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Piano Concerto No. 2

The concerto went on to become one of Rachmaninoff’s most popular works, and Rachmaninoff’s confidence in his abilities as a composer was restored.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Probably born April 1, 1873, Oneg, Novgorod, Russia; died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California
  • Year completed: 1901
  • First performance: Moscow, November 9, 1901, Alexander Siloti conducting, with Rachmaninoff as soloist
  • First BSO performance: Max Fiedler conducting, with Ossip Gabrilowitsch as soloist, December 3 and 4, 1908, in New York City and Brooklyn
  • Approximate duration: 37 minutes

In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

By January of 1900, the 26-year-old Rachmaninoff had already acquired something of an international reputation as a composer. Alexander Siloti, his first cousin and also one of his piano teachers at the Moscow Conservatory, had in the autumn of 1898 toured Europe, England, and America. Of the music that Siloti programmed, it was Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp minor Prelude for piano—which, frustrated by the piece’s popularity, the composer came simply to call “It”—that outdistanced all else in popularity, particularly in America and England, and Siloti arranged for Rachmaninoff to appear with the London Philharmonic Society as conductor and pianist in the spring of 1899.

For that occasion Rachmaninoff promised the Londoners a new concerto, one he hoped would be better than his First in F-sharp minor, which he had completed in July 1891 while still a student and would ultimately revise in the fall of 1917. But the hope for a new concerto was not realized. As late as July 1899, Rachmaninoff complained that “My musical matters go very badly.” Both that summer and the following autumn were unproductive. His depression and feelings of inadequacy as a composer—feelings dating back to the dreadful failure of his First Symphony at its premiere in 1897, on which occasion César Cui famously wrote that “If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its gifted students were given the assignment of writing a program symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt, if he were to write a symphony just like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, he would have carried out his task brilliantly and given acute delight to the inhabitants of Hell”—worsened steadily. Then, a concerned party arranged for him to meet novelist Leo Tolstoy, whom the young composer idolized. It was hoped that Rachmaninoff’s “god” would offer him enough encouragement to restore his self-confidence, but the two meetings early in 1900—one of them in the company of the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin—only revealed Tolstoy to Rachmaninoff as “a very disagreeable man” (the composer’s words) and made matters worse. Certainly Tolstoy’s response to hearing Rachmaninoff and Chaliapin perform one of Rachmaninoff’s songs—“Tell me, do you really think anybody needs music like that?”—would not have helped.

Meanwhile, Siloti had agreed to support Rachmaninoff for two years so that his cousin could devote himself entirely to composing. Around this same time, though, and more important, Rachmaninoff was persuaded to seek outside help in the person of one Nikolai Dahl, a psychiatrist who for some years had been specializing in treatment by hypnosis. From January to April of 1900 the composer saw Dahl daily, the purpose of these meetings being to help Rachmaninoff sleep soundly, brighten his daytime mood, improve his appetite, and reawaken his desire to compose. More specifically, the sessions focused on the long-overdue concerto: “You will begin to write your concerto.... You will work with great facility.... The concerto will be of excellent quality....” were phrases that Rachmaninoff heard repeatedly.

“Although it may sound incredible,” Rachmaninoff recalled later, “this cure really helped me. By the beginning of the summer I again began to compose. The material grew in bulk, and new musical ideas began to stir within me—more than enough for my concerto.” The precise components of the “cure” are shrouded in mystery, but we do know that Dahl was an accomplished amateur musician, music lover, and organizer of chamber music evenings as well as a psychiatrist and hypnotist, and it would seem that the conversations on musical topics between doctor and patient probably played as important a part as the rest.

In any event, Rachmaninoff completed the second and third movements that summer. These were played for the first time on December 15, 1900, at a benefit concert in Moscow for the Ladies’ Charity Prison Committee (aimed at alleviating the suffering of prisoners) with Rachmaninoff at the keyboard and Siloti conducting. The music scored a huge triumph with the audience. The reviewer for the Russian Musical Gazette commented on the work’s “poetry, beauty, warmth, rich orchestration, healthy and buoyant creative power,” noting also that “Rachmaninoff’s talent is evident throughout.” The composer went on to finish the first movement, and the completed work, dedicated “to Mr. N. Dahl,” was premiered by the Moscow Philharmonic on November 9, 1901, with the same combination of soloist and conductor. The concerto’s success was complete—it went on to become one of Rachmaninoff’s most popular works, along with the piano prelude already mentioned—and Rachmaninoff’s confidence in his abilities as a composer was restored.

By midway through the 20th century, and likely in response to the too-frequent performance of certain works, Rachmaninoff’s particular brand of Romanticism was falling from favor, and his reputation as a composer suffered correspondingly. Nor did the popularization of his music through such songs as “Full Moon and Empty Arms” (on a tune from the finale of the Second Concerto) help to strengthen his place in the minds of so-called “serious” musicians or critics. But fortunately the tide turned again, and today no one fails to recognize what makes the composer’s musical voice so appealingly distinctive. As the important Tchaikovsky biographer David Brown has observed, “Rachmaninoff was a true creative individual, if not a great one.” Of the Second Concerto, Brown notes that “in no other work did Rachmaninoff exploit more vigorously his purely melodic gifts, nor ever create a piece more coherent, either expressively or thematically.” Those lush, sinuous melodies; the composer’s concentration on rich string sonorities and dark orchestral colors; his crafty intermingling of piano and orchestra, and, as Michael Steinberg puts it, “a sense of effortlessness in its unfolding, which is surely related to the confidence he had gained in Dr. Dahl’s deep leather armchair and, more broadly, from the growing feeling that he was after all built to survive”—all are readily apparent in the C minor piano concerto. The final cadence is one not just of assertion, but of triumph.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.