Friday, 2 August 2013

Maugham and Rachmaninoff: Random Parallels

For what it's worth, and it's probably worth noting, having listened to a lot of Rachmaninoff recently it occurred to me that an interesting parallel can be drawn between Somerset Maugham and the great Russian composer. This may at first seem very strange. I can’t think of a single reference to Rachmaninoff in any of Maugham’s works and it remains a matter of pure speculation whether he knew his music at all. He probably did, and he might even have attended some of Rachmaninoff’s concerts during his spectacularly successful career as a concert pianist during the 1920s and 1930s. Nor have I ever run across any reference to Rachmaninoff's literary tastes. If he had any, and if he read any Maugham at all, they have remained a secret. Nevertheless, there are several suggestive parallels.

The most striking similarity between Rachmaninoff and Maugham is that both of them, all of their lives, were accused of being anachronisms. While Maugham continued to write stories very much in the way Maupassant had done in the nineteenth century, so Rachmaninoff continued to write symphonies in the manner of Tchaikovsky. Of course, in both cases there is no question of slavish imitation, nor can we talk of any great similarity of styles indeed; it’s much broader and more fundamental than that. While Schoenberg and the New Viennese School, to say nothing of his revolutionary (at least musically) compatriots Stravinsky and Prokofieff, were charting new ways into atonality and dissonance, Rachmaninoff stubbornly refused to leave tonality and melody. Likewise Maugham never tired of writing with simplicity and lucidity stories that have ''a beginning, a middle and an end'' and can be understood by everybody who can read. While the likes of Katherine Mansfield insisted that stories should be formless jumbles of impressions, Willie preached that they should ''follow without hesitation, from exposition to climax, a bold and vigorous curve'' in the best Maupassant-fashion. Unlike many other cases, all parties – Modernists and Traditionalists, writers and musicians – practiced what they preached.

I find it a remarkable similarity, indeed, that both Rachmaninoff and Maugham, until comparatively recently, were not at all taken seriously by professional critics, musical and literary respectively, yet their works have never been out of print or the standard repertoire. This makes me wonder, yet again, what sense artistic criticism really makes, if any. Here it flatly contradicts both the popular taste and the test of time, and aren’t these factors more important than the opinion of a miniscule minority, no matter how erudite these fellows could be? After all, lasting popularity suggests a wide human appeal. Critical praise suggests nothing of the kind. Both could be – indeed, have been – wrong in the past, but I think few enthusiasts would argue in favour of criticism being the more infallible one. The most brutal attacks – of Edmund Wilson on Maugham in The New Yorker (June, 1946) and in the New Grove on Rachmaninoff (1954) – are unfortunately too well-known; no need to quote them yet again.

Other, and smaller, similarities between Maugham and Rachmaninoff include, for instance, spending half of their lives away from their native land: the former in France, the latter in America. However, both the reasons and the circumstances were radically different. Rachmaninoff left his homeland for purely political reasons. Being from a family that can be called proletarian only by grossly misusing the word, he turned out to be persona non grata after the revolution of 1917. Rachmaninoff never went back to Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was then called, and, reportedly, until the end of his life suffered from severe nostalgia, trying to make himself at home in America (and Switzerland from time to time) but never quite succeeding. In contrast, Maugham’s reasons for leaving England are rather more complex and still not fully elucidated. Avoiding taxes or avoiding his wife, living freely with Gerald or enjoying the greater prestige that men of letters had in France, or simply stronger links with the country where he spent a happy childhood than with England, or all that together, we’ll probably never know for sure. Unlike Rachmaninoff, Maugham did visit England a number of times over the years after his moving to Cap Ferrat.

Interestingly, both visited America for the first time in the course of two years (1909-10). But the reasons were again different, though not very much. Maugham was attending the production of one of his plays, Rachmaninoff was playing the world premiere of his (now famous, then ignored) Third Piano Concerto with Walter Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic (or the New York Symphony Society as it was then called). Both were in their own ways grateful to America. In 1946 Maugham gave the manuscript of Of Human Bondage to the Library of the Congress; his address on the occasion was later published as Of Human Bondage, with a Digression on the Art of Fiction. Rachmaninoff used to play at every of his American concerts his own transcription of The Star-Spangled Banner; he never made an audio recording of it, but a piano roll does exist.

I find it fascinating that Rachmaninoff and Maugham were almost exact contemporaries, the Russian composer being but a year older (born in 1873), and both experienced a great shift in their creative lives during middle age. Strangely enough, the directions were totally the opposite.

In 1918, aged 45 and for purely pecuniary reasons, Rachmaninoff had to turn himself from, primarily, a composer and a conductor into a virtuoso pianist giving 40 to 50 recitals per season. The amazing thing is that until then, though he had appeared many times as a pianist, he had no working repertoire because he had played almost exclusively his own works. How Rachmaninoff could, for just a few years, build an enormous repertoire of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven and what not and turn himself into one of the hottest tickets on the American concert stage is one of the major miracles in music history. But the price was steep. He lived for quarter of a century after 1917, made quite a few recordings which today prove beyond any doubt his unique place among the greatest pianists, but he composed very few original works; only six actually, though almost all of them are among his finest.

Maugham’s life-changing event was, of course, his first travel to the South Seas in the end of World War I; during the 1920s it stimulated several other, usually quite extensive, Far Eastern sojourns the consequences of which for his life and work were incalculable. They renewed his interest into the genre of the short story which resulted in three of his finest short story collections, The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), The Casuarina Tree (1926), and Ah King (1933). Three novels and two travel books more share exotic settings, the former because they deal with extremes of human nature that could hardly happen in more civilized parts of the world. Most important of all, as eloquently demonstrated by The Summing Up, these travels profoundly changed Maugham’s outlook: he lost any trace of intellectual snobbishness, that awful side effect of culture, which he might have had in his youth. Last and least, the constant globetrotting, ever since his student years and by no means in the Far East only, gave his works the cosmopolitan character that is Maugham’s trademark.

Though only one year younger, Maugham outlived Rachmaninoff by 22 years. There is something poignant, it seems to me, about the fact that while in the beginning of 1943 Rachmaninoff was dying of cancer under the blazing Californian sun, somewhere among the marshes of South Carolina Maugham, a war refugee and a temporary American citizen, was writing The Razor’s Edge

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