Surveying works by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky

CSO explores music that defined the 20th century

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, Sergei Rachmaninov receives a salute next season.


In the 1954 edition of the Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, English musicologist Eric Blom made one of the most misguided and now-infamous predictions in modern music history. He derided Sergei Rachmaninov’s “artificial and gushing tunes” and went on to assert that “the enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last.”

Oh, how wrong he was. Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and piano concertos remain among the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire, and many of his works in others forms are regularly performed as well. That continued audience appeal, not to mention the high quality of the music itself, go far in explaining why the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform four of his works in 2022/23.

But there are two other reasons specific to this upcoming season. First, 2023 marks the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Second, three works by Rachmaninov will be part of the CSO’s look at compositions that helped define the 20th century. As part of a special season-long exploration, it will focus on three national cultural centers: Russia, France and the United States. In addition to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini and Symphonic Dances (Feb. 9-11) and Piano Concerto No. 3 (April 20-23, 2023), the Russian section will also feature works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.

Ahead of the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninov’s birth, the English publisher Reaktion Books is releasing a new biography of the composer that will be distributed in the United States by the University of Chicago Press. Written by Rebecca Mitchell, an associate professor of history at Middlebury College, the book is part of the Critical Lives series, which offers concise looks at major cultural figures, setting their works in the context of their lives.

Reaktion asked her to take on the biography after the 2016 publication of the book Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics and the Twilight of the Russian Empire, which looked at the music of Rachmaninov, Alexander Scriabin and Nikolai Medtner in the tumultuous years just before World War I and the Russian Revolution.

“I had never actually planned to write a biography,” Mitchell said. “What I was interested in was this question of where Rachmaninov fit into Russian culture more broadly. One of the things I liked about this particular approach of Reaktion Books is that they’re short rethinkings of major historical figures, raising new insights or questions about them.”

Rachmaninov (1873-1943) graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 and went on to enjoy a career as a composer, conductor and one of the most renowned piano soloists of his time. The disastrous reception of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897 sent him into a creative and psychological tailspin, but he recovered enough to write his immediately popular Piano Concerto No. 2, which he premiered in 1901. After the Russian Revolution, he settled in the United States with his family. 

In her book, Mitchell sought to question the image of Rachmaninov as an “old-fashioned Romantic,” in part because it didn’t fit what she believed happened at the end of Russia’s imperial era in 1900-17, a period known as the Silver Age. Culture during this time was “actually very dynamic, experimental, spiritual — looking for new ways of envisioning the world.” And thinking about Rachmaninov’s music, particularly his Études-tableaux and some of his art songs, he really fit into that culture.

She sees his later music, which does have a sense of nostalgia for an idealized vision of his homeland, as what she called a “product of modernity,” of having to respond to wars and societal upheaval. “I was really intrigued with thinking of Rachmaninov not as someone who represented this timeless unchanging culture but someone who was successfully navigating all the flux and change of modernity,” she said. “And I found that to be a very productive way of thinking about him.”

That said, Mitchell concedes that Rachmaninov’s music can be seen as a continuation of the Romantic tradition, especially the influences of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. “That’s very clear,” she said. “He loved these long, singable lines and actually one of the things that makes him so popular in the concert halls of the present days.”

But at the same time, if one really examines some of the composer’s works, like the second set of Études-tableaux (1917) or the later Preludes, the harmonic progressions and chromaticism are more innovative than people generally recognize. “In some ways, he’s experimenting with color in a way that is very similar what someone like Debussy or Ravel were doing at the same time.”

That Rachmaninov’s music would be attacked in the 1950s was not surprising, because the classical music world at the time was dominated by serialist composers who had pushed beyond traditional tonalism. But Mitchell argues that it also shows the divide between the rarefied world of academic composers and music theorists and concert audiences, who went on liking the music of Rachmaninov and similar composers. “There’s this time, where almost his very popularity among audiences is seen as demonstrating that his music must not really be highbrow. It’s like this inverse relationship. The more accessible and enjoyable the music is, the less it should be given a place in the development of music history.”

Beyond its enduring audience appeal, especially his piano works, how important or influential is Rachmaninov music viewed today? Where or how does the composer fit into classical music history? Mitchell sees him as the culmination of the tradition of the keyboardist-composer, which dates to Johann Sebastian Bach and continues with figures such as Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Clara Schumann. In the 20th and 21st centuries, almost none of the great piano virtuosos has been a noted composer. “He really is one of the last,” she said. In addition, she sees his piano writing as an extension of techniques introduced by Liszt and Chopin and his use of color as building on the work of Ravel and Debussy.

Although Rachmaninov cannot be said to have had a major impact on later concert music, which moved into styles like atonalism and later minimalism, he did have considerable influence on the world of film music. “The style of that music is very much akin to the kind of style that Rachmaninov was writing in,” she said. “That continues in the realm of film into at least into the 1990s. You have film composers who are writing in a more accessible style than what you have in the concert hall, and I think Rachmaninov is one of the examples they are drawing on.”