Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #37/50: Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff

Since I write about classical music and YouTube algorithms being what they are, I often am recommended various classical music-related videos whenever I tune into my YouTube channel. A few weeks ago, a dramatic tagline grabbed my attention. It implored me to “click here” to listen to the saddest music ever created and to learn about how this composition has impacted all who listen to it. I usually ignore clickbait, but on this day, there was just something about it that caused me to actually click away. When I did, I was introduced to a composition created by Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff entitled Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor. What I learned from this video was that one of the motivating factors behind the creation of this composition was that Rachmaninoff had been suffering from clinical depression prior to composing it. This piece of music was his attempt to convey the harrowing emotions involved in being depressed. From there, I did my own research about depression and about this particular composition and discovered that it has been at the centre of many cultural touchstones over the past century. This includes being the foundational idea behind one of England’s most cherished and beloved movies of all time, as well as appearing in one of the 1970s’ greatest one-hit wonder songs and, finally, being the favourite composition of one of the modern world’s saddest and most loved figures, too. In the case of all three of those things, the themes of depression and loneliness and regret all play major roles, dancing in and around the notes of a composition that is justifiably called the world’s saddest piece of music ever recorded.

I will start off by saying that I have never suffered from clinical depression. I have had some sad times over the course of my life, but I think it is important to differentiate sadness from clinical depression because there is a world of difference between the two. The best description that I have ever heard used to describe what depression is like is the term aloneness. This is not the same thing as loneliness. Loneliness is the feeling one gets when you wish you were with other people but can’t be. Many people experience loneliness…seniors in nursing homes, university students who have just left home for the first time, soldiers stationed away from their loved ones…the list is vast and varied. While loneliness is a sad state of affairs to experience, it is not the same as depression and aloneness. Those experiencing depression often state that it feels like absolute nothingness, like being untethered in outer space, like being in a void or a vacuum or existing in an abyss. There is no light in one’s life, no colour, no touch that feels reassuring, no reason to move or think or hope. It is as if a blanket of emotional darkness has wrapped itself around you and you are completely and utterly alone, without any hope of ever seeing and feeling the sun again. With that having been said, let’s meet our featured composer.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Russia in the late 1800s. This was a glorious time in Russian history when it came to the plethora of talented composers who existed then. This was the heyday of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and many more. Into their midst was born Sergei Rachmaninoff. From a very early age he showed a proclivity toward playing the piano. By the age of five, he was being formally trained. By the age of ten, he was enrolled in one of Russia’s most famous music schools. He had legions of admirers who all expected him to grow into an adult who would be regarded as an equal to the many other great composers of the time. And so it was that Sergei Rachmaninoff became a child prodigy on the piano. By the time his teens had ended and he entered his twenties, his instructors deemed him ready to compose his own symphonies and take his place on the greatest stages in Russia as a public performer. So Rachmaninoff created his first finished composition. His debut was scheduled. The excitement in the Russian music community was palpable. The night of his debut finally arrived. The orchestra assembled. The audience settled in. Fellow composers took their seats. The conductor tapped his baton and the performance began. Almost immediately, everyone in attendance could tell that something was wrong. Instead of a tapestry of sound, there was more like a cacophony. The performance was a disaster. A detailed review of the performance that was held afterward, like an autopsy, indicated that the conductor may have been intoxicated and/or that some of the orchestra members may have deliberately sabotaged the performance out of professional jealousy against a composer they may have felt was receiving preferential treatment from the music establishment. Whatever the case, the magnitude of his public humiliation was something that the virtuoso-like Rachmaninoff had never experienced before in his life. He fled from the concert hall, mid-performance. He was so shaken by the scale of his public failure that he had what doctors describe as a psychotic breakdown. Rachmaninoff retreated from the public eye and went into a period of severe clinical depression.

For several years, Rachmaninoff refused to compose, not even playing simple tunes on the piano anymore. He appeared to those who loved and admired him as someone who had given up on life. He gained weight. His ability to practise self-care left him completely. He refused all visitors. But mostly, he experienced a deep sense of aloneness. Generally speaking, when a person falls into clinical depression and does so in isolation, it is often impossible for them to summon the inner strength necessary to pull themselves away from the abyss and return to what constitutes a normal life. Luckily for Rachmaninoff, he did not suffer in isolation. Even though he shooed visitors away, he was surrounded by a network of supporters who sought ways to help him recover, even if he didn’t want to on his own. One of the first treatments he received was to be placed in the company of other creative people who lived life the way he used to in his past. So, the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was brought in to meet with him regularly. The thinking was that Tolstoy would speak to Rachmaninoff about his latest creative endeavours, and by doing so, would arouse within the composer the desire to become creative again himself. But this tactic failed miserably. The impact upon Rachmaninoff of being in the legendary writer’s company was to be reminded of how great Tolstoy was and how great a failure he, himself, was and how he was a fraud in comparison to the great man. Eventually, Tolstoy packed up his books and notepads and went away.

The strategy that ended up reviving Rachmaninoff and helped him to find joy again in life was psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis was a form of therapy made famous by Sigmund Freud. In Rachmaninoff’s case, he was treated by a Russian doctor named Nikolai Dahl, who used a form of psychoanalysis in combination with hypno-therapy to help renew Rachmaninoff’s level of self-esteem and confidence. It was stated that Dahl worked with Rachmaninoff daily for one thousand consecutive days, until one day, when Rachmaninoff declared that he had thought of an idea for a new composition and wanted to play it on the piano. That new composition turned out to be Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor. Unlike his first public performance, Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor was well-received by music critics, fellow composers and general audiences, too. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Dahl and his support network of true friends, Rachmaninoff felt the sunshine on his skin once again and returned to a life of creativity and social engagement. If not for the dawn of The Russian Revolution and the chilling effect that had on creators in the Arts, Rachmaninoff might have lived his entire life in Russia. Instead, as the Revolution began, he left Russia; first for Europe, and eventually for the United States, where he lived until his death in 1943. But regardless of where he lived at any given time, it was his remarkable Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor that is regarded as his greatest work. The irony of this is that this composition was his attempt to describe, with music, the emotional effect of clinical depression. The impact of Rachmaninoff’s creative ability to convey how he felt has manifested itself in countless ways in the century since the Concerto was first created. I imagine it will continue to do so as time goes by. Here is a look at just a few notable instances where Rachmaninoff’s work has appeared in other forms since his death.

Rachmaninoff performing in public again.

One of the first uses of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by another person occurred shortly after Rachmaninoff’s death. British movie director David Lean used the emotional depth of the piece as the foundation for a film called Brief Encounter, which has been hailed as one of the most beloved films in British cinematic history. This movie starred Celia Johnson as a married, middle class, middle aged housewife who meets a handsome stranger while waiting for a train. As the film progresses, she and the stranger find themselves meeting regularly at the train station, and, as plot developments require, they recognize that they are falling in love with one another. However, the one attempt the couple make to consummate their newfound love almost results in their relationship being exposed. Celia Johnson’s character finds herself trapped in a marriage to a kind yet dull husband and has realized that her true soulmate is someone she can never have. The two agree that they cannot have a future together and agree to part after meeting one final time at the train station. However, even that meeting falls flat when an acquaintance arrives and begins chatting away as the train pulls into the station and her loving stranger is forced to mouth a wordless farewell as he boards the train without a proper goodbye. Celia Johnson’s character is then faced with the decision to commit suicide by jumping in front of the train, or else to go home to her now loveless marriage and life. As she makes her choice and returns to her unsuspecting husband waiting at home, the music of Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor plays, reflecting the depth of her sorrow and the deadening of her spirit. Because of its placement within the movie Brief Encounter, Rachmaninoff’s music reached a much wider public audience than it ever had before. As a result, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor came to be something that immediately and intuitively came to represent the feeling of emotional death and despair in the minds of the greater public.

In the 1970s, one of the biggest worldwide music hits was a song by a singer/songwriter named Eric Carmen called “All By Myself”. It is his most well known song. He had long been a fan of classical music and often used the music of various composers as sources of inspiration when composing new material. In the case of “All By Myself”, the entire musical structure of the chorus of this song is lifted directly from the second movement of Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. While Carmen’s song deals more with loneliness than it does with depression, the built-in association of the general public toward associating Rachmaninoff’s music with unending grief positioned Carmen perfectly to strike a chord with his own version of deep sadness and loss and yearning.

But, perhaps one of the most tragic examples of how Rachmaninoff’s music touched a famous soul can be seen in the case of Princess Diana of England. As many of you are aware, what began as a fairytale romance between a very young Diana and an older Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, turned out to be anything but in the end. Theirs was a loveless marriage that played out before the ravenous eyes of the paparazzi and the public, who just couldn’t seem to get enough of the salacious gossip that emanated so regularly from behind the walls of Buckingham Palace. Not only did Diana feel trapped within a loveless marriage (like the woman in the film Brief Encounter), but she also felt trapped within the rigid expectations imposed upon her as a member of the Royal Family. After her death, it was revealed by those who knew her personally that Diana’s favourite piece of classical music was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Not only that, but that she was an accomplished pianist in her own right, and when life got too stressful for her, she would retreat into a private room of hers and would play Rachmaninoff aloud. It was as if it was the only music that conveyed the emotional depth of connection to what she was experiencing in her own heart. I think it is fair to say that there are few public figures so beloved by so many who, at the same time, were so completely unhappy and lost as Diana, Princess of Wales.

If/when you click the link below and listen to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor for yourself, do so in the knowledge that this composition is structured in three parts. By all means, feel free to listen to the whole piece if you so desire. However, the section that has become most well known is found in Movement #2. Feel free to fast forward if you like. Regardless, there are many who claim that the true breathtaking works of staggering genius created by artists of all genres cannot come from routine and everyday experiences. There are schools of thought that say that an artist must suffer for their craft. There are others who insist that mind-altering chemicals are needed to transport the artist from their everyday world to a higher plane beyond their regular grasp. I am not sure how valid either statement actually is, but in the case of Sergei Rachmaninoff, it did appear to take a complete separation of his mind from his soul in the form of clinical depression to allow him to fully understand the creative depth he possessed and express it properly as he did. Whatever it was, the result was one of the most impactful and influential pieces of music ever created anywhere by anyone.

The link to the video for the composition Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff can be found here.

The link to the official website for composer Segei Rachmaninoff can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie Brief Encounter can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen can be found here. ***Listen carefully to the music used in the background of the chorus for this song. That music is Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Rachmaninoff.

The link to a video that shows Princess Diana playing the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor can be found here. ***This video is 45 minutes long. Start at the 43:00 minute mark. The video ends with a discussion of her attachment to Rachmaninoff and what his music meant to her by someone who knew her well. The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor plays in the background as this person is interviewed. A segment of Princess Diana playing it is shown, too. It is all very sad and moving.

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