Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes
Date of Composition: 1900–1901
Duration: 34 minutes
In the early twentieth century, composers were experimenting with increasingly intellectual methods of composition. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) ignored contemporary trends and today retains a place in music history as one of the most romantic of all composers. The Russian-born artist’s success resulted from a combination of his natural compositional and performance talents and his international tours, during which he performed and conducted his own works. As a pianist, he felt music intensely. As a composer, he wrote music in which he—and the audience—could revel in heartfelt emotion.
Rachmaninoff wrote his first piano concerto while studying at the Moscow Conservatory. It would be another decade before he produced a second. In the interim, his first symphony flopped at its 1897 premiere. Criticism was harsh. For the next three years, depression overcame him. His inspiration withered, forcing cancellation of a commission he had received for a new piano concerto. A breakthrough finally came in 1900, thanks to daily hypnotherapy sessions with Dr. Nicolai Dahl, who drilled Rachmaninoff with suggestions such as “You will begin to write your concerto. You will work with great facility. Your concerto will be of excellent quality.” The technique worked, for by the end of the year, a new solo work was well underway. Fittingly, Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to his doctor.
After the November 1901 premiere, in which the composer soloed with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra to a wildly appreciative audience, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor quickly became a favorite piano showcase.The work is sumptuous, a sonic wash of emotion. Several of the themes Rachmaninoff created have since been adapted as popular songs, most notably the third movement’s later rendition as “Full Moon and Open Arms,” recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, The Platters, Bob Dylan, and others. As for the composer, he and his family left Russia after the 1917 Revolution, never to return to the USSR. Like Bartók, he eventually settled in the United States. Rachmaninoff took his vow of citizenship in 1943, less than two months before he died.
© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023