Friday, March 13, 2015

The Composer and his Physician: Exploring the Genesis of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto

Vincent de Luise, M.D.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, Op. 18 
Sergei Rachmaninoff 

The concerto is scored for solo piano, strings, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and  and trumpets, three trombones, four horns, tuba, tympani, bass drum and cymbals

Sergei Rachmaninoff ( 1873 -1943 )

There are piano concertos and then there are piano concertos. The favorites are the Tchaikovsky first, the Beethoven fifth ("Emperor"), the Brahms first, the Chopin first, and perhaps the most beloved of all: the Rachmaninoff second, with all its lush romanticism and those unforgettable melodies. Lest one thinks that the creative process of musical composition is always something seamless, linear and positive, this essay counters that myth with the backstory of the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto, its fits and starts, its gestation, its birth and its flowering.

Sergei Vasiliev Rachmaninoff  (1 April 1873 – 28 March 1943) was born in the ancient city of Veliky Novgorod, the child of an aristocratic but impecunious Russian and Moldovan musical family. While Rachmaninoff's earliest compositional efforts cleaely display the influence of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, he soon found his own Muse, “writing music with a song-like melodicism, expressiveness, full of rich orchestral colors," as Geoffrey Norris has written. "The piano is featured prominently in Rachmaninoff's compositional output, and through his own remarkable skills as a performer, he fully explored the expressive possibilities of the instrument.” 

To this day, the legacy of Rachmaninoff’s piano works, especially the concerti, has been far greater than his symphonies. The premiere of Rachmaninoff’s first symphony in 1897 actually brought the self-doubting 24-year old composer nothing but negative reception and heartache, so much so that he became severely depressed for three years. Ironically, one of his harshest critics was his older friend, and a member of the “Russian Five”, the composer César Cui, who compared Rachmaninoff’s first symphony to “the ten plagues of Egypt,” and suggested that he had studied in a “conservatory in hell.” 

That was not exactly an encouraging assessment, and the scathing comment could easily have been the end of Rachmaninoff’s career. The composer went into a deep self-doubting depression and nothing could pull him out of it, until, by chance, a friend recommended that he see him a music-loving physician, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who restored both self-confidence and a creative spark in the composer.

Dahl was a  prominent Moscow neurologist (and a superb amateur violist) who had studied in Paris with the great Professor Jean- Martin Charcot. Charcot had begun investigating hypnotherapy as a therapeutic modality in the management of dystonia. At the turn of the last century, hypnosis was becoming accepted as a therapeutic tool. Freud used hypnosis to produce a  catharsis in his patients from their childhood traumas; Dahl’s approach was to use it as  a form of positive talk therapy. 

Beginning in January, 1900, in daily sessions over four months, Dahl worked with Rachmaninoff, using hypnotherapy, to break him of his depression. “You will begin to write your next concerto,” Dahl urged Rachmaninoff, who later recalled his many sessions with Dahl. “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day, while I lay half asleep in the armchair in Dahl’s study. Dahl would say to me, “You WILL write a Concerto. . . . You WILL work with great facility. . . . It WILL be excellent.” . . . Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. By autumn, I had finished two movements of the Concerto..."

Rachmaninoff completed not only his wondrous second piano concerto, but two more besides, and dozens of other magnificent compositions in the ensuing four decades of his life. Rachmaninoff gratefully dedicated the second piano concerto  to his treating physician,  “Monsieur N. Dahl" (see image below).

The concerto  premiered on November 9, 1901 with the composer himself as soloist, has become one of most popular classical music pieces ever written, replete with a cornucopia of sublime melodies. In the concerto, Rachmaninoff channeled the lush melodic legacy of his great 19th century Romantic forebears: Liszt, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

 Frontispiece of the second piano concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff,
with the dedication, “a’ Monsieur N. Dahl” (courtesy

As James Keller insightfully explains in program notes for the San Francisco Symphony: “The first movement rises out of mysterious depths, but quickly lets loose the first of many striking themes, It is surely a virtuoso concerto, yet Rachmaninoff disguised the virtuoso element, as most of the melodies in this movement are entrusted to the orchestra rather than to the solo piano. The second movement, in contrast, is a tender meditation between piano and orchestra, with both partners offering melodic ideas, and with Rachmaninoff looking backwards to the 19th century, drawing its main theme from one of his 1890 piano compositions.” The third movement’s first melody channels music from an earlier time as well. Keller relates that “the principal theme of the finale comes from a sacred choral work that Rachmaninoff had written in 1893, but it is the second theme of this movement that has captured the hearts of music-lovers. When one is looking for a musical expression of sincere, heartfelt passion, the search leads naturally to Rachmaninoff. Even as audiences have grown increasingly baffled by modern music, Rachmaninoff’s compositions have always been reassuring, comforting and meaningful.” Since its premiere, the Concerto has been a staple in the repertoire and often used in television and film scores. 

There has been much speculation that Rachmaninoff, six-foot three and with long slender fingers that could span a twelfth on the piano, may have had either Marfan syndrome or acromegaly, neither of which condition has been proven (no autopsy was performed). What is known is that he possessed an eidetic memory for music, and was able to recall whole symphonic movements, even decades later.

Rachmaninoff continually acknowledged an inspirational debt to prior masters, writing that, "if you are a composer, you have an affinity with other composers. You can make contact with their imaginations, knowing something of their problems and their ideals. You can give their works color. That is the most important thing for me in my interpretations. You need color to make music come alive. Without color, music is dead." 

Rachmaninoff died of metastatic melanoma on March 28, 1943 in Hollywood, California, a few days before his seventieth birthday, His own ineffable Vespers (All-Night Vigil) was sung at his funeral. He was buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla NY, fittingly, next to many other notable artists in the world of music.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Vincent P. de Luise MD

"Amadeus" opened the door to a fantastic world of whose existence I had not been aware. The movie changed my life. "      (anonymous viewer of the film)

Amadeus remains one of the most beloved and decorated movies of all time. It  is a beautifully crafted film that provides us a kaleidoscopic glimpse of a grand society in a time gone by, a place of  aristocratic privilege, excess and insouciance, with artists whose works were not always recognized during their lifetimes, focusing on two composers, Wolfgang "Amadeus" Mozart and Antonio Salieri. The movie is a wondrous meditation, through the reminiscences of Salieri, on  the ways of genius, the value of contrition, and the arbitrariness of metaphysical justice.

Millions around the world have enjoyed Amadeus that was the 1984 movie, and hundreds of thousands have also experienced the compelling eponymous play that opened in London's West End in 1979 and then moved to Broadway. Amadeus has been both applauded as one of the greatest films of the twentieth century as well as criticized by some nitpicking types who can find only the historical "inaccuracies" within it. There are some who even bristle at the title, Amadeus, since Mozart himself,  in his copious writings and compositions, never used it as his middle name (N.B. : Mozart's often wrote his middle name  as "Amade' " or "Amadeo", but never as "Amadeus." Mozart's baptismal name was Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. The name Theophilus transliterates as Gottlieb in German and Amadeus in Latin).

But that's the whole point, and the point of this essay. Amadeus was a West End play, then  a Broadway play, and then a Hollywood movie. It was not a documentary ! Those nitpickers are totally off the mark. There is a lot that Amadeus gets right ! 

Writer Peter Shaffer and Director Milos Forman  never intended to be perfectly historically accurate when they created Amadeus. Rather, in both the play and the movie, they crafted a fantasy world, loosely based on facts and channeling Pushkin's 1830 play, Mozart und Salieri, in which they opined about the relationship between genius and talent, and the gulf between ineffable art and journeyman mediocrity. They stated from the outset that Amadeus would not be historically true, but rather, a dramatic fantasy, and in so doing, they crafted a work of art which has captivated us for over three decades.

In reality, Mozart and Salieri were cordial competitors in the musical scene of late eighteenth century Vienna. They collaborated on the pastiche, Der Stein der Wiesen (The Philosopher's Stone), Salieri attended several performances of Mozart's opera, Die Zauberflote ("The Magic Flute") and loved it. Salieri even gave piano lessons to Mozart's second son in the early 1800s. There is no evidence whatsoever that Salieri had anything to do with Mozart's last illness and death; Mozart died of the consequences of rheumatic fever and hypovolemic shock from the blood-letting ordered by his physicians.

Shaffer and Forman proved throughout both play and movie that they knew a tremendous amount about the historical Mozart, more than many who want to point out those moments where the movie and play deviated from reality and historicity.

Tom Hulce, as Wolfgang Mozart, in the movie Amadeus

I would venture a guess that through Amadeus, more than a few viewers got their first deep introduction to classical music, Mozart's music in particular, as well as the beauty of 18th century Vienna (with the lovely and well-preserved Staré Město (Old Town) section of Praha (Prague), Czech Republic as its historical proxy) The sets and costumes were praised for their fidelity to what is known of Viennese culture of that era. These offerings alone are to be cherished, let alone the music (see below).

Even when the movie deviates from "the truth" about Mozart, Forman and Shaffer's deep understanding and scholarship about Mozart's creative process delights us even as it enlightens us.

For example, recall the famous scene where Salieri, as a musical amanuensis, is taking dictation from the dying Mozart as he creates the Confutatis movement of the Requiem. This event never took place in history. (It was actually Franz Xaver Sussmayr who took those notes and finished the Requiem). 

Even though the scene never happened,  through the magic of cinema, Shaffer and Forman brilliantly conjure and reconstruct the creative process of composition. The results are closer to "the truth" than anything I have seen. Here is that scene:

Tom Hulce, as Mozart, in the Confutatis scene in the 1984 film, Amadeus.
Although it was really F.X.  Sussmayr (and not Salieri) who "took notes",
this scene brilliantly deconstructs Mozart's creative process in particella writing

Some critics have commented on how "silly" and foolish" Mozart is made to appear in the movie, in the cackling laugh and puerile hijinks of Tom Hulce's characterization of the composer, while others don't accept that Mozart could have acted this way.
In fact, he did. Sexual and biological references were part of Mozart's dinner conversations with family in Salzburg and throughout his life. Scatalogical speech and coprolalia were a commonplace in the central European towns of the 18th century. Hulce's brilliant characterization of Mozart was actually sanitized from reality. Shaffer and Forman were spot-in caricaturization as well. Mozart's own letters to his parents, sister, and especially to his cousin, Anna Maria Thekla Mozart (nicknamed the Basle) when they were both teenagers, are replete with bathroom humor and sexual innuendo. 

Shaffer and Forman took the viewer much farther, by letting them enter Mozart's sublime and serene sound world. The movie is replete with dozens of Mozart's  musical masterpieces, splendidly performed by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy-of-St-Martin-in-the Fields. This sonic Mozartean glory alone is priceless and uplifting.

Beyond honoring Mozart and his brilliant musical legacy, Shaffer and Forman actually did more to resuscitate and revive Salieri than anyone else in the music world had done to that point, by showcasing the finale of his greatest opera, Axur, Re di Ormo (Axur, King of Ormus), complete with over-the-top period costumes and set design. The scene is unforgettable.

Shaffer and Forman won eight well-deserved Academy Awards for Amadeus and have been lauded for having created a wondrous jewel that honors Mozart by having introduced his ineffable music to millions.

So, thank you, Peter Shaffer, Milos Forman, and Saul Saenz, for opening the eyes and ears of the world to Mozart. Thank you, actors Tom Hulce (Mozart), F. Murray Abraham (Sallieri), Elizabeth Berridge (Constanze), Jeffrey Jones (Emperor Joseph II) and your colleagues, for informing your characters with such depth and authenticity. You got Amadeus so right !

Ars longa !
Ars Mozartiae longior !

@ Vincent P. de Luise MD 2015