Harvest of Sorrow

“My music is perhaps a long, dark coda into the night.” — Sergei Rachmaninoff

“Tell me, does anybody really need music like that?” — Leo Tolstoy to Rachmaninoff, after the composer had played some of his pieces for the author.

The music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) has long been something of a stumbling block for music criticism. His initial compositions date from the early 1890s, the final years of that master of Russian Romanticism, Pyotr Tchaikovsky — one of the major influences on Rachmaninoff’s compositional approach — and the younger composer continued in the tradition of late Romanticism right up to the moment of his death, well into the 20th century. In this sense, Rachmaninoff was considered by many detractors (and even some of his supporters) to be a living anachronism.

No one felt this more acutely than Rachmaninoff himself. He confessed that, despite repeated attempts to come to know it, he had no understanding of modern music. The notion of a musical “objectivism”, proffered by his fellow Russian exile Igor Stravinsky among others, left him cold. According to Rachmaninoff, music had one fundamental purpose and that was to communicate the feelings of the composer directly to the listener. He claimed that he designed his music to stir the emotions with an urgent immediacy, to bypass the mind altogether in preference for the heart.

These 19th century ideals seemed woefully out of place to many musicians and critics of the 20th century. The 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, an encyclopedia of music, opined that his music “consisted mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and that his popularity was “not likely to last”. But that was precisely the problem with his music for many critics. It was just so damnably popular. Indeed, the popularity of some of his works at times even irked Rachmaninoff himself. A virtuoso pianist in high demand, Rachmaninoff found that audiences would often dismiss his more complicated works (such as the Variations on a Theme of Corelli of 1931, the last piece he composed for solo piano) while demanding to hear yet another performance of his wildly famous early composition, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor of 1892.

The esteem in which audiences held Rachmaninoff, this living anachronism, seemed to betray an ever-increasing desire to recapture the (musical) past, a sick nostalgia that simultaneously embraced the latest technological advance and yet demanded that art remain frozen in the simulacrum of what had once been considered dangerous (the overwrought emotionalism of Romanticism) but had recently become a thoroughly safe ideal (not unlike Rachmaninoff himself, with his love of airplanes and motorcars juxtaposed with his penchant for melodies imbued with Romantic longing and his wistfulness for the lost Russian aristocracy).

Perhaps this is what Rachmaninoff meant in the statement cited as the first epigraph to this review. His musical output was the coda to Romantic tonality; it echoed through the night that marked the demise of a form of musical communication that many audiences still sought. The coda, after all, is the emphasis of closure. The tonal structure of the piece is closed before the onset of the coda; the coda merely confirms that closure. Likewise, Rachmaninoff realized that the Romantic era had ended, but his music echoed with the vestiges of that lost past. If, at the turn of the century, music had entered a new day, many audiences still dreamt of an earlier time and Rachmaninoff’s music revivified the lamented dead.

Tony Palmer’s wonderfully constructed film, Rachmaninoff: The Harvest of Sorrow, captures the mood of “lateness” that pervaded the career of the pianist-composer. Palmer’s approach to his film is straightforward yet marvelously effective. Aside from a few interviews, the majority of the narration derives from Rachmaninoff’s own correspondence and writings, read with just a hint of ironic distance by Sir John Gielgud.

Rachmaninoff’s words alternate with performances of excerpts from his works, ranging from his opera Aleko and the Prelude in C-sharp Minor (both from 1892) to one of his final works, the Symphonic Dances (1940). The music and text are both accompanied by an array of images: footage from both world wars; home video of Rachmaninoff at his various homes; modern day shots of these same locations; modern footage of traditional Russian festivals; and, of course, sequences featuring Palmer’s signature style of filming musicians as they perform.

The latter is perhaps the most stylized, even mannered, aspect of the film. In Tony Palmer’s world, all musicians perform in crepuscular light while a single, luminous ray brilliantly glints off of the surface of their instruments, all groups are carefully aligned and viewed in stark profile, all conductors are seen from below to emphasize their grandeur, and all singers are placed in evocative settings (whether or not they are singing an excerpt from an opera). The most risible example of this penchant for the melodramatic can be found in his depictions of piano performances by Valentina Igoshina.

A lithe, young Russian pianist, Igoshina alternates between hypnotic swoons and fierce downward thrusts at the piano. Perhaps because she so admirably fits Palmer’s ideal of what performance ought to be, the filmmaker maintains his focus on her throughout her complete performance of the remarkable Prelude in B Minor (1910); in almost every other musical performance, images of the performers are interspersed with or entirely replaced by footage of locations, historical moments, or even printed programs of Rachmaninoff’s own recitals. To make matters worse, Igoshina has the alarming habit of concluding the piece and then slowly raising her eyes to meet the camera with her steely and putatively alluring gaze (she does this twice: at the end of both the B Minor and the G Minor Preludes). It is, to say the least, unintentionally hilarious and the closest this documentary comes to linking Rachmaninoff’s music with that bugbear that always seems to haunt accounts of it: kitsch.

Failed attempts at come-hither looks aside, the performances that suffuse the soundtrack of this film are beautifully sensitive to the special demands and specific dangers of Rachmaninoff’s music. The temptation would be to perform this repertory like so many Rachmaninoff interpreters, thus reducing it to sheer bombast and sentimentality. The performers assembled here, however, draw out the clarity and, dare I say it, the intelligence of Rachmaninoff’s approach to composition. Despite Rachmaninoff’s assertions to the contrary, there is an intelligence to his music, an element that appeals more to the mind than to the heart.

No moment in the film better exemplifies this element of Rachmaninoff’s output than Mikhail Pletnev’s contemplative performance of the Variations on a Theme of Corelli. The crispness and lucidity with which Pletnev imbues his pianistic touch here draws out the refined Apollonian nature of the work. It is telling that Rachmaninoff himself had certain qualms about the intellectuality of the composition. He reports, in his dour manner, that he gauged the success of the performances of the piece during recitals by the amount of coughing coming from the audience. Whenever he felt the coughing increased, he left out a variation; at times, he played only half of the piece and he claimed never to have given a complete performance.

Many of the orchestral works are conducted by Valery Gergiev (who also serves as a talking head) and performed by the Mariinsky Theater (a theater with which Rachmaninoff had close professional ties). Gergiev clearly feels an attachment to this music and his passionate connection with it is evident in his conducting. He repeatedly pushes the music to the brink of sentimentality but then pulls it back with an assurance few of Rachmaninoff’s interpreters can manage. He is perhaps less successful as an interviewee while attempting to articulate the virtues of the composer’s achievements (some trite remarks about “endless melody” are about the best he can muster) but this is a failing Gergiev shares with the great majority of his colleagues. Besides, what we want from a conductor is not musicology but solid musical direction. Gergiev delivers that admirably.

The film explores Rachmaninoff’s life from childhood to death; throughout the narrative, the composer’s recollections emphasize the depth of his attachment to the homeland he was forced to abandon shortly after the Russian Revolution. One of the most fascinating sequences in the film documents the first visit of Rachmaninoff’s grandson Alexander Rachmaninoff to the reconstructed estate, Ivanovka, which was plundered and razed to the ground after the Rachmaninoff family fled Leninist Russia. The grandson is honored by various officials with bouquets of flowers, a traditional loaf of bread that he is asked to break, and a choral group singing his grandfather’s music. He is then given a tour of the reconstructed estate, complete with a visit to the room where Rachmaninoff sought solace in order to compose. He is clearly moved by the experience and, for all of its awkwardness, the sequence remains an intriguing moment for the audience, as well.

Other interviews give us some insight into what it was like to live with Sergei Rachmaninoff. Interviewees discuss his work ethic, his personality quirks, his love for fast cars and ice cream sodas, and, of course, his reverence for all things Russian. Rachmaninoff maintained a Russian household (complete with Russian servants and traditions) no matter where in the world he happened to reside at the moment. But for Rachmaninoff, like so many exiles of the period, his Russia had ceased to exist. It was a distant memory that resounded eternally in the dark spaces of his dreams and recollections. This deeper sense of nostalgia (an imbrication of bitter loss and tender love) for a country hallowed in memory and gently encased in an idealized past haunts every phrase of Rachmaninoff’s letters, every turn of his melodic contours.

Perhaps in this way, despite Tolstoy’s caustic query that serves as the second epigraph to this review, we may come to need music like this. Rachmaninoff was certainly not an innovator; he did not push the limits of musical expression; he designed no new solutions to musical problems, developed no new “school” of composition. He remained stubbornly and implacably rooted in the dead language of the past. And yet there was something about his way of speaking that dead language (something that only becomes evident in performances such as these) that awakened a yearning in his listeners to once again experience that manner of expression, to believe that such expression was still possible.

Nostalgia need not be kitsch; nostalgia may, indeed, serve a deeper purpose — to rekindle, if only faintly, a desire we thought we had lost. This is a bittersweet experience, to be sure, but not one devoid of meaning.

RATING 7 / 10