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Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18

Written by Anna Vorhes

April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia

March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

solo piano, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

33 minutes

1900 - May 4, 1901

World Premiere
November 9, 1901, Moscow, with the composer at the piano

Something interesting to listen for
The second and third movements of this concerto were composed before the first movement.  The entire concerto came after a period when Rachmaninoff was not able to compose.  The first movement opens with the pianist playing a series of chords in increasing intensity.  The remainder of the movement features the pianist almost as an accompanist to the orchestra timbre until we come to the lovely theme that is recognizable to audiences.  The second movement features a theme introduced in the clarinets and flutes that passes to the pianist for development.  And in the final movement we hear a showy cadenza allowing the pianist to dominate the hall.  The violas and a solo oboe offer a second theme in contrast.  These two melodies intertwine until Rachmaninoff settles on the rhapsodic theme and features the virtuosity of the pianist against a robust orchestra.  The composer's love of melody and his ability to ask much of the soloist is evident throughout the work.

Program Notes

If you're a composer who has put his hopes in a successful reception for your first attempt at writing a symphony, to hear that it could have been composed in a "conservatory in hell" is disheartening to say the least.  For Rachmaninoff it was debilitating.  He questioned his worth as a composer and his desire to go on in the endeavor.  He wrote nothing for three years.  He questioned his own sanity.  Today it is less and less acceptable to see mental difficulties, from depression to bipolar disorder, as a lack of character and a personal inability to spend an effort getting thinking patterns in order.  We recognize that these are mental diseases that deserve care.  In Rachmaninoff's day, this type of depression was seen as a suspicious indication that perhaps the sufferer wasn't a worthwhile human.  Fortunately for Rachmaninoff, his friends and family did not believe that this was a fatal flaw, nor did they abandon him.  A bassist convinced him to come to Italy for a holiday.  The second and third movements of this concerto were begun on that trip.  The first movement was not composed until he returned to Russia, and even then caused him some trepidation.

In addition the trip, Rachmaninoff consulted Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a psychiatrist and hypnotist who also was an amateur cellist.  He was very interested in helping the young composer.   The hypnotic suggestions during treatment included, "You will begin to write your concerto; you will work with great facility; the concerto will be of excellent quality", as well as the more usual suggestions to sleep better, feel more alert, increase appetite, and adjust lifestyle in other ways.  Rachmaninoff recognized the help he received from the doctor by dedicating the concerto to Dr. Dahl.

The first movement begins with a wonderful introduction of building bell-like piano chords leading to a long, lyric theme in the strings and clarinets.  The second theme of the movement is presented by the piano.  The development is based primarily on the first theme, and the recapitulation concludes with a fast-paced coda.

The second movement begins in a contemplative and somber mood.  Rachmaninoff wrote to a correspondent, "Light colors do not come easily to me".  Those who have suffered depression or lived with someone who has will recognize that sentiment.  The beginning of the movement is a modulation from the c minor of the first movement to the relatively distant key of E major.

The third movement begins in this E major, and quickly modulates back to the c minor of the first movement, linking the movements tonally.  The third movement finally ends in C major.  The third movement opposes a melody of rhythmic drive with a lyric melody.  The seeping passage introducing this melody uses one of Rachmaninoff's signature devices: broad arpeggios in the left hand to accompany melodic chords and octaves in the right hand.   This melody does not appear in the full orchestra until nearly the end of the concerto, following the brief piano cadenza.  This orchestral appearance offers the emotional climax to the work.   The composition was a fitting showcase for Rachmaninoff's own virtuosity at the piano, and is a treasure for today's pianists.