I’ve had another sudden affair with Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) as of late. That isn’t to say the affair hasn’t gone on for years. I adore him. But periodically I’m reminded of that love when I listen to him; his brilliance streams through the speakers as if he’s written each piece especially for me. He hasn’t, I know, and I’ve never met him. But I can’t deny I love him all over again with each stroke of the piano key or the breath of the oboe and flute.
I’m attracted in particular to Sergei’s (may I call him by his first name, after all?) Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18. I admit I was drawn to it more after seeing The Seven Year Itch. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) fantasized about performing the concerto to woo his neighbor, remarkably performed by Marilyn Monroe. She sauntered into his apartment; her elegant gold and black tiger print lamé gown and black arm-length gloves sparkled in the candlelight, and she draped herself onto the piano. She described Rachmaninoff’s concerto best when she said:
“It shakes me! It quakes me! It makes me feel goose-pimply all over!”
Rachmaninoff composed the piece between 1900 to 1901 and it became the hallmark of his fame. His first concerto premiered in 1897 and was a disaster (it probably didn’t help that the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was reportedly intoxicated at the time). Rachmaninoff suffered from depression and self-deprecation following this fiasco, began drinking, and was in need of outside help. He sought this in his psychologist and hypnotist Nicolai Dahl. The creative genius was revived within the composer and he was ready to begin writing once again. The result was his C minor concerto.
The opening movement, Moderato, is enough to make anyone feel “goose-pimply” with its opening droll on the piano and smooth entrance into the orchestration with the strings and clarinet leading the way. It’s dramatic, impressive, and thrilling.
The second movement, Adagio Sostenuto, is breathtaking, with the woodwinds leading the piano along its musical journey. It is extraordinary that a man with amazing strength and dexterity in his fingers can still grace the keys with a delicacy one would have caressing the petal of a rose.
The third and final movement, Allegro Scherzando, is a return to his power. He uses a particular melody three times in this movement, which was later recorded by Frank Sinatra (and others) after Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman picked up on it and titled it: Full Moon and Empty Arms. The finale ends with a burst of stimulating energy from both the orchestra and piano.
Rachmaninoff was unnerved by the concerto’s anticipated Oct. 27, 1901 premiere, but it was an instant success and continues to live on in our archives and movies.
Thank you, Marilyn.
Meet you at the piano, Sergei.
What about you? What works of Rachmaninoff do you enjoy most?
(See Hélène Grimaud perform Rachmaninoff’s C minor Piano Concerto)