Sergei Rachmaninoff

One of my favorite composers is Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here is a brief bio of the man which explains why as a person I find him so fascinating.

To many Americans in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a tall, stern, brilliant figure in classical music. He was a Romantic who staunchly rejected the Modern age even as he lived and breathed in it. He was a composer and piano virtuoso equal to Liszt. His rich, melodious, and sometimes brooding compositions were immediately recognizable. He was the protégé of Peter Tchaikovsky and son of the storied pre-Soviet Russian school of music. When he lived in America from 1918 to 1943, he seemed to belong to another age, one rich with beautiful music from men like Chopin and Mendelssohn, but one which ended in socialist revolution and the horrific trauma the First World War.

Another side of Rachmaninoff was known by his countrymen, that of the young, sensitive and often luckless artist whose failures were almost as famous as his successes. Born in 1873 into an aristocratic family that had seen better times, Sergei began his studies in St. Petersburg at nine. Soon, he moved to Moscow and began composing.

One of my favorite composers is Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here is a brief bio of the man which explains why as a person I find him so fascinating.

To many Americans in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and Sergei Rachmaninoff was a tall, stern, brilliant figure in classical music. He was a Romantic who staunchly rejected the Modern age even as he lived and breathed in it. He was a composer and piano virtuoso equal to Liszt. His rich, melodious, and sometimes brooding compositions were immediately recognizable. He was the protégé of Peter Tchaikovsky and son of the storied pre-Soviet Russian school of music. When he lived in America from 1918 to 1943, he seemed to belong to another age, one rich with beautiful music from men like Chopin and Mendelssohn, but one which ended in socialist revolution and the horrific trauma the First World War.

Another side of Rachmaninoff was known by his countrymen, that of the young, sensitive and often luckless artist whose failures were almost as famous as his successes. Born in 1873 into an aristocratic family that had seen better times, Sergei began his studies in St. Petersburg at nine. Soon, he moved to Moscow and began composing.

Despite a brilliant student career and his widely popular Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was an astounding failure. With the arrogance of youth he ignored kindly advice from Rimsky-Korsakov over the score. He didn’t realize how horribly misconceived (or misconducted) his symphony was until the night of its premiere in 1897, which he could not bear to watch. The composer Alexander Glazunov was conducting and had made substantive changes to the score. He was also reputedly drunk at the podium. The audience was dumbfounded, and the critics, including composer Cesar Cui, were merciless. The experience left Rachmaninoff completely humiliated. He would not compose again for three years.

Rachmaninoff sought professional help out of his depression. He consulted psychotherapists and at least once a hypnotist. By 1900 he was riding on a crest of creativity that would last more than a decade.

His Piano Concerto #2, which debuted in 1900, was instantly successful. With Rachmaninoff himself as the soloist, the Russian public quickly realized not only how Russian the work was, but also what a singular artist the composer was. The concerto begins with a theme central to many of Rachmaninoff’s works, the piano emulating the tolling of bells. The melody, dignified yet suggestive of ancient Russian folk chants, was languorous and powerful and filled with long, sweeping melodies. The concerto’s closing moments utilized the power of the piano like few works have done before or since.

From 1900 to when he escaped the Soviet Union in 1917, he would compose thirty-seven of his forty-five opuses including a much more warmly received Symphony #2, and The Isle of the Dead, a tone poem inspired by the haunting painting by Swiss artist Arnold Brocklin. This last work utilized another of Rachmaninoff’s favorite motifs, the Dies Irae chant. His Piano Concerto #3 (1911) was nearly as popular as his second. It was more complex and featured some truly fearsome piano work (and played an important part in the 1996 film Shine). Its cadenza is breathtaking. During this time Rachmaninoff also produced numerous works for solo piano, operas, and choral works, such as the choral symphony The Bells, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. This period was also extremely busy as he conducted and performed throughout Russia and Europe, a practice that would serve him well in later years.

Rachmaninoff worked as much as he could throughout the First World War. While he may have been sympathetic with the plight of the proletariat, he was no friend of the communists. Despite his difficult upbringing, he was an aristocrat at heart and was severely shaken by the October Revolution. As early as June 1917, four months before the Revolution, he was already looking for a way out. By December he had found it: an invitation to play in Stockholm. Without hesitation, he and his family boarded a train for Sweden, never to return.

Late in life, Rachmaninoff once said that “a composer’s music should express the country of his birth….It should be the sum total of a composer’s experience.” He was not shy about his nationalism, which must have made watching Russia descend into totalitarianism all the more heartbreaking. In 1931, he was a signatory to a letter to the New York Times which condemned the Soviet regime as “murderers” and “grave diggers.” The Soviets responded by labeling Rachmaninoff as “decadent” and banning his work.

Not surprisingly, Rachmaninoff’s great creative period ended when he left Russia. Living mostly in America, he toured incessantly and became a successful recording artist, but he composed relatively little. He completed his Piano Concerto #4 in 1927, but it was poorly received. His last major works were his Symphony #4 (1937) and his hugely popular Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934). Vivacious and cunning, this work expresses Rachmaninoff’s gift for melody and theme no better than in the exquisite 18th variation, the lyrical beauty of which cannot described. The final variations brilliantly crescendo until the familiar Dies Irae theme reappears ominously in the end, only to be cut short by a quick return to Paganini’s original caprice, a move as clever as it was comical.

As he grew older, Rachmaninoff’s touring schedule did not let up. Neither did his standards for clarity, precision, and magnificent performances. He continued up until the end, giving his last concert in Knoxville, Tennessee in February of 1943. The concert, which fittingly included Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata, received multiple ovations and rave reviews. Rachmaninoff died of cancer a month later.

Sergei Rachmaninoff stood six feet, six inches tall, which undoubtedly contributed to his forbidding aura. Fellow expatriate composer Igor Stravinsky once referred to him as a “six and half foot scowl….an awesome man.” His hands were abnormally large, a condition known as ‘arachnodactyly’. His left hand could play a chord that included C-E flat-G-C-G. His right, C-E-G-C-E. This daunting feat leaves all but the most gifted pianists to play many of his works.

Rachmaninoff was honest, urbane, and sensitive, and his humor was very dry. When asked about his ‘inspiration’ for the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, he reportedly quipped, “20 rubles. My publisher offered 100 rubles for five short works for piano, and this prelude was one of them.” He is also famous for consuming crème de menthe before performing his Paganini Rhapsody. The story goes that the he was nervous before playing this piece because of some difficult passages in the 24th variation. A friend suggested a glass of crème de menthe to calm his nerves. It worked, and thereafter, Rachmaninoff called his 24th variation the “Crème de Menthe Variation.”

He was good friends with fellow piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz and helped relocate novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his family to the United States. He was a great admirer of jazz pianist Art Tatum, as well as a lover of fast automobiles, reputedly buying himself a new vehicle every year and collecting multiple tickets for speeding. He gave generously to the war effort during World War II.

Despite success and fame in America, Sergei Rachmaninoff always longed for home. He was truly a displaced person: a Romantic carrying on the Modern Age, an Old World refugee making a life in America, and a Aristocratic Russian from the time of the Czars turned Cold War exile. In an ironic twist of fate, the Soviets had lifted the ban on his music towards the end of his life, and had sent him a telegram congratulating him on his 70th birthday. Among the signatories was Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer who symbolized the music of the nation Rachmaninoff had left behind. It arrived on March 27th, 1943, the day before Rachmaninoff died. He never was able to read it.

Against Kubrick 2

This is part 2 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, starting with…

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In this film, Stanley Kubrick commits the sin of making his protagonist Mandrake the only sane and intelligent person in the story and at the same time a stuttering and ineffectual twerp.

strangelove-sellers

But that’s okay, you say. The film satirizes the Cold War. It takes aim at things like McCarthyism, the military-industrial complex, the arms race, and certain military gaming concepts such “Deterrence” and “Mutually Assured Destruction”. You can’t expect such a film to play it straight like Fail-Safe, do you?

Fair enough. But to satirize well, you have to really nail what you’re satirizing. Further, if you’re going to conclude the film with the End of the World you sure as heck better satirize the things that most need satirizing. After all, the fate of the world lies in the balance.

Let’s look at the remainder of the characters:

This is part 2 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, starting with…

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In this film, Stanley Kubrick commits the sin of making his protagonist Mandrake the only sane and intelligent person in the story and at the same time a stuttering and ineffectual twerp.

strangelove-sellers

But that’s okay, you say. The film satirizes the Cold War. It takes aim at things like McCarthyism, the military-industrial complex, the arms race, and certain military gaming concepts such “Deterrence” and “Mutually Assured Destruction”. You can’t expect such a film to play it straight like Fail-Safe, do you?

Fair enough. But to satirize well, you have to really nail what you’re satirizing. Further, if you’re going to conclude the film with the End of the World you sure as heck better satirize the things that most need satirizing. After all, the fate of the world lies in the balance.

Let’s look at the remainder of the characters:

peter-sellers-President-Merkin-Muffley-dr-strangelove

The President of the United States Merkin Muffley: A man of no distinction whatsoever. So whom exactly are we satirizing here? FDR? Truman? Ike? Kennedy? When did we ever have a president who even remotely resembled such a cipher? This is not satire. It is a useless conceit, a running gag for those who like to gripe about authority.

Notice also the sophomoric sexual gags in the man’s name. Why? Why did Kubrick include such X-rated Dickensian naming conventions other than to be sophomoric? Was Kubrick telling us something about the American presidency? Did he really believe that presidents are all about the sex? The only person this could apply to of course is Kennedy. The man was ridiculously promiscuous. But compared to both his post-World War II predecessors, he was the softest on the Soviets and therefore least deserving of this kind of satire. Truman and Ike, on the other hand, toed a much harder line, and were, by and large, scandal free.

Compare this to Charlie Chaplin’s naming conventions in his spoof on Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator. Nazi Germany was called Tomania (as in ptomaine poisoning). Adolf Hitler was Adenoid Hynkel. Goebbels was dubbed Garbitsch. Benito Mussolini was christened Benzino Napaloni the dictator of the nation of Bacteria. So there are ways to be clever and funny with names without resorting to pornographic portmanteaus that would make Beavis and Butthead snicker. But Kubrick is not interested in that. He would rather taint the office of the President like an errant teen writing dirty words on a wall.

021-dr-strangelove-theredlist

General Buck Turgidson: A war-mongering, philandering, gum-chewing, tummy-slapping buffoon who is as believable as his name is subtle. There were three major 20th Century American military leaders whom Kubrick may have been satirizing here: George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Curtis LeMay. All were brave and brilliant men, but of course Kubrick is not interested in any of that either. In Kubrick’s universe Turgidson isn’t brilliant at all, yet gets a seat in the War Room at Hour Zero. In reality, Patton never got close to such political power, LeMay could barely get a word in edgewise with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during Vietnam, and MacArthur got fired by Truman for being too, well, war-mongering.

Another point: Kubrick portrays Turgidson as receiving a kind of pathological, autoerotic pleasure from his job, especially when contemplating the deaths of millions of Russians. Not only is this complete make-believe, but in order to find this funny, one would have to downplay or simply be unaware of some of the aggressive and unspeakably barbaric things the Soviet Union did to cause men like Patton, MacArthur, and LeMay to want to go after them in the first place.

guano

Colonel “Bat” Guano: A soldier so stupid that he doesn’t realize that his last name means bat shit and goes with the nickname of “Bat”. Get it? He’s a soldier. And he stupid. Get it? And he’s also crazy, as in bat-shit crazy! Get it? Seriously, by having few if any intelligent soldiers in his film, Kubrick implies that all soldiers are as dumb as this guy. Nice.

kong

Major T.J. “King” Kong: This Southern good ol’ boy famously mounts a nuclear warhead like a steer and rides it into oblivion waving a cowboy hat. It’s a brilliant, unforgettable image, no doubt. But what’s being satirized here? The fact that good ol’ boys tend to get a little wild and crazy every once in a while? A pretty small payoff for big big satire, don’t you think? Remember, we’re destroying the world here, so there’d better be a big point at the end of it. The only other point I can think of is that Kubrick is telling us that good ol’ boys are dumb and take their patriotism too seriously. Either way you cut it, it’s a nasty little dig at the American South.

DrStrangeloveFINAL

Dr. Strangelove: A wheelchair-confined, certifiably insane former Nazi nuclear scientist who’s in charge of US weapons research. He is called into the War Room to explain the inner-workings of the Soviet “Doomsday Device”. This character is not in Red Alert (the novel on which the film was based), and so is the invention of Kubrick and the actor who plays him, Peter Sellers. Strangelove also famously suggests that after the Doomsday Device detonates, US government and military personnel should live in mineshafts with ten women for every man. And this, by the way he tells it, is a good thing.

Like Turgidson, Strangelove could care less about the tragedy playing out all around him. He keeps smiling and giggling and struggling with his errant right hand like a sociopath while the world is about to burn. So whom are we satirizing here? Who in the United States government or military even remotely resembled this lunatic? Wernher von Braun? Yes, he was a Nazi. I make no arguments on that account. But as a rocket scientist at NASA he never had the kind of power or influence that Strangelove wields. He also wasn’t insane. Edward Teller? Yes, Teller was a nuclear physicist (the father of the hydrogen bomb), an anti-Communist, and a hawk. He also had a prosthetic leg, which made him disabled like Strangelove. But Teller was also a Jew who hated Nazis as much as communists. To characterize him as a Nazi would be ridiculous.

One final point about Strangelove: with this character, Stanley Kubrick commits the unforgivable sin of implying that the United States, free society that it is, in waging the Cold War against the Soviet Union, one of the most murderous and oppressive regimes in history, is somehow morally on par with Nazis. An implication so childish, so offensive, so ignorant, and, frankly, so stupid does not even warrant rebuttal.

ripper

General Jack D. Ripper: The paranoid and suicidal officer of the phallic cigar who starts World War III under the delusion that the commies have impurified his bodily fluids. They made him sexually dysfunctional and robbed him of his “essence”, you see. Based on Ripper’s anti-communist rants, Kubrick is clearly satirizing McCarthyism here. And this is fine. McCarthyism, like almost any other faddish “ism”, is fair game for satire. But when you blow up the world at the end of your film, you’d better satirize the things that most deserve satire. In other words, satire should be framed by what it satirizes, not the other way around. Here are some examples of other black comedies that actually follow this rule:

• Heathers satirizes high school in-crowds and concludes by blowing up a high school. (Appropriate and clever)
• Monty Python and the Holy Grail satirizes the King Arthur legends and blows up a rabbit. (Appropriate and funny)
• This is Spinal Tap satirizes heavy metal and blows up a couple drummers. (Appropriate and pretty hilarious)

So far so good, right? But Dr. Strangelove satirizes the very rational American response to Soviet hegemony and in the end blows up the world. Am I the only one who sees how inappropriate this is?

I believe a spreadsheet might be most helpful to illustrate my point.

Here is what Stanley Kubrick wants us to believe:

So, like, you know, if there’s ever a nuclear war, it will be the Americans’ fault, of course. With such loathsome people as Ripper, Turgidson, and Strangelove in charge, how could it not be?

On the other hand, here is a more accurate scenario, given the premise of the film:

Kubrick thinks he’s satirizing the grey boxes in the middle, but by blowing up the world at the end of his film, he inadvertently satirizes everything in this spreadsheet. And for the satire to work, his audience can’t know or care about the big red boxes on the left. This shows how satire fails when it frames its object rather than the other way around. It introduces external elements it cannot control. And audiences familiar with these elements will react very differently than audiences who are not.

But why did Kubrick keep the big Cold War picture out of his big Cold War satire? If he wanted to make the biggest, most all-encompassing satire, why didn’t he take on the people who most deserved satire? Why didn’t he skewer the Soviets with his razor sharp wit? They had more blood on their hands. They had the bad intentions and the aggressive aspirations. They were the ones who were truly paranoid, belligerent, and psychopathic—not the Americans. Further, Kubrick was from America. It was a free society like America’s that enabled him to make a living as an independent filmmaker—something that would have been impossible in the Soviet Union. It would make sense that a first-rate filmmaker and intellect like Kubrick would decide to lampoon the Soviets, not the Americans. This is certainly something a humanist would do.

But not Kubrick. Sadly, not Kubrick. Instead he opts for the easier target while posing as some brave satirist who stands up against the entrenched conventions of his day. Dishonesty and cowardice, the double-whammy that sinks Dr. Strangelove.

And as for the negative effects of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick made it cool to blame America before blaming the Soviet Union, which was a truly despicable regime. Just what the world needed, a film that makes the Soviets look good in comparison to the Americans.

Originally, Kubrick wanted John Wayne to play the part of Major Kong. Wayne turned the offer down. Apparently, other actors weren’t exactly jumping at the chance to be in Dr. Strangelove either. When distributing the script to agents, one of them passed it off as “too pinko.”

Too pinko. Yeah.

Next up, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Against Kubrick 1

A dear friend of mine, with whom I have shared countless discussions and arguments over art, literature, and film, once referred to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as a humanist.

My first and only thought: I will NOT let him get away with this.

I imagine that your first thought after hearing this is: Why should I care? Well, here’s why.

Stanley Kubrick was a genius, perhaps one of three or four most gifted filmmakers who ever lived. The following films of his are almost universally considered great works of art: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). These films are considered great (aside from their technical brilliance) because they ultimately represent things beyond themselves. Important things. Kubrick’s intellectual scope was as broad as history, and his films make us reflect on who we are, not only as inheritors of Western Civilization, but as human beings. To literate cineastes, academics, and critics everywhere, Stanley Kubrick is The Man. He has changed us all. And it’s true. He has.

My argument is that A) he changed us for the worse, and B) he did it by being anything but a humanist.

A dear friend of mine, with whom I have shared countless discussions and arguments over art, literature, and film, once referred to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as a humanist. My first and only thought: I will NOT let him get away with this. I imagine that your first thought after hearing this is: Why should I care? Well, here’s why. Stanley Kubrick was a genius, perhaps one of three or four most gifted filmmakers who ever lived. The following films of his are almost universally considered great works of art: Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). These films are considered great (aside from their technical brilliance) because they ultimately represent things beyond themselves. Important things. Kubrick’s intellectual scope was as broad as history, and his films make us reflect on who we are, not only as inheritors of Western Civilization, but as human beings. To literate cineastes, academics, and critics everywhere, Stanley Kubrick is The Man. He has changed us all. And it’s true. He has. My argument is that A) he changed us for the worse, and B) he did it by being anything but a humanist. First, we’ll start with what Kubrick films we won’t consider. Prior to 1964, they tend to be good but uneven and non-representative of the man’s abilities. Few will argue that Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Spartacus (1960), and Lolita (1962) represent the man at the top of his game. My personal pick from this era (and one of my all time favorites), Paths of Glory (1957), is the lone exception, a true humanist film. And we will discuss it as such at the conclusion of this series. Barry Lyndon (1974) is fairly obscure, and loooong. Over 3 hours. This is the only Kubrick film I have not seen. You can make arguments for the inclusion of The Shining (1978), but this film remains limited by its genre and tends not to represent things beyond than itself unless you believe in ghosts. It’s a great ride, but that’s about all it is. As for Eyes Wide Shut (1999), A) it occurred after Kubrick had already cemented his legacy, B) it lacks the ruthless mathematical vision and breathtaking intellectual scope of Kubrick’s best work, and C) it is frankly too prurient to fit in with the great Kubrick films. So let’s begin with a definition of humanism. Of course, there are many kinds of humanism lending to many definitions. But I would guess the following would suffice for how we use the word today. From Wiktionary: “An ethical system that centers on humans and their values, needs, interests, abilities, dignity and freedom; especially used for a secular one, as an alternative to religious values.” If Kubrick had been a humanist he would have, you know, included more humanists in his films. But what character of his can be described this way? What characters of his are truly sympathetic? Characters embodying the dignity of man are rare in the great Kubrick films, and when you can find them, they are not intelligent, passionate, or likable but rather weighted down with platitudes or hypocrisy, or are simply annoying or obnoxious. In fact, his films constantly place humanity in a negative light and cause us to either smirk at it condescendingly or almost wish we weren’t a part of it. These may seem pretty extreme responses. But I’ll argue that

Kubrick was good enough to engender such responses. Keep in mind, however, that this is all apart from marveling at the man’s craft and imagination. The stark lighting and set design in Dr. Strangelove. Alex’s ironic relationship with classical music in A Clockwork Orange. The “Beautiful Blue Danube” as the music of the spheres in 2001. These and a lot of other things are what make each Kubrick film a truly singular experience. Like I said: Genius. My friend’s big argument against my position is that the geometric brilliance and perfection of Kubrick films are the result of a fierce and shimmering rationalism and affirm man’s noble struggle against ignorance and chaos. And he would have a point if…all of Kubrick’s films were silent. But when Kubrick’s actors open their mouths to speak, well, to paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, there is “such a deal of stinking breath” we dare not open our mouths for all the bad air. Is this an overstatement? Sometimes it isn’t. And more times than you would realize. I’m writing this mostly because it needs to be written. Someone has to show the world that it is okay to oppose Kubrick and to reveal that the paths he led us down were not good paths. And despite Robert Frost’s concern about how “way leads on to way”, we should definitely consider going back. We will be better for it. In my next posts I will take Stanley Kubrick apart film by film to show that the man was no humanist. He was something else entirely.