The Rachmaninoff Legacy

Oh, so much to say about this Arizona Star story, spotted by the ever-alert Soho the Dog. Here’s your executive summary:

Alexander Temple Wolkonsky Rachmaninoff Wanamaker is great-great grandson of the composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. The great man is one of very few genuinely bankable names in 20th-century classical music – according to the Star article, Rach has been worth a whopping $50 million in royalties over the last 30 year. He also died back in 1943 and is one of the next generation of major-name composers whose music is shortly to come out of copyright; this combination makes him an interesting test case for issues that will likely begin to rear their heads over the next few years, although rarely with so much moolah at stake.

ATWRW’s plan is to enlist a composer or two to do some gentle reworking of the existing Rach scores; by doing this, he believes he can do just enough to see them into a new copyright term, and keep those royalties coming to the Rachmaninoff name. As he bizarrely puts it:

We’re in the process now of having the music rearranged so that we can re-establish the rights and generations can enjoy it for futures to come.

(Do even children think this claim makes sense?) Matthew and his commentors have already noted the basic awfulness of this story; here’s my take.

First of all, ATWRW’s plan, as described in the Arizona Star, won’t work. The new versions of the Rach scores will exist as new works in their own right; copyright for Rachmaninoff 1.1 will sit with the composer that did the reworking, or with ATWRW himself, depending on how things got contracted. See, for example, that well-known Hyperion case for an example of such a thing in action. The thing is, this won’t make a jot of difference to the original Rachmaninoff 1.0, which will come out of copyright after 75 years just as it was supposed to. Despite such atrocities as Sonny Bono, US copyright law is not actually designed to protect copyright in perpetuity (and nor should it). Incidentally, on the subject of Hyperion, I understand that standards for originality in US courts are higher than in the UK, so the changes would likely have to be more than just touching up a few corrections.

So, following ATWRW’s plan through, publishers and performers would be left with a choice: do they stick to the well-loved original Rach, now available at bargain price, or the still-expensive, musically suspect ‘new’ Rach available from ATWRW? Quite a dilemma, you’ll agree.

Of course, if ATWRW is concerned that so much money is going to the pockets of nasssty publishers like Dover (who, he acknowledges, have “done a marvelous job creating study scores. I don’t know what they would do to improve on Dover”) there is one strategy he could take: follow the lead of the Steinbeck estate and move to recapture the copyright of his great-great-grandfather’s music from the publishers. This tack isn’t mentioned in the Star piece, but if ATWRW wants to make the most of Rach’s royalties, this is something he could do (and it’s about a billion times more achievable than stopping the music moving into the public domain). Of course, by doing this he would lose the good will of the entire music publishing industry, and would be left to self-publish all this music if he wanted to see a penny out of any of it. Not an attractive option.

Incidentally, that Arizona Star article is the usual sort of misleading junk on copyright that one expects from newspapers (you’d have thought professional writers would be a little more clued up than this…), but it does make one interesting, if wrong-headed assumption:

To apply for new copyrights, Wanamaker and his kin will have to rearrange their great-great-grandfather’s works. The changes can be relatively minor, from cleaning up the notations to drafting study scores, which include comments about the music and how it should be played; or all-out re-arrangement that could change the personality of the music.

To some, this could be downright musical heresy. But Wanamaker is quick to note that the rearrangements will be minor.

The assumption is made that the musical community will be up in arms about the forthcoming vandalism-for-profit soon to be perpetuated on Rachmaninoff’s scores. This hasn’t in the main been the case; with the exception of Robin Hill, bloggers and commentors are all appalled first of all by the abuse of copyright law that is perceived to be taking place (Hill empathises with the wish to retain family control, even if this isn’t practicable). Well, as I say, this isn’t going to happen: ATWRW is as free to rework Rach’s music and market it under his own license as you, me, Lionel Sawkins, Alex Ross or Milton Babbitt. Whether any of us will make enough money to make it worth the endavour is our own concern, but nothing’s going to stop people playing original Rachmaninoff for themselves; and when those 75 years are up, not even quadruple-barrelled heirs can stop us doing so for free.

5 thoughts on “The Rachmaninoff Legacy

  1. This is not entirely unprecedented, Stravinsky tried something like this. But how often are the 1940’s versions of le Sacre or Petrushka (i.e. the versions under copyright) performed instead of the originals.

  2. It happened to Bach, too (Gounod’s rework of the first prelude as “Ave Maria” springs to mind.) As in this case, no doubt discerning music lovers will make up their own minds.

  3. It’s not quite the same thing, though, Fred. In Stravinsky’s case the changes were made by the composer himself, so they have an authenticity that posthumous tinkerings can’t possibly have; but more significantly I thought Stravinsky’s re-versionings were actually a way for him to break copyright with an earlier publisher (I may be wrong here).

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