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Blogging Project: Analyzing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos

My blog is littered with uncompleted, overly-ambitious projects. Here is yet another one.  Since I became musically conscious sometime during my childhood, I have been fond of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music, in particular his piano concertos. I remember tape recording these pieces from my transistor radio, listening to old 78 RPM phonograph records I found in the basement of our house, and playing on our out of tune Story and Clark piano the themes of the Second Concerto in a volume of “tunes” I found in a volume titled “Music For Millions” or something of the sort.  No YouTube or Google in those days! Even though it was far, far above my piano playing skills I ordered the solo part of the 2nd Concerto from a local music store in Jenkintown, PA.  I remember how excited I was when it finally arrived and I opened it up. I had listened over and over to a set of 45 RPM records by William Kapell (I didn’t know his tragic history then) of this concerto (each movement was divided between 3 records!) and it was and still remains my favorite recording. I had imagined in my head what the opening arpeggios would look like, but in the actual sheet music everything looked foreign and surprisingly different from what I had imagined.  I spent a lot of time back then forcing my fingers to play the lyrical second theme of the first movement more or less successfully.  Later on I had to unlearn the awkward fingering I had made up back then.  In any case this is a long preamble to my project, which is to analyze all four concertos.

I have been familiar with these concertos my whole life, have various recordings, have the scores for them all, and have studied and played through them. I will discuss each concerto (and maybe the Rhapsody on A Theme of Paganini too) separately in upcoming posts, but will give a hint here of some of the themes I would like to discuss.  These include the influence of 20th century advances in harmony such as dissonance and polytonality (e.g. the last variation in the Rhapsody contains arpeggios with triads in 2 different keys), self-reference (e.g. the beginning of the 4th Concerto as a reflection of the end of the 3rd Concerto),  and variant versions of the concertos. Regarding the last theme, Rachmaninoff was notoriously self-critical with the result that all the concertos save the 2nd (which I’ll argue is one of the most “perfect” pieces ever composed, especially the first movement) have multiple versions. The 1st Concerto as published and performed nowadays is really pretty much the last concerto and is markedly different from the original 1st Concerto. The 3rd Concerto has numerous ossias and was at least in the past often performed with various cuts. And the 4th Concerto has 3 different forms, with the final published version markedly different in tone and character than its manuscript version. I’ll attempt to publish my analyses in bits and pieces in upcoming posts on this blog.

By mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

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