Love and loss: Piano Concerto No. 2

Beach-Candlelight-Dinner

What comes to mind when you think of Romantic music? An intimate, candle-lit dinner with a violinist serenading you while you eat? You are not alone in thinking this because music from the Romantic Era of Western Music History (1815-1910) contains the bulk of pieces that characterize romantic love.

kinopoisk.ruRomantic era composers, such as Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), have a flair for the dramatic. Their themes often depict the supernatural, nature, medieval chivalry, extreme subjectivity, emotionalism, nationalism, and love gained and love lost. Just think of a Leo Tolstoy novel like Anna Karinena which was recently popularized in the 2012 motion picture starring Keira Knightley. The settings for that novel and the composition of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are similar. They both take place in czarist Russia in the late 19th century.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of the most dramatic, meaningful, touching, beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard. When I hear the opening theme from the first movement, Moderato, I imagine a harsh Russian winter. The sense of longing in this clip is universal – a longing to feel warm and comforted.

The second theme in this movement is a surprise because of how delicate and lyrical it is. The orchestra is silent while the piano soloist expresses its most deep, intimate sentiments. What do you long for? What makes you think, “if only I had this one thing, then all of the worries and heartache in my life would be over”? The listener may breathe a sigh of relief just listening to this clip, imagining that his longing for satisfaction was fulfilled.

I love how unpredictable Rachmaninov can be. He takes us on a grand emotional journey, often a roller-coaster, around corners we’d never expect. One moment we’re floating on clouds, feeling completely relaxed and peaceful; the next moment we’re bubbling with excitement and wonder. Listen for the slow tempo with the soft, smooth style at first which breaks away to fast 16th notes in the piano and a more detached style.

At the climax of Moderato, the feeling of longing gives way to desperation, becoming louder, higher in pitch, and increasingly dissonant. When the first theme of this movement comes back, it signals a kind of dramatic resignation. All hopes have been dashed.

“Dashed hopes” – Lady Mary on the PBS drama, Downton Abbey

The outro, or coda, takes us from resignation to disillusionment followed closely by anger. The music mocks, “How could you have longed for that? Did you really think things would turn out that well?” The cellos play just the first half of the lyrical second theme, but this time it has a more sarcastic feel and in a minor key instead of a major key. The anger is signified by the accented piano on the lower notes played by the left hand, a gradually increasing tempo (musical term is accelerando), and an ending in a minor key that seems to communicate that this movement simply could not be over fast enough!

If you enjoyed this post, stay tuned. The adagio movement is coming up next and is filled with some of the most beautiful stuff yet. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Drudgery and dreams: Symphonic Dances

RachmaninovIt is my pleasure to begin my series on Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), one of the better-known composers in Classical music. His music is considered late Romantic period, meaning that it has an emphasis on aesthetic beauty, emotion, and is more free-form than the logical structures and subtlety of the Classical period. Rachmaninov is also known for his beautiful melodies, extraordinary piano compositions and performances (note the big hands in the picture!), and uniquely Russian style.

Most of his compositions were written in czarist Russia before the revolution in 1917, when he fled to the United States after losing all of his property and status as a bourgeois. Rachmaninov did compose five major pieces while in the US however, the last of which was Symphonic Dances (Opus 45). A piece with three movements, Symphonic Dances is much like a symphony for full orchestra, but lacking the slow movement.

There are many exciting themes I’ve discovered in Symphonic Dances: the Drudgery of Everyday Life, the Dream of a Better Life, the Game of Life (not the trademarked one), and The Struggle Between Life and Death. I will cover the first two themes in this post concerning the first dance, entitled “Non-Allegro” (not fast).

Imagine the life of a coal miner. I recently watched October Sky for the first time and I think this first movement from Symphonic Dances would make an excellent part of the soundtrack.

Coal Mining060

Imagine waking up before dawn to the sound of light rain drops against his window, getting dressed, leaving the house half-asleep, and boarding the elevator down, down, down into the mine. Then WHAM! Explosives! (symbolized by the loud, dissonant string chord progression and timpani)

When I hear this main theme, I think of the drudgery of life. How we all have to work even when we do not enjoy our jobs. The driving string ostinato in this clip may symbolize just how brutal working can feel, a sort of savage dance. The repeating minor arpeggios in the clarinet and oboe melody remind me of the repetitive tasks that must be completed.

Perhaps in the drudgery of work there is danger, like in coal mining, where explosives are involved and people are working in less-than-safe conditions. Or perhaps there is worry about payroll cuts and layoffs. This can create suspense, as evident in this clip:

The music here has such a finality, particularly when the orchestra ends these phrases on a minor chord with such certainty. It is amongst these sentiments that one may be inclined to dream. To escape to fantasy. The middle section of Non-Allegro expresses this.

Broad landscapeThe impressions are of floating among clouds where, out of a mist, comes the feeling of longing for a sense of safety and relaxation. Our coal miner is on his break and has “gone to his happy place.” The alto saxophone solo in this clip is rare in orchestral music. Did you think the saxophone could sound so sweet?

While this dream may seem possible for a moment, as expressed by the hopeful-sounding major chords in this next clip, the mood sinks back to drudgery again in the return of the main theme.

In the end of this movement, I imagine our worker going home after a long day, meeting with a friend, and getting some words of wisdom: “Learn to accept your present reality, look for the little things in life that make you happy, and don’t take yourself too seriously.” Perhaps our working character goes to sleep in this last clip, again to the sound of rain drops against his window, with a lighter heart and feeling encouraged.