my aimless YouTube wanderings a bit of direction, at least for the moment. He’s always been a fascinating figure to me. At a time when Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók were exploring new musical avenues, Rachmaninoff was hearkening back to the glorious Romanticism of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Some have argued that Rachmaninoff is more contemporary than that, and I get that his musical language is harmonically more advanced that his predecessors. But his style is very much rooted in that Russian world of late Romanticism. He’s more like Richard Strauss in that sense, especially the Strauss of Der Rosenkavalier and beyond, than any of his other contemporaries.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (1901)
Rachmaninoff was also a formidable pianist, one of the great virtuosos of the first half of the 20th century. Harold Schonberg, the long-time music critic of the New York Times and author of The Great Pianists, wrote, “At any Rachmaninoff concert, one noted the sharp rhythmic thrusts, the virility and the sense of sonority the man had, and, above all, a musical elegance in which phrases were shaped with exquisite finish.” Rachmaninoff recorded this version of the G-minor Prelude in April 1920 on an Ampico Reproducing Piano—basically a high-fidelity player piano.

Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3 No. 2 (1892)
Rachmaninoff emigrated to the United States in 1917. He would live in New York, and then, later, when his health demanded it, Beverly Hills, where he was just around the corner from Stravinsky and the conductor Bruno Walter. He collaborated with many of the country’s leading conductors and orchestras, including former Houston Symphony Music Director Leopold Stokowski, with whom Rachmaninoff recorded several of his concertos. Here is Stokowski’s Hollywood-style arrangement of another famous Rachmaninoff piano piece.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Variation XVIII—Andante cantabile (1934)
Rachmaninoff’s Romanticism is on full display in many of his greatest works—the Second Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony come immediately to mind. But nowhere do I hear it more than in the 18th variation of his masterful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which I heard the Houston Symphony perform in fall 2017, with pianist Denis Kozhukhin and Andrés conducting. Here is Rachmaninoff playing it on December 24, 1934, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Stokowski.

Symphonic Dances (1940)
Rachmaninoff’s last major composition is also one of his greatest, his Symphonic Dances (1940). It sums up many of the strands that run through his music—his special post-Tchaikovsky brand of sweeping lyricism and his interest in ecclesiastical chants both dominate the work. And it has some great saxophone solos. Here is a performance featuring Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in 2014.

I’m looking forward to the day when Andrés, our musicians, and all of you can be back in Jones Hall. Until then, stay healthy and safe, and enjoy looking for music wherever you can find it—it makes a great companion as we all stay at home. —John Mangum


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