The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square | July 30, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to:

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2:

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff:

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  1. Eric Blom was the “critic” in charge of Groves in the 1950’s and it was he who got Rachmaninoff all wrong. But perhaps Rachmaninoff got the last laugh:

    Blom died on 11 April 1959. He had requested that at his funeral, the organist play J.S. Bach’s final chorale prelude Vor Deinen Thron tret’ ich zu Dir (I step before Thy throne, O Lord). Unfortunately, ‘Bach chorale’ was misunderstood, and the laughably incongruous “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann was played instead.

    Now that’s funny!


    Comment by fflambeau — July 30, 2019 @ 11:43 pm

  2. “That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.”

    merciful heavens!


    Comment by bevaconme — July 30, 2019 @ 7:45 am

  3. Another way to check the validity of gatekeeper’s views: look at YouTube and see how many hits someone has and how many films they have up.

    Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto has dozens of films up and many of them have millions of hits. One YouTube showing the composer also playing this piece has 2.3 million hits.

    Philip Glass also has dozens of clips up on Youtube. One of his top albums, Glassworks, has one film with 5.6 million views. The Hours,has 3.6 million views: and there are many videos. His violin concerto featuring G. Kremer has 222,000 views (and there are other videos of this performance).

    In comparison C. Nielsen’s First Symphony best showing has just 23,000 hits.


    Comment by fflambeau — July 30, 2019 @ 7:10 am

  4. Not surprised that a review written in the the 1950’s would dismiss him as writing “gushing melodies.” That was not a period when music was “listenable.” (IMHO). Luckily, the mid-century music was a blip in Western music.


    Comment by powelsj — July 30, 2019 @ 6:53 am

    • Exactly, Powelsj, the gatekeepers have always admired music that is not listenable to and disliked melodious music. Rachmaninoff, like his idol, Tchaikovsky, was full of melodies, and beautiful tunes. Hence, his music was deemed “inferior”. Carl Nielsen is at the other extreme: almost no melodies and hard on the ears and they loved him (but not the public).


      Comment by fflambeau — July 30, 2019 @ 7:21 am

  5. One way to tell if a critic’s/gatekeeper’s assessment of a composer is wrong is to see who plays that composer.

    Rachmaninoff is a clear winner by this standard with albums by the likes of: Krystian Zimerman, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniil Trifonov, Earl Wild (a personal favorite), Leif Ove Andsnes, Stephen Hough, S. Richter (another favorite) , B. Janis, V. Horowitz, M. Argerich, E. Gilels, A. Rubinstein, Yefim Bronfman

    For Philip Glass: G. Kremer, Dennis Russell Davies, Ravi Shankar, Lavinia Meijer, Kronos Quartet, Víkingur Ólafsson, Marin Alsop, Brooklyn Rider, Anne Akiko Meyers.


    Comment by fflambeau — July 30, 2019 @ 6:49 am

  6. Piano Concerto No. 2 is my favorite. While Piano Concerto No. 3 was always more of an “acquired” taste (at least for me)… I also love his Piano Concerto No. 1 which seems unfairly neglected. I know that it is considered a work from his days as a student. But I still think it deserves to be heard more often.


    Comment by tom — July 30, 2019 @ 6:18 am

  7. The so-called “experts” got a lot wrong with music. The marvelous thing about movies and Youtube is that listeners can ignore them now rather than listen to what the gatekeepers often think is beautiful. I heard Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1 on WPR today, and it, for example, should be called “The Forgettable.” It was horrible and I know no one who even owns one of his recordings yet the host was gushing about it. So too, Haydn’s “masterpiece”, The Creation, is a piece of fluff that has nothing creative or god-like in it at all. It’s a god on Quaalude’s in that work unlike the very vigorous god at work in Alan Hovhaness’s creative pieces (compare fluff with his Mt. St. Helen’s symphony).

    Rachmaninoff wasn’t the only musician the “experts” got wrong: think of the unjustly ignored Alan Hovhaness; (wisely, he and his wife set up their own record distribution network which is doing wonders on the Internet), or the more contemporary Philip Glass, who early in his career drove taxis and moved furniture to make a living. Like in Rachmaninoff’s case, the movies (“The Hours”) made his appeal to the masses incontrovertible. Then, you have duds like Nielsen, Haydn (also a hack), Charles Ives (who stole widely from many and should have remained a full-time insurance salesman), Hindemith and many others in the stables of those who spin discs but are ignored by the public. Or think of all the great musicians who wrote wonderful music for movies and were lambasted or ignored for it: Korngold, Miklos Rozsa etc. That too is now changing and they are getting belated recognition.

    The good news is that the public often knows quality and can listen to what they like on the Internet without the (often paid) filters, “experts” and “critics”.


    Comment by fflambeau — July 30, 2019 @ 2:37 am

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