Introduction To Rachmaninoff


Note: This piece only works thanks to the advent of YouTube, for which I am grateful. For full effect, I suggest you ignore the video aspect of the link and concentrate only on the music. It works best with ear- or headphones, turned up really high. Apologies to your ENT. Take as much time as you like with each clip; each is tailored to the text that comes immediately below it. So as not to interrupt narrative flow, all excerpt details are found at the end.

[Start at 0:25] A massive parade through Petersburg. Or Moscow. Or Novgorod. Nikolai and his wife, and their five children — the girls in identical, radiant white silk and linen, Alexey in strapping boy-military regalia — all march past. The young men of the city march behind them, magnificent in their numbers. And the crowd! As if all of the wheat-fed masses ever to emerge from the womb of Mother Russia have gathered to see the men to war. Devotion to God and Motherland as none of them has ever felt. Fright and elation as they cheer destiny lock-stepping by them.

[Skip to 9:05]

Definitely Petersburg now. Another march. Three hundred thousand trampling through the January snow on a Sunday toward the Winter Palace. They march for a shorter working day. Peace with Japan. A safe place to work. Imperial soldiers 500 yards away. They form a line. A wall. The march continues — how can you stop three hundred thousand? 400 yards. 200. 50. Keep moving. Shots. Keep moving. Screaming. Forward. Horses. Push. Blades. A thousand people are slaughtered in the peaceful protest. Their hot blood melts the snow where they fall.

[Skip to 10:45]

More blood on white. Linen again. “For crimes against the people.” More shots. The women have a treasury of diamonds sewn into their clothes. So shoot them again. Bullets exit Alexey and tear through his father. The jewel-armored women are skewered with bayonets. Shot in the head. Lily-white faces explode into red chrysanthemums. A family is murdered at 2:30 in the morning, and by dawn Nikolai Romanov is an official war criminal, justly executed. Eternal Revolution now. Long live the indissoluble union of the Communist Party and the Soviet People.

I’ve never been to Russia, so I can’t back this up firsthand, but surely that country, perhaps more than any other, is defined by its inexhaustible superlatives. The largest land area. The longest railroad. The most extreme winters. Thousand-page novels with 50 main characters who each have 17 aliases. Institutionalized slavery of the peasantry that lasts until 1861. Thirty million combined dead in the world wars. Those outrageously ostentatious Fabergé eggs.

This piece of Rachmaninoff’s actually has nothing to do with the Bolshevik Revolution, the former coming almost 25 years before the latter. In fact, Rachmaninoff fled the Bolsheviks in 1917 and never saw Russia again. But he is absolutely a son of his country, and like many episodes in Russian history, his music exists only in extremes. You will not find restraint in Rachmaninoff. His emotionalism is bare and raw, and the listener used to or expecting subtlety will be disappointed. That doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that you’ll find kitsch or sentimentality either — this is not the musical equivalent of Thomas Kinkade. Still, it took me a long time to stop rolling my eyes at Rachmaninoff. He asks for complete surrender to emotions that have been forgotten in their purest forms: passion, rage, abject sorrow, sharp longing. Give him what he asks for, lower your guard, and I’m guessing you’ll find his music cathartic, moving, and wonderfully beautiful.

[Start at 31:55] I’m not the first person to have been turned off (at first hearing, anyway) by the syrupy textures and high drama of much of Rachmaninoff’s music. A lot of it first reminded me of movie and TV music from the frothy, summer-colored 1970s. All I saw when I heard this was Farrah Fawcett’s feathered head photographed in creamy soft focus, the colors oddly faded to give the image a sappy, wistful nostalgia. The age of “love themes” and love boats and love means never having to say you’re sorry. Well, wouldn’t you know:

Turns out there’s a reason it reminded me of the ‘70s. If you didn’t catch it, listen to the first 10 seconds of both this and the last video again. Hear it now? Songwriter Eric Carmen directly lifted the Rachmaninoff melody for his 1976, #11 hit about nostalgic love. Just wanna hum along all the way to your next candy-coated killing spree, don’t you?

Now go back to the Rachmaninoff, and start from around 43:00. Let me try to drive the Brady Bunchy nausea away.

Summer flings took on a different character after high school. College-era summer flings — love in the time of internships — were sadder but wiser. I drove up the Pacific coast along the 101 Freeway each weekend to be with a man I knew I could easily fall in love with, but I had the convenient excuses of the summer and our eventual separation to just be content with having someone to screw and laugh with. I remember an afternoon of absolutely joyous sex in a Santa Monica hotel room. The never-hot breeze blew in from the beach, rendered Downy-soft by the curtains as it arrived in the room to lift the sweat from our backs. Another weekend we went to the faux-Danish town of Solvang, whose forced quaintness gets old quickly, so we went and spent an hour sitting together under the shower in the motel, because everything about the human body is better wet. On the way back to his place in Santa Barbara that night, we discovered a few-mile stretch of CA-246 where you can get a breathtakingly clear view of the stars; it’s still the only time I’ve seen the Milky Way in Southern California. Detour up a mountain road to park and dissolve into each other one more time before another week apart.

We were old enough and experienced enough not to be stupidly giddy or childishly naïve about what would happen come September. But we were still young enough to be excited and surprised by our own lust, and amazed at how you can ache for someone just moments after sex, even while they lie there perspiring beside you. His lips and his breath and his heart beating under my hand. The thought that won’t go away, that I could’ve made that happiness last long beyond September just by growing up and getting over the foolish “coolness” of how it felt to have a temporary fling. That’s nostalgia for me, the soft focus of short-lived happiness that Rachmaninoff scores so brilliantly. I didn’t hear facile sentimentality in this music after that summer.

[Start at 11:40] Another at-first-hearing mushy mess. Thoroughly un-cynical and almost willfully maudlin. “I’m sad and alone,” it sniffed, “after a, like, really bad breakup. Don’t mind me, I’m just going to sit here at the piano and pluck out sad little tunes, because I heard once that pain makes great art. Oh hey, what’s that line about how we all die alone?” Might as well turn on the Lifetime Original Movie of the life of Sylvia Plath.

Believe it or not, that apparent Eeyore of the 1970s, Eric Carmen, took another Rachmaninoff movement as the basis for his 1975, oft-covered, “All By Myself”:

Now, I’m not going to pretend at snobbery I don’t feel: I like this song. It could be because Carmen’s take is a lot more loosely based on the Rachmaninoff than in the earlier example, so it has room to exist on its own. And a pop song, no more than four to five minutes in length, can exist on a single emotion. But the corresponding Rachmaninoff movement is over ten minutes, far too long to survive as a simple study of “loneliness.” Of course, it’s anything but. I was just too young to hear complexity. Try the Rachmaninoff again, this time from about 19:00.

My cousin Judith’s daughter died in a car accident when she was 21. Well, that’s not quite accurate. She wasn’t killed by the accident. The accident put her in intensive care with irreversible brain damage and massive cerebral hemorrhaging. Cruelly, the accident didn’t fully take Abby’s life, and Judith had to come to the impossible realization that her daughter as she knew her was gone, and make the terrible decision to turn the machines off.

Judith is a fantastically strong, whip-smart, inspiring woman, but the effect of this event on her life was undeniable. Her marriage couldn’t withstand the weight of the tragedy. Or rather, Abby’s death alerted her to the reality of her own dissatisfaction. She matter-of-factly decided that life can and should be delicious and rewarding and propulsive. That it’s not something to be suffered through, that it’s more than a series of just-bearable sadnesses. After her divorce, she started over. She went looking for a passion.

About ten years ago Judith began jumping out of planes. “Oh, I could never bungee!” she says, “I’d hate that feeling of having your stomach shoot into your throat.” So instead she hurls herself from the doors of small propeller aircraft at 10,000 feet. To avoid the sensation of discomfort, of being tethered, she flies. “You don’t even feel like you’re falling,” she says. She plummets through clouds, emerging on the underside soaking wet and laughing wildly. She soars. And as she explores the troposphere, she is completely alone but not at all lonely. She’ll jump all day and sometimes into the late afternoon, “because Abby’s in the sunset.” The foul unfairness of her daughter’s death can’t catch up with her in free-fall, and until she pulls the ripcord, she’s free.

[Start from 0:30] Rachmaninoff is reliably intense in his portrayal of human emotion. But what about those emotional states that that aren’t quite so potent?

I bet you could pinpoint the exact moment when you realize a relationship is starting to end. It’s always the same, isn’t it? You know it’s over when the noise starts.

One day, there begins a low, constant clash of disquiet. Uneasy questions eat away at your sense of security. They clump together, one nagging fault or annoyance occurring right on the heels of another. You can ignore the noise for stretches of time, but like an Orwellian TV set, you can’t ever really turn it off.

Your doubts begin to compound. “She bores me.” “I hate that all she can talk about is work.” “Is he listening at all?” “His body… when did it get so… ugly?” “Did she say the same thing to the last guy she dated?” “He’s changed.” They begin to pulse in the back of your mind. Like when you get a shoelace caught in your shoe — it’s not painful, but it becomes a highly unpleasant fixation.

Yet you’re still in love, and her breasts, his smile still hypnotize you. What is Good in the relationship seems to float over, or upon, the Bad. The muddy frustration is covered by the beautiful clarity of your affection, and so you carry on, hoping the sweet, simple floating melody will always drown out your dissonant misgivings.

But now the doubts grow louder. What was just white noise and nettling accompaniment suddenly becomes the prominent voice in your head. Eventually the things you love become indistinguishable from the things you loathe. The soaring voice, the irritating doubts — they merge into the same pounding racket, an assaulting discomfort. You’ll do anything to make it stop. Just stop it. Turn it off. Go away. Shut up. When you talk, all I hear is bullsh-t.

And then it’s over. And things are quiet again. Sometime later, when you can think about the relationship without becoming enraged, you hear the floating voice again. How he looked when he was asleep, how she made you proud she’d chosen you whenever she held court at parties. Before long though, the noise returns. The clashing again. Enough. You’d had enough. The soaring melody wasn’t worth that grinding, hateful sound.

Here’s an insider tip you won’t find in Fodor’s: the most beautiful sight in Los Angeles is not the view from Mulholland Drive, or Griffith Park, or the Getty. It’s the view, from a boat in the Pacific, of the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach at night. It’s breathtaking: the nation’s first- and second-busiest container ports, a combined area of 10,700 acres, absolutely blanketed with millions of eerie orange lights.

The best way to see it is to start the return journey from Catalina about thirty minutes before sunset. It’s a twenty-mile, hour-long voyage, and after the sun has relaxed into the west, you’re in complete darkness on the ocean. The boat is not too brightly lit, and the growl of the engines soon subsides into a comforting hum. Everyone is tired from a day on the island, so there’s not much talk. The perfectly-named Pacific tenderly ushers the agitated wake of the boat back to calm unity with the rest of the sea. It’s one of the few recondite and personal moments you can have in a city dedicated to conspicuousness and impersonality. And then it turns transcendent.

The strange, spotty lights of the ports come into view. At first you assume you’re seeing merely the lights of one of the beach cities, or maybe the airport. But fully all of the lights are an otherworldly kind of (and I don’t know how this is possible) cerulean-orange. You’d be inclined to dismiss them as garishly industrial and unnatural, but there are just so many of them. Oddly, no one mentions the sight. No kid shouts “Lookit!” to break the reverie. And as you draw near the shore, and the lights come to dominate your view, you realize how majestically wide the field of blue-orange extends. Wondrously, the lights exist on all axes and at all angles. Way up high and way far back and limitlessly to right and left. You can’t see the hardware of the ports yet, the cranes and slips, so the lights sit, as if pinned, in the black. It’s especially gorgeous if you have astigmatism, and the lights spread out and tremble atop one another. You pull in closer, and find yourself rapturous at the idea of sailing into the middle of the field, not just looking at the lights but actually being among them, sealed in them. Are they warm or cold? Do they buzz? What are they for? Who put them there? How long have they been there? You prepare yourself to drift smoothly inside them.

But that never happens. “Cool, huh?” your mom says, and you blink and look again. It’s just a big complex of steel and concrete, very impressive but actually kind of Dickensian and ugly. “Seafood sound good for dinner?”

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you have to be religious to be moved by religious music. Rachmaninoff’s incense-scented Orthodoxy may be the impetus for this music, but the appeal of it is our shared hunger for mystery.

[Start at 5:05] By any measure, Rachmaninoff’s life was extremely difficult and relentlessly defeating. His first symphony was a critical catastrophe, and for a time his depression was so debilitating he couldn’t write at all. He was forced into exile from Russia, his beloved country house demolished in the revolution. For financial reasons he was constantly on tour as a concert pianist, something he was remarkably skilled at but didn’t particularly enjoy, and which left him little time to compose. He was often called much farther away from his family than he would have liked. Even his death was a disappointment. He died in — of all places — Beverly Hills, but couldn’t be interred in his adopted home of Switzerland because World War II had made overseas travel impossible. And halfway through his life, music underwent a sea change. Melody ceased to be the guiding formal consideration in composition, and the atonal avant-garde succeeded in making music like Rachmaninoff’s seem out of date and hopelessly, boringly cliché. “Monotonous in texture… consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes,” spat the 1954 edition of The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. “[His success] is not likely to last.”

Despite all of this, Rachmaninoff’s music remained energetic, vital, and always extremely passionate. “Better to be alive than not,” it seems to say. It’s not escapism, it’s not sentimentality. You just didn’t know your life was so melodic. Bathe in it. It feels good.

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