My previous blog entry on Rachmaninoff’s concertos may have raised some skepticism amongst those who consider the composer to be, whatever his other merits, a conservative in his musical language. Rachmaninoff himself helped foster this notion with quotes like “I am organically incapable of understanding modern music….” Yet a composer on personal terms with Prokofiev and Scriabin among others could hardly fail to be influenced by some of their modernity. I’ll show here one little snippet to prove my point. It seems that nothing is less radical or more traditional than Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. But let’s examine some of the harmonies of the first movement, just before the coda.
At the beginning of this excerpt, marked 1, the piano plays a B natural above a root position C minor chord, the key of the movement. This is a Cmin7 chord, dissonant, but fairly conservative and common in the Romantic Era. The B is flattened and then suspended over the dominant of g minor, resolving to an A in the next measure. Again, fairly typical. Rather than the expected g minor chord, Rachmaninoff prolongs the tension by making the next chord an augmented 6th chord, at mark 2. The piano however repeats the A natural of the last measure, over the A flat in the base, essentially an augmented octave or minor 9th. This A natural can be considered another passing note, since it resolves to A flat the next half note. Certainly more daring than the previous measures harmonically, but the best is yet to come. The orchestra suspends the A flat into the next measure, but the harmony underneath is the 3rd inversion of a c minor 6th chord, i.e. with A natural in the base (mark 3). What’s amazing about this chord and what sets it apart from the cadence at mark 1 is that the A flat is being suspended (and actually repeated by the piano) over not just an A natural, but an A natural and a G natural. This is essentially 2 minor seconds on top of each other; if the spacing of the notes were different this would be a tone cluster (G – A flat – A). A lesser composer than Rachmaninoff would have made the top note an A natural, or the bass an A flat, but instead the cadence as written is one of the most poignant in music. One wonders if Rachmaninoff, the professed musical conservative, struggled a bit with this harmony before committing to it. Next time you listen to this concerto pay attention to this cadence — it has an odd sound, almost like quarter tone music, that is unique and a bit disquieting. It’s an incredibly moving effect. It may not be Prokofiev or Scriabin, but still daring harmonically for a composer too often deemed a holdover from the 19th century.