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The Piano Concertos of Rachmaninoff

Updated on May 19, 2014
Rachmaninoff | Source

Rachmaninoff's 5 Piano Concertos

Rachmaninoff holds a very special place amongst classical musicians, because he was more than just a great composer; Rachmaninoff was a very talented pianist and conductor. Great performers appeal to many musicians: Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Saint Saens, etc..., these gentlemen were not only great composers, but they were talented at the piano as well (In the French tradition, Saint Saens was also a gifted organist) - and, you can add Rachmaninoff to the list.

Rachmaninoff suffered from Marfan Syndrome - a disease which causes people to grow very tall, big hands, big feet - you name it! As a result of Marfan, Rachmaninoff had very large hands - some say even bigger than Liszt's....

Rachmaninoff's piano concertos hold a special place for concert pianists, not only because of their fame, but arguably, because of their infamy as well - "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and the "3rd Piano Concerto" are some of the most excruciatingly difficult piano pieces ever written for the instrument. Except for Liszt's"Concerto Pathetique," and a handful of other piano compositions, the "Rach 3rd" ( as it was lovingly called by John Gielgud in the movie "Shine,") remains one of the most difficult piano pieces ever composed - a challenge for even the greatest amongst concert pianists.

Rachmaninoff, like Beethoven before him, only wrote five Piano Concertos ('Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini'is typically included in the bunch, though it's not technically a piano concerto in the full sense of the word...) during his long, successful and fruitful life (70 years old is not old today, but it was considered to be a full life when Rachmaninoff was around...). Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos embody different aspects of Romanticism - the first three were written under the influence of his two personal icons: Chopin and Tchaikovsky, whereas the last two concertos (4th piano concerto and the Rhapsody) even go as far as mocking American Jazz to some extent.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 1, composed in 1892
Was written when the composer was only 19 years old. Not surprisingly enough, this was not Rachmaninoff's first attempt at writing a piano concerto, but it was the first concerto which he fully completed. When Rachmaninoff lived, it was not unusual for a great artists like he was to dabble in both fields: performing and composition. Today, however, most artists and musicians stick to their own turf - pianists stick to the piano, and composers stick to composition, though there are always exceptions to every rule.... As with his other concertos, Rachmaninoff played this work quite frequently throughout his career....

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18, composed in 1900
Not only Rachmaninoff's most famous composition, but one of the most famous classical music compositions of all times - countless are the popular songs and Broadway tunes which have been extracted from its three movements. Rachmaninoff, for being the phenomenal pianist that he was, the work is surprisingly not very challenging (facetiously speaking of course). It oozes of Chopin in the first and second movement, and of Tchaikovsky in its third movement "big tune" finale. The work was written during a period of turmoil for the composer. His Symphony No. 1 had been a complete failure when it first premiered in the late 1890's (although today, musicologists have deemed it to be one of his finest works...); and, Rachmaninoff was suffering from melancholy to the point he decided to visit a psychologist for treatment of severe depression. Rachmaninoff wrote the second and third movements first, and completed the concerto's first movement last. The work was performed in its entirety on October of 1901 and has been a success since....

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30, composed in 1909
Is one of the most technically challenging compositions ever written for the piano. Rachmaninoff composed it for his tour of the USA. The work premiered in 1909 with Rachmaninoff at the piano, and Walter Damrosch conducting the now defunct New York Symphony Society. The work is famous, but has always been eclipsed by the 2nd Concerto in popularity. The work is infamous amongst great pianists as a technical monstrosity; Only a great virtuoso with very large hands can perform this work .... The work is in three movements. Some say the work's main theme is a variant taken from the Russian Orthodox Church....

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor Op. 40, composed in 1926
This work has never really taken off with the public like Rachmaninoff's other concertos have. For starters, it took Rachmaninoff a long time to compose it - he wrote it over a span of 10 years - the most unproductive period of his life. He was depressed about having to leave Russia after the revolution. Rachmaninoff was a member of the Russian Aristocracy, and there was little choice but to leave after the 1917 Revolution - persecution and assaults against the Aristocracy ran high, making it impossible for him and other members of the upper classes to stay in Russia after 1917. Rachmaninoff left Russia for good in late 1917, but his heart never did....

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43, composed in 1934
Is one of Rachmaninoff's most famous compositions (the 18th variation is the work's most famous section...). The work is a parody, not only of Rachmaninoff's music, but of American Jazz as well. Although this is not a piano concerto in form, it's usually grouped with his other concertos.


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    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Yes, I can see that. He was very educated in music, so his music is technically savy and intellectual, but it lacks soul. ---Allright, the 2nd movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2 is to die for, but most of his other compositions show a person with extensive knowledge of music, but lacking the natural gifts of a Dvorak or Chopin! Regardless, he's one of the greatest pianists that has ever lived.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 3 years ago from California

      I have a punny story about Rachmaninoff. Someday I will send it to you. Knowing most of his music was geared for show explains why anyone ever thought of this joke.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi tirelesstraveler, thank you for commenting.

      Yes, Weber, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff had extremely large hands, so much of their music was geared for show. All said, in my personal opinion, none of them could hold a candle to Chopin.

      Take care


    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 3 years ago from California

      I had wondered if some piano pieces were so difficult to play because the composers hand were so big hands. Now I know it's a definite possibility.