Rachmaninoff was the most innovative of the composers who worked during the Baroque

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Rachmaninoff, followed by Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn, was the most innovative of the composers who worked during the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras of music (1700 to 1900) according to a study published in the open access journal EPJ Data Science.

A team of researchers from the Graduate School of Culture Technology at KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), South Korea, calculated novelty and influence scores for 900 classical piano compositions written by 19 composers between approximately 1700 and 1900.

The scores were based on how musical compositions differed from all prior pieces of piano music and how they differed from previous piano works by the same composer.

The authors found that composers from the Romantic era (1820 to 1910) tended to have high novelty scores.

The authors created a computer model which divided each composition into segments called ‘codewords’. Each ‘codeword’ consisted of all of the notes played together at a given time.

Sequences of ‘codewords’ were then compared between compositions.

The similarities between the sequences were used to create novelty scores for each composer and to determine the extent to which composers influenced each other.

Juyong Park, the corresponding author, said: “Our model allows us to calculate the degree of shared melodies and harmonies between past and future works and to observe the evolution of western musical styles by demonstrating how prominent composers may have influenced each other.

The period of music we studied is widely credited for having produced many musical styles that are still influential today.”

The model distinguished each new musical period from the one before it by the rise of newly dominant and highly influential composers that indicated dramatic shifts in musical styles.

The authors found that compositions from the Classical period (1750 to 1820) tended to have the lowest novelty scores.

During this period Haydn and Mozart were highly influential but were later overtaken by Beethoven during the Classical-to-Romantic transitional period.

The most innovative composer, indicated by the highest combined novelty score, was Rachmaninoff.

His work during the Romantic era was novel when compared to the compositions of the other 18 composers included in the study, and his later works were novel compared to his earlier works.

Lower novelty did not necessarily correlate with low influence. Beethoven was ranked in the lower half of novelty scores yet was the most influential composer during the Romantic period (1820 to 1910) and is widely considered one of the greatest composers of all time.

Dr. Park said: “While novelty is necessary in a creative work it cannot account for all the creative and artistic qualities that go into creating melodies and harmonies that spread to later generations of composers.

That may be why being more novel did not necessarily result in composers being more influential.”

The authors suggest that their method could be applied to narrative or visual artworks by creating codewords from groups of words or colours and shapes.

However, they caution that as only piano compositions were included in their analysis, it is unknown whether including all works by the 19 composers would have resulted in another composer being identified as the most original.


Rachmaninoff’s first piano lesson was at age 6.  At that time Rachmaninoff’s mother realized that he was in need of professional training, in order to flourish.  

Therefore Anna Ornatskaya, a St. Petersburg conservatory trained pianist, was hired as his first piano teacher. 

 It was she, who in 1881 recommended that Rachmaninoff attend the St. Petersburg conservatory.  She also helped in acquiring a scholarship for his studies at that conservatory (Norris 2). 

 Rachmaninoff attended the St. Petersburg conservatory from 1882 to 1885.  He was said to be a very energetic and careless student. 

 He often skipped his classes, and seldom completed assignments.  In 1885, Rachmaninoff failed all of his general studies courses at the St. Petersburg conservatory, and thus his scholarship was threatened.  

However with the intervention of his mother, as well as Siloti, Rachmaninoff was allowed to go to the Moscow conservatory to finish his studies under a notoriously strict professor of piano named Nikolai Zverev (Norris 4).  

Zverev was Siloti’s former teacher.  Due to Siloti’s considerable success, Zverev agreed to accept Rachmaninoff as a student.  The potential for success, as seen in his cousin, was most likely a large incentive for Zverev to taking Rachmaninoff as a student.

During his stay at Moscow, Rachmaninoff stayed with Zverev and was under constant supervision.  He was forced to work under the strictest of conditions: he was instructed to begin practice on the piano at 6 o’clock every morning.  

This treatment was excellent for Rachmaninoff’s development.  This experience changed Rachmaninoff’s behaviour greatly.  Rachmaninoff stopped his deviant tendencies and began developing the stoic qualities, which personify his later years.  

Zverev’s strictness caused him to develop a certain methodological approach to music in general.  This methodical approach helped develop the magnificent performer, which Rachmaninoff was.  

He also gained extensive knowledge on the general “nature” of music, since he was constantly playing through four hand arrangements of the different symphonies (Norris 5).  

Zverev’s strictness also helped develop a technique, which was unrivaled at that time.  Rachmaninoff developed into a performer without limits.  He could play the greatest of piano pieces, with relative ease.  

His utter mastery of technique had great implications upon his compositions.  The delicate relationship between Rachmaninoff’s unrivaled abilities and his compositions will be discussed in more detail later on. 

While staying with Zverev, Rachmaninoff had the good fortune of studying with two prominent teachers: Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev.  He joined Arensky’s harmony class a year after he begun his studies with Zverev.  

Arensky was an influential figure for Rachmaninoff in that he allowed Rachmaninoff to develop his composition skills aside from his technical piano skills.  Arensky recognized Rachmaninoff’s potential as a great composer.  

This encouragement caused Tchaikovsky to take notice of the fifteen-year-old Rachmaninoff.  

Tchaikovsky advised Rachmaninoff to begin studying counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev.  Taneyev was a former student of Tchaikovsky, who is considered to be one of the most influential figures of Russian music. 

 His students included almost all of the successful composers of Moscow in that time period.  He, together with Arensky, helped shape the fundamentals of Rachmaninoff’s composing abilities.  

Their composition techniques in addition to Zverev’s instructions on the piano shaped the spirit of Rachmaninoff’s compositions.

The period of study with Zverev was relevant to Rachmaninoff’s composition career in another way also: this was the time in which Rachmaninoff first developed his life long rituals while composing.  

For instance, it has been shown that Rachmaninoff could compose only in secluded areas, with minimal distractions.  Rachmaninoff could never bring himself to compose under all conditions.  He needed total isolation, in order to create.

The advantages of studying at the Moscow conservatory were tremendous toward Rachmaninoff’s development as a composer. 

On Sunday afternoons, Zverev invited the prominent composers of that period to his home.  

This was a great chance for Rachmaninoff to know these composers on a personal level.  At these gatherings, Rachmaninoff had the chance to familiarize himself with the personality of these great artists.  

He had the chance to communicate with these composers through other means than music.  This had great effects on his future musical endeavors.

The time spent at the Moscow conservatory with Zverev saw the first of Rachmaninoff’s compositions. 

 This has been documented through another of Zverev’s students, Matvey Presman.  Presman also lived at the Zverev residence, and thus was in constant contact with the budding Rachmaninoff:

I remember my stay at Simeiz chiefly because of Rachmaninoff.  It was there that he first began to compose.  As I remember, Rachmaninoff was very pensive, even gloomy.  He wanted to be alone, and would walk about with his head lowered and his gaze fixed on some distant point; at the same time he would whistle something almost inaudibly and gesticulate as if conducting.  This state lasted for a few days.  Finally, waiting for a moment when nobody apart from myself was about, he beckoned me to the piano and began to play.  When he had finished he asked me, ‘Do you know what that was?’  ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’  ‘And how,’ he asked, ‘did you like this pedal point in the bass against the chromaticism in the upper parts?’  Having received a satisfactory reply, he said complacently, ‘I composed it myself and I dedicate this piece to you.’ (Quoted in Norris 6) 

Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was met with a similar attitude when compared with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  The premiere, however, was not a pronounced demonstration, as was the case with the Stravinsky premiere.  Rachmaninoff began work on his first symphony (symphony in D minor) in 1895. 

 Rachmaninoff chose to use motifs, which were reminiscent of his childhood in Novgorod at his grandmother’s estate.  There were church bells in Novgorod, and Rachmaninoff paid tribute to them in his first symphony.  In the symphony, Rachmaninoff manages to convey “power, tenderness, passion, sorrow, and at times even epic grandeur” (Piggott 32). 

 Rachmaninoff spent a great amount of time on inputting his personal feelings into his piece.  He truly made this piece to be a manifestation of his Self.  A particular event justifies this fact.  His former teacher Sergei Taneyev advised him to change a few pages of the piece, which were in need of “drastic revision.”  

Rachmaninoff ignored Taneyev’s opinion, and allowed the piece to be performed as written (Piggott 33).  He did not feel that it would be appropriate to change something so personal.  He could not imagine altering something, which signified so many ideals to him.  

The rehearsal and the performance were both lead by Alexander Glazunov.  The rehearsal (attended by Rimsky-Korsakov) did not go well.  Glazunov should have garnered most of the blame for the bad rehearsal.  

However, the young Rachmaninoff was ultimately responsible for the piece’s failure to impress the attendants.  Rimsky-Korsakov “blatantly” admitted to Rachmaninoff that he did not like the piece.  At this point Rachmaninoff realized that he should have taken the advice offered by Taneyev.  However the time had passed for modifications.  

The premiere (15 March 1897) of the piece was also a disaster.  Again, Glazunov’s poor conducting should have been blamed for the failure, but again Rachmaninoff was chided for the “innumerable muddles and consequent earsplitting cacophony” (Piggott 33).

This debacle destroyed Rachmaninoff.  Since he invested so much of himself in this piece, he felt that its failure signaled his failure as a composer. 

 In the period immediately following the symphony’s premiere, he tried composing other significant works, but he was not able to accomplish much. 

 This just added to his previously developed sense of “frustration.”  Rachmaninoff did not begin to compose another major piece until 1900.

Rachmaninoff wrote a letter to Alexander Zataevitch (composer and music critic) on 6 May 1897.  In it, he declares a very subjective view of the performance of his symphony:

I am not at all affected by its lack of success, nor am I dismayed by the disparaging critiques – I am deeply upset and most depressed that my Symphony, though I loved it very much, and still do, did not please me after its first rehearsal [. . .] This means, you’ll say that it’s poorly orchestrated.  But I am convinced, in reply, that good music can “shine through” poor orchestration, nor do I think that the instrumentation is totally unsuccessful. (Cannata 19)

Rachmaninoff goes on to blame “the performance” for the failure of his piece.  In this quote, the subjective nature, with which this work was completed could be observed clearly.  Rachmaninoff states clearly that he “loved” the piece very much.  

He had taken this failure as a heartbreak caused by an unfaithful lover.  He personified the piece to such a great extent that any foul comment about the piece would have staunchly stabbed him.

Finally, in 1900, Rachmaninoff decided to seek help for his lack of creativity.  He met with Leo Tolstoy for encouraging words (Cannata 19).  

Rachmaninoff considered Tolstoy as a great thinker, and thus thought of their conversations as quite helpful to his recovery.  However, the main catalyst for change in his gloomy creative sense was doctor Nikolai Dahl.  Dr. Dahl was a hypnotist, who helped inspire Rachmaninoff into writing his Second Piano Concerto.  

It is common belief that Dr. Dahl did not achieve any measurable change in Rachmaninoff.  He simply provided him with the assurance needed to compose (Cannata 20).  These drastic measures taken by Rachmaninoff were not of any use for Stravinsky.

Stravinsky’s attitude toward failure of the premiere should be discussed here.  Stravinsky did not give up hope after the failure.  He knew that his music was a sound composition.  He never once doubted the integrity of the music.  

Instead he chose to blame elements, on which he had no control (i.e. the choreography).  This is to be expected with Stravinsky’s mindset.  He viewed his music as objectively as possible.  To Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring was a concrete object.  

It could not have been altered.  However the peripherals of the music (the dance) were not so objective, as choreographed by Nijinsky.  The music could not have been at fault here.  The only thing that lacked stringent objectivity was Nijinsky’s choreography.  

Therefore, the fault laid entirely on the dance, and not the music.  This attitude prevented Stravinsky from being affected by public opinion toward his work.  

His works were completely autonomous, and thus stood firm.  No one had to approve of them, and no one could criticize their existence.  This point of attitude toward a composition will be of great contrast in the case of Rachmaninoff.

Rachmaninoff’s works contained a piece of his being.  If they were criticized, he felt that the very core of his being was shaken.  Rachmaninoff’s pieces were not autonomous pieces of composition.  They were always dependent on some element of Rachmaninoff’s life.  

For instance, the close association of the first symphony with the church bells of Novgorod was a significant link.  The failure of the first symphony’s premiere managed to taint a part of his past.  That tainted past took some time to clear.

Another aspect of Stravinsky’s attitude toward music lies within the idea of constraints.  Stravinsky had very strong feelings toward the idea of having limits in his composition.  He outlines these thoughts in his Poetics of Music.  

Stravinsky believed that “musical art is limited in its expression in a measure corresponding exactly to the limitations of the organ that perceives it” (Stravinsky 65).  

He thought that every composer had a limit within which he had to work.  Stravinsky realized that he had work within his limits.  

The most limiting of his “organs” was his hands.  He did not have great piano playing abilities.  This did not mean that he was limited in the ideas he could perceive though: instead, his manifestation of ideas had to be more innovative than the person with the abundant technical abilities.

Stravinsky despised composer who did not know their compositional limit.  He hated the idea of pretending to be limitless.  He also hated the idea of music with no discipline.  Both of these notions could be found in the works of Richard Wagner.  Stravinsky had very specific thoughts on Wagner’s music

Wagner’s work corresponds to a tendency that is not, properly speaking, a disorder, but one which tries to compensate for a lack of order.  

The principle of the endless melody perfectly illustrates this tendency.  It is the perpetual becoming of a music that never had any reason for starting, any more than it has any reason for ending. (Stravinsky 65)

Here Stravinsky criticizes Wagner for writing pointless music.  This notion of writing music without an aim is definitely a manifestation of writing without limits.  Stravinsky did not believe that writing without limits creates real music:

A mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy.  The effects it produces may accidentally amuse, but are not capable of being repeated.  I cannot conceive of a fantasy that is repeated, for it can be repeated only to its detriment. (Stravinsky 65-66)

Creating fantasies was not Stravinsky’s goal.  His aim was to create music, which could speak for itself.  His aim was the autonomy of his music.

Rachmaninoff did not feel any particular constraint upon his compositions.  The reasons for this are multifaceted.  First, the amazing technique and memory of Rachmaninoff kept anything from limiting him.  His extraordinary skills guided him throughout his career.  Rachmaninoff’s memory is a great testament to the extent of his abilities. 

 An example of Rachmaninoff’s amazing memory could be found at the age of fifteen.  One evening, Alexander Glazunov came to Taneyev’s flat to perform his new symphony (Symphony No. 5).  Glazunov performed his symphony on the piano, without Rachmaninoff in the room.  

After the performance, Taneyev brought out the young Rachmaninoff and instructed him to play the piano for the present company.  Everyone expected Rachmaninoff to play standard etudes or a small new composition. 

 Instead, Rachmaninoff played Glavunov’s new symphony in its entirety.  When Glazunov expressed his amazement and demanded to know how the young Rachmaninoff had played the piece, Taneyev calmly said “Sergei Vassilievitch heard it through the door while you were playing it” (Piggott 22).  This type of amazing “instinctual musicianship” was not observed in Stravinsky.  Stravinsky’s memory betrayed him many times. 

 It has been recorded that at the premiere of his Piano Concerto (22 May 1924), Stravinsky suffered a momentary lapse of memory and Koussevitzky had to hum the first note of the Largo to him, in order to continue (Routh 31).  Stravinsky’s creative mind was far too active to simply memorize notes.  He saw potential within every possible chance.  

Therefore, his memorization skills were rather poor.  That is another constraint, within which he had to work.  However, as mentioned before, Stravinsky embraced the challenge of constraints.

The necessity of composition is yet another aspect of Stravinsky’s attitude toward music.  In Poetics of Music he clearly expresses his physical necessity toward composition:

All creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery [. . .].  This appetite that is aroused in me at the mere thought of putting in order musical elements that have attracted my attention is not at all a fortuitous thing like inspiration, but as habitual and periodic, if not as constant, as a natural need.  This premonition of an obligation, this foretaste of a pleasure, this conditioned reflex, [. . .] shows clearly that the idea of discovery and hard work is what attracts me. (Stravinsky 52)

This testimonial clearly distinguishes Stravinsky’s need to compose from mere inspiration.  Stravinsky did not need the uncertainty of a “certain emotive disturbance generally designated by the name of inspiration” (Stravinsky 51).  

As a matter of a fact, what he feels toward music is quite the opposite of inspiration.  Individuals, who need inspiration to compose, cannot compose at all times.  

They have to wait until the proper elements cause them to become inspired and thus compose.  Stravinsky needed to create (compose) because he was obligated to the task.  

He did not have a choice in the matter.  Composition was a key part of his personality and being.  This idea of the physical need to compose is related to the objective aspect of Stravinsky’s life and music.  

If an individual has the ability to be objective, inspiration carries no significant meaning.  Inspiration is quite a subjective notion.  No one could pinpoint the exact meaning or cause of inspiration.  

There are too many variables in the word and the thought.  Stravinsky disliked the notion of too many variables.  He did not like the notion of defining his life in intangible terms (such as inspiration).  This is in stark contrast to the techniques used by Rachmaninoff to compose.

As discussed previously, Rachmaninoff could not compose, unless he was in a perfectly undisturbed setting.  As he studied with Zverev, he requested a separate room, in order to compose in isolation from the other students in Zverev’s residence (Norris 8).  This request hampered their relationship for years. 

 Rachmaninoff did not have the same obligation toward composition as Stravinsky did.  Rachmaninoff never found it absolutely necessary to his well being to compose (unlike Stravinsky).  This is the reason for extended periods without compositional content in Rachmaninoff’s life.  

A good example of this lack of activity is a three-year break between 1897 and 1900, as discussed above.  This lack of urgency in composition, gives Rachmaninoff’s pieces a very romantic sense of calm.  Rachmaninoff’s works are not urgent.  They are simply works, which inoffensively amuse the listener.

There is a great irony in the compositions of these two composers.  Rachmaninoff, who tried so hard to embody the human condition in his pieces, is now regarded as a post-romantic romantic.  However Stravinsky, who tried adamantly to keep subjectivity out of his pieces is hailed as the composer who has managed to recreate the human condition the best.  For instance, the emotions stirred by The Rite of Spring haunt one’s inner soul with immaculate persistence.  No Rachmaninoff piece comes close to achieving that task.  The irony here exists in the fact that the more objective composer has managed to convey his subject matter in a more palatable way.

The ideology of these composers differed in that each had a differing purpose for music.  Each composer developed this view through the influences of previous generations.  One chose to follow the previous paradigm.  The other altered the earlier methodology and created the new sound of the twentieth century.


More information: Doheum Park et al, Novelty and influence of creative works, and quantifying patterns of advances based on probabilistic references networks, EPJ Data Science (2020). DOI: 10.1140/epjds/s13688-019-0214-8

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