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In 2023 we celebrate the 150th birthday of the great composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. From classical to jazz, Hollywood to pop, let’s take a look at some occasions where Rachmaninoff’s style and music was (mis)appropriated.
When Rachmaninoff wrote his Prelude in C# minor in 1891-1892, he did not know that he would soon come to hate it because of its association with him and the number of times people had asked him to play it as an encore. Its popularity had gone ahead of him in London, Europe and even America.
American jazz pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Chappie Willet (1907-1976) jazzed up this prelude in 1938, and Duke Ellington was known to play it at the Cotton Club, Harlem's premier nightclub. Rachmaninoff was said to have been ‘enchanted’ by this version.
In the 1940s, there was a considerable vogue for a piano concerto to be the accompanying soundtrack to film, resulting in a demand and supply of music whose popularity outlasted the music. These include Bernard Herrmann’s Concerto Macabre from Hangover Square (1944), Cornish Rhapsody by Hubert Bath from Love Story (1945), Charles William’s Dream of Olwen for While I Live (1947).
The trendsetter for this movement was the soundtrack to Dangerous Moonlight, featuring Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto in 1941. Rachmaninoff was originally approached to write the music for the film but he declined; and the task fell to Richard Addinsell, who was given the brief of writing something in the style of Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third Piano Concertos and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. The music was then arranged and orchestrated by Roy Douglas, and the result was a 10-minute-long work that has all the characteristics of a Rachmaninoff piano work: sweeping accompaniments, virtuosic runs, indulgent harmonies, and nostalgic, heart-on-your-sleeve melodies.
The concerto soon became a hit with the British public in the wake of the Second World War, and remains hugely popular to this day.
These two Frank Sinatra hits make use of different parts of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2.
Written by songwriters Jack Elliott and Don Marcotte, I Think of You (1941) makes use of the second theme from the first movement. The music was by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, who play a slightly jazzed-up version of other fragments in the same concerto as an accompaniment. It is not known whether Rachmaninoff knew of this work, as he kept a busy performing schedule and passed on from illness less than two years after its appearance.
Full Moon and Empty Arms (1945) was first made popular by Frank Sinatra and later covered by the likes of Erroll Garner, The Platters, Sarah Vaughan and Bob Dylan. Its main theme is taken from the third movement by Tin Pan Alley songwriter Ted Mossman. Mossman was (in)famous for setting up classical music to 4/4 jazz time and adding banal lyrics to them, making a fortune in the process. Some of the other classical tunes he set words to include Chopin’s Polonaise in A Flat (turned into a song called Till the End of Time), Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde (Time Stands Still), and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (Dingbat, the Singing Cat).
One of the most popular, chart-topping songs of 1976 was Eric Carmen’s power ballad All By Myself. It had taken him a period of two months to write a piano interlude, after which, he decided to use the second movement from the Second Piano Concerto (listen to the clarinet line, which becomes the melody for the verse of the song). The chorus was then later developed from the song Let’s Pretend that he wrote for The Raspberries in 1971.
At the time of composition, Rachmaninoff’s music was in the public domain in the USA, but Carmen had no idea that it was not supposed to be used outside of the US. He was then contacted by the Rachmaninoff estate, and a settlement was reached where he had to credit Rachmaninoff as songwriter, as well as pay appropriate royalties for using the melody.
For Never Gonna Fall in Love Again, Carmen wrote the verse, but makes use of Rachmaninoff’s yearning melody in the third movement of Symphony no. 2 for the chorus. He rationalises his decision in an interview given in 1991:
If you thought that Rachmaninoff only wrote four piano concertos, you’re right. The idea of a fifth piano concerto comprising material taken from Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony only came about in the 2000s (seems like Eric Carmen had something there when he, too, used a melody from it) by Dutch record producer Pieter van Winkel. He approached his former piano teacher, Russian pianist Alexander Warenberg to do it, and after obtaining permission from Rachmaninoff’s estate, Warenberg set about the mammoth task of transformation.
Warenberg reworked the symphony’s four movements into a three-movement piano concerto, re-orchestrating some parts and shortening it by about 20 minutes, all while attempting to keep Rachmaninoff’s idiomatic and pianistic writing style. He keeps the character of the outer movements, opening with the same rumbling in the lower strings, and uses thematic material from the symphony’s second and third movements to form the concerto’s middle and lyrical slow movement.
At the Esplanade Concert Hall, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra presents Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2 and Symphony 2 on 12 Jan 2024, and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 3 and Symphony 3 on 18 & 19 Jan 2024.
French pianist Alexandre Kantorow performs Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 20 Feb 2024.