March 01, 2008

Between Glinka & Silvestrov

Over the past century, Russia has endured colossal upheavals that have had an incalculable impact on her development. There is at least one area, however, in which 20th century Russia was undoubtedly "ahead of the entire planet," as the popular anti-Soviet song goes. That area is music. The world’s best-known 20th century classical composers were Igor Stravinsky, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Alfred Schnittke and Sergei Rachmaninov. And this spring marks 135 years since the birth of Rachmaninov and the 65th anniversary of his death.

Rachmaninov is a composer whose very name is synonymous with music. His Piano Concerto No. 2 is on the short list of the most popular classical works of all time. However you may feel about this composer, you have probably heard his Vocalise, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and his Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, among other works. In Russia and throughout the world, Rachmaninov remains one of the most performed composers, and when Russian orchestras tour overseas, they almost always include Rachmaninov in their repertoire. Maestro Valery Polyansky likes to recall how, during the Bolshoi Orchestra's American tour, he conducted Rachmaninov's Second Symphony 25 times in a row – and many times again during their following tour.

Rachmaninov is an example of how difficult it is to pigeonhole works of art in terms of chronology. Most of the composer's life was lived in the 20th century (he was born in 1873), and that century also saw the creation of most of his best-known works. Aesthetically, however, his works seem more at home in the 19th century. Rachmaninov is not alone. The same could be said of his contemporary, Richard Strauss, who lived until 1949 but was largely a composer of the preceding century. Gustav Mahler, on the other hand, is considered the first great composer of the 20th century, despite the fact that he only lived through a bit more than its first decade.

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See Also

Rachmaninov Had Big Hands

Rachmaninov Had Big Hands

This hilarious YouTube video shows how large Rachmaninov's hands were -- too big for this diminutive pianist, which leads to the humorous improvization...

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