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Polytonality in Rachmaninoff

In previous posts I have argued that Rachmaninoff, the self-proclaimed musical conservative, was not only influenced by his more forward-looking contemporaries, but actually incorporated some of their modern harmonic devices in his music.  Polytonality is the use of two different keys at once.  The classic (but not earliest) example is from Stravinsky’s Petrushka:

Although there are somewhat tortured harmonic theories to explain this chord in a single tonality, it is simpler to consider this as simultaneous C major and F# major chords, keys a tritone apart.  On the piano (which is the instrument this is played on in Stravinsky’s ballet) this tremolo consists of two simple but unrelated chords, one all white keys and one all black keys.  Tonality is ambiguous.  Is the key here C or F#?

Certainly Rachmaninoff was not so extreme in his harmony!?  He comes close to the same kind of tonal ambiguity here in the 23rd variation of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini:

Here the piano is playing in A flat minor, while the orchestra plays in A minor, a half tone higher.  It’s an effect suggesting that the piano is out of tune, i.e. too flat.  Perhaps this is a little joke (there is a lot of humor in this piece) on violinists playing out of tune.  The Rhapsody includes many violin-like effects, as the theme of the Rhapsody was written by Paganini, the greatest 19th century violinist.  In the last variation, which mimics the leaps seen in virtuoso violin pieces, Rachmaninoff uses polytonic arpeggios in the left hand which could have come right out of Petrushka.

The first 6 notes in the left hand of each measure consist of two triads, minor and major, a major second distant.  He combines D minor and E major, then E minor and F# major, then F# minor and A flat major, and then A flat minor and B flat major, in a rising sequence.  On the third beat of each measure, the chord of the first beat is lowered a half tone (e.g. D minor becomes C# major), to make the tonality even more loose.  This is decidedly odd harmony, especially combined with a violin-like right hand of simultaneously ascending and descending chromatic scales.

These examples and my previous post on this subject demonstrate that, as much as Rachmaninoff professed publicly that he was incapable of understanding “modern music,” he was very capable of using very modern harmonic idioms in his own music when it suited him.

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Music

Harmonic Dissonance in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2

My previous blog entry on Rachmaninoff’s concertos may have raised some skepticism amongst those who consider the composer to be, whatever his other merits, a conservative in his musical language. Rachmaninoff himself helped foster this notion with quotes like “I am organically incapable of understanding modern music….” Yet a composer on personal terms with Prokofiev and Scriabin among others could hardly fail to be influenced by some of their modernity. I’ll show here one little snippet to prove my point. It seems that nothing is less radical or more traditional than Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. But let’s examine some of the harmonies of the first movement, just before the coda.

At the beginning of this excerpt, marked 1, the piano plays a B natural above a root position C minor chord, the key of the movement. This is a Cmin7 chord, dissonant, but fairly conservative and common in the Romantic Era. The B is flattened and then suspended over the dominant of g minor, resolving to an A in the next measure. Again, fairly typical. Rather than the expected g minor chord, Rachmaninoff prolongs the tension by making the next chord an augmented 6th chord, at mark 2. The piano however repeats the A natural of the last measure, over the A flat in the base, essentially an augmented octave or minor 9th. This A natural can be considered another passing note, since it resolves to A flat the next half note. Certainly more daring than the previous measures harmonically, but the best is yet to come. The orchestra suspends the A flat into the next measure, but the harmony underneath is the 3rd inversion of a c minor 6th chord, i.e. with A natural in the base (mark 3). What’s amazing about this chord and what sets it apart from the cadence at mark 1 is that the A flat is being suspended (and actually repeated by the piano) over not just an A natural, but an A natural and a G natural. This is essentially 2 minor seconds on top of each other; if the spacing of the notes were different this would be a tone cluster (G – A flat – A). A lesser composer than Rachmaninoff would have made the top note an A natural, or the bass an A flat, but instead the cadence as written is one of the most poignant in music. One wonders if Rachmaninoff, the professed musical conservative, struggled a bit with this harmony before committing to it. Next time you listen to this concerto pay attention to this cadence — it has an odd sound, almost like quarter tone music, that is unique and a bit disquieting. It’s an incredibly moving effect. It may not be Prokofiev or Scriabin, but still daring harmonically for a composer too often deemed a holdover from the 19th century.

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Music

Blogging Project: Analyzing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos

My blog is littered with uncompleted, overly-ambitious projects. Here is yet another one.  Since I became musically conscious sometime during my childhood, I have been fond of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music, in particular his piano concertos. I remember tape recording these pieces from my transistor radio, listening to old 78 RPM phonograph records I found in the basement of our house, and playing on our out of tune Story and Clark piano the themes of the Second Concerto in a volume of “tunes” I found in a volume titled “Music For Millions” or something of the sort.  No YouTube or Google in those days! Even though it was far, far above my piano playing skills I ordered the solo part of the 2nd Concerto from a local music store in Jenkintown, PA.  I remember how excited I was when it finally arrived and I opened it up. I had listened over and over to a set of 45 RPM records by William Kapell (I didn’t know his tragic history then) of this concerto (each movement was divided between 3 records!) and it was and still remains my favorite recording. I had imagined in my head what the opening arpeggios would look like, but in the actual sheet music everything looked foreign and surprisingly different from what I had imagined.  I spent a lot of time back then forcing my fingers to play the lyrical second theme of the first movement more or less successfully.  Later on I had to unlearn the awkward fingering I had made up back then.  In any case this is a long preamble to my project, which is to analyze all four concertos.

I have been familiar with these concertos my whole life, have various recordings, have the scores for them all, and have studied and played through them. I will discuss each concerto (and maybe the Rhapsody on A Theme of Paganini too) separately in upcoming posts, but will give a hint here of some of the themes I would like to discuss.  These include the influence of 20th century advances in harmony such as dissonance and polytonality (e.g. the last variation in the Rhapsody contains arpeggios with triads in 2 different keys), self-reference (e.g. the beginning of the 4th Concerto as a reflection of the end of the 3rd Concerto),  and variant versions of the concertos. Regarding the last theme, Rachmaninoff was notoriously self-critical with the result that all the concertos save the 2nd (which I’ll argue is one of the most “perfect” pieces ever composed, especially the first movement) have multiple versions. The 1st Concerto as published and performed nowadays is really pretty much the last concerto and is markedly different from the original 1st Concerto. The 3rd Concerto has numerous ossias and was at least in the past often performed with various cuts. And the 4th Concerto has 3 different forms, with the final published version markedly different in tone and character than its manuscript version. I’ll attempt to publish my analyses in bits and pieces in upcoming posts on this blog.

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Rachmaninoff "Piano Concerto No. 5"

I was certainly surprised to find on YouTube links to videos of a fifth piano concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff.  I quickly discovered (after listening for a few seconds) that this was an arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony for piano and orchestra.  The arrangement is by pianist Alexander Warenberg (about whom I know nothing).  Apparently the project was approved by the Rachmaninoff estate (maybe due to the bad economy and copyrights expiring on Rachmaninoff’s works), and there are various performances on YouTube available.  As far as anyone knows, Rachmaninoff himself never intended to convert his most famous symphony into a piano concerto.  Therefore it’s hard not to be extremely critical and skeptical about such a project.  Despite approaching the recordings with this mindset, I loved the music.  Not surprising, as it is Rachmaninoff’s music after all, and there is not much music that is more lyrical, emotional, or powerful than his 2nd Symphony.  It is certainly interesting to hear the symphony is this new way, with Rachmaninoff-style piano accompaniment.  Having said this, it should be emphasized that the original symphony is much better.  Warenberg has trimmed the original four movements to three.  He eliminated the scherzo movement and moved the fugue-like passage from this movement to the third movement.  The first movement is the most significantly damaged structure of the symphony.  The long lugubrious introduction of the original is cut short to allow an early entrance of the soloist, disrupting the balance of the movement.  As for the piano writing, most of it sounds like what Rachmaninoff would write, including some nearly direct quotes from the “real” piano concertos (a quote from the beginning of the First Concerto seems a tad out of place).  Occasionally the textures seem a little overwrought or odd, e.g. a section in the first movement that uses a repeated glissando figure doesn’t seem to match the music well.  (Rachmaninoff was pretty sparing in his glissando use: there is one use in the Third Concerto and it is so subtle you can easily not notice it.)  Overall though Mr. Warenberg did a good job with this arrangement.  It is fun to listen to as long as you realize it is not Rachmaninoff’s arrangement and not really his Fifth Concerto.  I guess the point is that Rachmaninoff’s music sounds good whether adapted by Mr. Warenberg or by Barry Manilow.

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Music

Joseph Marx – Eine Herbstsymphonie

I was fortunate enough to attend the US premiere of Joseph Marx’s Eine Herbstsymphonie (“Autumn Symphony”) in New York City on December 7, 2008, performed by the American Symphony Orchestra. The work is regarded as Marx’s masterpiece, but aside from a performance in Austria a couple of years ago, had languished forgotten since its last performance in 1927. Published in 1921, it is a vast, sprawling work of neo-Romanticism — influenced by Wagner, Debussy, Scriabin, but firmly in the unique sound-world of Marx. Unfortunately there is little of this formerly admired composer available to hear — I base my impressions on the CDs I have of the piano concertos and various clips and samples available on the Internet.

The symphony is divided into 4 movements; the first 2 are continuous. The first movement sets out some major themes, with mostly very dense polyphonic writing with the strings to the fore against ever shifting harmonies. This leads to the 2nd, waltz-like movement, which has elements of a Viennese waltz, with some contrasting material mixed in. The 3rd movement again features the strings, often very much divided into rich harmonies, and rising to several climaxes. This seems like the emotional center of the symphony. The last movement starts out riotously, with lots of percussion, but returns finally to the themes of the first movement, this time presented more simply and peacefully.The very loud and tumultuous symphony ends on a quiet note.

It seems to be more a tone poem than a symphony, though it appears that a small number of themes are manipulated in multiple ways most cleverly throughout the work. Awash in so much luxurious sound, it is difficult to ascertain the structure underlying the symphony.  Unfortunately with just a single hearing it is not easy to fathom all the depths of this creation. Hopefully a recording will be made someday. Until then, I count myself lucky to be one of perhaps only a few hundred people nowadays who have ever heard this forgotten masterpiece.