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Unsold Rachmaninoff Easter op-ed

Friday 4/7/23

Celebrate Easter this year with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

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.

Harmonies shift, tonal colors feel almost touchable. The work reaches out and resonates as if it were classical music inflected with rhythm and blues. It’s the dance of life, one that leads to a third movement that’s more Easter-esque than any plastic, pastel-colored egg stuffed with jellybeans could hope to be.

Rachmaninoff quotes from the Dies Irae, and the chant, “Blessed art thou, Lord,” from his own All-Night Vigil, an a cappella choral work that’s among the most beautiful of pieces. All is reflection and holiness, but it’s the holiness of human life, of trying to rise up from who or whatever one was the day before, to go further in goodness the next day.

Easter is our most empowering holiday, with a Modernist credo built into it: Make it new. Make yourself anew. That fits Rachmaninoff and his Symphonic Dances perfectly.

The final movement takes us behind a rock in a cave which we must get out of the way so as to do our own day in, day out version of resurrection. Dancing without reflection doesn’t mean a lot. Make use of your time when you are in pain and it feels as if you can’t move. Learn. Be ready to move again when the time comes.

Rachmaninoff knew tribulation, but he also knew belief, and what it means to regather. For the soul to mount its sortie when it most needs to, which can be often.

There is no musical gift of Easter like the one Rachmaninoff has left us. Listen to it. Touch it and let it touch you. It’s a fittingly deathless work apt to be around as long as Easter itself, or so long as there are rocks in need of moving, and higher human states to get to.


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