When the urge to compose finally struck again, Rachmaninoff took a little theme by Nicolo Paganini and turned it into a tour de force for the piano and orchestra, called Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In this final episode of the Great Composers series on Rachmaninoff, we also explore Rachmaninoff’s final masterpiece -- the Symphonic Dances. Rachmaninoff reaches back to the debilitating early failure of Symphony No. 1 and brings those early musical ideas to a glorious new realization.
After four long years living outside of Russia due to political instability, Rachmaninoff was finally able to bring his family home. He returned with a determination to write a Russian sacred piece that would be a lasting contribution to the orthodox repertoire. The composer ultimately found success with his "All-Night Vigil," considered the crowning achievement in Russian sacred music. But the world around Rachmaninoff became chaotic again.
Clickety clack. That’s all Sergei Rachmaninoff heard as he practiced his new Piano Concerto No. 3 in advance of his big American tour, during which he would debut the piece. That’s because he finished the piece just before departing for the U.S. and didn't leave himself time to practice. He had to make do with practicing on a silent keyboard on the ship. When you hear how fiendishly difficult the piece is, it makes this story even more amazing.
Sergei Rachmaninoff just wasn't hungry -- literally and figuratively. So, after the success of his Piano Concerto No. 2, he took the less obvious route for a composer and dedicated himself to conducting and teaching. He just wasn't craving that next big hit. It was rising political unrest that forced him into composing again.
Sergei Rachmaninoff finds himself in a funk. It’s been three years since the disastrous premiere of his Symphony No. 1 and the composer has barely written a note since then. His confidence is crushed. Self-doubt has crippled him. And it looks like his muse has left him. Enter the family intervention. In what becomes a persistent theme in Rachmaninoff’s life, his family insists that it’s time to get off the couch and back to composing. They send him to a doctor who has been experimenting with a new type of remedy: hypnotherapy. After months of positive talk therapy, and his family rooting for him, Sergei Rachmaninoff pulls off the greatest comeback story in classical music with his beloved Piano Concerto No. 2.
Crouched low. Hiding in a fire escape backstage with his fingers plugging his ears. This is how Sergei Rachmaninoff experienced the premiere of his Symphony No. 1. What should have been a triumphant night for Rachmaninoff turned into a nightmare which only worsened once the review appeared in the newspaper. "Diseased and perverted harmonizations." "Morbid atmosphere." Fit for the "inhabitants of Hell." These were the words used by St. Petersburg's leading music critic, César Cui, in his review of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1. That very public flogging sent Rachmaninoff into a downward spiral.
We all need a little help from friends, and one of Sergei Rachmaninoff's most supportive friends was none other than the great Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky cheered for Rachmaninoff from his box seat at concerts and paired their works together in concert. But just as Rachmaninoff started to find his footing as a composer, Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly. Tchaikovsky had come to play the role of mentor and father figure to Rachmaninoff when he was a student. The elder composer's sudden death was an immeasurable blow to the talented but insecure Rachmaninoff.
Why do we love Rachmaninoff's music so much? Is it the romantic themes? The dark, brooding undercurrents? Whatever it is, it's hooked listeners for more than a century. Our new miniseries on The Great Composers opens with a look at Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp minor.
Pianist Alessio Bax plays Fritz Kreisler's "Liebesleid," arranged by Sergei Rachmaninoff, in the CPR Performance Studio. Recorded Sept. 17, 2015.
Wait until you see how he makes beautiful music with one hand.