Sergey Rachmaninov grew up in a middle-class musical family, but under strained economic conditions. His father, a gambler and an alcoholic, squandered the family’s fortune to the point that eventually his mother and father separated, and she had to sell what remained of the family’s assets and move into a small apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergey – whose care in better times would have been entrusted to a nanny – consequently grew up with little supervision.
His schooling suffered as a result. Although he showed early promise as a pianist and obtained a scholarship to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the administration threatened to expel him for failing to attend classes. He subsequently transferred to the Moscow Conservatory where his mentor, Nicolay Zverev discouraged his initial attempts at composing. Nevertheless, Rachmaninov continued to march to his own drummer, defying his teacher and transferring to classes in counterpoint and composition.
Clearly, his sense of his own worth was more accurate than that of his professors. While still a student, he produced a string of successful works, including the tone poem Prince Rostislav, his First Piano Trio, and a flood songs and piano pieces. For his graduation in 1892 he composed the opera Aleko, which won him the highest distinction, the Great Gold Medal. The same year he also composed the Prelude in C-sharp minor, a work whose inordinate fame haunted him all his life because audiences always expected – and demanded – it as an encore at his performances as one of history’s greatest pianists.
By 1895 Rachmaninov felt confident enough to compose a symphony. The premiere took place in St. Petersburg in 1897 but was a dismal failure, in large part because to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov who was under “the influence.” Whereas earlier defeats had produced in the young composer creative defiance, this disappointment brought on a severe depression. For three years he was unable to do any significant composing. After consulting numerous physicians and advisors, even asking old Leo Tolstoy for help, he finally went for therapy and hypnosis in 1900 to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, an internist who had studied hypnosis and rudimentary psychiatry in Paris. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Although the composer was able to return to creative work, relapses into depression dogged him for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions are in minor keys, and one of the melodic themes recurring in many of his compositions is theDies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead reminding mourners of the terrors of the day of judgment.
Rachmaninov expressed his gratitude to Dr. Dahl by dedicating the Second Piano Concerto to him. The first performance of the complete work took place in November 1901 with the composer at the piano and was an instant success. It is Rachmaninov’s most frequently performed and recorded orchestral work and its popularity has never waned. It even found its way into Hollywood as background music to the World War II movie Brief Encounter.
The first movement, moderato, opens with dark unaccompanied chords on the piano, which increase in intensity and are gradually joined by the orchestra, leading to the first theme. The effect is like the tolling of the giant low-pitched bells common in Russian churches. The piano introduces the sensuous second theme, one of the composer’s signature melodies.