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National and Radical Impressions in the Music of To-day and Yesterday

An Interview Secured Expressly for The Etude with the Eminent Russian Composer, Pianist, Conductor, Sergei Rachmaninoff
 
[Editor's Note.—Not since the days of the triumphs of Rubinstein in America, has any Russian pianist-composer achieved such success as has Mr. Rachmaninoff. In Russia he is equally famed as a conductor. Although best known through his famous Prelude in C# Minor, he is easily the most renowned of the living Russian composers of works in a more deeply serious vein. A comprehensive biography of the Russian master, written by a leading Russian critic, appears elsewhere in this issue. This biography has been authenticated by the composer, and it is accurate in every particular. Rachmaninoff, like all men of real greatness, is exceedingly simple, wholly sincere, and deeply in earnest. To him music is truly linked with the eternal soul of humanity. Though not wanting in humor, he finds little time for the merely trivial. It is a fine commentary upon the musical receptivity of America, that this master has met with such enthusiastic welcome everywhere. The following interview was secured especially for this issue of The Etude designed to honor our distinguished Russian guest. It is interesting to note that during the interview the composer repudiated the story that the famous Prelude was written about a legend. It is not program music in any sense of the word.]
 
 
"It must be quite clear to American musicians that the link between the music of many of the greatest European masters and the folk music of the lands of their birth is a close—a most intimate association. Not that the masters make a practice of taking folk themes bodily and transplanting them to their own works (although this occurs repeatedly in many masterpieces), but that they have become so saturated with the spirit of melodies common to the native people that all their compositions thereafter produced have a flavor as readily distinguished as the characteristic taste of native fruit or wine.
 
Take such a work as Rimsky-Korsakoff's best known operatic composition, "Le Coq d'Or" (The Golden Cock). It is strongly flavored with the Russian folk song spirit, and is distinctly Russian—Russian and nothing else. Rimsky-Korsakoff, whom I knew very well indeed, worked carefully to preserve the Russian folk song flavor in it. Indeed, with the exception of a few modernists, all of the latter-day Russian composers have been imbued with the spirit of the Russian peasant song. Rubinstein, it is true, had a decidedly German complexion in much of his work, but, nevertheless, there are many Russian suggestions in his music. Tschaikovsky, who, I understand, is thought by some critics in America to have followed German or continental methods and models, more than native Russian modes, used Russian themes freely and adhered to the national flavor as much as his period would permit.
 
Glinka is given the reputation of being the first of the Russians to introduce Russian themes. Tschaikovsky said about him that he was to be compared to the seeds of an oak tree which laid the foundation for greater strength to come.
 
Composers of experience take into consideration first of all that melody is the supreme ruler in the world of music. Melody is music—the integral foundation of all music, since a perfectly conceived melody implies and develops its own natural harmonic treatment. Schopenhauer has phrased this idea wonderfully when he said: "Music—that is, Melody—and words thereto—ah, that is the whole world!" Melodic inventiveness is, in the highest sense of the term, the vital goal of the composer. If he is unable to make melodies which command the right to endure he has little reason to proceed with his studies in musical composition. It is for this reason that the great composers of the past have shown such intimate respect for the peasant melodies of their respective countries. Rimsky-Korsakoff, Dvorak, Grieg, and others, have turned to them as the natural springs of inspiration.
 
The Futurists, on the other hand, openly state their hatred for anything faintly resembling a melody! They clamor for "color" and "atmosphere," and, by dint of ignoring every rule of sane musical construction, they secure efforts as formless as fog, and hardly more enduring.
 
By the word "modern" I do not refer to the Futurists. I have little regard for those who divorce themselves from Melody and Harmony, for the sake of reveling in a kind of orgy of noise and discord for discord's sake. The Russian Futurists have turned their backs upon the simple songs of the common people of their native land, and it is probably because of this that they are forced, stilted, not natural in their musical expression. This is true not only of the Russian Futurists, but of the Futurists of almost all lands. They have made themselves outcasts, men without a country, in the hope that they might become international. But in this hope they reason amiss; for if we ever acquire a musical Volapuk or Esperanto it will be not by ignoring the folk music of any land, but by a fusion of the common musical languages of all nations into one tongue; not by an apotheosis of eccentric individual expression, but by the coming together of the music of the plain people of every land, as "the voice of many waters" from the seven seas of the great world.
 
The composer who has doubtless employed Russian folk theme the most is Rimsky-Korsakoff, although the music of Moussorgsky is continually imbued with the Russian spirit. Borodin, Moussorgsky and many others, are characteristically Russian. On the other hand, Scriabin is quite un-Russian. His early compositions are Chopinesque, many of them exquisitely beautiful. His later compositions, however, belong to a musical "No man's land," and, while they have added notably to his reputation for eccentricity they have not enhanced his repute for true musical constructiveness. Some shortsighted critics have had the impudence to point to Moussorgsky as a composer whose works have but few melodies, whereas he abounds in lovely melodies of rare and exquisite originality, although he employed somewhat elaborate means of bringing them out. It is my earnest belief that the works of the Futurists, with a few possible exceptions, will not endure. Futurism is a kind of fungus growth, with little solidity, to withstand the test of time. It is not because the adherents of this school are modern, in the common acceptance of the word, the works of such a composer as Medtner (who unfortunately is little known in America) are wonderfully fresh and modern, yet there is no suggestion of the Futurist about his music. Indeed Medtner detests the Futurists. America must learn more about the works of this truly great composer. Russia is beginning to realize that he has already taken a place among our immortals. Strauss, Schoenberg, Reger and others have been widely heralded in America—why Medtner has been ignored I am at a loss to understand.
 
Variety of Material in Russia
The variety of folk song material in Russia is almost boundless. The immense dimensions of the country make it quite naturally a collection of diverse peoples— many of them totally and absolutely different from people in other parts of the land. They have diverse languages and different folk songs. The peasant music of the Caucasus and the Crimea, for example, are hardly Russian at all. They are Oriental. Borodin recognized this, and he has used them in some of his works with Oriental settings with wonderful effect.
 
Probably the best known and most used folk songs are those of Middle Russia, the region of the Volga. Although Russia has a territory of eight million square miles, not all of this is distinctively Slavic. The reason for this is that, in times past, the country has been overrun by many different races—Goths, Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, Magyars and Khazars—all leaving their impression in a way, but never wholly eradicating the strong Slavonic mold which marks the Russia of today, and is so characteristic of the significant music of the great Russian masters.
 
It has, for some time, been my impression that those countries which are the richest in folk song are naturally the ones to develop the greatest music. I am surprised to learn that Spain, which has so much wonderful folk music, has developed so few composers of international renown. But, on the other hand, consider the remarkable literary masterpieces that Spain has produced from the time of Cervantes down to the present day. On the contrary, a little group of countries, such as Scandinavia, with a comparatively sparse population, has produced, in music, men like Grieg, Svendsen and Sinding.
 
Russian Music of Yesterday and To-morrow
There seems to be an impression that the Russian Church has made a profound impression upon Russian music. This is not exactly true. The composers for the Church, however, have resorted to collections of ancient melodies for use in their religious music. On the whole, I think that the influence of the Church is overestimated in the consideration of our music. I am sometimes asked whether I feel that the momentous change in regime in Russian affairs at the present time is likely to affect the future of Russian music. For the time being the unrest of conditions certainly impedes all creative work. It will take Russia some time to stagger out from the confusion resulting from the world war. I am firmly convinced, however, that Russia's musical future is limitless. The Czars did little that was of moment to aid the development of musical expression in Russia. This may be understood, when it is remembered that most of the great modern musicians of Russia were forced to make an avocation of music, and to earn their living through other occupations. The late Czar Nicholas was rarely seen at a concert, and he had little or no interest in the great musical achievements of his country. Indeed, his musical status may be estimated by the fact that his chief musical pleasure was found in the band of Ballalaika players conducted by Andreieff. This organization of well-drilled native players was creditable, but as circumscribed in its field as might be an American mandolin or banjo club compared with one of your great Symphony Orchestras.
 
The American composer, it seems to me, should find his outlet in music of a cosmopolitan type, rather than seek to evolve a purely national type. America is young, but as time goes on it will gradually acquire its own folk songs, and until this comes about the natural expression of its music will be as many-tongued as the sum of the various nationalities who are finding a home here. I recently attended a concert—a very successful one— given by Mr. Josef Hofman (sic), whose program was entirely of American composers. The compositions were very creditable, but—I did not hear American music. It was French music, German music, Italian music, just as surely as if it had been made in those countries.
 
There is a strong national characteristic in America, a characteristic born of her broad Democracy, the gathering together of many nations, a cosmopolitan note which your composers must catch and write into your music. How it will be done, or when, or where, no one knows. I am convinced, however, that the plan of taking Indian themes, and Negro themes, is scarcely likely to produce the great, distinctive American music, unless, indeed, these themes are developed by Indian composers and Negro composers. The highest quality in all art is sincerity.
 
MacDowell Popular in Russia
MacDowell is, as yet, the only American composer known to any extent in Russia, and some of his compositions are very popular there, as they deserve to be. He had a beautiful melodic sense, and he treated his material in a very musicianly manner. On the other hand, I am in America at present for the reason that nowhere else in the world is there such music as there is in America now. You have the finest orchestras, and the most musically appreciative people, and I have more opportunity to hear fine orchestral works, and more opportunity to play. Take the Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance. The development of the body and of its leader, Mr. Stokowski, has not been mere leisurely progress—it has been a vital leap ahead! All musical conditions in America have advanced so markedly in the past ten years that I can hardly realize it possible.
 
American students are deprived, in many cities, of one opportunity which seems to be the common and accepted right of musical students in Russia. Orchestral concerts are expensive, and few students can afford to buy tickets for them. In America, I understand, the concerts are sold out so far in advance that only the few can attend them. In Russia, on the contrary, if a student shows the slightest signs of ability above the average, that student is recommended to the director of the Conservatory as deserving of the privilege of attending the final rehearsals of orchestral concerts. Upon this recommendation, the student is admitted to all rehearsals without cost. In Russia there are usually at least three rehearsals, and the last is virtually a finished performance. Think how advantageous this would be to American students. Why cannot American Conservatories arrange such a plan?
 
I am asked whether it is my opinion that the interest in the piano is likely to become dulled? Why ask such a question? The mastery of the piano is always a matter of keen, artistic interest to all concerned in music. To my mind, no pianist of the present day approaches the playing of the great Rubinstein, whom I heard many times. The possibilities of the piano are by no means exhausted, and until this is achieved, the pianists of to-day and to-morrow have a great goal before them in striving to equal the art of Rubinstein and other great masters of the piano. It is true that the standard of piano playing has advanced wonderfully. This was the case, even in the time of Rubinstein. And this fact reminds me of a remark of the master, not untinged with satire. When Rubinstein played in Moscow "everybody was there," and the concert was sold out weeks in advance. Shortly afterward Rubinstein went to hear a new pianist—who had already made quite a name for himself by reason of his talent— at a recital which was rather sparsely attended. When he was asked after the recital what he thought of the newcomer's playing, Rubinstein wrinkled up his heavy brows and then said earnestly, "Oh! nowadays everybody plays the piano well." That was the point. "Everybody plays the piano well!" But how few—how very, very few—even approach the greatness of Rubinstein?

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