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.

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