Your Favourite Russian Composer (whether you know it or not)


Back when I was a wee young slip of a thing, my mother and I would play a game called Musical Knickers.

Before you start worrying that this should be a story for a therapist or social services I should probably explain this had nothing to do with novelty underwear. Honest.

Musical Knickers (or ‘Nickers’ to be more exact) was simply my mum a me listening to songs and other pieces of music and pointing out what other song or piece of music they sounded like.

For example: there’s a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which goes “in his lovely coat of many colours/how he loved his coat of many colours” which is lifted hook, line and sinker from Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca.

While we’re about it, Take That (and prior to that Barry Manilow) had a hit with ‘Could it be Magic’ which sounds spectacularly similar to a Chopin Prelude (the one in C minor, Opus 28, number 20 to be exact).

There are plenty of other examples of such musical knickering. And the interesting thing is that a lot of them revolve around the musical machinations of one Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov.

Fans of tear-jerking black and white cinema will know that his Piano Concerto No. 2 was used extensively in the soundtrack to Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.

devotees of classic 80s rom-coms might be familiar with the use of his eighteenth variation on a theme by Paganini being jazzed up and used in Groundhog Day.

But there are plenty of other examples of good ol’ Sergei’s music being pilfered by other purveyors of pop culture.

His Second Piano Concerto has, for example, been borrowed by Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman for ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ (most famously recorded by Frank Sinatra but also, more recently, recorded by Bob Dylan). See the third movement of aforementioned concerto for further details.

And while we’re talking about Old Blue Eyes, there’s the small matter of ‘I Think of You’ which refers to the first movement of said concerto.

Meanwhile, the second movement will be familiar to anyone who has spent the night alone with a tub of ice cream and an acre of dairy milk mourning The One That Got Away.

Eric Carmen’s ‘All By Myself‘ (later recorded by Celine Dion and Jamie O’Neal, the latter’s version appearing in all three Bridget Jones  Diary films) lifts huge chunks of it for its own personal use.

Carmen also managed to use the bits of the third movement that Kaye and Mossman left behind for the chorus of ‘Never Gonna Fall in Love Again’ (0.41 to 1.15 on this video).

And then, while not lifted exactly, you’ll find lots of similarities between this concerto and Muse’s ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes‘ from their album, Absolution. You’ll also find similarities between ‘Space Dementia‘ (from Origin of Symmetry – 2.18 to 2.49 on the video) and that concerto’s first movement.

Elsewhere, one of Rachmaninov’s other famous pieces, Prelude in C# Minor, gets a fairly faithful retelling in John Grant’s ‘Pale White Ghosts’ (from the album of the same name – see 3.52 to 4.55 on the video link). It also gets a doffing of the cap in  Moloko’s ‘Pure Pleasure Seeker‘. (3.08 to 3.37).

And if that wasn’t enough, the Russian Grand Master’s ‘Vocalise‘, a song without words, finds its way onto the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Happiness is an Option‘ (from Nightlife).

Why should this happen? Why should so many moments from the works of Rachmaninov appear in such diverse elements of pop culture? From Frank Sinatra to Muse, from Celine Dion to Moloko.

Maybe it’s got something to do with the his soul.

Of all composers, Rachmaninov wore his heart on his sleeve. You don’t need to have had access to any medical records to know that he suffered from depression, that he experienced the full range of human emotions in his 69 years; it’s all quite obviously there in his music. There is anger and sorrow and pleasure and despair and tranquillity and frenetic activity.  All of it by the barrow load.

And so there is plenty for a 20th and 21st singer, songwriter or band to draw upon when creating a song that needs to pull at just the right heart strings.

Why should you need to write your own melody exploring heartache and angst when you have the Second Concerto for reference? Why bother coming up with a new tune that conveys loss, sadness and loneliness, when Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’ does more than you could ever hope to do in a million years?

Rachmaninov demonstrates – often in the most extreme ways possible – what music is – or should be – all about. It’s about connecting with people. It’s about conveying emotions and ideas without having to rely on words.

It’s that most primal of things. It’s about happiness and sadness – the searching for one and the inescapability of the other. It’s about passion and anger; the profundity of joy and the absolute depths of sorrow.

You can listen to a piece of Rachmaninov – particularly the piano based pieces – and marvel and the technical brilliance of both the composer and the performer. But it won’t be long before something more primitive and far more powerful emerges through the vast array of cadenzas, arpeggios and great clumping chords: Rachmaninov’s beautiful, tortured by eloquent soul.

This composer – more than any other – is someone who speaks to everything about the human experience. If he’s good enough for Sinatra, Moloko, Muse and Eric Carmen, he’s got to be good enough for – and most likely better than – the rest of us.

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