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Feb 15, 2012

Your Rachmaninoff Sucks

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed a varied and extensive repertoire, yet those with little exposure to his music aside from figure skating can be forgiven for thinking that the man wrote only a mere two pieces of music. Or, to be more accurate, a mere 1.67 pieces of music: the 18th variation of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the first (Moderato) and second (Adagio Sostenuto) movements of Piano Concerto No. 2. Both works of music have been used ad nauseam in figure skating, and one can always count on one or both to be used by a skater/team every season.

In some ways, this is understandable. The first and second movements of Piano Concerto No. 2 are ravishingly beautiful pieces of music, their rich orchestration and lush lyricism sure to be pleasing to the judges' ears even if the skating is not quite on that level. Any skater would understandably want to harness the intoxicating blend of power and poetry of Piano Concerto No. 2, especially since a few enduring masterpieces have already resulted from this particular pairing of Rachmaninoff and skating:

The use of the 18th variation of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in figure skating, however, is a different story. Although there are a total of 24 variations of the entire Rhapsody that cover a wide variety of moods, the most popular one by far is the sweet and unassuming 18th that verges on sentimental drivel, especially in the sleepy interpretations popularly used in skating. Variation 18 of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini also (not coincidentally) happens to be the sine qua non piece of music for the unadventurous virginal young female skater in a pretty dress--i.e. for those interested in plying their trade in the graciously dull genre known as the Generic Female Ballad. Although the use of Variation 18 in skating is rampant and most unfortunately unchecked, one example should more than suffice in demonstrating how the music is used in skating, as most programs that use Variation 18 are virtually interchangeable anyway:

But, one might ask, why not? After all, Variation 18 of Rhapsody is unobtrusively pleasant to listen to, perfect for a pretty spiral sequence and fits neatly within a certain paradigm of femininity. People like it, and it makes them feel comfortable. As for the first two movements of Piano Concerto No. 2, skaters no doubt were inspired by how skaters such as Lu Chen made the music come alive and thus try to follow in the tracings of such past greats. However, though there is a certain appeal to putting one's own spin onto the classics, there is nonetheless a definite air of futility surrounding the skaters and choreographers who hope for a royal flush while shuffling the same couple of cards over and over again. Simply put, the vast majority of the sea of programs to Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the first two movements of Piano Concerto No. 2 are utterly forgettable anyway, serving only to remind the audience (and perhaps the judges) how such programs pale in comparison to the greats.

Obviously, the solution to skaters who wish to harness the beauty and power of Rachmaninoff's music but avoid the inevitable unflattering comparisons to past programs would be to use the other pieces in Rachmaninoff's repertoire. Although choral works such as his Vespers would be inappropriate due to the lyrics in the music, a good number of Rachmaninoff's works outside of the 18th variation of Rhapsody and the first two movements of Piano Concerto No. 2 could make good figure skating programs but are nonetheless criminally underused in figure skating. For instance, skaters and choreographers generally seem to be blissfully unaware of the fact that Piano Concerto No. 2 has in fact three movements, as hardly anyone ever skates to the equally beautiful Allegro scherzando third movement.

As proof that many of Rachmaninoff's other works outside of the 18th variation of Rhapsody and the first two movements of Piano Concerto No. 2 would and could be used to create great figure skating programs, here are some of the brave souls who dared venture outside the Rachmaninoff warhorse box:

Michelle Kwan, 1998: two separate pieces of Rachmaninoff's work were cut and blended together superbly here: firstly, the Moderato of  Trio élégiaque in No.2 in D minor  and the third finale movement of Piano Concerto No. 3. This is perhaps the greatest short program in ladies figure skating history.

Jeffrey Buttle, 2005: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2, aka the Bells of Moscow. A remarkable program, perhaps one of Mr. Buttle's finest.

Alexander Abt, 2002: the elusive third Allegro scherzando of Piano Concerto No. 2, paired with the bravura finale movement of Piano Concerto No. 3. One of my favorite figure skating performances ever!

Midori Ito, 1991: the Vivace first movement of Piano Concerto No. 1

Christopher Bowman, 1991: The finale movement of Piano Concerto No. 3. An excellent vehicle for the drama of Bowman the Showman.

Some hypothetical pairings of Rachmaninoff and current skaters I would like to see:

Mao Asada + a Rachmaninoff Prelude: This may seem unwise after being subjected to the overblown and widely controversial Bells of Hell (aka Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2), but I think Miss Asada would do justice to an original piano-only Prelude, perhaps Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5. Miss Asada's programs this year are light and ethereally pretty (which suits her well) but it would be even more interesting for Miss Asada to explore other facets of herself. Lest we forget, Miss Asada skated a masterpiece to the power and passion of Chopin's Ballade No. 1 last year, and given the right choreography, she may do justice to Prelude in G minor. To be sure, Prelude in G minor is a bit less tender and introspective, but the singing melodies and emotion are still there to be harnessed. Performing Prelude in G minor even as an exhibition would be a challenge for Miss Asada, but a worthy one nonetheless.

Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov + Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor: Actually, the second Trio élégiaque would suffice as well, but I don't think any skater has ever used the first, so the first it is. Russian music for Russian skaters, with some soulful cello and an elegiac theme for Maxim Trankov to wear black and express his emo soul to. Admittedly, neither of the Trio élégiaques are easy pieces of music to phrase movement to, so hence the incentive to find a choreographer other than Nikolai Morozov. However, I don't think using solely the Trio élégiaque would work for a figure skating program, but I haven't figured out what other piece of music should be spliced onto the trio.

Takahiko Kozuka + a Rachmaninoff Etude: Nobody would ever accuse Mr. Kozuka of being a sentimental sort of skater, just as nobody would ever say that Rachmaninoff was a sentimental sort of pianist or composer. Ergo, this marriage of like fellows would be nicely consummated if Mr. Kozuka would skate to one of Rachmaninoff's more emotionally introverted but still technically brilliant pieces for the solo piano: the 
Études-tableaux. However, one should note that Rachmaninoff's Études are far from mere study pieces of only technical interest: beneath the dazzling technical demands comparable to that of Franz Liszt are rich sonorities and melodies. But it's not music that requires overblown or heart-on-sleeve emoting to, and that is perhaps key for Mr. Kozuka. Then again, some of the Études-tableaux are probably impossible to skate to....but I'm thinking Étude-tableau in G minor, Op. 33, No. 8 for a slow section or something?  


  1. Thank you for sharing your insights into figure skating and classical music. If not for watching figure skating, I wouldn't have discovered all the wonderful pieces of classical music. And you have introduced me to a few more that I haven't heard of!

  2. Don't assign such a quiet piece to Kozuka who is quiet enough!!(Laugh)
    I think Piano Concerto No. good for him.
    Graceful piano touch will be suitable to his deep edge works.
    Have you watched movie "Shine"?

  3. @John You're welcome, and thank you for reading!

    @nyloncurtain I think much of Piano Concerto No. 3--especially the best bit, i.e. the third movement--would overwhelm Mr. Kozuka. I think it could only work if a) he doesn't use the third movement and b) he uses something like Van Cliburn's interpretation of the work rather than say, Vladimir Horowitz's. Also, I chose Étude-tableau in G minor merely for a slow section, I haven't quite decided which other Étude to pair it with for Mr. Kozuka. But I don't think it's quite merely a quiet piece--there's a subtle power behind the quiet that could go well with Mr. Kozuka's style.

    I haven't watched the movie Shine. Should I?

  4. I have no intension to make light of your selection.I know what you mean.
    Cliburn's playing that has sharpness and strength is better for Mr.Kozuka.
    The 3rd concerto is too magnificent to him, of now.I know it.
    However I hope him to develop expression and become deserve to this piece including 3rd mvt.Because he needs 3rd mvt for his last spin!
    I love your blog. Please keep going.

    Well the movie is kinda just amusement, you need not to bother to watch.

    1. Thank you, and thank you for your comments! Sometimes I wonder if anyone actually bothers to read my rambling as I know I can be quite verbose, so it is always great to hear some feedback.

      If Mr. Kozuka can ever develop the expression to do justice to Piano Concerto No. 3 (particularly the third movement), he will truly be a sight to behold. He has the skating skills already, and beautiful jumps when he is on...I really do wonder if it would actually be possible for him to do it, but I hope he proves me wrong.

      Just wondering, what do you think of using Baroque music for Mr. Kozuka instead of Rachmaninoff? I've always thought that Mr. Kozuka could do justice to Bach....

    2. Unfortunately, I am not so well informed about the music of Bach and the baroque.
      But I think that the music like Aria with long notes is suitable to Mr. Kozuka who can reach across the rink by fewer strokes. And baroque's playing method which express every note clearly is best for his fine edge work.
      Moreover, for performing with the baroque piece, it is necessary to keep tempo and speed from the beginnings to the end, and he can do it, I think.
      He had actually skated with Handel's Saraband (arr.Edvin Marton) before.

      But,I am able to come up with only BWV 847,578… and the others that the person knows.

      I came to think it recently by seeing her EX at this season that Ms. Mao Asada should try to perform with the piece like Bach's cantata to fight against the woman's passionate program (for instance, Black Swan).

  5. I went into this post thinking "But Alexander Abt skated beautifully to piano concerto 2 (and 3)!" and was thrilled to see you agree ;) I only recently found your blog and have been reading the archives for a few days now, incredibly funny and very informative. Thank you for writing!