Rachmaninoff's Top 40 Hits
I have a confession to make. It’s hardly a unique problem, I know, but there are times when I sit down at my desk to write this column, and nothing comes out. The clock ticks towards my looming deadline, and as the beads of sweat form on my furrowed brow, all I see is that blasted cursor blinking at me. Inspiration can be mercilessly elusive at times.
Of course, there’s a simple way out of this predicament. If your back really is against the wall and your muse has left you in the lurch, hold your head high and take the trail blazed by centuries of artists, writers and musicians before you: steal.
Those of us who are inspirationally challenged can be comforted by the phrase, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” The adage has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and others. No one is quite sure who came up with it, but the safe assumption here is that somebody famous said it, so it must be true. It’s worked for a lot of people. West Side Story is a reworking of Romeo and Juliet; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits were inspired by the epic poems of Homer; and the biker gang TV drama Sons of Anarchy has been called “Hamlet on Harleys”.
It also worked for Eric Carmen. Think back (if you can) to the pop rock scene of the mid-1970s. Carmen had several big hits, and the tunes of two of them were inspired by an unlikely source. “All by Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” were chart-toppers thanks to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. If you need to refresh your memory, check them out on YouTube. The melody of “All by Myself” comes straight out of the great Russian composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and slow movement of his Second Symphony is the basis for the chorus of “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”.
That Rachmaninoff’s music would be the source of a pop song hit should come as no surprise. If one of the requisites—at least in the 1970s—of creating a Top 40 hit is having a first-rate tune, then Rachmaninoff might actually be the best place for a songwriter to start.
Placed alongside other composers of his day, Sergei Rachmaninoff could be considered something of a holdout. Working as a virtuoso piano soloist, conductor and composer in the first half of the twentieth century, he heard the atonal and distinctly anti-melodic direction that so-called “modern music” was going and decided it wasn’t for him. Comprising five piano concertos, three symphonies, several operas, chamber music and scads of songs, his music is, all of it, saturated with soaring melodies that have the undeniable power to lift the human spirit. Rachmaninoff’s use of the orchestra is luxuriously grand, and there’s not a composer who better mastered the art of a musical climax.
I am not ashamed to admit my moral compass is flexible enough to allow me to resort to borrowing or even stealing. Anything to escape the tyranny of the blinking cursor.