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Sergei Rachmaninov

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul. [Goethe]

I know little about classical music. Little indeed. This prompted my friend Luís—who loves classical and particularly opera—to record for me some classical works that might be accessible to me “based on your personality,” he said. OK, I’m into Freudian approaches. And so we did. We went through Mahler’s “The Titan” in fairly good shape; Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 11, and a few others. All went well I must happily say. While the music at first seemed to my untrained ear to lack the passion of Bruce on the boardwalk, the strangeness of Floyd’s “Animals” or the psychedelic vision of Hendrix, overall this “classic”, sit-in-the-dark-study-stuff turned out quite promising and, ultimately, dangerous. The devil’s music, I’ve no doubt.

While listening to Rachmaninov for the past couple of weeks (cause Luís means business when he shares his passions), I suddenly had this urge to read Faust. I’d been through it years ago in English and so I thought why not give it a go in Spanish. So I began to read Fausto leisurely. Half-hour here, half-hour there. But this strange desire to read Goethe kept pushing and pushing at me. And I kept listening and listening to Rachmaninov; the reading feeding the music and the music the reading. How strange, no?

And then suddenly today I jumped on Google for no reason other than to know something about Rachmaninov. (The copy of the CD Luís made for me only had the picture cover of The Piano Concertos.) So what was the story behind them, I wondered? Interestingly —shockingly— I found this in reference to the First Piano Sonata:

The First Piano Sonata dates from 1907, only slightly earlier than the Third Concerto. Rachmaninov was characteristically modest about the work’s prospects, stating that “no one will ever play this work because of its difficulty and length and perhaps too… because of its dubious musical merits.” In fact the sonata is extremely interesting, not the least due to its hidden program. That the work was inspired by Goethe’s Faust and that its three movements seek to portray in turn Faust, Gretchen (Margareta), and Mephistopheles was not revealed even to Konstantin Igumnov, who gave its first performances. Yet a number of musical ideas in this sonata can only be explained in terms of this program. For example, according to Rachmaninov scholar Barrie Martyn,

The Faustian motto with which the sonata opens consists of two elements: the first starkly arches the interval of a fifth in quiet questioning; the second, marked forte, peremptorily dismisses the preceding phrase and emphatically asserts a perfect cadence. The juxtaposition of abruptly contrasting dynamics and of doubt and certainty seems to reflect the struggle of opposing aspirations that goes on in the mind of Faust and Everyman.*

So there you have it. Mephistopheles at work; it wasn’t only Led Zeppelin that spoke the devil’s words in music, backwards. What messages lurk behind sound and cadence? Some of this —somewhere— has to do with poetry.


* Lyn and Lawrence Schenbeci, quoting, Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor. London: Scolar Press, 1990, p. 188.

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