Criticism is often the hardest to take. It leaves a sting…that often does not leave our memories. At times, it moves us to press forward toward a better life, talent, or investigation of what could be…if only we were better.
Born in 1873, Rachmaninoff is widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, one of the last great representatives Romanticism in Russian Classical music.
Criticism…or poor reports…changed Rachmaninoff’s life. The following gives an accounting of this:
“After the poor reception of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff fell into a period of deep depression that lasted three years, during which he wrote almost nothing…. Sava Mamontov, a patron of the arts, offered Rachmaninoff the post of assistant conductor for the 1897–8 season and the cash-strapped composer accepted. …During this period he became engaged to fellow pianist Natalia Satina whom he had known since childhood and who was his first cousin. The Russian Orthodox Church and the girl’s parents both opposed their marriage and this thwarting of their plans only deepened Rachmaninoff’s depression.”
Here we see that opposition…and again criticism of one’s relationships by family or religious authorities makes life stressful. Rachmaninoff greatly admired Leo Tolstoy (Author of War and Peace) and was invited to an evening of music in the home of Yasnaya Polyana where Tolstoy was also invited.
“That evening, Rachmaninoff played one of his compositions, then accompanied Chaliapin in his song “Fate”, one of the pieces he had written after his First Symphony. At the end of the performance, Tolstoy took the composer aside and asked:
“Is such music needed by anyone? I must tell you how I dislike it all. Beethoven is nonsense, Pushkin and Lermontove also.. (The song “Fate” is based on the two opening measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.)
As the guests were leaving, Tolstoy said:
‘Forgive me if I’ve hurt you by my comments'; and Rachmaninoff graciously replied: ‘How could I be hurt on my own account, if I was not hurt on Beethoven’s?'; but the criticism of the great author stung nevertheless.
The criticism did hurt and it was not long afterwards that Rachmaninoff began taking a course on auto-suggestive therapy from a psychologist. Finally he regained his confidence and over-came writer’s block. It was after this that he completed his Piano Concerto N. 2 in C minor, Op 18.
He immigrated to the United States where he gave over a thousand concerts. He was buried in New York state in 1943. He felt that he was “like a ghost wondering the world.” always looking backward to his beloved Russia. Under Stalin, his music was forbidden in Russia. Wars prevented his ever returning there.
Even after many performances of his 3rd Symphony , the critics once again criticized…”Does Rachmaninoff have a 3rd Symphony in him?” To Rachmaninoff, ” It was like cutting out pieces of my heart.”
After all the years of performing, composing….criticism still was difficult.
This writing is a shorten part of a great life, but may help us in understanding how much criticism works on the thoughts and perhaps even the soul. The video below is his memories of his beloved country of Russia made for his daughters. He describes the Orthodox Church; his alcoholic father, and the place that inspired his composing of such beautiful music as Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. (Give yourself time on this one which is not only the playing of his beautiful music, but the Russian culture and tragedy of war. )
Enjoy the thoughts of one of the great musicians and composers of our time…Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff