photo manipulation & text by nacrowe
noted 19th century RUSSIAN composer, conductor and virtuosic pianist SERGEI RACHMANINOFF has a reputation for constructing compositions that are a bit DOUR and FATALISTIC in nature, but BBC presenter TOM SERVICE in his documentary THE JOY OF RACHMANINOFF (BBC, 2016) attempts to challenge that critical conceit by closely examining the LIFE, CAREER and lasting GLOBAL IMPACT of the famous ICONOCLAST.
the film goes to great lengths to outline the political upheaval and cultural headwinds that defined RACHMANINOFF's life. he was born into a life of privilege and wealth as a member of the aristocracy of mid-19th century RUSSIA, only to see it abruptly dismantled during the BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION in his mind 40s. he would live his life in exile in EUROPE and the UNITED STATES with nostalgia for a former RUSSIA that was now a relic of history. to compound this sense of ISOLATION, RACHMANINOFF is famous for his emotionally-wrenching piano concertos, hymns and symphonies that draw from the same deep well as fellow RUSSIAN ROMANTIC composers like NIKOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV and towering musical icon PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY. unfortunately for RACHMANINOFF his time abroad found him completely out of place in the time of MODERNISM with the EXPERIMENTAL DISSONANCE and challenging compositions of IGOR STRAVINSKY and CHARLES IVES (among many others) being en vogue at that moment. RACHMANINOFF was essentially creating within a FRAMEWORK and a LEXICON that was seen as outmoded during his lifetime. so essentially he was geographically and culturally ISOLATED for much of his life.
so where is the joy?
SERVICE seems to argue that in his music there is an embedded sense of catharsis and relief that comes with acknowledging and reflecting on the most INTENSE and searingly PAINFUL aspects of life. this deeply felt sense of fatalism is also uniquely RUSSIAN in nature he argues. the joy of listening to RACHMANINOFF is taking in those moments of SOLITARY BLISS that come after experiencing the swells of EMOTION and DREAD that preludes them. you also get the sense that there is a hard fought sense of AUTHENTICITY in experiencing these emotions through his music, due to the fact that they were written with a BITTERSWEET sense of intense NOSTALGIA that came with his geographic and cultural DISLOCATION.
not sure i am convinced with the argument, but this was an enjoyable film that further wetted my appetite to further explore the work of RACHMANINOFF in the future.