No holiday signifies opportunity like Easter. It’s a holiday that functions as both challenge and reminder. You are still here, Easter seems to say. You’re alive and may become more so. How will you do that?
One takes stock of one’s very existence. And depending upon who that person is, they may rise up into trying to be the person they aren’t quite yet. They may rally during a tough stretch of life and affirm their strength. They can extend themselves into places—and parts of themselves—they haven’t been to or that have gone too long unvisited.
Art is a huge part of Easter for me, because the rebirthing spirit of Easter is in all great art, which has nothing to do with religion, and more with growth and epiphany. My Easters are reveries of art and reflection. Echoing Paul Gauguin, I ask myself, Who am I? Where have I been? Where am I going? I don’t just mean in life, but as a person.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was a composer who knew much about rebirth, and you can practically hear the strains of the very idea in his music. Born 150 years ago on April 1, 1873 in Russia, Rachmaninoff suffered from depression that could leave him incapable of writing for years. He was a virtuoso pianist who at times procured his bread and cheese by giving lessons, often battling poverty.
Firmly stablished as a conductor, composer, and recital pianist by the time of the Great War, Rachmaninoff was still unable to support his family by composing alone, which had become an aim. Lured by what would be a significant uptick in his finances, he emigrated to the United States in late 1918, which instigated one of the great rebirths in the history of classical music.
Rachmaninoff was a beast on the concert stage, throwing himself into a revitalized love of conducting with impressive gusto. But it was the new sounds of America that signified openness to this always morphing composer, who wrote as compellingly for the piano and the symphony as he did for voices.
It has always struck me as fitting that one of the most emblematic works of Easter was both the final major composition of Rachmaninoff’s life, and so radically new. Completed in October 1940, the three-part orchestral suite, Symphonic Dances, touches on some of the melodic strains of the Russia remembered from Rachmaninoff's youth, but it charts a veritable trail to a bigger beyond.
I’m someone who tends to be more interested in Jesus Christ the man than Jesus Christ as the son of God. The man believed in embodying joy and love, and he liked a good joke, but a joke with a point to it. Rachmaninoff was similar as a musical figure. Entranced by American jazz, he inserted an alto saxophone into the score, but the jocularity of the act only reminded that anything may potentially fit, if it really belongs there.