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Composed: 1901

Length: c. 33 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum and cymbals), strings, and solo piano

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 8, 1927, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting, with Benno Moiseiwitsch, soloist

About this Piece

The teenaged Sergei Prokofiev, already a discerning pianist and critic, described Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto as “a very beautiful and famous concerto…it begins with chords, and then a broad theme do-re-do.” The Concerto does open dramatically, with a series of rich piano solo chords tolling like bells for eight measures in F-major, before the orchestra enters with the surging main “do-re-do” (C-D-C) theme in C minor. Another Russian pianist, Nikolai Medtner, called this dynamic, sobbing motif “one of the most strikingly Russian of themes. There is no ethnographic trimming here, no dressing up, no decking out in national dress, no folksong intonation, and yet every time, from the first bell stroke, you feel the figure of Russia rising up to her full height.”

Oddly, Rachmaninoff did not complete the Concerto’s first movement until after the remaining two. In fact, the last two movements were the first to be heard publicly, at a concert in Moscow, in December of 1900. Rachmaninoff completed the first movement in April of 1901 and played the solo part at the concerto’s premiere the following autumn. Its enthusiastic reception roused the famously moody composer out of the depression he had been battling since the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 and firmly established his reputation in Russia. Abroad, too, the work enjoyed immediate success. Rachmaninoff dedicated the Concerto to Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who had helped him overcome his crippling feelings of inferiority and insecurity.

The high level of inspiration evident in the opening bars never flags. A second, more lyrical, theme provides contrast, along with a seven-note march motif developed dramatically in a climactic Maestoso section, where the piano thunders rhythmic chords over the main theme in the orchestra. The notable absence of a cadenza for the soloist creates a strong sense of flowing and uninterrupted continuity. The first movement’s themes reappear later at strategic moments.

In the second movement, the mood changes, dominated by a slow, pastoral theme in E major and 4/4 meter, but with surprising offbeat stresses in the accompaniment. A fast, marching theme opens the finale, before Rachmaninoff introduces what became one of his most popular melodies in the oboe and violas, a sad and swooping theme that is languid and exotically colored in character. Passed several times almost unchanged between soloist and orchestra, it yields to a breathless coda that breaks the dreamy mood. Throughout, soloist and orchestra are harmonious partners, never competitors, and the supply of slightly melancholy (but never lugubrious) lyricism seems endless.

Over the years, the Concerto entered the realm of popular culture. Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman adapted the last movement’s second theme into the croony song “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” recorded by the young Frank Sinatra. Numerous scores for film—Grand Hotel, Brief Encounter, The Seven Year Itch—also feature its music. —Harlow Robinson