Joe's Reviews > Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor

Rachmaninoff by Barrie Martyn
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's review
Jun 12, 12

bookshelves: music, 2012
Read in June, 2012

Ok, I admit I did not read a 700 page monograph about Rachmaninoff. I skimmed it to learn about a few of my favorite pieces. The Isle of the Dead, a symphonic poem based on my favorite painting, turns out to have been based initially on a cheap black & white reproduction of it, which inspired the composer with its contrast. The Prelude in C Sharp Minor turns out to have been written while Rachmaninoff was still a student, and unsurprisingly served as his encore for his piano concerts for decades after.

Even skipping large chunks of the book, though, one gathers the underlying themes almost immediately. Rachmaninoff was defined by a few key facts: his early years in Russia, and his later residence in Europe and exile in America (where he stopped writing for the last 20 years of his life); the early failure of his First Symphony, and his awkward position straddling the formal masters of the 19th century with the atonal, modern composers of the 20th. The tenuous nature of many of these relationships led to great insecurity, many revisions of completed pieces, and an overall sense that he was always outrunning or catching up to something.

If you love Rachmaninoff (and why else would you be reading this review?), this is clearly a five star book, essential for your enjoyment. Otherwise, though, it's too dry to count as a riveting narrative, more eager to gather and report the facts rather than delve too deeply into the people around them. You will find a very capable recounting of the music world during Rachmaninoff's life, and will never lack for the immediate professional context for whatever piece he was writing or performing.

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