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Friday, 11 September 2020

Kerry's Corner Number 6 by Kerry Barnes


Hello Music Lovers

Welcome to the 6th Edition of Kerry’s Corner.

A series of articles where I delve into the lives and works of the “great composers”.

This edition is all about Rachmaninov one of the greatest Russian Composer’s ever!

Above…photo of the great man himself!

I have adored Rachmaninov since I was 13 years old, and I’ve been told by many people, that they can hear his influences in my own music.

If I may, I’d like to share with you my personal thoughts, feelings and experiences of this amazing composer, and then I’ll get on with the history etc.

I always wanted to play stuff by him, but on reflection this was never a good idea, as R had massive manly hands and could easily reach a 13th on the piano, whereas I can just about manage an octave with my chubby little paws!! You can see this pan out in his scores and manuscripts, where there are literally 4 staves for 2 hands only, the only way to fit his gigantic chord writings in!

Have a look at the score below of his Prelude in C sharp minor, and you’ll see what I mean!

Rachmaninov was famous for his use of ‘Chromatic Harmony’ giving his music a very gushing, romantic and sentimental sound, a sound that some critics call 'too sweet and corny’….but that’s exactly the reason I love him!

I think the British concert pianist Stephen Hough (who is also professor of piano at Trinity College London) is the best interpreter of Rachmaninov’s piano music, and I once saw him play R’s Paganini Variations on Proms TV and was blown away!

You know that thing where you envision what somebody looks like just by hearing their music…..well I was totally wrong about Rachmaninov. I had him down for a big, fattish man with a huge unkempt beard (rather like Brahms), sweating at the piano, puffing and blowing his way through the music! …….I couldn’t have been more wrong! HA HA!

I don’t know whether anybody else has thought this, but, Rachmaninov’s 2nd and 3rd piano concertos should chronologically be round the other way, especially in style. No.3 sounds like it would go with a black and white film of some sort, and that No.2 was a later more romantic work? …….don’t know if that’s just me!

Ooooh, and before I forget…..Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, is one of the relatively small group of pieces where the ‘middle-pedal’ on the piano is used.

Pic above is an album cover of Rachmaninov actually playing his own works!


Rachmaninov was the last of a tradition of great composer-pianists, and the last of the Russian Romantics.

His music has always been very appealing, with its sweeping drama and haunting melancholy, which immediately brings to mind the 2nd piano concerto.

His mother was actually a trained pianist and was the first teacher to give him piano lessons.  

As a later student, he studied at the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories. He famously studied composition with Anton Arensky (1861-1906). Whilst he was graduating, he finished the First Piano Concerto (hardly performed now).

The following year, he won the top prize for his one act opera “Aleko” (I must listen to this!) But then his luck changed with a disastrous performance of his first symphony because the conductor was drunk! ….and consequently gained terrible reviews …….but the worst thing of all, Rachmaninov had a complete nervous breakdown over it and couldn’t write for the next 3 years!

When he finally did return to composing, along came the music for David Lean’s film “Brief Encounter” and what a melody it was (I’m singing it now).

Anyhow, moving on from this time, he married his cousin Natalya Satina, and settled down to composing operatic material, until that is, his daughter Irina fell seriously ill and the family had to move to Dresden in 1906. Whilst he was in Dresden he wrote the symphonic-poem “The Isle of the Dead”, inspired by a painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin.

Above- pic of Rachmaninov’s hands! Ginormous!! (13 note stretch)


In 1909, Rachmaninov made his first visit to America and toured with a new work…’the 3rd piano concerto’. Then over the next few summers he wrote the horrendously difficult Piano Preludes, Liturgy of St. John Chrysostrom and Etudes for piano……..oooh, and not to mention 14 Songs and a 2nd Piano Sonata. He also carried on touring around the country until the outbreak of WW1.

1917 was a very dangerous time for Rachmaninov politically, and he was forced into exile. He stayed in America for the rest of his life. From 1918 he wrote little as he spent a lot of time performing.

Come 1934, he did however knock out the Paganini Variations for piano and orchestra, (of which number 18 is my favourite).

Rachmaninov died of cancer in Beverly Hills in 1943, aged almost 70.

I leave you to ponder and enjoy his most famous piano solo work, the Prelude in C sharp minor.

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