Our 2023–24 series Icons Rediscovered with Music Director Vasily Petrenko delves into the music worlds of two Romantic icons who lived and worked at almost exactly the same time continents apart - Edward Elgar and Sergei Rachmaninov. Richard Bratby explore what links these two titans of orchestral music.
“Listen!” calls the tenor, at the start of Rachmaninov’s The Bells. He wants us to hear the sound of sleighbells: and not just the cheerful jangle of winter traffic on the snowbound streets of a vanished Moscow. To Rachmaninov, the voice of the bells was the sound of life itself. “If I have been at all successful in making bells vibrate with human emotion in my works, it is largely because most of my life was lived amid the vibrations of the bells of Moscow”, wrote the composer, years later, looking back on the summer afternoon in 1912 when he began to compose The Bells. “In the drowsy quiet I heard the bell voices, and tried to set down on paper their lovely tones that seemed to express the varying shades of human experience.”
A decade or so earlier, on a rainy island at the opposite end of Europe, a very different composer tried to put a similar idea into words. “My idea is that there is music in the air”, wrote Edward Elgar in a letter to a friend, “ - music all around us, the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require”. Two very different composers, two very different men. The tall, melancholy Russian, trained in a hothouse for pianists in Imperial Moscow and haunted by the chants and bells of the Orthodox church. And the shopkeeper’s son from Worcester, self-taught and absorbing his art from the sounds – parlour songs, brass bands and choral festivals - of a Victorian county town. But although they were born sixteen years apart, both Elgar and Rachmaninov believed that music was a force of nature, the medium by which human emotion was linked to the universe. They were both, in a word, Romantics.
They never seem to have met – although there’s every reason to suppose they were aware of each other’s music (Elgar’s music was championed in Russia by Rachmaninov’s teacher and friend Alexander Siloti). But despite their very obvious differences (Elgar failed as a professional violinist; Rachmaninov was arguably the greatest piano virtuoso since Liszt) there are striking parallels between their stories. Both struggled to achieve fame. Elgar was over 40 when he had his first international success in 1899, and Rachmaninov fought his way back from a nervous breakdown to complete his Second Piano Concerto in 1901.
"...both Elgar and Rachmaninov believed that music was a force of nature; the medium by which human emotion was linked to the universe."
And both composers lost their whole world after the Great War. Elgar all but quit composition after 1919, convinced that he was an irrelevance. Rachmaninov was severed from his roots: fleeing from the Bolshevik revolution into a career as a globetrotting pianist. “The whole world is open to me, and success awaits me everywhere,” he told a journalist in 1930. “Only one place is closed to me, and that is my own country – Russia.”. Mid-century critics ridiculed both composers as embarrassing anachronisms.
And yet here we are. The listening public disagreed, and kept on disagreeing. Something in both composers’ music strikes deeper than any amount of theorising: simultaneously universal and intensely personal. In The Singers, Ivan Turgenev tells of a peasant singer whose voice “one seemed to feel something dear and akin to us, something of breadth and space, as though the familiar steppes were unfolding before our eyes and stretching away into endless distance.”
Listen to the opening of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto or the slow movement of his Second Symphony, and you’ll know exactly what Turgenev means. Meanwhile, Elgar’s biographer Michael Kennedy has suggested that the shifting moods and colours of Elgar’s orchestral music echo the vista from the top of Elgar’s beloved Malvern Hills on a spring or autumn day: the endless patchwork of fields and woods, dappled by the ever-changing play of sunlight and cloud. Ultimately, though, it can’t be pinned down to anything quite so specific. No composer feels more Russian than Rachmaninov, just as no music sounds more British than Elgar. But no one has to be either Russian or British to respond deeply to this music. As Rachmaninov put it, we’re dealing here with “varying shades of human experience”.
"No composer feels more Russian than Rachmaninov, just as no music sounds more British than Elgar."
The Bells ends with a long fade into night; Elgar’s Second Symphony with the shadows lengthening across a sunset landscape. Elgar’s First Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Second both begin with a quiet melody that – after a long and eventful journey – arrives, jubilantly, at a longed-for destination. In each case, it’s a story well told, and a struggle rewarded with that sense of fulfilment that not all art achieves - but which we recognise, when we feel it, as the real thing. Don’t write off the Romantic impulse. Whatever your nationality, and wherever you are in the world, both Elgar and Rachmaninov have the ability to make you feel as if you’ve come home.
Elgar and Rachmaninov in Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall:
Discover and listen to #MoreMusic from the worlds of Elgar and Rachmaninov