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The self-doubt of Sergei Rachmaninoff

Posted in Historical articles, History, Music, Psychology on Thursday, 18 August 2011

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This edited article about Sergei Rachmaninoff originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1027 published on 14 November 1981.

Rachmaninoff, picture, image, illustration

Sergei Rachmaninoff playing the piano, by Andrew Howat

Some of the great composers have been the sons of musicians and from their earliest years there was little doubt about what profession they themselves were going to follow. Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were all children of musicians. It is not surprising therefore that they followed in their fathers’ footsteps.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was different. His father had been an army officer and his mother was the daughter of a general, so that if he had followed family tradition young Sergei would have gone into the army.

But it was not to be, for his father was not very good at handling money and wasted a great deal of his capital on gambling and risky investments. So the family lost most of the land which it had once owned.

Fortunately, young Sergei showed early evidence of musical talent and this was spotted by his cousin, who was himself a pianist and conductor of some note. If his family background did little to help him musically, his music teacher certainly did, for he was extremely strict.

As anyone who has studied the piano knows, it is an instrument which requires constant practice especially of rather repetitive things such as scales and exercises. The young Sergei Rachmaninoff was usually at the piano at six in the morning to begin his practice.

But all this hard work had good results, for he managed to acquire a skill at the keyboard which was to last through his adult years. In his lifetime he was rather better known as a performer than as a composer.

Rachmaninoff, who was born in 1873, studied first in St. Petersburg and then moved to Moscow where he studied at the school of music. Here he won a gold medal for an opera entitled Aleko which he had composed.

Rachmaninoff decided to try his hand at writing a symphony, which had its first performance in March, 1897. The work was badly played and was disliked by both the critics and the public.

After the performance Rachmaninoff left the concert hall in a daze and wandered about the streets of the city. It was his first real failure and he found it very difficult to take. Suddenly he remembered that some friends had invited him to a dinner party and, realising they would be worried if he did not turn up, he hurried to their house.

His experience with the symphony had a terrible effect on the young composer. He became listless and moody and seemed to have lost the urge to compose entirely. In fact he wrote nothing else for three years.

His friends, worried by his depressed state, suggested he visit Dr Dahl. He was no ordinary doctor, for he concentrated on curing diseases of the mind rather than the body. His speciality was treatment by hypnosis. He would put people into a sleep-like trance and then attempt to get to the root of their problems.

No doubt Rachmaninoff himself had doubts about this sort of treatment at first; but, probably because he was in a depressed condition, he was willing to try anything.

Despite the strangeness of his methods, Dr. Dahl seems to have been a very able doctor. In addition he had a wide knowledge of music and himself played the cello, so that he was able to converse with Rachmaninoff about his compositions.

Slowly the composer’s desire to write music returned. He had provisionally written one piano concerto and now started work on a second.

There is no knowing whether Rachmaninoff would have regained confidence in his ability without the doctor’s help, but one thing is certain. The Second Piano Concerto, in C minor, was a success and restored the composer’s confidence in himself. It is a really marvellous work, full of haunting tunes, and is still very popular with concert audiences. The composer was sufficiently grateful to the doctor to dedicate the work to Dr Dahl.

Rachmaninoff never experienced a similar crisis in his powers of composition again. He carried on composing and his music is among the most popular of this century, even if some critics have tended to decry his works.

Rachmaninoff, who had made his home in Moscow, left Russia after the revolution of 1917 and settled in America. He died on 28th March, 1943. Rachmaninoff never attempted to have his First Symphony published or performed again. Perhaps he felt that since it had been such a disaster on its first performance, it would be better to forget his failure.

But that was not the end of the story, for during the Second World War some Russian musicians were working in a library and by sheer accident they discovered a set of orchestral parts for the First Symphony. From these they were able to reconstruct the original score, so that the work could be performed once again.

This time it was a resounding success. Indeed it has become one of the composer’s most popular works, often performed at concerts and also recorded.

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