Category Archives: Classical Music

Concerts, recordings, reviews, musings, you name it. I’m a lifelong classical music fan.

Sibelius, Finlandia & the cry of freedom

     

Jean Sibelius’ tone-poem, Finlandia, wasn’t supposed to be the program headliner one recent Saturday night at the San Francisco Symphony. The main draw was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, gracefully and sensitively rendered by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, with Finnish guest conductor Osmö Vänskä leading the orchestra. Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra—they of the Great Lockout of 2012-14 infamy—literally staked his position on turning said orchestra into one of the country’s finest, resigning in protest in the later months of the lockout, only to be rehired the following April (good call), where he now continues, with the Minnesota Orchestra, to excel and produce world-class music. Particularly impressive are Vänskä’s Sibelius interpretations. No surprise, perhaps, as both hail from Finland and both have captured, in the music, the nuance, proud spirit and dignity of this Nordic country. And no piece conjures a sense of Finnish national pride more so than Sibelius’ Finlandia, a patriotic tone-poem, the seventh of seven tableaux written in 1899 and revised a year later. Coming in at eight-ish minutes (can be up to nine), it’s short. The first part delivers a brooding fanfare of horns, rumbling timpani, depicting menace, oppression that, indeed, was part of Finland’s history, through occupations by Sweden and then Russia, into the early 20th century. The middle part of Finlandia calls in strings and woodwinds, a gentler but no less affecting sound, before the piece really ramps into high gear. It becomes propulsive and spirited, with plenty of crashing cymbals and an increase in speed and intensity from the entire orchestra. And now, at its peak, comes the melody, slow and majestic, instantly timeless and memorable.

I’m going to use the words of my character, Rebecca, from Outside the Limelight to describe it, because she does a better job with it than I. At a party she’s attending, she mentions to a group that she’d recently analyzed a classical music excerpt by Emily Howell in a college aesthetics class. (Hint: Emily Howell is not a female composer but a computer program that composes original classical music.)

“So, you listened to some of the music?” the man asked.
“I did,” she said. “We compared it to two other excerpts, traditional compositions.”
“Composed by…?”
“Bach. Jean Sibelius.”
“Good, good.” The man nodded. “So, what was your verdict?”
The Emily Howell composition had pleasantly surprised her, a flood of arpeggiated piano notes hovering around a melodic theme, like something Chopin or Scriabin might have composed. The Bach had been lovely and precise, like music meets mathematics. It was the Sibelius, however, that had stirred her with its rich textures and sonorities and, paradoxically, its simplicity. There were far less notes. The melody was not complex. But the horns’ mournful call, the way they sustained one of their notes against the melody, clinging, holding on, had been the most vivid aural depiction of love, fealty and longing she’d ever heard. It had made her throat contract, her eyes sting.
“I preferred the Sibelius,” she told the man.
“Why?”
“Well, it had… humanity. It was art and evoked true emotion. Next to it, the Howell seemed like just a clever, agreeable arrangements of notes.”
“What kind of emotion did it evoke?”
Across the room, she saw Anders, smiling, engrossed in what the beautiful woman across from him was saying. Her heart gave a twist.
“Longing,” she said.
“But how was this ‘longing’ portrayed in the music?” the man persisted. “I’m guessing a minor key, dissonance of two notes, followed by resolution. A solo violin, or maybe a clarinet, a French horn. Am I right?”
“You are,” she admitted.
“So. You teach this rule to the program, which will go on to analyze the scores of any music that is considered soul-stirring, and it will find patterns. It learns to add that dissonance, a little rubato to stretch it out, or the call of a horn, and voilà, you’ve got longing.”
She hated this thought. Hated it. “No,” she protested, “that doesn’t cover it. Longing didn’t come from the instruments or the notes, it came from the man, the human composing it. I’m sure of it. Longing fills a human, it permeates their world. How could a computer experience longing or shortcomings of any type? Nothing is unattainable for a computer. You can just feed it more data.” The thoughts and words tumbled out. “Creating art requires feeling pain, having a soul that’s crammed with complex emotions that have nowhere to go but into your art. A computer can cleverly simulate art. Nothing more. Otherwise, what’s the point of being human, of harboring all that pain?”
This new thought hit her, cut into her so sharply, it made her want to cry, for a half-dozen reasons, most of them hazy and undefined, but so real, so painfully real. She knew, beyond a doubt, that Sibelius had reached from deep within his own heart, his soul, to produce this work. The simple melody was anything but simple. It evoked, in a mere handful of notes, the patriotic cry of a country’s freedom.

Sibelius had written the piece, initially entitled “Finland Awakes,” part of his Press Celebration Music suite, for an event, a covert political rally of sorts to protest Russia’s increasing censorship and other punitive measures against Finland, an “autonomous” region of the Empire. It was an instant hit. In 1900 he revised, making the seventh piece stand alone and renaming it Finlandia. Its popularity grew in leaps and bounds, particularly when the fledgling Helsinki Philharmonic, eighteen months old, took it with them on their first European tour. Suddenly the world knew about Sibelius, Finlandia, and Finnish national pride. The Russians, of course, hated this, and did their best to censor performances of Finlandia. Story has it, the Finns got sneaky and gave the piece alternative names at future performances, like, “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring,” and “A Scandinavian Choral March. The correlating hymn, too, had become a big deal. Huge. Sibelius had taken the piece’s slower melody and made it a choral hymn — although the more popular words were written in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi. It became the patriotic cry of a nation. It defined the voice of Finland that emerged in December, 1917, when the Finnish parliament finally declared independence from Russia. It is second in importance in Finland only to the country’s national anthem, “Maamme.” (Some still would like to see it become the national anthem.)

December 6, 2017 marks Finland’s centennial. I can think of no better way to honor such an event than to share Finlandia with the world.

This is my favorite version of the choral hymn. It makes tears rise in my throat every time I watch it (and I’m going on a dozen times at this point). That nationalism can be expressed with such beautiful song, is just one more reason why Finland impresses me to no end. (Second: tied for highest literacy rate in the world at 100%. Third: most engaged, informed, prolific classical music audience in the world. Fourth: one of the highest functioning welfare systems and lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Fifth: the best front row seat for viewing the Northern Lights.)

Want to know the words? Here you go! (And if WordPress’ auto-correct made a mess of the Finnish text, apologies to all my Finnish readers out there! Let me know and I’ll fix.)

Oi Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa
Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois
Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa
Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois
Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa
Sun päiväs koittaa, Oi synnyinmaa

Oi nouse Suomi, nosta korkealle
Pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen
Oi nouse Suomi, näytit maailmalle
Sä että karkoitit orjuuden
Ja ettet taipunut sä sorron alle
On aamus alkanut
Oi Synnyinmaa

Here is the English translation, although a translation never gets quite to the heart of the piece, so I’d recommend you master the Finnish language and read it that manner. Because, hey, the Finnish language looks so intuitive and translatable, doesn’t it? Kinda like Basque. Easy-peasy!

Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!

Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest
thy head now crowned with mighty memory.
Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!

And now, I offer to you the full version (coming in at nine minutes, so a little more deliberate pacing), which also provides a film tour of Finland and its staggering natural beauty. (But warning, the cute little animals and birds kind of kill the mood of “we, the oppressed, must struggle or die trying” patriotic fervor. Now it’s more like a Nature episode. But a gorgeous one, I might add!)

PS: Happy Centennial, Finland!

PPS: Want to hear the original Press Celebration Music suite? In truth, it’s pretty cool, because, for you Sibelius fans such as myself, there’s some new music in there that hints at what he will produce further down the road. And there’s a pretty nifty slide show that depicts different historical scenes for each tableau, which are, themselves, intended as historical episodes. Further, you can hear the original 1899 first ending.

https://youtu.be/g1uL3hkgNRE

  • Preludium: Andante ma non troppo (00:00)
  • Tableau 1: The Song of Väinämöinen (02:50)
  • Tableau 2: The Finns are Baptized by Bishop Henry (06:10)
  • Tableau 3: Scene from Duke Johan’s Court (11:09)
  • Tableau 4: The Finns in the Thirty Years’ War (17:54)
  • Tableau 5: The Great Hostility (22:57)
  • Tableau 6: Finland Awakes (Finlandia) (27:08)

Veronika Eberle and the Schumann VC

The program last Sunday at the San Francisco Symphony was billed as “Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, with guest conductor Roberto Abbado.” Great, enjoyable stuff. But one glance at my playbill once I was seated gave me no doubt which piece on the program would outshine the rest for me: Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Composed in a matter of weeks in 1853, it was his last major work before the madness set in. I adore this rarely-played violin concerto. If you’re a longtime reader of mine, you might remember my earlier blog about it, and the way its spooky, mystical beauty featured into my fourth novel. (You can read that blog HERE.)

The concerto is enigmatic in a variety of ways. From its earliest days, it was dismissed as fatally flawed, the product of a declining mind. And not by the public but by Schumann’s closest associates. Violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim gave the score a run-through and privately expressed his concern to Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, who all agreed they’d be acting in Schumann’s best interests to stash the unpublished, unperformed concerto deep in a drawer. (By now he’d checked himself into an insane asylum where his mental state was in rapid decline.) Best to let it sit for 100 years before letting Schumann be judged harshly for what they perceived as weak writing.

Lest we now judge them harshly, it should be pointed out that it’s not a flawless work of music. It’s more orchestral than violin concerto-oriented. It’s difficult for the player, and yet, paradoxically, not terribly virtuosic, aside from the wide-ranging arpeggios better suited for a piano/pianist than a violin/violinist. The third movement repeats simple thematic passages far too many times. But I’ll argue that it’s still a charming, spirited movement. And nothing beats the concerto’s second movement with its aching beauty, imbued with something ephemeral, mystical.

Indeed, the concerto’s presence, its resurfacing back in the 1930’s is steeped in the mystical. Joachim’s great-niece, Jelly d’Arányi, herself a brilliant violinist, claimed to have learned about the concerto’s existence only through a séance and contact with the spirit of her great-uncle and/or Schumann himself. But that’s a story in itself, which you can read in that other blog I wrote.

Let’s return to 2017 and the San Francisco Symphony, last Sunday afternoon, where German violinist Veronika Eberle delivered a gorgeous, transcendent rendition of the concerto. Wow, the rich, evocative sounds she pulled from her instrument (the 1700 “Dragonetti” Stradivarius on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.) I loved everything about Eberle’s performance, the way she articulated and emphasized certain notes so beautifully. The sound reminded me of birdsong, the way so many different colors and textures are revealed, coaxed out of the instrument (or the bird’s throat).

Photo: Jan Northoff

That’s what makes this concerto rather tricky, in my mind. If a violinist can’t conjure all those voices–querying, tremulous, plaintive, yearning, demanding–then the concerto becomes, as its critics will argue, meandering, repetitive, overly orchestrated.

Speaking of orchestras, I must share how much fun it is to watch this concerto being performed live when you’re used to only hearing a recording. Like the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Schumann’s work features a great deal of interplay with the orchestra throughout. It was fun to watch. I was able to observe and hear an intriguing dialogue between the soloist and the principal cellist (Michael Grebanier) in the second movement, that I’d never realized existed. It was so beautiful. The entire second movement was simply transcendent.

I so appreciate that the twenty-six-year old Eberle chose to perform this concerto for her debut with the San Francisco Symphony, in lieu of one of the better known works of the violin repertoire. The kind performed over and over and over: Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, etc. Mind you, it’s not that I don’t love these concertos. It’s just that the Schumann Violin Concerto is uniquely lovely and needs to be championed. The audience on Sunday afternoon didn’t give Eberle the rousing ovation she deserved, and I wonder if it was because they didn’t know what to make of this “quieter” or admittedly different concerto. She certainly deserved it, after pouring her heart, energy and considerable talent into it. I give her top marks across the board. And kudos to the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Roberto Abbado. It takes a team effort to make it all come together.

I can’t share with you what I heard on Sunday afternoon, of course, but here’s one of my favorite recordings of the Schumann Violin Concerto, performed by Gidon Kramer. Don’t miss out on the second movement; it starts at 15m30. It’s mystical.

10 odd facts about Handel’s Messiah

This weekend Handel’s Messiah gets pulled out at the Classical Girl household, an annual event during Triduum (more formally referred to as the Paschal Triduum), that three-day sacred period commencing with Holy Thursday and culminating with Easter. Although Messiah was written in three parts to depict Jesus’ life and resurrection, and therefore works for Christmas as well as Easter, it has Easter morning written all over it for me. Check out my blog about it HERE.

Messiah is an oratorio, which is sort of like an opera without the acting, grand pantomiming and expensive sets, and tells a sacred story, not a racy one. Handel composed over twenty oratorios. He’d composed plenty of operas (final tally: forty), but they were more expensive to produce and the popularity of his opera works had begun fading. In 1741 he decided to take a break from it all, and leave his London base for a sabbatical in Ireland. It was here that he composed Messiah. It premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, during Easter season.

Want to listen to it as you read? Here you go! (A three-minute BBC introduction precedes the music, which starts at 3m40.)

But what you really want to know are the odd facts, right? So, without further ado…

 

                                       10 Odd Facts about Handel and his Messiah

1) The original [German] spelling and pronunciation of George Frideric Handel’s name is Georg (GAY-org) Friedrich Händel (HEN-del). His father was a barber-surgeon (I know, right?) and Georg’s original game plan for life was to study and enter the practice of law. While in law school, he started playing the organ for a local church, and, well, that started the composing music ball rolling.

2) Handel was British but not, just like King George I was British but not. King George I was German-born, from Hanover. (He is also the one who had that terrible time with those pesky “American” colonists who revolted.) Before the young Handel moved to England, he’d served as Kapellmeister for George (then the Elector of Hanover) in Germany before he became King of England. Once they were both in England, well, it was likely an easy choice to stay affiliated. Handel loved England, and 1726 he became a naturalized British subject.

3) By 1741, Handel had fallen deeply into debt, and was even threatened with debtors’ prison. Instead, he departed to Ireland for a sabbatical, where he wrote his Messiah.

4) Handel composed Messiah in just twenty-four days, a staggering feat, given the original score is 259 pages. Yikes. That’s some productive off-time. (Author’s note to self: sign up for sabbatical.)

5) In spite of the fact that Handel himself was in bad shape financially, he premiered Messiah in Dublin as a benefit, to help out some of the inmates stuck in debtors’ prison. The benefit performance was a rousing success, and 143 debtors were released from prison as a result.

6) As a gesture of thanks, Handel’s Irish backers returned the favor by paying off some of his own London debts.

7) The first London performance, a year later, wasn’t as unequivocal a success. Criticism was voiced that the work’s subject matter was “too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singers.” Handel tried to appease the conservatives by using a different name, calling it the “New Sacred Oratorio” instead of “Messiah.” Even then, however, the London reception of the production remained cool, and the oratorio was only performed three times that year instead of the anticipated six. Until, a few years later, at the London Foundlings’ Hospital…

8) Handel performed a mix of new music and older pieces including the “Hallelujah” chorus at London’s Foundling Hospital, in 1750, for a charity concert. At the time, Messiah hadn’t made its splash with London audiences (see above), but the concert was so well received that Handel was invited back the next year, where he performed the entire Messiah oratorio. Performances of Messiah became an Eastertime tradition there until the 1770s. Earnings from many early performances of the oratorio were used to help the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, and sick. (A great article about this by The Telegraph can be found HERE.)

9) The complete oratorio of Messiah has fifty movements, but it was otherwise a modest production. In the years after Handel’s death, Messiah was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. Mozart, as well as a few other composers, played around with it, offering a fresher (at the time) adaptation. Today you can buy the Mozart adaptation, the original, an abridged version, popular excerpt version, Part I & II version, etc.

10) Audiences typically stand during the “Hallelujah Chorus” movement of Messiah. One story as to why dates back to when King George II (son of King George I) heard it being performed for the first time. Story has it, he was so dazzled, so overcome with emotion, he rose to his feet automatically. And when the king rises, all rise. So, there it is. Fact or myth? You make your own call.

Bonus fact: Handel died on Good Friday, 1759. He was buried, with honors, at Westminster Abbey, during which time a portion of his Messiah was performed. He will be forever remembered for his contribution. Somewhat poignantly, once after being congratulated on providing audiences with such fine entertainment, he’d replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. For I wished to make them better.”

Oh, Mr. Handel. That, you did. And for that, the world will be forever grateful.

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

Violin Concerto CD               

The violin concerto repertoire is so rich and satisfying, I’m embarrassed to admit that, prior to becoming an adult beginner on the violin in 2005, I was only familiar with a few of them. This, from a self-proclaimed classical music fanatic. Whoops.

But maybe that’s you, too. Now, I know some of my readers are violin peeps and this list of top violin concertos will not produce any surprises, but I have a hunch there are plenty of you out there, more ballet-oriented, who are more familiar with piano repertoire. Or maybe you’re a newcomer to classical music in general. This is the list for you.

One thing I should add. Most of these hail from the Romantic Era and beyond. You therefore won’t see works before 1806, before Beethoven’s opus burst forth, eras that would include concertos by Mozart (five of them, written in his late teens), Vivaldi (something like 230) Bach (two for solo violin, one for two violins). Also I didn’t include Paganini (who wrote six) who, like Beethoven, sort of straddled the Classical and Romantic Era.

So, without further ado, here are my personal faves, in no particular order. If the composer has more than one violin concerto, I’ve highlighted the one I prefer. If you click on the composer’s name, it will bring you to a YouTube link of the concerto.

The Classical Girl

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

  1. Tchaikovsky (in D major, Op. 35, 1878)
  2. Brahms (in D major, Op. 77, 1878)
  3. Sibelius (in D minor, Op. 47, 1905 – A staggering piece of work – my blog + link HERE)
  4. Bruch (No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, 1867; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44, 1878; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 58, 1891 – and all three are worthy! Blogged about Bruch HERE)
  5. Korngold (in D major, Op. 35, 1945)
  6. Beethoven (in D major, Op. 61, 1806 – Note to self: blog about this one SOON)
  7. Barber (Op. 14, 1939)
  8. Saint-Saëns (No. 3 in B minor; his No. 1 and No. 2 aren’t often performed)
  9. Mendelssohn (in E minor, Op. 64, 1845)

And this is where it gets very tricky, because there are SO many wonderful violin concertos still, so here are ten contenders for my 10th spot:

  1. Shostakovich (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77, 1955; No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, 1967)
  2. Britten (Op. 15, 1939)
  3. Dohnányi (No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27, 1915: No. 2 in C minor, Op. 43, 1950)
  4. Bartok (No. 1, BB 48a, 1908, but published posthumously, 1956; No. 2, BB 117, 1938)
  5. Dvorák (in A minor, Op. 53, 1879)
  6. Wieniawski (No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1853; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22, 1862
  7. Goldmark (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 28, 1877; he composed a No. 2 that was never published)
  8. Berg (Written in twelve-tone, Op. ?, 1935)
  9. Prokofiev (No. 1 in D major, Op. 18, 1923; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, 1935.
  10. Schumann (in D minor, published posthumously) The Stravinsky VC really belongs here but I am sentimental about the Schumann and its otherworldly story – I blogged about it HERE

And yes, I know, you violin peeps are sitting up now, exclaiming, “Wait! No Lalo? No Viotti? No Khachaturian or Elgar?” Glazunov. Hindemith. Ligeti. Nielsen. Szymanowski. Previn. Walton. And Vieuxtemps certainly deserves to be on the list; he wrote a whopping seven violin concertos. And then there are the hard-on-the-ear but well respected concertos that deserve a mention, like the Schoenberg, the Schuman (note, spelled with only one “n,” an important differentiation to recognize). Berg’s concerto, while atonal, somehow manages to conjure something beautifully expressive and bittersweet – no small feat!

And STILL there are more. That’s the fun thing about really getting to know the violin concerto repertoire, and the violin repertoire in general. There are always more treasures to discover.

Give each one a listen and let me know which one is your favorite. As for me, if I had to be stranded on a desert island with a CD player [and somehow, magically, a lifetime supply of batteries] and only three concertos, I think it would have to be the Sibelius, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Yikes. Tough choices. Maybe the Beethoven would have to switch out one of the latter two. With the Tchaikovsky next in line. Only please don’t make me choose.

I could tell a story about each and every one of these concertos and/or their composer’s creative journey, but that would make for a hell of a long blog. Instead I’ll give each one its own blog, at which time I’ll return here and leave the link. In the meantime, here are a few blogs I enjoyed reading that offer great details on their own Top 10 picks (you’ll see a lot of similarities).

  • Stephen Klugewicz at The Imaginative Conservative HERE.
  • Gramophone UK HERE

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow?

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op 18 is the kind of music that grips you by the collar and draws you into its world instantly, with its rich orchestral textures and dramatic fervor. I’ve loved it for years. Decades. Last weekend I attended the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1, and was dazzled by the program’s second ballet, Jiri Bubeníček’s “Fragile Vessels,” set to—you guessed it—Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Thoughts vary about Rachmaninov’s Late Romantic music, produced during an era that had begun testing its boundaries (think Mahler) or breaking them entirely (think Schoenberg and his atonality, his twelve-tone technique). Rachmaninov wanted nothing to do with that. He saw himself as “the last of the Romantics” who reflected the philosophy of Old Russia “with its overtones of suffering and unrest, its pastoral but tragic beauty, its ancient and enduring glory.” Many classical music purists today consider Rachmaninov’s music to be excessively sentimental, admittedly lush but too similar-sounding once you’ve heard one concerto. The tremendous popularity of his Piano Concerto No. 2, in fact, seems to argue their case that it’s, perhaps, a bit lowbrow for classical tastes.

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow? Certainly it’s extremely accessible to non-classical music lovers. It’s appeared in pop culture through movies, plays and songs throughout the 20th century. I myself was only nineteen when I fell wildly in love with it. The music so aptly described all those larger-than-life feelings and emotions exploding within me. I ate it up, right alongside Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Dvorák’s New World Symphony. In an era of LP and cassette tape music, those were three of the dozen cassette recordings I listened to incessantly. The latter two, I can’t bear to listen to anymore; they are now definitely “pop classical” to me, which nonetheless constantly fills the concert halls. But Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is different. Thirty-five years after I first heard it, I’m fascinated by its complexity and colors, its harmonic richness, its passion coupled with aching nostalgia.

I did a little digging around to find out more about Rachmaninov (and BTW, his name can be spelled with a “v” at the end or an “ff” – both are an acceptable translation from Cyrillic) before I set off to write this blog. Otherwise, how to explain why I liked this concerto so much? Did I even know why? Music with this kind of emotional depth tends to have a story behind it.

Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943), I learned, had been born into a noble family in Russia which owned numerous estates. While both parents enjoyed the piano, they didn’t see that as a potential career for the six-year-old Sergei who was already showing extraordinary aptitude for the instrument. (Ironically, they deemed it too lowbrow.) But the family had other problems. Dad enjoyed the high life, improvidently so, and the family fortune was slowly whittled away to one last estate, Oneg, in northwestern Russia, where Sergei spent his earliest years. Soon that, too, had to be sold to cover debts, and in 1882 the family moved into an apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergei was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but it was a poor fit and he was not an easy, compliant student. Nor a good one, as family troubles continued. In 1883 his sister died of diphtheria. In 1884, his parents separated. The next year, on the advice of a musician cousin, his mother shipped Sergei off to the Moscow Conservatory, to a regimented household where he continued his studies. There, he lived a strict life with Nikolai Zverev, his teacher, and two other students, which, in the end, served him well. It had perks, too; during this time he met and interacted with musicians, artists, and notably, Tchaikovsky, who became a mentor of sorts and helped get him into an advanced counterpoint class. Buoyed by his success in the ensuing years, and his interest in compositions, Sergei told Zverev he wished to pursue composition, and could he please have more private space in the house?

Zverev, who only saw the young Sergei as a pianist—although a prodigiously good one—told him something like, “Don’t be a fool. You’re a pianist, not a composer. Know your place. And get back into that room with the two other boys.” Unfortunately, this spelled the end of their relationship. Sergei moved out and into the home of a nearby relative, and continued on with his studies. (Zverev would not speak to him for the next three years.) He continued to excel, finishing his studies early, composing and performing his First Piano Concerto. For his final examinations, he won the Conservatory’s ultra-prestigious Gold Medal for his composition of a one-act opera, “Aleko.” Even old Zverev became tearfully proud of him, all ill feelings forgotten.

Here’s the thing. Young success, extraordinary success, is a mixed blessing. Rachmaninov was flying high, beloved for not just his composition talents, his virtuoso playing, but now, it turned out, he was a great conductor. How great was that?! There was no place for him to go, but up, up, up! 

So, post-graduation, he proceeded forward, writing small pieces that people loved (they were crazy about his Prelude in C-sharp minor, written when he was nineteen; it drew international acclaim), concertizing in ways people loved (everywhere, audiences begged for an encore of the Prelude in C-sharp minor – it got kind of annoying). He set his sights on bigger things, and devoted considerable time to composing his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor. This, then, he decided, would be his grand entrance into The Really Big League, right up there with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was ready.

Well, I think you can guess what happened. The premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor was a total disaster. Not just the music was at fault; an incompetent (and possibly drunk) Glazunov took the podium as conductor and did a wretched job leading the under-rehearsed orchestra. Further, Glazunov had made his own cuts in the score, and several changes in the orchestration, none of which made sense musically. Rachmaninov, sitting in the audience, helpless, was in agony. He couldn’t even listen to it; he fled the concert hall.

The press had a field day. César Cui, noted music critic, wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell and if one of its talented students were to compose a symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

The poor reception, and Rachmaninov’s own destroyed faith in his abilities, sent him into a deep depression, a dark, creative-less funk. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, composing wasn’t meant for him, after all. And so, for three years, he wrote nothing, composed nothing. He continued to receive invitations to perform as a pianist—because, remember, he was an extraordinary soloist. His strengths and good reputation as a conductor also earned him work, which helped him get by. But only when, with encouragement from family, he sought out the services of psychologist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who used hypnotherapy in his practice, did he climb out of that dark place. And it was in this reborn creative space that he composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 (which he dedicated to Dahl). Its premiere, on Nov 9, 1901, was a hit.

And how.

So. To those who claim Rachmaninov is overly sentimental, too dramatic, even lowbrow? Oh, dear reader, I will have to differ. This composition came from a place of incredible substance. No wonder I hear passion, despair, hope rising, triumphant vindication in the music. No wonder I’ve never tired of hearing this wonderful piece of music, in thirty-five years.

Give it a listen. Made even better by the performance of my favorite pianist, Yuja Wang. She and her performances are mesmerizing in so many ways. (Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra, July 2011)

And if you’re STILL thinking Rachmaninov’s music all sounds too familiar, a one-trick-pony kind of composer, listen to “The Isle of the Dead.” Amazing. https://youtu.be/dbbtmskCRUY

And his “Symphonic Dances.” Op. 45. Gasp! Where has this been all my life? How did this gem escape me? https://youtu.be/otJmf3pyb1E

And you’re still not tired of clicking on links and hearing about Rachmaninov’s music, you can read my blog, “Madness, SHINE and the Rach 3” HERE.