Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Number 3

Casting my mind back to my discovery of Rachmaninov in my high school days, for some reason I seem to draw almost a complete blank when it comes to his Third Piano Concerto. It’s certain that I listened to it a lot, because I instantly recognized it, despite not having sat down to listen to it for nearly 20 years, when the movie, Shine came out.

The “Rach Three” supposedly was the piece that the young pianist–completely dominated and then disowned by his father–became obsessed with mastering.  Immediately after performing it for the first time in concert, he collapsed and went into a psychotic episode that lasted a good number of years.

In college, I took a course in abnormal psychology. Back then, the reigning theory of its etiology stated that psychotics are born with the genes that predispose them to psychosis. Should they be born into a normal family, they end up normal. Should their family turn out to be severely dysfunctional, in which the child has no emotional anchors or points of reference of sanity, they descend into the hell of psychosis.

In the movie Shine, the boy chose the concerto against his father’s wishes to prove he could stand on his own. It painted the father as a sick, domineering man. In one scene you note a number tattooed on the old man’s arm. Maybe he was a concentration camp survivor. Having lost all his family in the war, perhaps he felt he had to hold onto his own children–in an unnaturally controlling way–to keep from losing them. Another insidious legacy of the Nazis.

The Piano Concerto Number 3 is supposed to be one of the most difficult pieces to play. In Shine, the boy’s piano teacher shows him a plaster cast of Rachmaninov’s hands. They were gargantuan and that made the piece incredibly difficult to play as few pianists have that kind of span. What’s more, Rachmaninov, who made his living as a concert pianist–to make up for all he lost in leaving Russia after the Revolution–wrote the piece to showcase his own virtuosity at the keyboard. The piece is so difficult that the pianist to whom Rachmaninov dedicated the work, (a Joseph Hoffman) could not even perform it.  Finally, Rachmaninov wrote even more difficult passages for himself than the ones found in the published score.

Rachmaninov premiered this piece in November of 1909 in the U.S. at the age of 36. He performed it again in January the following year with the New York Symphony Society, another titan of music conducting–Gustav Mahler.  He was at the height of his powers, just past the midpoint of this life.

The first movement starts out with a beautiful, brooding, Slavic theme in the D minor key. The incredibly fluid runs of the second movement stuck in my mind where they played over and over again during the countless laps I swam while practicing on my swim team. The final movement starts with a bang and then runs off full of life and energy until the orchestra kicks in with a lush melody. The piano then takes this theme and weaves it around in intricate curlicues, fast but playful and pretty. The orchestra swells up, which slows the pianist down for a while, but it eventually finds ways of bursting out with joy and energy. Toward the end, it starts to sound a bit like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and the Slavic feeling comes back rushing in to carry us along in a troika to the glorious ending.

Here is a cute story about Rachmaninov, from “Today in the World,” December 15, 1992:

Sergey Rachmaninoff was once honored at a dinner hosted by fellow pianist Arthur Rubinstein. During the course of the evening, Rachmaninoff said he thought the Grieg piano concerto the greatest ever written. When Rubinstein said he had just recorded it, Rachmaninoff insisted on hearing it then and there. During coffee, Rubinstein put on the proofs of the record and Rachmaninoff, closing his eyes, settled down to listen. He listened right through without saying a word. At the end of the concerto he opened his eyes and said, “Piano out of tune.”

It seems like in the past, every so often, a god would come down and walk among us poor mortals. I think of Albert Schweitzer, the good doctor, Bach scholar and interpreter. Or Ghandi, who practiced non-violence to move an empire. Rachmaninov surely sits on Mount Olympus now with his peers, not for having performed great feats of altruism, but for being such a genius who didn’t keep it to himself and gave us some of the most wonderful, exciting, life affirming music, despite his brush with mental illness. I wonder how long our current “cult of the victim” is going to last, and when the next Rachmaninov is going to arrive. I hope he or she shows up soon.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

Many years ago, my daughter’s violin teacher, Mark Pf****, gave us a call. He wanted to know whether we could make use of some free tickets to a performance of the National Chamber Orchestra, with which he sometime played. Since the tickets ranged in price from $17 to $34, we jumped at the chance. The concert took place at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Center for the Performing Arts in Rockville, Maryland, which town–for some strange reason–is the final resting place for that writer and his wife, Zelda.

The National Chamber Orchestra which has since become The National Philharmonic is under the direction of Piotr Gajewski, who is also on the musical faculty at George Washington University in Washington, DC.  Gajewski also worked with a local youth orchestra that my daughter played with. I was pleasantly surprised to see the program featured two works by Bach, the Piano Concerto No. 4 in A and the third Brandenburg Concerto. My knowledge of the latter goes back to before high school, for I think it also appears on “Switched-On Bach.” But, I really fell in love with it when, on a visit to my friend Paul M***’s house, I heard a recording of it conducted by Pablo Casals.

Bach wrote six concertos for the Margrave, Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg (Bavaria) in 1721. Supposedly he dedicated them to the Margrave in the hopes of gaining employment in Berlin with the Margrave’s orchestras, which was one of the finest in Europe at that time period. Unfortunately, the Margrave had asked him to compose them two years earlier, and by the time Bach presented them, his request for employment was ignored. Interesting to know that way back then they already used to say: “We’ll let you know.”
The term “concerto” originally meant a group of instruments playing together, but by Bach’s time it had evolved into a group of instruments playing in combination or alternating with a larger orchestra. It eventually came to be applied to a form with three movements for a single instrument, like a piano or violin, playing “against” an orchestra. In the third Brandenburg Concerto, Bach gives the focus to three groups–the violins, violas and cello–and puts a bass and harpsichord continuo behind them.

Though I’ve listened to this piece countless times, that night was the first time I’d ever seen it performed live. It adds such a dimension to see how a melody will start with one group of instruments, move to a second, and finally end up in the third. In a way Bach pioneered this technique and it gave rise to new forms-trios, quartets, quintets, and other chamber arrangements.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 3 has just two real movements. There is a brief interlude, called adagio between the two allegro movements, but it only consists of two notes. On some recordings, you will hear that expanded with an improvisational piece given to the harpsichord. That was the case on my old Casals recording.

The first and last movements of the Brandenburg Concerto Number 3 live up to the “happy” label. (Allegro means happy in Italian.) Both also have strong beats, which (and I’m not sure if this is “cultured” behavior) make me tap my feet along with them.

The reason Bach wanted to get a job with the Margrave’s orchestra, had to do with his dissatisfaction composing liturgical music, which he had to do as a choir master. At the age of 36, when he composed them, perhaps he was having a midlife crisis, and wanted to follow his bliss. The Third Brandenbug Concerto, therefore, is that much more remarkable because it has none of the whining, self-pitying tone of the modern, balding men stuck in dead-end jobs. It soars! And how much more fun we would all have if we did, too

Claire de Lune on Google.

Google did something nice the other day and made their banner an animated rendition of Claire de Lune by Debussy.

Here’s a recording of it.  Copy and paste into your browser address line:

Dylan Alexander

Just watch and listen.

That’s all. Just go on Google, right now. Go there, and click the “play” button, and just watch and listen to art.



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Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Number 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.”

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Sonata Number C Minor, Opus 13 “Pathetique”

Beethoven wrote the Pathetique sonata when he was twenty seven and it is only one of two that he gave a title to. He used the term Pathetique in the ancient Greek sense of Pathos or “with feeling.” He did not mean for it to sound sad pitiable as the term pathetic connotes nowadays.

Young artists often are full of bravado–and try to show feats of technical brilliance to capture attention and make their name. This does not seem the case with the Pathetique. Though supposedly quite complex and difficult to play, it sounds wonderfully lyrical and masterfully attained Beethoven’s goal of being full of emotion.

My friend John Kim told me a while back, however, that Beethoven’s music was so different and passionate from what was being written at the time, that it was branded as “obscene!” Supposedly, women upon hearing this shocking music, would become short of breath and swoon. So though when I listen to it today and find it almost prematurely mature in the depth of the feelings in this piece by a mere 27 year-old.   Perhaps Beethoven was just trying to turn himself into a “babe magnet” after all.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I took refuge in classical music during my adolescence, partly from shyness. Listening and getting caught up with the emotions in music was a way of channeling what raging hormones were causing me to experience. If I developed a crush on someone back then, it was much easier for me to go home and listen to a moving piece of music than it was to actually act upon it, ask the person for a date, and risk rejection.

“Youth,” older people are fond of saying, “is wasted on the young.” But thank god we’re only young once. Some people, wracked with the pain of shyness and rejection, turn to drugs, alcohol, food or other addictive behaviors. Fortunately I discovered the more enduring–and infinitely more healthy–outlet of classical music.

The first movement of the Pathetique starts out slowly with dark sounding chords, that sound a bit sad and pensive. But it soon takes off on a faster more tuneful tack, which lifts the spirits. Eventually, it returns to recap the opening. This alternating between the slow and fast continues for the rest of the movement. The second movement is a slow and beautifully romantic melody that was used by Karl Haas on this public radio show, “Adventures in Good Music.” The finale is a fast Rondo, which means of the form A,B,A,C,A,D,A, where the different letters stand for the melody in different keys or separate melodies altogether.

Beethoven grew up in a musical family and by the age of 13 had secured a position as court harpsichordist for the Elector of Bonn. Though invented in 1709, the piano forte did not gain popularity until the latter half of the century, which coincided with Beethoven’s own rise. The piano combined the force and brilliance of a harpsichord, with the clavichord’s ability to play crescendo and diminuendo. Beethoven wrote works for the solo piano all his life, pushing the envelope of the instrument as well as his own. Referring to his works for solo piano, Stravinsky called Beethoven the “master of the instrument.” You can definitely hear why in the Pathetique.

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Sonata Number 14 in C Minor, Opus 27/2 “Moonlight”


The Lizst Hungarian Rhapsody, which I discussed a few posts back, caused me to become aware of another dimension of classical music. For the most part, before hearing it, I’d only listened to orchestral music. Now all of a sudden along comes a piece in which a solo instrument, the piano, played as important a role as the orchestra. From there, I went on to become fascinated by works for piano concertos. Once you start down that road, it’s a short step to becoming interested in solo instruments, different performers and how they interpret the same piece.

Luckily for me, around the time I became interested in individual performers (in the 1970s), some of the greatest ones were still alive. Many, like Rubenstein and Horowitz, were born early enough to have overlapped with the lives of the composers whose work they had become famous performing. Horowitz for example knew Scriabin and Rachmaninov, and Rubinstein was around 13 when Greig died.

I had the pleasure of seen Rubenstein on the Dick Cavett Show in the early 1970s. He struck me as a rather kind soul with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He must have been in his mid 80s at that time, and he laughed when he told the story of how his wife could hear him dropping notes when he played nowadays. I couldn’t tell, and he became my favorite performer. I bought his recordings of concertos by Greig, Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven.

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata probably gets the most air play of the thirty two that he wrote over the course of his life. It dates from 1801, when he was 31, and it became an instant hit. Beethoven resented this popularity saying to a friend “Surely I have written better things.” The name Moonlight Sonata was given to it by a critic after Beethoven died, when in one of those fanciful review of the age, the writer linked it to Lake Lucerne in the moonlight.

It begins with a simple, one-two-three rhythm in one hand which is joined by a slow, quiet, and thoughtful melody in the other. The second movement skips along quietly with a kind of syncopated tune jumping back and forth between the hands. The ending is starts out soft but fast with a low, galloping, melody that boils up, explodes and then shoots off in another direction with an intricate flurry of keys. This repeats with several variations until the end. The finish blows out all those sad cobwebs one wades through.

Incredible that after nearly 200 years, it remains a popular piece. Incredible, too, that after over 20 year, it still holds my interest.

Heartrending melancholy

This piece is one of those that really knocked my socks off and made me a fan of these Bach Suites. Music from and for the Gods. Thanks for posting. LaDona has impeccable taste.

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