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Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), in his songs as in his other works, represents the culmination of the 19th-century Russian musical tradition. Where Stravinsky, ten years' Rachmaninoff's junior, would depart radically from this tradition in his songs just as he did in his other works, Rachmaninoff cultivated the musical garden he inherited from Glinka and Tchaikovsky. He set texts by canonic Russian poets such as Pushkin, Balmont, and Lermontov in most of his songs, texts that explore nature, religion, sadness, and loss.
"Oh, do not sing to me," from the Six Songs, Op. 4 (1890-93), evokes the Georgian setting of the text with its minor-key melody and florid, melismatic opening, calling to mind the folk music of the region.
The Op. 21 songs (1900-02) display a finely controlled balance between voice and accompaniment, with the piano part offering deep insight into the text. In the "Fragment from De Musset," for example, Rachmaninoff uses the accompaniment to underline the unsettling atmosphere of the opening of Apuktin's poem. The composer balances the soloist's first despairing outburst - "Oh, my God!" - with another at the end - "Oh, loneliness! Oh, my distress!" - and the song closes with the kind of big, melancholy chords that dominate Rachmaninoff's minor-key piano works. "Twilight" captures the dream-like atmosphere of Guyot's text.
In the Op. 34 songs (1912), Rachmaninoff achieved an even more refined style, with lengthy, evocative introductions and spare, to-the-point settings of the texts that uncover their emotional core. In "The Muse," for example, Rachmaninoff perfectly captures the poem's arc, from its tentative image of a child learning to play the pipes through its ecstatic atmosphere when the muse takes the pipes from the child to its final state of serene enchantment.
-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.