Stigmatized as kitsch, the music of Rachmaninov has largely been neglected by scholars. A reassessment has been made possible by recent historiography on late imperial Russia documenting the intelligentsia’s search for a messianic musician-bard, a role that several of Rachmaninov’s pre-revolutionary works take up, but not in the terms expected of them. Heard in relation to the Orpheus myth often invoked at the time, to the contemporaneous prevalence of psychoanalysis, and to the formal affinities between early modernist orchestral music and the unconscious, the music both assumes unforeseen significance and offers the possibility of a counterstatement to current musicological concerns with embodiment and presence. Amid these debates, Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem, Isle of the Dead (1909), emerges as an unexpectedly subversive work that sounds the futility of fin-de-siècle Russian utopianism while giving voice to an alternative, anti-metaphysical ethics. Meanwhile, the music points to a clandestine violence governing much of musicology’s ongoing fascination with the “drastic.” The resulting critique leads to the proposal of a reparative musicology capable of giving a sympathetic account of the cultural work of public mourning that Rachmaninov’s music performs in the concert hall today.
Hear My Desire: Rachmaninov’s Orphic Voice and Musicology’s Trouble with Eurydice
Truman See studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, and at Royal Holloway, University of London. Besides an abiding interest in the music of late imperial Russia, his current work focuses on obscured forms of violence in Schubert’s music, and the role of musical charm in constructing histories of misdirected listening.
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Truman See; Hear My Desire: Rachmaninov’s Orphic Voice and Musicology’s Trouble with Eurydice. 19th-Century Music 1 March 2021; 44 (3): 187–216. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2021.44.3.187
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