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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Longing: Piano Concerto No. 2

This is a reposting from my series on emotion in Classical music from September 2012.

RachmaninovSergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favorite composers because of the intriguing tonality, unique instrument combinations (scoring), and mostly because of the passionate emotion that is packed into every piece. His piano concertos are especially worth exploring because of their accessibility to audiences and the incredible virtuosity in the piano parts. Because Rachmaninov had such incredibly large hands, he was well suited to the piano and produced some of the most well-known music in piano repertoire.

To continue with my exploration of emotion in Classical music, today’s clips come from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt 2: Adagio Sostenuto. The title of this movement simply means slow, smooth, and sustained. Not very descriptive. But the music is incredibly descriptive of one emotion in particular: longing. Longing for deep satisfaction. For intimate love. To know and to be known deeply. To be near a loved one and see their smile, even if for a moment. The kind of longing that takes away breath and causes deep sighing. When I listen to this music, I get a sense of longing so intense that it makes my heart hurt. And yet it is worth listening to every minute because of how beautiful and inspiring it is.

Ending scene from the movie “Love Actually”

The simple melody first appears in the clarinet, which produces a sweet, innocent tone quality that could soften even the most callous listener. The quiet, warmth of the strings playing major chords in the background and the piano accompanying the clarinet brings about a supported, safe feeling.

But as they say, “love hurts.” There are few pieces that characterize romantic love that do not also display a dissonant longing, hurting, or yearning for something that once was that may never be again. Or a longing for something that can never be, except fantasy. This next clip captures this with great accuracy. The key switches from major to minor as Rachmaninov alters the melody to sound sad. It sounds sad because the middle note in the 3-note chord is one half-step lower and because the melody goes down instead of staying up. It speaks to how being in love can be disappointing when there is distance, hurt feelings, or because it just doesn’t satisfy the feeling of deep longing.

Rachmaninov then takes us on a whole emotional journey (or some might call it a roller coaster) only to return to the original melody, much stronger and more certain than before. This clip starts with the last note of the melody in the strings, but instead of ending the movement, the melody turns around and goes up. The feeling here is a flower blossoming in the sun, opening to reveal its radiance. To me it feels like one big, orchestral embrace.  It’s like the music holds me, grips me, and refuses to let go. It feels like divine love.

You’ll have to excuse my extreme sentimentality in this post. To some, this music is too romantic and sentimental, like overly-rich fudge. It is easy to write off Classical music of this kind because cynicism is so prevalent. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But my hope is that you’ll let your guard down and listen to the whole concerto (32:30) and allow yourself to be swept away by the music. I hope it will leave you feeling loved and satisfied, and perhaps longing for more the way it does for me.

This post is dedicated to my wife who is my encouragement, my inspiration, and whose love I long for more than ever after seven years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.

Love and loss: Piano Concerto No. 2

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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.

Dance of Death: Symphonic Dances

Ballroom dancers

Ballroom dancers

Continuing my series on Rachmaninov is the second movement from Symphonic Dances: Andante con moto (moderately slow with motion). This movement is a more obvious symphonic dance, a waltz to be precise. But I think you’ll find it very different from, say, a Johann Strauss II (1825-1899 aka “Waltz King”) waltz from the very first few notes.

A Strauss Waltz is typically in a major key and has a light, happy feeling. Rachmaninov’s waltz is in a minor key that modulates often, giving it an ominous, uneasy feeling. Some Strauss waltzes begin with a trumpet fanfare made up of major chords to announce the start of the dance, so dancers may find a partner. Rachmaninov’s fanfare is more like a broken train horn, a dissonant alarm from the peace and calm with which we ended the previous movement:

After some commentary in the form of a violin solo that settles into the minor key, the orchestra sinks into this beautiful, elegant, yet haunting melody played by English horn.

This melody of Rachmaninov’s is brilliant for two reasons. First, it has what every appealing phrase of music has: an antecedent and a consequent. A question and answer. Listen to the clip again. In the first half of the clip, the pitch is continually going upwards, the same way the inflection in our voice does when asking a question. The last note of the question is the note D, which leads us to the first note of the answer, G. Remember the song Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music? It is a song to teach how to sing the notes of a scale using Solfege. Remember the line, “That will lead us back to Do“? Well in this case, because the piece is in the key of G minor, Do is the note G. So is the note D. What are the last two words Julie Andrews sings? “So Do.” Question, answer. That is why it is so satisfying to listen to music. There are questions and answers; tension and relaxation.

Solfege

“Solfege”

The second reason this melody is so appealing is because it draws us in. Rachmaninov only features the note G (or Do) once in any significant way. Otherwise, the other notes dance around it, avoiding it as long as possible. He knew that our ears are always subconsciously yearning to hear Do. Every good composer delays this satisfaction to keep our interest.

I titled this post “Dance of Death” because the melody and harmony are so haunting. Please read my earlier post, “Fear of Death: Rachmaninov” where I explained the character of this piece in greater detail. This is the clip from that article of the climax of the movement:

What a devilishly delightful bit of writing that is! I love how Rachmaninov takes his original melody and builds upon it, going beyond its original form to add drama and suspense. After the fear of death rears its ugly head, the waltz speeds up into what I imagine to be a chase scene. It gets faster, louder, and seems to have a violent conclusion as the orchestra beats us over the head with the loud, short, unison rhythms that some conductors call “punches.”

Investigator_Medium_Size.30223337_stdThis whole movement could be imagined as one great chase scene, from the prison sirens going off at the beginning, to the slow, sneaky escape in the moonlight, to a dramatic chase by police, ending with the escape and fiendish laughter of the villain. But you don’t have to take my interpretation. Buy Symphonic Dances, listen to the whole piece, and use your imagination. Look for the questions and answers, the suspense, the “Ti-Do‘s,” “So-Do‘s” and the changes of character. If you learn to do this, I promise you’ll never be bored by Classical music again.

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.

Longing: Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favorite composers because of the intriguing tonality, unique instrument combinations (scoring), and mostly because of the passionate emotion that is packed into every piece. His piano concertos are especially worth exploring because of their accessibility to audiences and the incredible virtuosity in the piano parts. Because Rachmaninov had such incredibly large hands, he was well suited to the piano and produced some of the most well-known music in piano repertoire.

To continue with my exploration of emotion in Classical music, today’s clips come from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt 2: Adagio Sostenuto. The title of this movement simply means slow, smooth, and sustained. Not very descriptive. But the music is incredibly descriptive of one emotion in particular: longing. Longing for deep satisfaction. For intimate love. To know and to be known deeply. To be near a loved one and see their smile, even if for a moment. The kind of longing that takes away breath and causes deep sighing. When I listen to this music, I feel a longing for love so intense that it makes my heart hurt. And yet it is worth listening to every minute because of how beautiful and inspiring it is.

Ending scene from the movie “Love Actually”

The simple melody first appears in the clarinet, which produces a sweet, innocent tone quality that could soften even the most callous listener. The quiet, warmth of the strings playing major chords in the background and the piano accompanying the clarinet brings about a supported, safe feeling.

But as they say, “love hurts.” There are few pieces that characterize romantic love that do not also display a dissonant longing, hurting, or yearning for something that once was that may never be again. Or a longing for something that can never be, except fantasy. This next clip captures this with great accuracy. The key switches from major to minor as Rachmaninov alters the melody to sound sad. It sounds sad because the middle note in the 3-note chord is one half-step lower and because the melody goes down instead of staying up. It speaks to how being in love can be disappointing when there is distance, hurt feelings, or because it just doesn’t satisfy the feeling of deep longing.

Rachmaninov then takes us on a whole emotional journey (or some might call it a roller coaster) only to return to the original melody, much stronger and more certain than before. This clip starts with the last note of the melody in the strings, but instead of ending the movement, the melody turns around and goes up. The feeling here is a flower blossoming in the sun, opening to reveal its radiance. To me it feels like one big, orchestral embrace.  It’s like the music holds me, grips me, and refuses to let go. It feels like divine love.

You’ll have to excuse my extreme sentimentality in this post. To some, this music is too romantic and sentimental, like overly-rich fudge. It is easy to write off Classical music of this kind because cynicism is so prevalent. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But my hope is that you’ll let your guard down and listen to the whole concerto (32:30) and allow yourself to be swept away by the music. I hope it will leave you feeling loved and satisfied, and perhaps longing for more the way it does for me.

This post is dedicated to my wife who is my encouragement, my inspiration, and whose love I long for more than ever after six years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.