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Thematic Unity in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto

Rachmaninoff at the time of the 2nd concerto
Rachmaninoff in 1900, the period the 2nd concerto was composed

Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto (1901) was written after a course of psychotherapy for depression that the composer suffered following the disastrous premier of his first symphony.  Apparently this treatment worked, for the concerto is one of the most popular ever written for the instrument.  Its popularity stems not only from its lyrical themes but also from its remarkable construction.  Unlike some other works by the composer there is no excess in this concerto.  It was never revised or needed revision, in contrast to his first and fourth concertos which were revised multiple times.  His popular third concerto contains several ossias (alternative passages), including two different versions of the first movement cadenza.  There are several optional cuts in the third concerto, sanctioned and indeed played by the composer, though today these cuts are rarely made in performance.  The second concerto in contrast has no ossia passages, no first movement cadenza, and one can’t conceive of any place where it could be cut.  In particular the first movement of the second concerto is about as tight and economical a piece of music as Rachmaninoff ever wrote.  There is a remarkable thematic unity throughout the concerto that contributes greatly to the impression it makes on the listener.  I would like to focus on this aspect of the concerto.   Some of the observations I make have been noted by others, in particular in the detailed 1990 Rachmaninoff study by Barrie Martyn.   I have read many books on piano concertos and Rachmaninoff in particular as well as many liner notes over the years and so it is difficult to remember exactly where each idea came from.  Keep in mind this is just a blog post and not a scholarly article!   Also note that the concerto, published in 1901, is in the public domain, even under the crazy copyright laws of the United States (incredibly a work published in 1923 will not go into the public domain until 2019, thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998).   The score is available for download from IMLSP.

The opening of the concerto is announced famously by a series of solo piano chords, clearly a bell-motif similar to the chords that close the famous C sharp minor prelude.  Rachmaninoff was fascinated by the tolling of bells, as is evidenced in many of his works, especially his liturgical pieces (he even wrote a symphonic poem entitled The Bells, after the Edgar Allen Poe poem).  Here is the beginning of the concerto:

1st-mvt-start
Opening chords

The quarter-notes in the last bar, boxed in red, are important, but I will return to them in a moment.  The opening chords are simple but striking.  It takes a large hand to play them unbroken, and it is a little curious that Rachmaninoff himself, despite his double-jointedness from Marfan’s syndrome and hands that could reach a twelfth, breaks the left hand chords, playing the bottom F a moment before the beat in both his recordings.  I suspect he did this for musical rather than mechanical reasons.  Players of his era often rolled chords or otherwise embellished the score to an extent that today’s players rarely do.  In any case, Rachmaninoff’s own performance certainly sanctions the non-simultaneity of all the notes of these chords, for those players who lack the hand span to play them unbroken!

The question arises, did Rachmaninoff reuse these opening chords later on in the concerto, or did he “throw them away,” much as Tchaikovsky threw out the whole opening theme of his 1st concerto, which is never referred to again in the rest of the work?  As it turns out, the same chord sequence (in fact the exact same chords) appear in the orchestra in the beginning of the third movement (in the green box):

3rd-mvt-bell-theme
Bell theme in 3rd movement

It may not seem too curious that Rachmaninoff would reuse these first movement chords in the third movement. It does seem more curious when one realizes that the first movement of the concerto was actually written last, after the final two movements were written and originally performed.  Almost a year separates the performance of the last two movements and the first performance of the complete concerto.  One could imagine that Rachmaninoff already had the first movement in mind when he composed the last two movements.  Or perhaps some of the first movement themes were drawn from the third movement.  It is also possible that Rachmaninoff further revised the last two movements after composing the first movement, thus introducing the first movement themes.  I don’t know if there are manuscripts extant that would reflect this, but it is an interesting question, especially in light of the multiple shared themes throughout the concerto.

Returning to the opening bars, in the last measure there are four notes (F-A flat-F-G, boxed in red) that at first glance (or hearing) may seem to be just a grand flourish leading to the main theme of the movement, but actually they turn out to be the pervasive theme of the movement, gradually becoming more and more important throughout the development section and eventually usurping the recapitulation of the movement.  The four note theme makes multiple appearances.  For example, it is hidden in the lyrical second theme of the first movement (boxed in red):

1st-mvt-theme-2-exp-1
1st movement, 2nd theme

During the development, it appears as an accompanying flourish in the woodwinds to the 1st theme in the strings:

1st-mvt-develop-orch
1st movement, development

Here the theme is mutating, preceded by two repeated notes, and becoming a little more martial in character.  The piano takes over, with a more scherzando mood, again featuring the four note theme:

1st movement, development, piano
1st movement, development, piano

There is an interplay between this four note theme, the theme of repeated notes and the 2nd theme which builds up to the recapitulation.

1st movement, further development
1st movement, further development

The start of recapitulation has a completely different character from the exposition.  The martial theme is in the piano and the orchestra accompanies with the first theme.

1st movement, recapitulation
1st movement, recapitulation

A lyrical version of the four note theme is present throughout the recapitulation of the second theme, altering its character quite poignantly:

1st movement, recapitulation 2nd theme
1st movement, recapitulation 2nd theme

This leads to some wonderful harmonies (see my post on this) and then the coda.  Not surprisingly, the four note theme is present even here:

1st movement, coda
1st movement, coda

Rachmaninoff is not finished with this four note theme, as he quotes it in the second and third movements too:

2nd movement, bridge
2nd movement, bridge

 

3rd movement, beginning
3rd movement, beginning
3rd movement, passage-work
3rd movement, passage-work

It is even possible that the famous “Rachmaninoff signature” with which he ends this and also the third concerto is derived from the repeated note martial manifestation of the four note theme:

3rd movement, end
3rd movement, end

This four note theme is not the only theme that pervades the concerto.  For example, consider the transition between the first and second themes of the first movement.  Rachmaninoff prior to the premiere performance of the movement had a relapse of his perennial self-doubt, fearing the transition was too abrupt.  The transition in actuality is quite clever and is a good example of the economy of the whole first movement.  The transition begins with a brief elaboration by the piano of part of the first theme, followed by an accelerando with rapid piano passage work, followed by rhythmic tonic and dominant chords in c minor (a foreshadowing of the martial mood of the recapitulation).  After this there is a rising arpeggio in the orchestra culminating in a tutti chord, some syncopated triads in E flat major, and then the 2nd theme.  The rising arpeggio foreshadows the second theme, as it is based on a similar arpeggio:

1st movement transition to 2nd theme
1st movement transition to 2nd theme
1st movement, start of 2nd theme
1st movement, start of 2nd theme

The second theme of the first movement bears a certain similarity to the famous melody of the third movement.  Both feature a right hand melody in octaves against left hand quavers.  The third movement melody is long and more intricate, rising to a climax which is used to effect in the final orchestral tutti.  The first movement melody is more limited.  Again note the rising figure with which it begins in the blue box.  Now one can see that the third movement melody also quotes this phrase:

3rd movement, 2nd theme
3rd movement, 2nd theme

In case you think this is a coincidence, Rachmaninoff takes pains to quote this rising phrase at the very end of the 2nd movement.  One can’t hear the unexpected A after the G sharp without getting a sense of deja-vu reflecting back on the 2nd theme of the first movement.

2nd movement, close
2nd movement, close

As always with this kind of analysis,  I could go on, though other than to the hard-core enthusiast of deconstructing works of classical music, I probably made my point quite a while ago.  Perhaps some if not most people just want to listen to the music without trying to understand how it is put together.  Musical analysis to some is akin to revealing how a magician does his tricks and thus spoiling the effect.  I suspect though that if you have read this far you actually, like me, find this interesting.

To summarize, it is surprising to find first movement themes in the latter movements of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto given that the first movement was composed last. Even more remarkable is the terseness and economy of the first movement.  The development of the tiny four note theme into the dominant theme (I use the term in its non-harmonic sense) of the movement is an example of the composer’s excellent craftsmanship which is underappreciated.  Rachmaninoff was often looked down upon in the 20th century by music critics but he has garnered more respect with the passage of time.  Certainly no work has a more secure place in the repertoire than his second concerto, one of the most remarkable works for piano and orchestra in the musical literature.

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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