May 17, 2023

150 Variations On a Theme of Rachmaninoff

By Stuart Mitchner

If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it.

—Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) on Piano Concerto No. 3

Because Rachmaninoff was born on April 1, ran a 2016 April Fool’s jeu d’esprit on the composer’s “secret career” as a “performer of amazing feats of strength” in various English music halls. The most amusingly convincing of three doctored photographs of “Rock Mannenough” shows him riding a bicycle carrying three leggy, scantily clad females, one with her thighs locked around his neck, the other two hanging on either side waving to the crowd. The composer’s deadpan face has been photoshopped onto the bike rider’s body.

The painting on the cover of Max Harrison’s book Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings (Continuum 2006) reminds me of poker-faced Hoagy Carmichael, composer of “Stardust” and “Georgia On my Mind.” Although he’s in shirt and tie, Rachmaninoff looks a long way from the concert hall. He could be playing in a bar or a nightclub or at home. Put a trench coat and a fedora on him, give him a gun, and he’s a Russian Bogart with the existential charisma of Albert Camus.

Smiling with Rach 3

My guess is that one of the rare times Rachmaninoff smiled a full all-out smile was upon finishing the Piano Concerto No. 3, or Rach 3, a fiendishly difficult piece. According to, Rachmaninoff had been told by violinist Fritz Kreisler that “some young Russian” plays No. 3 “like nothing I ever heard, and you have to meet him.” Soon Vladimir Horowitz and Rachmaninoff got together at Steinway Hall, where the composer played the orchestra part on one piano while Horowitz played the solo part on the other. Rachmaninoff was amazed: “He swallowed it whole. He had the courage, the intensity, and daring that make for greatness.”

You can see Horowitz swallow Rach 3 whole on YouTube with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on November 28, 1978, exactly 50 years from the day the composer himself premiered it with Walter Damrosch conducting. “Smiling” is much too small a word for the eruption of absolute joy on Horowitz’s face as he and the orchestra gallop across the finish line (if you can imagine an ascending finish line). This is not the conventional smile of a performer who has come through to great applause and is taking a bow. This is a 75-year-old virtuoso, the subject of innumerable standing ovations, and he’s beside himself with delight even before the auditorium comes roaring to its feet, as he all but falls into the arms of an equally ecstatic Zubin Mehta.

It’s hard to think of the dynamics of Rach 3 in terms of a “melody” that “simply wrote itself” and that Rachmaninoff wanted to sing “as a singer would sing it.” Somewhere beyond the cascading arpeggios, stirring fanfares, passionate cadenzas and crescendos, somewhere under the surface or on the horizon is another melody, a golden mean of melody that has charmed the world for decades — the adagio sostenuto of Piano Concerto No. 2, the theme that haunts the lonely lovers in Brief Encounter (1946), one of cinema’s most enduring romances, which even the constitutionally cynical James Agee finds “deeply touching,” due no doubt to the prevalence of Rachmaninoff’s music.

A Classic Curiosity

The same music becomes a lover’s battleground in Frank Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You (1946), a lavish, wildly expensive film intended to bring the romance and grandeur of classical music to the screen. Concerto, the picture’s original title, was considered too “highbrow” by Republic, a studio best known for low-budget westerns featuring the “singing cowboy” Gene Autry. The story concerns Myra, a gifted 22-year-old pianist who is taken under the wing of Leopold Goronoff, a beyond-vain virtuoso pianist/conductor with whom she soon falls in love when she’s really in love with Rachmaninoff by way of Arthur Rubinstein who is playing the piano on the soundtrack. Although Goronoff has told her that there’s “no place for a woman in classical music,” he eventually presents Myra to the world in a Carnegie Hall concert with Goronoff conducting the orchestra. Once it dawns on him that the woman at the keyboard is doing more with the Rachmaninoff than he’s ever done, he makes sure the orchestra drowns her out, she rushes offstage to marry the nice young man she grew up with, has a child, then returns to Carnegie six years later for a totally improbable reprise performance of No. 2 with the great Goronoff conducting; she prevails this time, and runs offstage into the arms of her husband.

I’ve Always Loved You began filming on August 6, 1945, and was finally released two months after the horrors of Hiroshima had been detailed by John Hersey in the August 31, 1946 New Yorker. Given the critical trashing the picture received (it won the Harvard Advocate worst film of the year award), and the fact that a project already budgeted at $1.5 million ended up costing another half million, you could say the connection with a bomb of historic proportions had a certain black-comic-ironic resonance.

In Europe, where Borzage was known as a visionary director, the film, with its suggestion of an extrasensory connection between the two musicians, achieved a strange sort of recognition. In 1962 Cahiers du cinema found it to be “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece…. The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” More recent screenings have led to equally weird responses: “an amazing work, disconcerting at times, with marvelous charm, through which breathes a wind of madness”; “the most hallucinating, most beautiful” of Borzage’s films … the most outrageous ever conceived in Hollywood.”

La Belle Hélène

Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto was my teenage introduction to “great music” thanks to a tall Texan named Van Cliburn. Hearing it again last week in Borzage’s film, where the plot distracted me from the music, I decided to hear it fresh. Having recently watched Hélène Grimaud’s magnificent performance of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1, I decided to see if she could lend her magic touch to Rachmaninoff’s No. 2, specifically the adagio and the third movement. The performance took place in 2008 at the Lucerne Festival, with Claudio Abbado conducting. My response surprised me. I knew what Grimaud could do, but the interplay between her and the musicians was truly moving. The almost too familiar music came through with a primal purity. This was in every fine sense of the word a new work, with soloist, orchestra and conductor one organism. The ovation was tremendous, perhaps equal to the one that greeted Horowitz that night in 1978. The musicians were smiling and enthusiastically clapping as Grimaud took her bow. She was beaming — both she and Abbado were clearly delighted, they hugged, it was a glorious moment, and three years later comes the news of a break between and the pianist and the conductor.

“Titans Clash”

The New York Times headlined the October 20, 2011 story, “Titans Clash Over a Mere Cadenza.” Ms. Grimaud was to have performed with Mr. Abbado, once more at the Lucerne Festival, but the concerts were cancelled because of “artistic differences.” The conflict seems to have been only a sadder and more complicated version of the one in Borzage’s film. Quoted in the Times article, Grimaud said, “It would have been for me a sort of sellout. It would have been going with the flow to avoid making waves, and keeping things comfortable and uneventful. I couldn’t do that. That kind of compromise is nothing I want to do with. And neither does he. That’s maybe why we worked together for so many years.”

The Piano Smoked

In the article about Horowitz and Rachmaninoff, Horowitz remembers his American debut at Carnegie Hall, the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, with Thomas Beecham conducting. “I chose the Tchaikovsky because I knew that I could make such a wild sound … and I could play it with such speed and noise. I very much wanted to have a big success in the United States.” Because the conductor’s tempos were too relaxed, the pianist made his move: “I wanted to eat the public alive,” said Horowitz, “to drive them completely crazy. Subconsciously, it was in order not to go back to Europe .… So in my mind I said, ‘Well, my Englishman, my lord, I am from Kiev, and I’ll give you something.’ And so I started to make the octaves faster and very wild.” According to The New York Times, “The piano smoked at the keys.”

The Frown on the Mound

It’s great to see that got the April Fool’s word out about Rachmaninoff’s brief but brilliant career as a pitcher with the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, which became the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932. Did I even for a minute take the idea seriously? Sure, for a fraction of a second I could see him on the mound, the baseball like a mothball in his enormous hand. The writers would dub him The Frown. Me, I’m smiling now that the St. Louis Cardinals seem to have turned the corner after an eight game losing streak and the worst start in 50 years.


Quotes by Rachmaninoff are from his letters as reported on Quotes about Frank Borzage are from Hervé Dumont’s biography. I found Piano Concertos 1-4 with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Princeton Public Library.