Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev

On the 18th of November, 1915, a recital was held in Moscow to commemorate the life of Alexander Scriabin, whose premature death in April of that year had rocked the world of Russian music.  The program consisted entirely of his own works, and performing them at the piano was fellow Moscow Conservatory graduate, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Also present on that evening, as a member of the audience, was Sergei Prokofiev.  He was 24 years old.

Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev
Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev (*)

According to the surviving press material that relates the outcome of this concert, Rachmaninoff’s playing was not well received.  As professional and musically gifted as the man was, his performance was apparently starved of the nuances that contemporary “Scriabinites” cherished in these pieces.  And in fact, Rachmaninoff continued to endure criticism for his treatment of the late composer’s works as the season unfolded and as more critics throughout Russia were introduced to his interpretation.  (If only we had such an opportunity.)

Prokofiev’s opinion went on record too, fortunately, and is less critical.  In his account, he acknowledges the uproar of the press and the unmistakable novelty of Rachmaninoff’s performance, but voices no immediate protests of his own.

I tried to suggest an objective point of view: though we were accustomed to the composer’s interpretation, perhaps there are other ways of playing this work.

His coolheaded open-mindedness wouldn’t appease the older composer-pianist though, and what Prokofiev describes next is a first look at the unpleasant relationship they would share for the rest of their lives.

Entering the artists’ room, I continued my thought as I spoke to Rachmaninoff: “And yet, Sergei Vasilyevich, you played very well.”  Rachmaninoff smiled acidly—”And you probably thought I’d play badly?” and he turned away to someone else.  This put an end to our good relations.  Some part in this was certainly contributed by Rachmaninoff’s rejection of my music, and the irritation it provoked in him.

And so, as history would have it, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev would never really hit it off.  I’d like to think that, as two of the most successful artists of their time, they at least shared a mutual respect for each other’s talent, but that probably wouldn’t have really mattered even if it were true.  After the First World War, the two of them would advance their careers in music quite independently of each other, despite both of them leaving for the United States at around the same time.

Moscow (lucie@Flickr)

Before leaving Russia, however, the gods again arranged for these two men to be present together in a concert setting in Moscow.  Rachmaninoff, together with his friend and fellow composer Medtner, attended a performance of Prokofiev’s chamber works.  Prokofiev’s recollection of the evening confirms Rachmaninoff’s generally mysterious and subdued demeanor:

Among those invited were Rachmaninoff and Medtner.  Through the concert Medtner fumed and fussed, “If that’s music, I’m no musician.”  Rachmaninoff, though, sat like a stone idol, and the Moscow audience, that usually received me well, was confused as it watched its hero’s reaction to my music.

How lucky we are to have such sensationalism on record.  Actually, while these anecdotes mostly recount unpleasantness, there is another (a letter to a Moscow magazine) in which Prokofiev respectfully acknowledges Rachmaninoff’s success in the concert hall. Still, there’s no denying the bad blood between these two; in a later discourse on his taste in music, Prokofiev dismissed the subject with the following:

Rachmaninoff—well, I’d rather say nothing about him.  The truth is we hated each other’s guts!

All of this leaves me wondering whether it was Prokofiev the man or specifically his music that bothered Rachmaninoff so much.  Either way, there isn’t much you can do, in general, to reconcile artistic differences.  Prokofiev and others were on a path to a new kind of sound, and Rachmaninoff would simply have no part in it.

Source: Bertensson & Leyda. Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music. Indiana University Press. Amazon.

(*) Photographs copyright of their respective owners.

8 thoughts on “Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev”

  1. Yes! No itouch and a keyboard! I guess I have no excuses for typos anymore!>:$! w0ops!! Gee, it is very refreshing to read these excerpts online, and where classical music doesn’t always equate to a critique of a performance (solely) or some blown-up commemorative. Anyhoo, enough of that spiel…I wonder if it was that Prokofiev had more ingenuity and inherent gift as a musical mathematician. (At least, although his pieces aren’t as flashy as Rachmaninoff’s, and perhaps less emotive, don’t you think they carry a stronger intertextual expertise? I don’t know…every time I listen to a Prokofiev Piano Sonata, it just feels so much “crunchier” to me. (I have no idea what that means…I guess, something similar to the depth that one can feel when one steps on just fallen snow? and how, each step presses on layers and layers of intricate snowflakes?))
    Oh, and this is completely unrelated, but what are your feelings on Ravel? And do you like Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes? (You do not have to answer these questions any time soon or answer them at all…) bleh

  2. sigh, no edit feature.
    um, well, oh, Perhaps the crunchiness is from the strain put on prokofiev—anyhow, I would like to nullify the statement that Rachmaninoff might not have as much artistic dexterity!

  3. animosity makes history more interesting! Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev should have dueled it out! :P

    ** didn’t make it to the hall on friday, but seeing a play this friday, getting somewhat cultured.
    *** just realized I’ve switched identity, but o well :)

  4. @Pika: Sorry about no comment editing. :( I’m making a list in the back of my mind of things that I need to add to this blog.

    To your points comparing the two composers, I think Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev are different enough stylistically that saying that one of them is more [X] is just a way of restating the composer’s idiom. That is, any greater faculty exhibited by one and not the other (“crunchiness,” for example) just speaks to their divergent philosophies and ideals for making music. Whether Rachmaninoff was capable of writing “crunchy” music, it did not matter, because it was not in his style. Anyway, I don’t think it was Prokofiev’s ingenuity that got to him. ;)

    Ravel is awesome. Fantastic orchestrator. Don’t know the Ginastera piece, but I’ll find it and give it a listen. Thanks for the recommendation!

    @dearestjean: Have fun at the play!

  5. Oh, speaking of which—
    you know how sometimes, you can almost see shadows of a composer by the people who play his/her music in the present? Or those who CHOOSE or look as though they personify the music itself? Perhaps that would be a great way to see what a modern day Prokofiev and Shostakovich would look side by side.
    But speaking of Prokofiev, I once saw this awesome performance in an art gallery, where the video artist/artist/idea artist(?) had a huge projector set up and had a video streaming of two violinists performing the sonata for two violins, and in the corner, were situated two conservatory students who played the same very piece, in sync with the video, and, I thought the effect was really sublime. The streaming video was very old, and the piece seemed to transcend time; plus, you’d watch the fingers on the projection—then, watch the performers, and although one usually acknowledges the performer during a concert, and vice versa when listening to a recording—I thought it was the most perfect combination of both! It’s strange. I love Dan Deacon, and Animal Collective, and all sorts of genres of music, but I must say, nothing can really make my brain and body soar like classical music.

  6. What you say about the spirit of certain composers transcending time reminds me of Horowitz, whose standing as the supposed “Last Romantic” I’ve mostly bought into.

    Performance art is something that’s pretty alien to me, so I guess I just take it for what it is. Actually the Prokofiev scenario you mention sounds pretty conservative as far as performance art goes, but sometimes it can really challenge what you know and think about art.

  7. hrm, for the spirit of certain composers, I was more imagining some sort of strange temporal wormhole in which all performers of a certain vein or tradition (in today’s world) would merge into one sorta of exponent of the composer’s work. hehe

    and sorry bout the blurb on a “simultaneous prokofiev” (since it was more or less a past recollection to share) — i was more recalling that moment, less for the art, and more for the inherent magic in the music itself. blegh.

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