achmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto may be
the best-loved piano concerto on the planet,
but it almost didn’t get written, and the tale of
its creation is one of the most remarkable in all
of music. Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow
Conservatory in 1892 with its highest award, the gold
medal, and quickly embarked on a career as a touring
pianist. But he wanted to compose. He had written
a piano concerto while still a conservatory student,
and early in 1895 the 21-year-old composer took on
the most challenging of orchestral compositions, a
symphony. Its premiere, on March 27, 1897, was a
catastrophe. Conductor Alexander Glazunov was
unprepared, the orchestra played badly, and young
Rachmaninoff saw the disaster coming. Unwilling
to enter the hall, he sat hunched in a stairwell of the
auditorium with his fists clenched against the sides of
his head. Inside, it was as bad as he feared: audience and
critics alike hated the music, César Cui describing it as a
“program symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt . . .
[music that would give] acute delight to the inhabitants
of Hell.” What should have been a moment of triumph
for the young composer instead brought humiliation.
Rachmaninoff may have been a powerful performer,
but he was a vulnerable personality, and the disaster of
the premiere plunged him into a deep depression. His
first act was to destroy the score to the symphony. It
was never performed again during his lifetime, but after
his death it was reassembled from the orchestral parts,
and the painful irony is that this work
is now admired
as one of the finest works of his youth. However, in the
aftermath of the fiasco of its premiere, Rachmaninoff
lost confidence in himself and wrote no music at all for
the next three years.
feb 20, 21, 22
Program Notes
Sergei Rachmaninoff
April 1, 1873, Oneg, Novgorod
March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills
Concerto No. 2 in C minor for Piano and
Orchestra, Opus 18
the doctor steps in
Alarmed, the composer’s family and friends arranged
for him to see Dr. Nicholas Dahl, an internal medicine
specialist who sometimes treated patients through
hypnosis. Dahl was also extremely cultured—he was
an amateur cellist—and Rachmaninoff’s friends were
hopeful that contact with such a man would improve the
composer’s spirits. During a lengthy series of visits, the
composer heard a steady message of encouragement from
the doctor: “You will begin to write your concerto….
You will work with great facility….The concerto will be of
excellent quality.” To the composer’s astonishment, Dahl’s
treatment worked. He later said: “Although it may sound
incredible, this cure really helped me. By the beginning
of summer I again began to compose. The material grew
in bulk, and new musical ideas began to stir within me—
more than enough for my concerto.”
With the dam broken, new music rushed out of the
rejuvenated composer. Across the summer and fall of
1900, Rachmaninoff composed what would become
the second and third movements of his Second Piano
Concerto. These were performed successfully that
December, and Rachmaninoff composed the opening
movement the following spring. The first performance
of the complete concerto, in Moscow on November 9,
1901, was a triumph. Not surprisingly, Rachmaninoff
dedicated the concerto to Dr. Dahl.
the music
The very beginning of the concerto seems so
“right” that it is hard to believe that this movement was
written last. Throughout his life Rachmaninoff loved the
sound of Russian church bells. He once noted: “The sound
of church bells dominated all the cities of Russia I used
to know—Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied
every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no
composer could escape their influence….All my life I have
taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly
chiming or mournfully tolling bells…”The concerto begins
with the sound of those bells, as the solo piano alone echoes
their tolling. Into that swirling sound, the orchestra stamps
out the impassioned main theme, one of those powerful
Slavic melodies that instantly haunt the mind; the solo
piano has the yearning second subject. Rachmaninoff
writes with imagination throughout this movement: the
orchestra reprises the main theme beneath the soloist’s
dancing chordal accompaniment, while the solo horn
recalls the second subject in a haunting passage marked
. The music demands a pianist of extraordinary ability.
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