RACHMANINOV The Second Piano Concerto: An Inktroduction – INKPOT
THE SECOND PIANO CONCERTO
|Expanded from the original article by Isaak Koh
In the film Richter, the Enigma, there is a brief shot of large Russian church bells being rung from their steeples, emanating dull-toned “bong, bong”s that sound as though rising straight from the earth. Eventually, the bells synchronize, and the opening notes of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto fade in at the same tempo as the bells.
The imagery and sound of those bells are an uncanny match for what has become one of the most famous piano concerti ever written, and serve as a reminder that, above all, Rachmaninov’s music is Russian to the core. Many of his melodies, such as the stirring string theme that follows those opening bell-like tollings, follow the same pattern as Russian Orthodox chants. Pianist Howard Shelley commented in an interview printed in International Piano Quarterly that when he visited a cathedral in St. Petersburg during a service, he heard the entire congregation recite these incredibly long chants. With this sound resonating through the building, the smell of incense in the air and the sight of the clergy in their ornate vestments, Shelley realized how all-embracing such experiences must have been for Rachmaninov, not only in terms of his melodic thinking, but also in his general mood.
At the same time, Rachmaninov’s composition style easily identifies him as a late Romantic composer. Coming from a tradition of Liszt and Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov’s music is full of emotional intensity. But despite their overwhelming sense of deep feeling, his compositions never descend into maudliness or sentimentality. As the composer himself put it:
This emotional integrity and directness is perhaps the most appealing aspect of Rachmaninov’s music to many people today. Although Rachmaninov was an accomplished pianist himself, he never let empty virtuosity supplant musical honesty. The Second Piano Concerto is characteristic of this fine balance, sublime in its lyricism, but always whispering a sincere emotional message.
That message came at a grueling cost. The son of aristocratic parents who were aware of his musical talents, Rachmaninov took up musical lessons at the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine. Upon graduating four years later, he continued his studies at the Moscow Conservatory, gradually gaining fame as a composer and a performer. Tchaikovsky, then the most famous composer in Russia, became Rachmaninov’s mentor. As a result, Rachmaninov was looked and at times indulged upon as the fair-haired boy composer who could do no wrong, and he came across at times like a spoiled brat.
All these accolades, plus Tchaikovsky’s untimely death in 1893, left Rachmaninov woefully unprepared for his first true career setback. His First Symphony made its debut in 1897, with Alexander Glazunov conducting. Glazunov did not care for Rachmaninov’s music, finding it overly emotional with very little musically to redeem it. The symphony, a fairly advanced work for the time and tricky enough to bring off even today, was conducted poorly. Rachmaninov later claimed that Glazunov was drunk at the premiere.
The result of all these factors was a musical fiasco. Rachmaninov’s compositional skills came under severe criticism, and the strain of events plunged him into a deep and prolonged depression that included a near-total writer’s block. He made and discarded sketches for another symphony. His finances went the way of his creative resources, dwindling precariously. He occasionally appeared in concerts, though too rarely to distract him from any assumptions he made from the fate of his symphony, or to rely on as a source of income. The dark cloud that had settled over Rachmaninov steadfastly refused to evaporate – a gloom that would last three years.
Answering an invitation with singer Feodor Chaliapin in early January 1900 to visit Count Leo Tolstoy (left), a boyhood hero of Rachmaninovs, made matters much worse. This was actually Rachmaninovs second meeting with the noted author, but Chaliapins first. To be fair, it is hard to say what Rachmaninov may have expected from Tolstoy, considering the author’s own stated views and preferences. Though a lover of classical music in his younger days, the author was going through a period of revision that followed his own personal crisis of faith, resulting in a search for “simple” truth and rejection of his earlier oeuvres as well as Russian Orthodoxy. As part of this quest, Tolstoy had virtually renounced the work of classical composers in favor of folk music in his 1898 book-length essay What is Art?
True to form, after hearing Rachmaninov play one of his compositions, the novelist commented, Tell me, is such music needed by anyone? Rachmaninov then accompanied Chaliapin in his song Fate, one of the pieces Rachmaninov had forced himself to write since the First Symphony. After a prolonged silence, Tolstoy basically repeated himself, asking, What kind of music is most necessary for men scholarly or folk music?
Later that evening, taking the composer aside, the author subjected Rachmaninov to a fuller measure of his views in a monologue that could have come straight from one of his novels. I must tell you how I dislike it all, Tolstoy began. Beethoven is nonsense, Pushkin and Lermontov also. The song Fate, which Rachmaninov had performed with Chaliapin, is based on the two opening measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
After the end of their talk, Tolstoy apologized for any offense his comments may have brought. Though the composer replied, How could I be hurt on my own account, if I was not hurt on Beethovens, he left Tolstoys house more deeply troubled than before. Though invited every year after that to visit the author, he never returned. And just think, he remembered years later, the first time I went to him, I went to him as to a god.
Unless Rachmaninov was blinded by hero worship – and that, of course, is always possible – it is interesting that someone who so revered Tolstoy would apparently not have known or taken into consideration the writer’s own views as stated in What is Art? This book became both well-known and highly controversial in Russia almost as soon as it appeared in print. It is hard to think of Rachmaninov not hearing about the opinions stated in it, given all the brouhaha they received.
So why were Rachmaninov and Chaliapin invited to visit, given Tolstoys repudiation of classical music? Actually, Tolstoy was not as consistent in his views on this subject as we might be led to believe. The pianist Alexander Goldenweiser was a permanent houseguest and acolyte of the writer, and Henri Troyat mentions in his biography of Tolstoy that as much as the author bewailed the evil effects of “impure” classical music, he could not resist its charms. Tolstoy’s face would soften into an expression of gentleness and suffering, and he would sigh and weep from the overwhelming wave of emotions that would wash over him. Paradoxically, once the music ended, his reaction would be one of resentment for both the composer and the performer who had unsettled him.
Apparently, Tolstoy found little in Rachmaninov’s opus to touch him in this way. He was not impressed emotionally, and appealed to his theory of the uses of art to explain, perhaps to himself as much as to Rachmaninov, why he did not like what he had heard. In that sense, Tolstoy may have been sincere. Given the strength of Tolstoy’s aesthetic convictions, his continued listening to classical music, and his contrary and complex reactions to it, Rachmaninov may have misinterpreted the author’s behavior as damning criticism toward himself and his chosen profession – a view that could have been magnified by the composer’s own oversensitive nature.
Not long after the evening with Tolstoy, Rachmaninovs family suggested that he visit Dr. Nikolai Dahl, an internist in neurology who had followed Jean-Martin Charcots work with hypnosis at the Salpêtriére Hospital in Paris. A friend and neighbor of the composers cousins, the Satins, Dr. Dahl had successfully cured the composers aunt Varvara Arkadyevna of a psychosomatic ailment, and his treatment of friends of the Satins was so visibly helpful that they suggested that Rachmaninov should also try it. He agreed, without any resistance, as desperate as he was about his situation. Even though the composer was financially strapped, Dr. Dahl did not see this as a hindrance, as he had treated several of his patients at no charge.
Rachmaninov began daily treatments with Dr. Dahl in January 1900. These sessions, with Rachmaninov seated in a deep, comfortable armchair in the doctor’s study, were concentrated on helping him sleep soundly and peacefully every night, brightening this daytime mood, improving his appetite and reawakening his desire to compose. After four months of therapy, he emerged from his anxiety, and by the beginning of that summer had recovered his creative urge.
The therapy may not have been all that encouraged the composer. Howard Shelley states, “One member of Rachmaninov’s family once suggested to me that rather than Dr. Nikolai Dahl’s hypnotherapy having been responsible for Rachmaninov’s miraculous recovery, it was actually his interest in Dahl’s highly attractive daughter that fired him up and got him composing again.” One definite factor that helped was the doctor’s musical interest. Dahl was an accomplished cellist and violist who had founded his own string quartet, and his chief relaxation from the emotional toll of his workload was hearing and playing music. Doctor and patient spent as much time talking about music as they did in therapy – discussions that both men found mutually enjoyable.
No matter what the composer’s motivation may have been, the concerto is the end-product of his recovery, and its dedicatee was none other than Dr. Dahl. The second and third movements of the work were written in the summer of 1900, and performed in Moscow in December of the same year. Encouraged by the critical acceptance, Rachmaninov completed the first movement and the piece was played in its entirety in October 1901 with the fully-recovered composer at the keyboard. It was received with general acclaim and has remained enormously popular ever since.
Part of that popularity came from its being heard in several motion pictures. It was used aptly in the 1945 film Brief Encounter, which was directed by David Lean and starred Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, as well as somewhat satirically in the Billy Wilder comedy The Seven Year Itch, starring William Holden and Marilyn Monroe. The concerto’s second movement contains one of the most recognized melodies in all music, and it is also the source for Eric Carmen’s 1976 weepy hit “All By Myself,” which has also been redone by Celine Dion.
Some of this composition’s fame followed Dr. Dahl, as well. At a 1928 performance of the Second Concerto, he played viola in the orchestra of the American University of Beirut, with Arkadie Kouguell as soloist and conductor. The audience, informed after the performance of the dedication and of Dr. Dahl’s presence, would not be content until the doctor rose from his seat and bowed.
In 1890, Rachmaninov had enjoyed a friendship with some distant relatives, the Skalons. For the three Skalon daughters, he composed two pieces for piano six hands. The second of these pieces, a romance, begins with the same accompaniment of triplets (see figure left) that opens the adagio of the concerto. This passage in the romance introduces a different theme in a different key, but its rhythmic ambiguity is what catches our attention in both works, and is really the vitalizing element in the concerto’s Adagio.
The march-like principal theme of the finale, introduced by the orchestra, also derives from an earlier composition, this time from a short sacred concerto for four-part choir Rachmaninov wrote in 1893.
These sacred concertos, written for a capella chorus, are a distinctive feature of Orthodox music. This particular sacred concerto was performed only once in the composer’s lifetime, by the Moscow Synodical Choir in 1893, and was not published until 1955. Though the context would seem almost shockingly different from where Rachmaninov re-used this motto, it is actually appropriate, given the quasi-liturgical cast of the concerto’s opening theme.
As for the concerto’s opening string theme, which harkens back to Orthodox plainchant with its step-wise progression and limited range of notes, it is actually a fuller development of the bass line from a linking passage in the finale.
Had the first movement been composed before the last, then the passage in the finale would likely have evolved as a deliberate quote from the opening. But the effect here is subtler, since the bass figure is too embryonic in the finale to be recognized as a direct quotation, yet sounds familiar enough for the listener to make out the familiarity of its general outline.
Before this theme appears, the concerto is introduced with the bell-like tollings mentioned at the beginning of the article – chords anchored by the lowest F on the keyboard, repeated over and over again. These chords grow in harmonic tension and dynamic force until the strings take over with the main theme (Fig.3), lifting off from the piano as though from a springboard. This theme plays out in one unbroken paragraph before the piano has its first solo statement (the soloist also given a note-range of only one octave plus a semitone).
An unusual feature in the opening movement is the piano’s role as accompanist to the orchestra, instead of the other way around. The orchestra is silent far less often than the soloist, and carries the brunt of the melody to a very large extent. The piano plays in a concertante role with the orchestra, its presence clearly felt with constantly changing figurations, but adding to the orchestral presence rather than pulling the spotlight back to itself.
This concertante aspect is especially fitting since there is no cadenza through which the soloist can showcase his or her ability. Nevertheless, this passagework is difficult, both technically and musically, demanding the finesse and musicianship of a top-flight chamber music player as well as excellent technical equipment. It may have been one reason the composer found the Second Concerto less comfortable to play than the Third, since the emphasis here is on absolute rhythmic security in close integration with the orchestra, rather than on pianistic virtuosity.
In the second movement, which serves as a tender intermezzo, the piano again begins as an accompanist, first to the flute, then the clarinet. Rachmaninov handles the relationship between piano and orchestra with great delicacy, allowing the piano to insert six notes of melody between the first two phrases of the clarinet, then reversing these roles by allowing the orchestra to comment between phrases of piano cantilena. Michael Steinberg very accurately comments that these touches bring to mind Chaliapin’s words about Rachmaninov’s seconding him at the piano: ‘When he plays for me I can truly say, not that “I’m singing” but “we’re singing.” ‘
The music builds to a brief scherzando – an idea Rachmaninov would use to fuller effect in the Third Concerto and Third Symphony – allowing the piano a short cadenza before the flutes ease the music back to the softly swaying figures that opened the movement. The closing moments, with the piano gently accompanying the full strings, also playing softly, is perhaps the loveliest passage of the concerto.
A quick march opens the third movement, acting as a bridge between the second movement and the piano’s grand entrance. Momentum builds as piano and orchestra toss the march theme back and forth, easing with appearances of the second theme, which would become the tune for the 1940s hit song “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” before the movement builds to an impassioned conclusion.
One final feature normally not commented upon is the concerto’s orchestration. This was the first orchestral work Rachmaninov wrote after the First Symphony, and as such, it shows a marked improvement in terms of overall texture and general effectiveness. The concerto is not as colorfully or inventively orchestrated as Rachmaninov’s later works would become, especially in the use of percussion. But there are several delicate touches, such as the soft cymbal crashes in the bridge sections of the finale and the scoring of wind passages in the adagio, that show the composer’s growing expertise and natural feel for the orchestra.
ISAAK KOH may have disappeared from the Inkpot much like Mulder did in the X-Files, but is definitely not forgotten, while JONATHAN YUNGKANS still wonders what the heck happened to Mulder anyway.
8xx: 14.3.2001 Jonathan Yungkans; Isaak Koh.
Header design Chia Han-Leon
All original texts are copyrighted. Please seek permission from the Classical Editor