Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Number 2 in C minor

The major task for all adolescents is to work out their own personality. I realize that nowadays, the nature-nurture researchers have pretty much proven that many personality traits we once thought of as learned are actually determined by the genes one inherits. From my own high school experiences, however, I don’t find that to be the case.

Were I to choose a totem animal to represent my adolescent years, it would have to be the chameleon. I was exposed to so many different people in person and through books, classical music, and the popular media, that sometimes I didn’t know who I really was. For example, when I went through my Russian author phase and read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life Of Ivan Denisovich I made an aluminum spoon in my shop class, wrote the words, “Outer Mongolia” on it, and insisted on eating every meal with it. When I discovered James Joyce, I tried reading in poor light to destroy my eyesight so I could wear wire-rimmed glasses like him. When I saw Fellini’s Roma, I carried my jacket over my shoulder in an attempt to look as cool as the young swell in the film.

Perhaps I was too influenced by the stronger personalities–usually the intellectuals–in my high school who became my role models. I say “too influenced,” because though they knew a lot about books and music, they weren’t always the wisest in the way of relationships and human emotions. Intellectuals for one thing don’t always get the girls, and so have a lot of anger at the injustice of life (and at all those alpha male athletes who do score.) Intellectuals at this age also have another problem, they think that thinking can solve all the world’s (and one’s personal) problems. So they would not necessarily be sympathetic to, say, psychological counseling though they might desperately need it. Let me give you an example, which relates to today’s piece.

Critics had not liked Rachmaninov First Symphony and he became depressed and went into a lethargic slump. He would not compose or perform. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London had commissioned him to write a piano concerto, but his mental state kept him from doing so. His relatives became so concerned that they persuaded him to seek the help of a noted psychologist named Dr. Nikolay Dahl. Dr. Dahl used hypnotism and the power of suggestion to restore Rachmaninov’s self-confidence. During their sessions, the doctor would repeat to Rachmaninov: “You will begin to write your concerto.. you will work with great facility…the concerto will be of excellent quality.” Rachmaninov stated that the good doctor’s cure worked and by 1900 he had started working on the Second Piano Concerto. It remains the most popular of the four concertos that he wrote.

In high school, I had another friend named Eric T****** who also loved Rachmaninov’s work. He originally told me this story about Rachmaninov’s cure. When I said it was neat, he said something like “No, it’s not. It’s stupid!” I think his point was that if Rachmaninov needed someone to repeat mindless phrases to him over and over again, he wasn’t really a genius, and his work probably wasn’t that great after all.

Unfortunately, that tended to color my own attitude toward depression, which had grave consequences for me. When I became depressed in high school and college, I believed it would be a sign of weakness to seek treatment. If I couldn’t work it out for myself, then I was weak and certainly no intellectual. As I later learned reading Listening to Prozac  that if one doesn’t seek external treatment for depression, one usually ends up self-medicating-either through drugs, alcohol or addictive behaviors. Thus, I spent the next 20 years battling depression.

According to the research presented in that book, there is a kindling effect associated with depression. The emotion of depression are associated with certain chemical imbalances in the brain. If you repeatedly get depressed and don’t get treatment eventually your brain chemistry changes so that you become even more susceptible to it–like dry kindling is to fire. Eventually, I tried therapy, which helped a great deal for about a year, but then I fell back into depression. After reading the book, I sought treatment from a psychiatrist who prescribed Prozac.  Prozac, it’s said, has the ability to somehow reset the brain chemistry back to the state before the depression started. This occurred back in 1994 and it helped get me back on track, though life stresses later brought on bouts of depression and in 2005, I sought medication again.  Since 2006, I’ve been good, despite the loss of both parents and my best friend a year ago.  Maybe one day, I’ll need medication again, but it doesn’t scare me.  It’s a tool, that’s all, and I view it as a short term one.

Fortunately–maybe because of my own experience with depression–I never thought less of Rachmaninov because of his treatment and therefore still enjoy his works. Every time I hear the Piano Concerto Number 2 it perks me up. It starts out with a beautiful romantic melody with a Slavic feel to it. The piano and the orchestra go back and forth for about half of the movement and then the piano takes off and plays some of the most incredibly fast passages probably every written. Near the end, the piano leads the way through several mysterious sounding key changes, which still give me chills. The second movement has one of the most beautiful melodies ever written, which some minimally talented singer stole back in the 1970s and incorporated into his pop song, “All by Myself.” Sheer dreck.

The last movement starts out with a little march that then picks up, sounding a bit like Tchaikowsky (under whom Rachmaninov studied). Then the strings play one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful melody of all times, which the piano then picks up. The movement then unfolds into dialogs, solos, contrasts, harmonies, explosions, and tenderness. It really is one of the great works of all times.

Isolated, airy, dry intellect is certainly alluring. Sometimes we poke fun of the “ivory tower” intellectual, divorced and removed from the world. What shame is there in asking for help when one truly needs it? Didn’t someone once say “Pride goeth before the fall?” Imagine what would have happened had Rachmaninov not gone to the good Dr. Dahl? We all would have been deprived of this wonderful work.

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