Dwelling on the past: Piano Concerto No. 2

The challenge for composers when writing the final movement of a concerto is to wrap up the piece by bringing back themes from previous movements, introducing something new, showing off the soloist’s technical ability, and by leaving the listener with a distinct message. It could be one of disillusionment, satisfaction, joy, even excitement. Often, I imagine the composer thinking, Ok, I’ve said all I want to say. Now for a bit of fun.

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The final movement of a symphony or concerto is often the most difficult for listeners when it comes to finding meaning. There is no easy answer to the question: “what is the composer saying here?” Final movements are often the least cohesive and can jump around between different sentiments. For example, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Movement 3 begins with an almost comic interlude. This, after ending an incredibly delicate, emotional second movement, seems to snap us out of a trance and bring us back down to earth where time is ticking again. In the first half of the clip below the feeling is light and comical, but it quickly morphs into anxiety. And time seems to be ticking faster.

While listening to this movement, I imagine that I have just awaken from the most sweet dream (movement 2) and now I must act quickly to make that dream a reality, or it will be lost forever. Much of this movement feels frantic. Of course, Rachmaninov takes this opportunity to write an insane run in the left hand that is mind-blowing to me still, after dozens of hearings. It is hard to believe that just ten fingers are producing that many notes.

1zhY8The new theme that is introduced is reminiscent of the slower, sweeter theme of the second movement. There is something about the way this melody sounds that reminds me of a romanticized Middle East, like in the movies. Like a bright, wide-open landscape with golden sand shimmering in the sun. Lawrence of Arabia, anyone?

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The remaining clips I’ll share convey the sense of longing that Rachmaninov comes back to again and again. It is the near obsession, the intense longing for something or someone who may only exist in dreaming. It is the longing for a happier, better reality than the one we currently find ourselves in. It grows more intense as the movement progresses. First we find it in the piano, then with greater intensity and dissonance with the full orchestra.

Sometimes I think Rachmaninov never really gets past the second movement in this concerto. It seems to be the climax of the concerto, and because it is such a masterpiece, it seems that anything he could have written after would exist in the shadow of it. Though this is my least favorite of the three movements, it is still worth a listen because of the raw virtuosity of the pianist and the closure that finally does come at the end.

Up next: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’ll be a wild ride.

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Serene/content: Debussy

I thought you could use a break from all of that fear-mongering I did last week. So this week, I hope to resolve all of that tension. That is all Classical music is, really: tension and relaxation. Conflict and resolution. When music theorists talk about “functional music,” that is what they mean. There are certain notes, chords, and orchestrations whose function is to cause tension and there are certain ones that resolve tension. The best composers delay the resolution as long as possible, drawing your ear in and then delivering great satisfaction when it comes. It’s like the anticipation of opening presents on Christmas morning. Ok, time for some definitions:

content |kənˈtent| – adjective – in a state of peaceful happiness

serene |səˈrēn| – adjective – calm, peaceful, and untroubled; tranquil
or as a noun – an expanse of clear sky or calm sea

I love the noun serene. If gives me such a great canvas on which to put my impressions of this music.

Clair de lune is the third movement of a piano suite by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) called Suite bergamasque. Though Debussy was mainly an Impressionist composer, this piece is in the Romantic style. While this piece really needs no introduction, I will provide some context to help enrich your listening experience. If it is distracting, then just play the clips and relax!

Clair de lune is French for “moonlight.” While I recommend listening to the whole suite, it is self-evident why this piece is so popular when you listen to it. The piece was named after a beautiful poem by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). Here is the English translation:

Moonlight
Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.
All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

You may hear this read aloud in the original French as well as English here.

The first clip is the essence of contentment for me. As some would say, it takes me to my “happy place.” I imagine myself lying in a boat in calm waters at night, looking up at the moon and stars, feeling a gentle breeze across my face, hearing the sound of it passing through the trees, ruffling the leaves.

This next section seems to wisp me away to a peaceful, beautiful environment. As I listen, I feel my muscles in my back, shoulders, and neck relax. Here’s another definition for you:

sublime |səˈblīm| – adjective – of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe

And that’s it! I’m not going to put too many demands on you this week by going into to much musical detail. I just want to enjoy the music with you and exchange ideas on its affect.