Do violinists find Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow?

February 13, 2017, 7:43 AM · In my younger, ballet-dancing years, I listened to a lot of piano-based classical music. When I took up the violin in my adult years, I shifted to listening to almost exclusively violin-based classical music, the concertos, quartets, sonatas, preludes. These days, however, I seem to have settled right in the middle, enjoying piano and violin repertoire, especially the concertos, equally. Revisiting Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op 18, felt like returning to an old friendship. To my relief, it still sounded fresh and relevant to my ears, which doesn’t always happen to highly accessible music you discover in your late teens. (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – ugh, never again, please.)

It’s understandable that there’s little talk about Rachmaninov’s music on a violin discussion forum; aside from “Vocalise” and a few transcriptions of a Prelude here and there, there's no violin repertoire. He’s very much a pianist’s composer, no surprise as his composing time was all but taken over by his broad popularity as a concert pianist. On the piano discussion forums, the debate seems endless, much like debates here about “shoulder rests or not?”: are Rachmaninov’s piano concertos excessively sentimental, too mainstream, even… lowbrow?

And now I’m curious to know how fellow violinist.commers feel about Rachmaninov’s music, in particular, his Piano Concerto No. 2. Lowbrow or highbrow?

Sergei Rachmaninov

Allow me to drop you into an essay I recently published at The Classical Girl.

Thoughts vary about Rachmaninov’s Late Romantic music, produced during an era that had begun testing its boundaries (think Mahler) or breaking them entirely (think Schoenberg and his atonality, his twelve-tone technique). Rachmaninov wanted nothing to do with that. He saw himself as “the last of the Romantics” who reflected the philosophy of Old Russia “with its overtones of suffering and unrest, its pastoral but tragic beauty, its ancient and enduring glory.”

But did the tremendous popularity of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, its accessibility and prevalence in 20th century pop culture make it… lowbrow? What were the circumstances behind his composition? What sort of artist was he, at all? I realized I didn’t know much about him. So I did a little digging.

Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943), I learned, had been born into a noble family in Russia which owned numerous estates. While both parents enjoyed the piano, they didn’t see that as a potential career for the six-year-old Sergei who was already showing extraordinary aptitude for the instrument. (Ironically, they deemed such a career too lowbrow.) But the family had other problems. Dad enjoyed the high life, improvidently so, and the family fortune was slowly whittled away to one last estate, Oneg, in northwestern Russia, where Sergei spent his earliest years. Soon that, too, had to be sold to cover debts, and in 1882 the family moved into an apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergei was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but it was a poor fit and he was not an easy, compliant student. Nor a good one, as family troubles continued. In 1883 his sister died of diphtheria. In 1884, his parents separated. The next year, on the advice of a musician cousin, his mother shipped Sergei off to the Moscow Conservatory, to a regimented household where he continued his studies. There, he lived a strict life with Nikolai Zverev, his teacher, and two other students, which, in the end, served him well. It had perks, too; during this time he met and interacted with musicians, artists, and notably, Tchaikovsky, who became a mentor of sorts and helped get him into an advanced counterpoint class. Buoyed by his success in the ensuing years, and his interest in compositions, Sergei told Zverev he wished to pursue composition, and could he please have more private space in the house?

Zverev, who only saw the young Sergei as a pianist—although a prodigiously good one—told him something like, “Don’t be a fool. You're a pianist, not a composer. Know your place. And get back into that room with the two other boys.” Unfortunately, this spelled the end of their relationship. Sergei moved out and into the home of a nearby relative, and continued on with his studies. (Zverev would not speak to him for the next three years.) He continued to excel, finishing his studies early, composing and performing his First Piano Concerto. For his final examinations, he won the Conservatory’s ultra-prestigious Gold Medal for his composition of a one-act opera, “Aleko.” Even old Zverev became tearfully proud of him, all ill feelings forgotten.

Here’s the thing. Young success, extraordinary success, is a mixed blessing. Rachmaninov was flying high, beloved for not just his composition talents, his virtuoso playing, but now, it turned out, he was a great conductor. How great was that?! There was no place for him to go, but up, up, up!

So, post-graduation, he proceeded forward, writing small pieces that people loved (they were crazy about his Prelude in C-sharp minor, written when he was nineteen; it drew international acclaim), concertizing in ways people loved (everywhere, audiences begged for an encore of the Prelude in C-sharp minor – it got kind of annoying). He set his sights on bigger things, and devoted considerable time to composing his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor. This, then, he decided, would be his grand entrance into The Really Big League, right up there with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was ready.

Well, I think you can guess what happened. The premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor was a total disaster. Not just the music was at fault; an incompetent (and possibly drunk) Glazunov took the podium as conductor and did a wretched job leading the under-rehearsed orchestra. Further, Glazunov had made his own cuts in the score, and several changes in the orchestration, none of which made sense musically. Rachmaninov, sitting in the audience, helpless, was in agony. He couldn’t even listen to it; he fled the concert hall.

The press had a field day. César Cui, noted music critic, wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell and if one of its talented students were to compose a symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

The poor reception, and Rachmaninov’s own destroyed faith in his abilities, sent him into a deep depression, a dark, creative-less funk. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, composing wasn’t meant for him, after all. And so, for three years, he wrote nothing, composed nothing. He continued to receive invitations to perform as a pianist—because, remember, he was an extraordinary soloist. His strengths and good reputation as a conductor also earned him work, which helped him get by. But only when, with encouragement from family, he sought out the services of psychologist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who used hypnotherapy in his practice, did he climb out of that dark place. And it was in this reborn creative space that he composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 (which he dedicated to Dahl). Its premiere, on Nov 9, 1901, was a hit.

And how.

So. My own opinion on the “lowbrow or not?” debate: no way, dude. This is art at its best. This composition came from a place of incredible substance. No wonder I hear passion, despair, hope rising, triumphant vindication in the music. No wonder I’ve never tired of hearing this piece of music, in thirty-five years.

I’d love to hear your opinions!

© 2017 Terez Rose
The Classical Girl


February 14, 2017 at 03:02 PM ·

February 14, 2017 at 04:50 PM · Definitely not lowbrow to me. I could hardly top your description of what you hear in this score: "passion, despair, hope rising, triumphant vindication." These feelings pretty well sum up what I get from the piece.

I have played this piece -- not as soloist but as a member of the CSO's training school during my degree program. The soloist joined us from out of town for a couple of rehearsals; then he rejoined us about a week later for performance. It was a great night -- one of my best memories of doing orchestra work. This piece has stood the test of time -- I've always loved it.

February 14, 2017 at 05:08 PM · Yay, Jim, so glad to hear your thoughts!

February 14, 2017 at 05:13 PM · By the way, lest people assume I myself am turning up my nose at Rachmaninov's music and thinking it's lowbrow, let me share a link to the discussion I scrolled through, at what appears to be a really great classical music discussion forum. Anyone hear of GMG Classical Music Forum? I found all the opinions on Rachmaninov that I could have hoped for. As I am such a fan of classical music, I was delighted to discover this site.,15381.0.html

February 15, 2017 at 01:51 AM · Terez - what an interesting question! And, it's great to see you post after what seems to be a while. I am not a great fan of Rachmaninov because he is a highly Romantic composer, and I do not care all that much for most Romantic music. That said, #2 may well be his greatest composition, and he was certainly a very talented composer. So, I would not dare call the piece lowbrow, even if it was and remains popular. Not really to my taste, but clearly a great piece of music.

In the same vein, in the violin world or symphonic world, respectively, you could ask if Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Dvorak's New World Symphony are lowbrow because of their tremendous popularity, particularly among listeners of limited classical music sophistication. I certainly would not say they are lowbrow.

Anyhow, thanks for asking. Good to have you here with interesting thoughts.

February 16, 2017 at 01:18 AM · The Rachmaninoff piano concertos are great pieces for what they are: Grand canvases with all the schmaltz that you'd expect for turn-of-the-century (that is, very late) romantic era compositions. Small wonder they were favorites of Horowitz! I agree with Tom that popularity isn't grounds for automatic condemnation as "lowbrow." To Tom's list of counterexamples I would add Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (which has been all but destroyed by United Airlines), Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and Handel's "Water Music." There are of course so many others.

February 16, 2017 at 08:36 PM · Thanks for your comments, Tom and Paul! And you're right, Tom, it's been a while, and {{enthusiastic waves}} to you. : ) I enjoyed reading what you both have to say, and now I sort of see the issue from a different angle. A better question, then, might be, "Has the popularity of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 or [name your once-favorite but now way overplayed piece of classical music] dimmed your affection or respect for it?" Because, I have to say "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" makes me wince, not because it's not a brilliant composition, but because it feels overly familiar. Ditto the opening movement to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. And there you go, Paul, yup on Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," thank you very much United Airlines. In fact, what stands out to me and my own personal sensibilities as strange is that I absolutely adore Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," in spite of its having been seriously overplayed. I think, too, the way a piece is popularly presented, as in, with a really bad orchestra, or bad sound engineering, will also deliver a "meh" bias. And one thing that doesn't affect me, but I remember other posters commenting on this, is the over-familiarity of playing something in one's youth, such as the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, which apparently made some V.commers wince at the memory. Or maybe it was being forced to listen to it being performed [poorly] in competitions.

What makes me sort of chuckle are the harsh opinions of musicologists and music critics from early(ish) in the 20th century who tried to predict that Rachmaninov's music and this concerto, while clearly enormously popular, would prove itself to be short-lived. For example, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians wrote: "Artificial and gushing" and "The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last." Um, whoops! : )

February 17, 2017 at 03:11 AM · Terez - I think identifying overplaying as the issue may be a good approach. I agree concerning Eine Kleine. I don't think it is that great a piece, but, at this point, it is difficult to distinguish whatever musical merit it might have from my boredom at this point with listening to the piece.

February 18, 2017 at 11:04 PM · Greetings everyone. I agree with much of this article by Terez and the many comments, and would just like to offer a personal insight as a composer myself with 18 symphonies and 4 concertos in my oeuvre so far. Firstly, lyricism / romanticism etc: to me as a composer they are the results of the creative process, not the elements which make the process possible. So, I keep the two matters separate. When encountering any music my attention is drawn to both how well constructed it is from all musical elements, and how its character affects me. For example, I hear a piece by "A composer new to me" and receive it in a musical way and an emotional way. Four outcomes ensue, from best to worst;

1. I am impressed by the piece's musical attributes and character

2. I am impressed by its musical attributes but not its character

3. I am unimpressed by its musical attributes, but enjoy its character

4. I find its musical attributes and its character lacking.

The above outcomes are not lead by the time period, genre or the name of the mind from which it 'grew' so I could hear a work written by a composer I have the greatest admiration for, but not like it - Rakastava by Sibelius (my favourite composer) for example. On the other hand I could strongly appreciate in both ways a work by a composer I normally avoid like the plague - Verklarte Nachte by Schoenberg comes to mind. Rachmaninov is one of those many serious composers most of whose works are of such superlative musical and emotional quality that they engage me positively at both levels. They are simultaneously artistically and academically well formed and satisfying, and emotionally fulfilling. To have been able to compose music like Rachmaninov's is certainly not a 'lowbrow' achievement or result; and popularity (or lack of) does not alter the content or quality of an artistic work since its quality and value is determined only by intrinsic attributes. I perceive my own compositions the same way; I understand what is good or otherwise in them academically, but judge their emotional content as a separate matter - neither of which is in the least dictated by how 'popular' they are or will ever become. Even if one of my works was an overnight success, it would not alter that work's value up or down in any way. Returning to Sibelius, his 'Valse Triste' became an enfant terrible for him; a money spinner which he at least understood was not indicative of his true worth, despite its huge popularity. 'Lowbrow' is a term I reserve only for repetitive, unimaginative and primitive noises clearly thrown together by someone with neither ability nor commendable character, regardless of whether they are a household name or an unknown. 'Highbrow' I see as something formed by a fully developed musical talent with complete command of musical elements that produces unique, intelligent and musically crafted results and - as a delightful bonus - can engage at an emotional level with a receptive listener, again regardless of how 'popular' the composer becomes.

February 19, 2017 at 05:24 PM · If one considers the synonyms of lowbrow - unpretentious, accessible, populist - then the Rach c minor concerto is absolutely lowbrow...but very deserving of its popularity. His first two piano concerti, the two piano trios, and the symphonies certainly make no attempt at profundity or intellectualism...but that doesn't mean the works shouldn't be heard. They are affecting...and draw big crowds. The Bruch concerti are prime examples - delicious music, good music even, but can they really be compared to Beethoven/Bach/Schubert/Mahler? And I'll beg to disagree with your Scheherazade take - R-K was one of THE supreme orchestrators (along with Prokofiev), and when done well, the work yields a visceral reaction.

Just my .02, of course...but consider this: does labeling a piece as lowbrow diminish its worth or worthiness of being programmed? I don't think so. I also don't think that Gershwin should be relegated to Pops programs.

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