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.


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.)

8 Responses to Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Number 3

  1. Nice post! I read the paragraph about Rachmaninoff listening to Rubenstein’s recording of the Grieg piano concerto, saying at the end, “the piano is out of tune” to my husband, G., who is a piano tuner. Thanks for sharing this note of humor to start off the day. Thanks!


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