Piano Concerto No. 2

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concerto /kən-chĕr′tō/

Definition of Concerto


  1. A composition for an orchestra and one or more solo instruments, typically in three movements.
  2. In music: A concert.
  3. Same as concertante.

Origin of the Concerto

via Britannica:

The word concerto has given trouble to music historians concerned with word origins because within a century after its first known applications to music, in the early 1500s, it had acquired two meanings that would seem to be mutually exclusive. One meaning still current in Italian is that of “agreement,” or, as in English, of being “in concert.” The other is that of “competing” or “contesting,” from the Latin concerto, -are, -atus (“to contend”). Probably derived from the same Latin word are such related terms as the Italian conserto, concertato, and concertante; the Spanish concierto; the French concert and concertant; and the English consort. Yet it is this dual meaning itself that offers the most tangible thread of unity throughout the four-century history of the concerto in its various forms. In other words, the concerto, in whatever guise it assumes, reveals a continuing need to resolve the antithetical ideas of concord and contest. The balance between contest and concord is the concerto’s particular solution to the problem of variety within unity that must be resolved in all dynamic art forms.

In the 16th century the word concerto embodied several meanings. As early as 1519 in Rome it referred simply to a vocal or instrumental group (un concerto di voci in musica). By 1551 it was used with implications of musical texture, specifically of the contrast of soprano voice with bass and alto (“soprano in concerto col basso & alto”). By 1565 the cognate word concertato was being used in reference to both voices and instruments. And by 1584 a Venetian title, Musica…per cantar e sonar in concerti, brought forth the meaning of group presentations or concerts.

And now that we know what we are about, let’s look at the piece. The work of musical art was composed by Russian composer and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff. From wiki:

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minorOp. 18, is a concerto for piano and orchestra composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff between June 1900 and April 1901. The piece established his fame as a concerto composer and is one of his most enduringly popular pieces.

After the disastrous 1897 premiere of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff suffered a psychological breakdown and depression that prevented composition for three years. In 1899, he was supposed to perform the Second Piano Concerto in London, which he had not composed yet, and instead made a successful conducting debut. The success led to an invitation to return next year with his First Piano Concerto; however, he promised to reappear with a newer and better one. After an unsuccessful meeting with Leo Tolstoy meant to revoke his writer’s block, relatives decided to introduce Rachmaninoff to the neurologist Nikolai Dahl, whom he visited daily from January to April 1900. Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to Dahl for successfully treating him by restoring his health and confidence in composition.

From the summer to the autumn of 1900, he worked on the second and third movements of the concerto, with the first movement causing him difficulties. Both movements of the unfinished concerto were first performed with him as soloist and his cousin Alexander Siloti conducting on 15 December [O.S. 2 December] 1900. The first movement was finished in 1901 and the complete work had an astoundingly successful premiere on 9 November [O.S. 27 October] 1901, again with the same duo. Gutheil published the concerto the same year.



Sergei Rachmaninoff had been working on his First Symphony from January to September 1895. In 1896, after a long hiatus, the music publisher and philanthropist Mitrofan Belyayev agreed to include it at one of his Saint Petersburg Russian Symphony Concerts. However, there were setbacks: complaints were raised about the symphony by his teacher Sergei Taneyev upon receiving its score, which elicited revisions by Rachmaninoff, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov expressed dissatisfaction during rehearsal. Eventually, the symphony was scheduled to be premiered in March 1897. Before the due date, he was nervous but optimistic due to his prior successes, which included winning the Moscow Conservatory Great Gold Medal and earning the praise of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The premiere, however, was a disaster; Rachmaninoff listened to the cacophonous performance backstage to avoid getting humiliated by the audience and eventually left the hall when the piece finished. The symphony was brutally panned by critics, and apart from issues with the piece, the poor performance of the possibly drunk conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was also to blame. César Cui wrote:

Rachmaninoff in 1897, after the premiere of his First Symphony

If there were a conservatoire in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a programme symphony on “The Seven Plagues of Egypt“, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and delighted the inmates of Hell.

Rachmaninoff initially remained aloof to the failure of his symphony, but upon reflection, suffered a psychological breakdown that stopped his compositional output for three years. He adopted a lifestyle of heavy drinking to forget about his problems. Depression consumed him, and although he rarely composed, he still engaged in performance, accepting a conducting position by the Russian entrepreneur Savva Mamontov at the Moscow Private Russian Opera from 1897 to 1898. It provided income for the cash-strapped Rachmaninoff; he eventually left as it didn’t allow time for other activities and due to the incompetence of the theater, which turned piano lessons into his main source of income.

At the end of 1898, Rachmaninoff was invited to perform in London in April 1899, where he was expected to play his Second Piano Concerto. However, he wrote to the London Philharmonic Society that he couldn’t finish a second concerto due to illness. The society then requested he play his First Piano Concerto, but he declined, dismissing it as a student piece. Instead, he offered to conduct one of his orchestral pieces, to which the society agreed, provided he also performed at the piano. He made a successful conducting debut, performing The Rock and playing piano pieces such as his popular Prelude in C-sharp minor. The society secretary Francesco Berger invited him to return next year with a performance of the First Concerto. However, he promised to return with a newer and better one, although he did not perform it there until 1908. Alexander Goldenweiser, a peer from the same conservatory, wanted to play his new concerto at a Belyayev concert in Saint Petersburg, thinking its consummation was inevitable. Rachmaninoff, who had thoughts of composing it three years earlier, sent a letter to him stating that nothing had been penned so far.

For the rest of the summer and autumn of 1899, Rachmaninoff’s unproductiveness worsened his depression. A friend of the Satins (relatives of Rachmaninoff), in an attempt to revoke the depressed composer’s writer’s block, suggested he visit Leo Tolstoy. However, his visit to the querulous author only served to increase his despondency, and he became so self-critical that he was rendered unable to compose. The Satins, anxious about his well-being, persuaded him to visit Nikolai Dahl, a neurologist who specialized in hypnosis, with whom they had a good experience. Desperate, he agreed without hesitation. From January to April 1900, he visited him daily free of charge. Dahl restored Rachmaninoff’s health as well as his confidence to compose. Himself a musician, Dahl engaged in lengthy conversations surrounding music with Rachmaninoff, and would repeat a triptych formula while the composer was half-asleep: “You will begin to write your concerto … You will work with great facility … The concerto will be of an excellent quality”. Even though the results were not readily evident, they were still successful.

This is an amazing story. Rachmaninoff was a completely broken man – humiliated, depressed, poor, and listless. At the end of his rope, he was pressed by others to seek out a hypnotist and from there, he was restored to enough health that he composed the Concerto No. 2, one of the most famous pieces of all time.

I love this Concerto. It’s beautiful and peaceful, with moments of whimsy and filled at its heights with longing. That it was brought into existence by a man struggling to find inner peace makes it all the more remarkable.

Structurally, the piece is written in three movements.

  1. Moderato (C minor)

    The opening movement begins with a series of chromatic bell-like tollings on the piano that build tension, eventually climaxing in the introduction of the main theme by the violins, violas, and first clarinet.

    In this first section, while the melody is stated by the orchestra, the piano takes on the role of accompaniment, consisting of rapid oscillating arpeggios between both hands which contribute to the fullness and texture of the section’s sound. The theme soon goes into a slightly lower register, where it is carried on by the cello section, and then is joined by the violins and violas, soaring to a climactic C note. After the statement of the long first theme, a quick and virtuosic “piu mosso” pianistic figuration transition leads into a short series of authentic cadences, accompanied by both a crescendo and an accelerando; this then progresses into the gentle, lyrical second theme in E♭ major, the relative key. The second theme is first stated by the solo piano, with light accompaniment coming from the upper wind instruments. A transition which follows the chromatic scale eventually leads to the final reinstatement of the second theme, this time with the full orchestra at a piano dynamic. The exposition ends with an agitated closing section with scaling arpeggios on the E♭ major scale in both hands.

    The agitated and unstable development borrows motifs from both themes, changing keys very often and giving the melody to different instruments while a new musical idea is slowly formed. The sound here, while focused on a particular tonality, has ideas of chromaticism. Two sequences of pianistic figurations lead to a placid, orchestral reinstatement of the first theme in the dominant 7th key of G. The development furthers with motifs from the previous themes, climaxing towards a B♭ major “più vivo” section. A triplet arpeggio section leads into the accelerando section, with the accompanying piano playing chords in both hands, and the string section providing the melody reminiscent of the second theme. The piece reaches a climax with the piano playing dissonant fortississimo (fff) chords, and with the horns and trumpets providing the syncopated melody.

    While the orchestra restates the first theme, the piano, that on the other occasion had an accompaniment role, now plays the march-like theme that had been halfly presented in the development, thus making a considerable readjustment in the exposition, as in the main theme, the arpeggios in the piano serve as an accompaniment. This is followed by a piano-solo which continues the first theme and leads into a descending chromatic passage to a pianississimo A♭ major chord. Then the second theme is heard played with a horn solo. The entrance of the piano reverts the key back into C minor, with triplet passages played over a mysterious theme played by the orchestra. Briefly, the piece transitions to a C major glissando in the piano, and is placid until drawn into the closing section marked Meno Mosso. This is then followed by a brief but turbulent coda based on the first subject, in which the movement ends in a C minor fortissimo, with the same authentic cadence as those that followed the first statement of the first theme in the exposition

2. Adagio sostenuto – Più animato – Tempo I (C minor → E major)

At the beginning of the A section, the piano enters, playing a simple arpeggiated figure. This opening piano figure was composed in 1891 as the opening of the Romance from Two Pieces For Six Hands. The main theme is initially introduced by the flute, before being developed by an extensive clarinet solo. The motif is passed between the piano and then the strings.

Then the B section is heard. It builds up to a short climax centered on the piano, which leads to cadenza for piano.

The original theme is repeated, and the music appears to die away using chords on the piano of different inversions, slowly descending to a finish with just the soloist in E major.

3. Allegro scherzando (E major → C minor → C major)

After the original fast tempo and musical drama ends, a short transition from the piano solo leads to the second lyrical theme in B♭ major is introduced by the oboe and violas. This theme maintains the motif of the first movement’s second theme. The exposition ends with a suspenseful closing section in B♭ major.

After that an extended and energetic development section is heard. The development is based on the first theme of the exposition. It maintains a very improvisational quality, as instruments take turns playing the stormy motifs.

In the recapitulation, the first theme is truncated to only 8 bars on the tutti, because it was widely used in the development section. After the transition, the recapitulation’s 2nd theme appears, this time in D♭ major, half above the tonic. However, after the ominous closing section ends it then builds up into a triumphant climax in C major from the beginning of the coda. The movement ends very triumphantly in the tonic major with the same four-note rhythm ending the Third Concerto in D minor.

This is a great piece of music. We are fortunate that the composer fought against his inner demons and was able to gift humanity with something beautiful in the midst of that struggle. There is something to learn from that. He lived another forty years after his darkest days at the turn of the century, dying in 1943 as one of the most successful composers of all-time. Piano Concerto No. 2 was composed in the midst of his personal turning point.

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