Visit Youtube or Spotify or Pandora and search for Joshua Bell’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and see if I’m exaggerating.
But not everyone shares my love for Rachmaninoff. For some of his contemporary composers and performers, their disdain smells of jealousy. For some critics, the dismissal comes because he chose to adhere to old forms and structures in composition, unwilling to be avant-garde or shocking. The fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published in 1954, boldly predicted, “The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor.” But music critic and biographer Harold Schonberg sides with the majority, calling the Grove reference “one of the most outrageously snobbish and even stupid statements ever to be found in a work that is supposed to be an objective reference.”5
Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, concertos, and a variety of other pieces remain as staples in today’s orchestral repertoire for one dominant reason. They’re beautiful. And people can’t get enough of beauty.
Philosopher Gregory Ganssle says, “To miss beauty is to miss something fundamentally important to human life.” He believes this because
beauty startles us. It stops us in our tracks. It moves us to change directions. We do not glance at beautiful things or skim beautiful verses. To glance or to skim is to hold an object or text at a distance. And to hold something at a distance is to fail to encounter it. When it comes to beauty, to glance is to fail to see.6
C.S. Lewis agreed. Again, in “The Weight of Glory,” he noted,
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.7
A second reflection while considering Rachmaninoff is that we can recover from life’s setbacks. Rachmaninoff did. His life as a performer, composer, and conductor began early. At age nine, he enrolled in the prestigious St. Petersburg Conservatory and quickly rose to the top of his class. He composed his first piano pieces at age fourteen and followed them with a steady flow that challenged even the best of pianists. He completed his First Piano Concerto by the age of eighteen and dazzled audiences with his performing prowess. Perhaps his unusually long fingers gave him an advantage.
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