An Appreciation
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Happy Birthday, Sergei…


Today is April First, also known as April Fools Day in the US, and elsewhere.
Radio stations, websites (even Google) will today try to walk that fine line between merry pranksterism and outright lies, in an attempt to wear upon their heads the Campy and Crazy Crown for a day.


The above is a picture of a winner from a previous year wearing the crown in question.
Those are real insects people, featuring (among others) the Cockroach of Camaraderie, the Worm of Wit and the Head Lice of Hilarity…

It’s very famous… and much sought after.

So take any “news” story you hear today with a grain of salt.
Even the venerable (but fraying a bit around the edges) NPR has been known to air a prank story or two in its day… a day I fear, alas, is behind them.

But I don’t want to talk about any of that today.

Today is also the day we remember the birthday of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
At least I do.

A much loved composer, but (I feel) not given the respect his work deserves.
Oh, sure, there’s the universal acknowledgement his piano concertos get.
They even made a movie about how fiendishly difficult the 3rd is, and how it can lead many, many players to despair.

In my world, when someone mentions “the Rock”, they’re not talking about Dwayne Johnson, betcha-by-golly-wow…

But Rachmaninoff’s other work isn’t given nearly the same level of accord.#1
Which I feel is wrong.

For example, take the following work:

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.
If you tend to like your dances accompanied by a group of snarling, cussing classical musicians, then this is the work for you.
I know I do.

You see, this is considered one of the more difficult works in the literature.
Not in any one given part, and not so much as a whole; but because it is difficult to do well; and it’s so rarely performed, musicians don’t already have it “under their fingers” as it’s known in the trade.

My first knowledge of it came at a rehearsal for it, with an orchestra I was playing with for the first time in my life.

No pressure.

Furthermore, I once was backstage after a rehearsal of this piece by another orchestra, and a violinist who used to sit 4th chair (first violin section) under Toscanini – let that just soak in for a minute – came away from the rehearsal cussing up a storm, about how the piece was so difficult and he had to go home and practice…

Of course, a lot of his frustration was merely a poorly disguised admiration for the conductor du jour (Yoel Levi), who was conducting the rehearsal from memory… of a piece no one had done before… and getting it so dog-gone perfect, musicians of 50 years and more were impressed sock-less…
World-weary and life-long big time classical musicians were throwing around the word “genius”…

Happy Birthday, Sergei!
To a man who, by all accounts, wasn’t exactly the happiest camper on the block.

I thing it was Stravinsky who called Sergei “six and a half feet of scowl…” #2

Rather than go into why I think “The Scowl” was so unhappy, I’ll select another seldom performed piece… The Isle of the Dead.
Yet another work I’d never heard of, until the first rehearsal…

There was a lot of that in my career…
I was too busy cranking up the progressive rock in my ‘off time’, to go do research into my chosen profession…

You know…

The Isle of the dead was (according to Wikipedia) “… inspired by a black-and-white print of the painting. He (Rachmaninoff) said that had he seen the colour original, he probably would not have written the music.”


Here’s the painting in question…


Version two… which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, in New York.
There are at least five versions, that I’m aware of…
I’ve seen this version, years after my first encounter with the music.
I highly recommend going to the Met, or wherever the nearest version to where you live happens to reside, and putting the Isle on through headphones…
Ignore the others around you, and let your imagination absorb where Sergei would have you go.

Don’t worry whether or not those around you consider you rude for doing so.
Choose beauty… always choose beauty, over almost anything else.
Those who have also chosen beauty will understand.
Any others will just have to wait.


I myself have already gone through these two pieces today, and will try to do more listening later.
Move over and get comfortable, Dwayne…



#1 Eugene Ormandy, of the Philadelphia Orchestra fame, which he made one of the great bands of all time, cut whole sections out of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony, before he would perform it. How is that showing respect?

#2 In looking for pictures of Rachmaninoff to accompany this post, I choose to go with one where he looked… well… less disgusted.
And then Google, at the top of the page, had a sub-heading for pictures of Rachmaninoff smiling. So I clicked on that.
Always one for the novel experience, that’s me!!!
It was all the same pictures…
Exactly the same pictures.
Not a grin to be seen.

Good one, Sergei



Top Image found here.
Second image found here.
Third image found here.



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