Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Numbr 1 in F-sharp minor

Today, I begin writing about a composer who became my favorite in high school–Sergei Rachmaninov. His music, primarily the pieces he wrote for piano and orchestra, galvanized me. Not only were these full of compositional fireworks, they also seemed to be bursting with emotion. Lush romantic swells, demonic flights of intricate keyboard work, mysterious key changes, angst-filled phrases, and joyous, explosive finishes. In short, for me they provided the perfect soundtrack for the emotional state of an adolescent Midwestern boy trying to make sense of love and life.

Sergei Rachmaninov was born in Russia in 1873. He fled his homeland after the Russian revolution and eventually settled in the US, where he died in California in 1943. He was a gifted pianist, who was in high demand, and performing became his means of living during his exile. He felt some anguish over this since it meant that he couldn’t devote as much time to composition, but at the same time, it probably made his music more popular through exposure.

Among the cache of used classical records I bought once at a garage sale was a recording of his first and fourth piano concertos performed by Philippe Entremont with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Eugene Ormandy. Rachmaninov composed the first piano concerto at the age of 18, while still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Though he won a gold medal from the Conservatory for composition because of the piece, Rachmaninov was not satisfied with it and 25 years later reworked the score. Supposedly little was left from the origninal work save its major themes.

The work starts out with a brief statement by the horns (which sound a bit like the beginning of Tchaikowski’s Sixth Symphony), followed by an explosive entry from the piano. The movement is marked vivace and it alternates between rapid, demanding piano fireworks and lush melodies played by the strings. This concerto quickly became one of my favorites and I became so fascinated with the piano’s flights and runs of notes that I listened to it again and again. I mentioned earlier that I was on my high school’s swim team, and this was another piece that I would try to “hear” in my head while I swam the monotonous laps back and forth during practice. As I worked through all of his piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini I found myself less and less bothered by those hours of swimming.

The last movement is an allegro vivace, fast and happy, and contains more exciting sections by the piano. For a long time though I liked it very much, it sounded a bit “Hollywood-like.” By that I mean the kind of lush, romantic music used back in the 30s. Maybe it was because around this time I was watching films from that era–especially the Marx Brothers, where they’d always have some musical number with Harpo or Chico backed up by a full orchestra. Hollywood may indeed have been influenced by Rachmaninov, who ended up living in California, where he died in 1943. It’s a bit anachronistic, to think of his music that way, since he premiered this piece in 1919 in the States. So we really should think of Hollywood music from the 30s and 40s as “Rachmaninov-like.”


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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