Rachmaninoff's Works for Piano and Orchestra
For many people today, the mere mention of a piano concerto brings one name to mind: Sergey Rachmaninoff. His concertos have been engrained in the consciousness of many unsuspecting listeners through the media of film and popular song. However, these films and songs have offered only a glimpse into the brilliance of Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra. It is upon further listening, that one can truly enjoy the genius at work in these compositions.
Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, a small town near Novgorod, on April 1, 1873. He was born into a family with a strong military history and wealth. His mother was Lyubov Petrovna Butakova, the daughter of a wealthy general. His father, Vasily Arkadyevich Rachmaninoff, also had military ancestors, but was focusing on managing the estates. Unfortunately, Vasily was not very prudent with his money and ended up squandering so much that the estates Lyubov’s dowry contributed had to be sold. Oneg was the name of the estate where Sergey was born. It was on the banks of the River Volkhov in the quiet countryside that Rachmaninoff cherished so much for the rest of his life.
It was at Oneg where Rachmaninoff began to show his innate musical talent. His mother first encouraged him to play the piano, and, realizing his potential, hired a professional teacher, Anna Ornatskaya. Rachmaninoff delighted in his studies with her, but this pleasure was not to last long. Vasily lost even more money and the family ended up having to sell the estate at Oneg. The family moved to St. Petersburg in 1880 or 1881. Rachmaninoff studied at the Conservatory with Vladimir Demyansky. However, tragedy soon struck the family, as there was an outbreak of diphtheria in city. Sergey, his older brother, Vladimir, and his sister, Sofiya, all caught the disease. Sergey and Vladimir both recovered, for he had a strong constitution that would help him through many bouts with serious illnesses. However, Sofiya passed away. To make matters worse, relations between Sergey’s parents deteriorated until they finally agreed to separate. Lyubov looked after the children.
Lyubov, knowing that her son had great musical gifts, sought Alexander Ziloti’s advice on what to do with Sergey. Ziloti was Sergey’s cousin and also a very successful pupil of Liszt. He suggested that Rachmaninoff should be put under the disciplined study of one of his former teachers, Nikolay Zverev. In 1885, Sergey moved into the apartment of Zverev in Moscow to be his student. He studied very diligently under the strict control of Zverev. He also studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Ziloti, Tanayev and Arensky. For his final work as a student, Rachmaninoff composed a one-act opera entitled Aleko. The work was a great success, earning Rachmaninoff the Great Gold Medal, only awarded by the conservatory to two other students in its history. The work was published by Karl Gutheil and was soon staged at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 27 April 1893 along with excerpts from operas by Glinka and Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff attributed the moderate success of the opera to Tchaikovsky’s enthusiastic applause.
While still a student, Rachmaninoff composed his first major work. This work was his Piano Concerto No. 1 in F Sharp Minor, which was to become his Op. 1. Rachmaninoff began to write the piece in June of 1890 at his retreat in Ivanovka, a quiet place in the country where Rachmaninoff was able to do some of his best work. He did not complete the second and third movements until the following July, although he claims to have composed them in his mind before then. Rachmaninoff gave the first performance, of the first movement only, on 17 March 1892 at a student concert at the Moscow Conservatory. It is interesting to note how few Russian piano concertos existed before Rachmaninoff’s concerto. Anton Rubinstein’s five piano concertos were the first.
However, these were Mendelssohnian and did not have a Russian quality to them. Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto followed these in 1874. It was this concerto that first captured a truly Russian and bold sound. Rachmaninoff’s teachers, Tanayev and Arensky, both attempted to write piano concertos. Tananyev’s dated from 1876-77, but was never completed. Arensky’s, on the other hand, was published in 1881 as his Op. 2. It served to catapult his career as a composer, and perhaps Arensky suggested that a similar composition could do the same for Sergey.
Rachmaninoff, however, did not draw his biggest inspiration from any of these Russian concertos that preceded him. It was Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor that influenced him most significantly. While Rachmaninoff was staying at Ivanovka throughout the summer of 1890, Ziloti was there practicing the Grieg concerto. Regarding the Grieg concerto, Barrie Martyn writes “both its Lisztian rhetoric and elements of its formal design left their mark on the Rachmaninoff work” (49).
Rachmaninoff opens the first movement with piano flourishes that are similar to the Grieg concerto, as well as the Schumann and E flat Liszt concertos. However, these passages are completely his own creation, and are integrated into the fabric of the entire movement. The opening with the horns and peals of piano chords is also reminiscent of the Russian bells that he was so fond of. The first theme of the movement is very lyrical and melancholic, whereas the second theme is much livelier by contrast. The first movement also features an expansive solo cadenza complete with powerful chords and expression that gives the work its real fire. The second movement is an Andante Cantabile in the key of D major. It is a moving nocturne that provides the calm before the storm of the third movement which features blistering chordal passages and daring double octaves that bring the work to an exhilarating conclusion.
For some reason, Rachmaninoff must have eventually become displeased with the concerto. In 1899, when he was invited for a return engagement in London to perform the work, he turned it down, claiming, “The First Concerto was not good enough to be played there” (48). He promised that he would write another work in the same form. A promise that he would indeed fulfill better than anyone could have expected. In fact, the version of the concerto that we are familiar with today is the version that Rachmaninoff revised in 1917, having since written two additional piano concertos. “Rachmaninoff’s First Concerto is not only a remarkable achievement for a seventeen year-old, a work which can stand on its own feet and be judged on its own merits, but proof that the composer had come of age and that his own musical personality was emancipating itself from youthful influences,” claims Martyn (53).
It was with the composition of his Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 that Rachmaninoff’s good fortunes up to this point declined. He began work on the symphony in January 1895. The work had bad omens from the beginning. He had much trouble composing it in a manner that he found satisfactory. In addition, many of his contemporaries either did not think that the work was very good or completely disliked it. At the rehearsal, Rimsky-Korsakov remarked, “Forgive me but I do not find this music at all agreeable” (96). The First Symphony was premiered on the evening of 15 March 1897 at the Hall of the Nobility. The conductor for the premiere was Glazunov, a very highly regarded composer. Much of the blame for the disastrous premiere falls on him, although the critics at the time seemed to place all of the blame on the composition itself. Regarding Glazunov’s conducting, Rachmaninoff wrote, “I am amazed how so talented a man as Glazunov can conduct so badly. He feels nothing when he conducts; it’s as if he understands nothing” (96). Many who were there at the premiere even recall that Glazunov was drunk.
Much of the St. Petersburg audience listened cheerfully to this failure, glad to witness the destruction of a young composer who was a star from Moscow, for there was a bitter musical rivalry between the two cities at the time. Of all the critics, none were more vindictive and spiteful than Cesar Cui, who had become notorious for his attacks on composers, even attacking the young Tchaikovsky at the beginning of his career. “If there were a conservatoire in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a programme symphony on ‘The Seven Plagues of Egypt’, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and delighted the inmates of Hell,” writes Cui regarding the premiere (97).
Needless to say, Rachmaninoff was devastated by this fiasco. Allegedly, he went so far as to rip up the original score and disown the work. “There are serious illnesses and deadly blows from fate which entirely change a man’s character. This was the effect of my own symphony on myself. When the indescribable torture of the performance had at last come to an end, I was a different man,” recounted Rachmaninoff (117). He became very depressed and had trouble composing new works. The marriage of Vera Skalon, a woman with whom Rachmaninoff was very close and corresponded with frequently, served to further depress Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff began to develop a drinking problem, causing his hands to shake, obviously a quite treacherous condition for a pianist. In light of his troubles composing, he started to focus on his career as a concert soloist and opera conductor.
Between January and April of 1900, Rachmaninoff went for regular treatment to a Moscow specialist in neuropsychotherapy, Dr. Dahl. Under hypnosis, he convinced Rachmaninoff that he was indeed a great composer and would write a new piano concerto that he had promised for London as mentioned previously. What may have had an even greater affect than the hypnosis on Rachmaninoff are the encouraging talks that he had with Dr. Dahl, who was an avid amateur musician. Whatever the case may be, his visits with Dr. Dahl had a tremendous effect on his disposition. He got over his depression and soon gained an even greater confidence in his powers as a composer. Rachmaninoff never suffered from such serious depression again, even when misfortunes would follow in his life.
Rachmaninoff began work on his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 in the latter part of the summer of 1900. Rachmaninoff, having regained his confidence, composed the second and third movements “quickly and easily” (125). However, he had much difficulty with the first movement. He premiered the work in incomplete form at Ziloti’s suggestion in Moscow on 2 December 1900. This was a daunting performance for Rachmaninoff, since the continued restoration of his self-confidence as a composer hinged on its reception. Furthermore, he had contracted a bad cold days before the performance. Also, this was to be his first performance with an orchestra in eight years, having played with an orchestra only three times prior. Moreover, Ziloti was to make his professional conducting debut with this performance. Luckily, the performance went off without a hitch, and Rachmaninoff was greatly reassured. The concerto was premiered in its complete form on 27 October 1901. It was a tremendous success with the audiences. The concerto quickly gained international fame with Ziloti’s performances in January 1902 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Nikisch and under Sapellnikov in London in May of the same year.
The opening of the concerto begins with a series of swelling piano chords that are punctuated by bass octaves. Once again, this passage brings to mind the sound of bells, heard from far off at first but growing more powerful with each stroke. It is interesting to compare this opening with the final bars of his Prelude in C Sharp Minor. It is possible that he may have derived the opening of the concerto by inverting the layout and dynamics of the final bars of the prelude, in which the bass octaves precede and not follow the chords. As is common with Rachmaninoff, the opening theme has a distinctly Russian sound. Rachmaninoff’s friend, Medtner, described this Russian quality of the Second Concerto’s main theme, stating that it is “not only the theme of his life but always conveys the impression of being one of the most strikingly Russian of themes, and only because the soul of this theme is Russian…every time, from the first bell stroke, you feel the figure of Russia rising up to her full height” (127).
The Andante second movement of the concerto is one of Rachmaninoff’s most beautiful and celebrated creations. It is very Tchaikovskian, bringing to mind the Andante of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Rachmaninoff took much of the movement from his earlier work, Romance, which he had written for the three Skalon sisters in 1891. This makes the movement even more touching when one thinks of Rachmaninoff’s reminiscence on the good times he had with the Skalon sisters before Vera’s engagement and their break in communication. Even the most stoic of Russians were touched by the melodies that Rachmaninoff presented in this movement. “It is not surprising that the beauties of this movement particularly touched Rachmaninoff’s teacher Taneyev, who wept at a rehearsal performance and uttered the single word ‘genius’, not an expression used lightly by the stern master or by Russians generally,” comments Martyn (129).
The third movement is an Allegro scherzando in the key of C major. The strings start off, building to a staccato climax. The principal subject makes its first appearance as the piano enters with a flourish. After this theme is developed, one of Rachmaninoff’s most endearing melodies now makes its appearance. At first it is presented by a solo oboe and strings. Eventually it is played in its fully glorious form in a Maestoso restatement. A series of powerful chords from the piano ends the piece with a thrilling conclusion.
The concerto truly is a brilliant work, proving that Rachmaninoff had fully recovered from his previous difficulties in composition. He had fully left behind his feelings of depression and triumphed with this work, progressing far past what he had written previously. “The greatest advance of all, however, is in the lyricism, which has demonstrated for nearly one hundred years the power to touch the hearts of each successive generation. The concerto and the works which followed it mark out Rachmaninoff as second only to Tchaikovsky in the list of Russian lyricists,” writes Martyn (131).
Accepting a lucrative offer for an American tour in 1909, Rachmaninoff decided to write another piano concerto. He completed his Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 in late September 1909, composing the majority of it at his resort in Ivanovka. On the ship he took to America, Rachmaninoff practiced the concerto on a dummy piano. The premiere was held in New York with the New York Symphony Orchestra, led by Walter Damrosch on 28 November 1909. The following January, Rachmaninoff performed the concerto with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s leadership of the orchestra impressed Rachmaninoff greatly. Martyn writes that it “caused Rachmaninoff immediately to set him next to Nikisch as the greatest conductor of his day” (210).
The concerto opens with a most Russian theme, played by the piano in octaves. Regarding this striking theme, Rachmaninoff comments, “It simply wrote itself! … If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted ‘to sing’ the melody on the piano as a singer would sing it” (211). After the theme is presented, the movement takes off into a rhythmic development. A beautiful, soaring melody follows, leading into a lengthy cadenza. There are actually two different versions for the soloist to choose from: one with a darker, more chordal beginning and the other a livelier and lighter alternative. After the virtuosic display of the soloist in the cadenza, the main theme is then restated and a coda closes the movement.
The second movement is an interlude between the closely related first and third movements. It is distinctly sorrowful and full of anguish, although it soon transforms into periods of joyfulness and ecstasy. After some restatements and a scherzo-like sequence, a brief, climactic piano cadenza leads directly into the third movement. The third movement begins with a very quick theme which soon leads into more grand, triumphant restatements of the main themes. After a suspenseful buildup, the main theme makes one more brilliant appearance before the movement is closed off by a coda that thrills audiences to a standing ovation without fail.
This concerto is indeed quite popular today. It has garnered much fame due to famous proponents such as Vladimir Horowitz and Van Cliburn. It recently was in the spotlight in the feature film production, Shine. Due to its virtuosity, it is a favorite of competitors in piano competitions where they can showoff. However, the work is so much more than a flashy display piece. “Rachmaninoff illustrates to perfection his considerable gift for writing, long beautifully phrased melodies, and uses his material intelligently to create three unified movements with a wide diversity of mood,” comment Geoffrey Norris (120). Its ability to be remembered by audiences after just one precursory hearing is a testament to the manner in which it can affect the listener.
Rachmaninoff came to America in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, never to return to his Mother Russia. When he came to America, he needed to focus on making money. Thus he began to spend most of his time touring as a concert soloist and conductor. He had little time to compose. His first post-exile work was his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40. Completed in August 1926, the premiere was held on 18 March 1927 with Rachmaninoff as soloist and with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. The reception of the concerto was very lukewarm. It has never become popular in the repertory, and this may be because it does not have the fire and passion of his previous works. This work was simply not what audiences wanted to hear from Rachmaninoff. “What audiences expected and wanted was a wholly different concerto from the one Rachmaninoff wrote; what he gave them is a work of considerable originality in an unfamiliar vein, a work which, though uneven, has several memorable moments of real inspiration,” writes Martyn (308). The work lacked the big, romantic melodies that audiences had come to associate with Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff was present for the premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Inspired by this, he even tried to incorporate jazz elements into the concerto. However, his attempts were awkward and did not quite fit into the work.
Rachmaninoff made up for the lackluster reception of his Piano Concerto No. 4 with the overwhelmingly successful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Having settled in Switzerland in 1931, Rachmaninoff looked to other composers for inspiration. He wrote a set of variations for solo piano on a theme by the famous violinist Corelli. Rachmaninoff was emboldened by the success of this work, and turned his attention to writing another set of variations, this time for piano and orchestra. His choice of subject is quite interesting. At this point, Rachmaninoff was considered one of the greatest living musical virtuosi. For this reason, perhaps he felt that he could relate to Nicolo Paganini better than anyone else. For Paganini was the most brilliant performer of his era, and, in addition, was an exile, just as was Rachmaninoff. It was rumored that Paganini made a bargain with the devil to obtain such musical powers. Similarly, Rachmaninoff was very preoccupied with the idea of mortality, using the Dies Irae theme time and time again, with the Rhapsody being no different. Both men became quite exhausted by the demands placed on them. However, Rachmaninoff lived to perform. “No, I cannot play less … It is best to die on the concert platform,” proclaimed Rachmaninoff (Rimm 153).
The last of Niccolo Paganini’s Twenty-Four violin caprices has been extremely popular for many composers to write variations on or quote. This simple 16-bar theme has been used by Liszt, Brahms and even Andrew Lloyd-Webber. However, Rachmaninoff’s variations are the most popular of them all. The eighteenth variation has indeed achieved more popularity than the actual Paganini caprice it is based on. The piece was finished by Rachmaninoff in a mere month and a half in 1934. It was premiered on 7 November 1934 in Baltimore with Stokowski conducting. The work has three noticeable sections, following the fast-slow-fast form of a concerto. As he used in many of his major compositions, Rachmaninoff once again makes use of the Dies Irae theme from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. The eighteenth variation has been used extensively by Hollywood and in popular songs, helping to establish Rachmaninoff’s fame for posterity.
Rachmaninoff died peacefully from a rare, rapid cancer early on the morning of Sunday, 28 March 1943 at his Beverly Hills home. However, Rachmaninoff lives on stronger than ever through the legacy of the outstanding music he left us. Not only his piano concertos, but all of his music is a true reflection of the brilliant composer, conductor, and pianist that Rachmaninoff was. Being a man of three separate professions, a composer, conductor, and pianist, Rachmaninoff sometimes worried that he may not have realized his full potential in any of the three. However, he truly excelled in all three fields. “He may, as the Russian expression goes, have ‘chased three hares’, but he caught all of them in music which was privately emotional but expressed with an affecting openness and passion, in piano-playing which became legendary, and in conducting which was universally acclaimed,” write Norris (Preface, v). His music had the ability to speak to the soul of the listener. It transcended earthly realms and elevated the listener to the sublime. In his music, one can find the tranquility and peace that Rachmaninoff so longed for in his life, only to find it in the peaceful slumber of death.
Martyn, Barrie. Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor. Brookfield: Scolar Press, 1990.
Norris, Geoffrey. Rachmaninoff. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993.
Rimm, Robert. The composer-pianists: Hamelin and The Eight. Portland: Amadeus Press, 2002.
Downloads of all the works mentioned can be found on eMusic:
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