So often we imagine our favorite composers as musical superheroes: great geniuses who have total, unerring confidence in their own abilities to inspire us, confound the critics, and make history. Some composers do have egos to match their talents (Wagner comes to mind), but all too often, this godlike image obscures the struggles, doubts, and fundamental humanity of artists who are now safely enshrined in the canon. Rachmaninoff is certainly one of those artists.
Today it’s hard to find a concert pianist who hasn’t played Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Given its current ubiquity, you may be surprised to learn that the piece (and everything else Rachmaninoff wrote thereafter) almost never came into being. Prior to writing his Second Concerto, Rachmaninoff had written almost nothing for three years. This extreme case of composer’s block (a tragedy for all Rachmaninoff fans – imagine what masterpieces he could have written in three years!) was brought on by the catastrophe that was the premier of his first symphony.
By March of 1897, the not quite 24 year old Rachmaninoff was a rising star of the Russian music scene. He had garnered successes as a pianist, conductor, and increasingly as a composer, and had recently passed a milestone in any composer’s output: the completion of his first symphony. This was a wild, sprawling, youthful work, teeming with ideas and references to the musical theme that would haunt many of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, the Dies Irae. The premiere was to be given in St. Petersburg by Alexander Glazunov, an esteemed composer and conductor in his own right. Unfortunately, like his countryman and fellow composer Mussorgsky, Glazunov had by this point developed a serious alcohol addiction. The rehearsals went badly, and the performance…was a disaster. It is quite possible that Glazunov showed up plastered, and what they played could not have been an accurate representation of this complex and difficult score.
As if the concert hadn’t been bad enough, insult was added to injury when Cesar Cui (one of the Kuchka, aka “the Russian Five,” aka “the mighty Handful,” a clique of nationalist Russian composers that also included Rimsky Korsakov and Alexander Borodin), wrote a scathing review of the symphony, railing that it was music that could only be enjoyed by the denizens of hell. Surely Rachmaninoff, aware of his own genius, paid no heed to the criticism of a composer whose music today is rarely heard in the concert hall. In actuality, Cui was at this time a big wig, Rachmaninoff a young upstart, and the review a crushing blow to his career and his confidence as a composer. Rachmaninoff fell silent, and entered a period of depression that lasted three years.
So, how did he get out of it? Rachmaninoff might never have written another note had it not been for the intervention of one man: psychologist Nikolai Dahl. In 1900, Rachmaninoff began a course of auto-suggestive therapy with Dahl, which included hypnosis. Rachmaninoff and Dahl’s sessions must be counted as one of the greatest successes of psychotherapy in history given what emerged from it: Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. When Rachmaninoff completed the concerto, he dedicated it to Dahl in gratitude for his services. Upon its premiere, with Rachmaninoff at the piano, the Concerto instantly became one of Rachmaninoff’s greatest successes, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Check back later this week to find out about the woman who may have inspired Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.
Don’t miss Watts Plays Rachmaninoff 2 with the Houston Symphony!
Watts Plays Rachmaninoff 2
September 19, 20 & 21
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
André Watts, piano
Renowned pianist André Watts returns to Houston to perform Rachmaninoff’s deeply romantic Piano Concerto No. 2. Enduringly popular since its 1901 debut, the concerto’s themes have found fame in movies such as Brief Encounter, The Seven Year Itch and the popular song “All by Myself.” Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada also leads the heroic symphonic tone poem Ein Heldenleben by R. Strauss.