At the age of 20, Sergei Rachmaninoff was facing an existential crisis when the very foundations of his life’s purpose were shaken and stirred by a series of unfortunate events.
First, the death of his more-than-a-mentor. “Tchaikovsky’s sudden death, in November 1893, was a great blow to me, I lost not only a fatherly friend who had set me an example as a musician, which, consciously and unconsciously, I had always followed, but also a helpful and energetic patron of my young but steadily growing musical activities, a loyal supporter and faithful adviser who I needed badly for my first faltering steps in the world of music.”
Downhill from there, the 1897 premiere of his First Symphony totally bombed. One critic likened it to a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt and suggested that it would only be appreciated by the “inmates” of a music conservatory in Hell. Ouch.
Dejected, Rachmaninoff’s bank account was falling in the same direction as his self-esteem, and fast. Then, his boyhood hero Leo Tolstoy basically told him he sucked. And to top it all off, he really wanted to marry his fiancée Natalia Satina (give the guy something to celebrate), but the Church was stalling the process.
Seven years of torment and being “sick at heart” had passed (did he break a mirror?), and finally with the help of psychologist Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninoff began to regain his confidence through sessions of auto-suggestive therapy. His hypnosis mantra, “You will begin to write your concerto…You will work with great facility…The concerto will be of an excellent quality…” Whisper: If you build it, they will come.
The result of this positive thinking was the swooning Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Arguably, the most popular work of his career, with the help of a few fans of course.
The first movement became the basis of Frank Sinatra’s “I Think of You”, 1957. In the hush of evening as shadows steal across my lonely room, I think of you, I think of you. From afar the music of violins come softly through the gloom, all I can do, is think of you.
Eric Carmen launched his solo career in 1975 with the power ballad “All By Myself”, using the melody from the second movement of Rach 2. Celine Dion gave the song the full drama and desperation it deserved with her heart-pounding, 1996 version.
When I was young, I never needed anyone, makin’ love was just for fun. Those days are gone. Livin’ alone, I think of all the friends I’ve known. But when I dial the telephone, nobody’s home. All by myself, don’t wanna be, all by myself anymore. All by myself, don’t wanna live, all by myself anymore.
And the third movement was made the theme for Frank Sinatra’s 1945 song of longing, “Full Moon And Empty Arms”.
Full moon and empty arms, tonight I’ll use the magic moon to wish upon. And next full moon, if my one wish comes true, my empty arms will be filled with you.
And there you have it. You have just listened to the Coles Notes version of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Whether the inspiration came from the sad and pathetic years of rejection and self-doubt, falling in and out of love, or from the hope and pressure of his brilliant future as a composer, conductor, and performer, Rachmaninoff himself put it this way:
“What I try to do, when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly what is in my heart when I am composing. Whether there is love, or bitterness, or sadness or religion, these feelings become a part of my music and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”
The pleasure of Classical knock-offs.