Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Third Cranach

 

 Lucas Cranach, the Elder, (1472 - 1553)
 at age 78, in 1550
(fig. 1)

Anyone who has taken a course in the history of western art, perhaps during high school, or in their collegiate or grad school years, has come across the name Lucas Cranach, one of the towering painters and printmakers of the German Renaissance. But, to which Cranach are you referring?
Those with good memories recall that there were actually two Lucas Cranachs: Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 - 1553), and a son, Lucas Cranach the Younger ( 1515 - 1586, fig. 1).
The family name Cranach derives from the town of Kronach, in central Germany, near Nuremberg, whence the ancestors of Lucas Cranach the Elder hailed. Lucas Cranach the Elder  (Ger.- Lucas Cranach der Ältere) didn't have a last name. He was called  "Lucas, Maler der Kronach,"  i.e., "Lucas, the painter from Kronach."   By 1504, Lucas Cranach was working in Wittenberg,  250 km northeast of Kronach, for Duke Friedrich III, Elector of Saxony, (also known as Frederick the Wise). Wittenberg was also where Martin Luther lived and preached.

So, there were two Lucas Cranachs, an Elder and a Younger. Correct?
Well, that's not all there is to say about the matter. 
Lucas Cranach the Elder actually had two sons, the younger of whom was the aforementioned Lucas Cranach the Younger (that may sound like a tautology, but it is not). 
There was another son, the older son of Lucas Cranach the Elder. He was Hans Cranach (the baptismal certificate reads: Johann Lucas Cranach). Hans was born in Wittenberg in 1513 and became a master painter like his younger brother and father.

I first heard about Hans Cranach a few days ago, when I was visiting the splendid  galleries of the newly Renzo Piano-reincarnated  Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the treasures therein  is a noble portrait of Martin Luther by the School of Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was close friends with the theologian (fig.2).
(fig. 2) Martin Luther
Workshop of Lucas Cranach der Altere (Lucas Cranach the Eleder)
1546

To the left of the Luther portrait is a most intriguing painting (fig.3). It certainly looks like a Cranach, but which one? The label for the painting states that it is a work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and that it was painted c. 1535.
(fig. 3) Hercules and Omphale and her maids
Harvard Art Museum
said to be by Lucas Cranach the Elder c. 1535
on loan since 1983 by Carla Rolde
The painting does not exist in any of the Harvard online catalogs (because it is on loan,through the generosity of a Ms. Carla Rolde. It has been on loan to Harvard since 1983).
(fig.4) Detail of the Harvard/
Hercules and Omphale ( on loan since 1983 by Carla Rolde)
? Lucas Cranach the Elder c. 1535
The painting  depicts  five figures, each with fine detailing of their faces (fig.4), rendering them with an individual personality (as was the custom in one type of 16th century northern European genre painting). The figures are Hercules, Omphale and her three maids, and Omphale's spinning wheel (is that Omphale holding her famous spinning wheel, or one of her maids?).
We observe a concerned Hercules looking worriedly at a strand of wool from the spindle. He is surrounded by the four women, one of whom has hung a necklace around Hercules' neck and is adjusting a scarf on  him, another stares back at the viewer smirking as she pats Hercules' head dress (or could this woman be Omphale?),  another looks at the enslaved hero adoringly, and the fourth stares out into space.
Each of the faces in the painting is individualized, some in the moment, others searching or deep in thought. To my eye, they are distinguishable from  faces as painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder by a certain je ne sais quoi, call it a  youthful softness.  Is this truly a work by Lucas the Elder, or by his son Hans? Apparently, the attestation of authorship of a good number of paintings said to be by Lucas Cranach the Elder have now been thought to be by one or the other of his sons.
The label next to the Hercules and Omphale painting at the Harvard Art Museums is shown here:

 
The label tells us that the Hercules and Omphale painting belongs to a secular genre in German Renaissance art known as the Weibermacht, images illutsrating the power of women.
There is a version of Hercules and Omphale in the  Herzog-Anton-UlrichMuseum in Braunschweig, Germany, which resembles the Harvard painting somewhat, but with  differences in the heads of the figures and in the morphology of the wool on the spindle (fig. 5). Also, the woman on the far right is wearing an ornate hat with furry pompoms in the Braunschweig version, whereas she is "hatless' in the painting at Harvard.
(fig.5) Hercules and Omphale
Lucas Cranach der Altere (1537)
Herzog-Anton-Ulrich Museum
Braunschweig
Another version of the Hercules and Omphale story is  in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.  This painting (fig. 6), however,  s signed by Hans Cranach and also contains his insignia. This painting is similar to the one in the Harvard Art Museum,  but only depicts two maids attending Hercules. Here too a certain serenity permeates the women's faces and Hercules himself looks almost sedated.
(Fig. 6) Hercules, Omphale and her Maids
signed by Hans Cranach (1537)
Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
The story of Hercules and Omphale is not discoverable from original Greek sources. One must seek it out in that magnum opus of the Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BCE - 18 CE), his Metamorphoses.
To atone for his accidental murder of Iphitus, Hercules (Herakles) was remanded by the Delphic Oracle to be a slave of the Lydian princess Omphale for three years.   (Omphale (Attic:   Ὀμφάλη) was a daughter of King Dardanus of Lydia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia, in what is now western Turkey).
During the period of Hercules'
 incarceration, Omphale and her maids had their way with him, among other things dressing him in women's clothes, and forcing him to do their labors, as  per the lovely story in the Metamorphoses.
Both the Harvard version and the version in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum have this Latin inscription at the top:

Herculeis manibus dant Lydae, pensa puella imperium dominae fert deus ille suae, sic capit ingentis animos damnosa voluptas fortiaque enervat pectora mollis amor."

"The Lydian girls gave the daily task (of spinning wool) to the hands of Hercules, that god who bears the authority of his mistress; thus her (Omphale's) damaging pleasure takes possession of his great spirit, and her soft love weakens his power and courage."   (my translation from the Latin).

Not much is known about Hans Cranach’s  brief life. Like his brother, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Hans began painting as a young boy in the Wittenberg workshop of their father. Hans Cranach’s work, the little that is extant,  is barely distinguishable from that of his father's, except, in my view, for that youthful softness.

We possess only a few tantalizing tidbits  from Hans Cranach's life:
1) He received a payment for a bill for a painting by his father at the Michaelis Market in 1534.
2) He is mentioned in a bill for a work done at Torgau Castle in 1536.
3) The art historian Christian Schuchardt, who first discovered  Hans Cranach's  existence, credits him with an altarpiece at Weimar, signed with the monogram "H.C." and dated, 1537.
4) There also exists a sketchbook, dated 1537, which Hans Cranach apparently used while in Italy. Later that year, in Bologna, he died of unknown causes.
Martin Luther mentions Hans Cranach’s death in his Colloquia Mensalia ("Table Talk"), and Johann Stigel, a contemporary poet, celebrates him as a painter and draftsman (Maler und Zeichner).
Stigel, in his euology, In immaturus obitum Johannis Lucas F. (filius) Cranachii, ("The premature death  of Johann Lucas, son of Cranach)," recognizes Hans Cranach as a “"talented and fertile" painter, who must have had a significant role within the Cranach workshop."

Only two extant paintings, both at the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, contain both  Hans Cranach's   signature and his insignia, a winged serpent between the initials "H" and "C." One painting is of a bearded man, from 1534  (fig. 7), and the other is the previously discussed painting of Hercules and Omphale of 1537.

(Fig. 7) Portrait of a bearded man
Hans Cranach (1534)
Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
 In 1900, the art historian Eduard Flechsig attributed a number of works from the Cranach workshop to Hans Cranach. However, he himself later revoked these attributions. There are paintings in Oslo, Paris, San Francisco and Linkoping that have been attributed to Hans Cranach, but none of these has been fully attested.
There are a  large number of Hercules and Omphale paintings in Cranach's oeuvre: twenty-six are catalogued in the Corpus Cranach http://corpus-cranach.de/
(It appears that the version loaned to Harvard by Rolde since 1983 was purchased at auction at Sotheby's on 27 March 1963 (fig.8))

(fig. 8) Hercules and Omphale
at the Harvard Art Museum (on loan by Carla Rolde)
(photo from Sotheby's sale 27 March 1963)
There are other versions. For example, the painting below, at the Fondation Bemberg in Toulose, of Hercules and Omphale, is said to be by Lucas the Elder (fig.9).
Evidently, the story of Hercules and Omphale was an archetype for the Cranachs. They all got in the act of painting it. Here, presumably in father Lucas' hand, all is joyous (and that delightful hat makes its appearance again on the  woman on the far right):


(fig 6) Hercules and Omphale
Lucas Cranach the Elder ? 1537
Toulouse
 The insignia of the Cranach workshop changed in 1537, perhaps in association with the death of Hans Cranach (fig. 7). The previously erect wings of the snake (see below) became stretched and horizontal. This may have been a decision made by the father's now closest collaborator, Hans’ younger brother, Lucas Cranach the Younger.


(Fig. 7) Insignia of Cranach family

Sic transit Gloria mundi.

Vincent P. de Luise MD @ 2015.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Tree That Makes Music

 
 
 
 
 
There is a tree that grows in Africa, which goes by the nickname "The Tree that Makes Music."
The world's finest clarinets and oboes are made from this east African hardwood. It is sometimes referred to as Grenadilla wood. In Swahili, the tree is called 'Mpingo.  The Portguese know it as pau preta. Its Linnaean taxonomic name is Dahlbergia melanoxylon
It is an angiosperm in the family Fabacaeae, and it is endangered. The only remaining viable stock is in northern Mozambique, Tanzania, and southern Kenya.
The 'Mpingo has been called the "Tree of Music"  because, for two centuries, oboes, clarinets, highland bagipes and their chanters, Northumbrian bagpipes and their chanters, wood piccolos, some transverse flutes (Blockflote), and the black keys on the finest pianos, have been crafted from this amazing, hardy, incredible dense, and now sadly depleted woody perennial.
(East African blackwood is no longer called "ebony". That term is reserved for a timberwood of the genus Diospyros; these have more of a matted appearance and are more brittle).
The genus Dalbergia  yields other valuable and "musical" timbers such as Brazilian rosewood  (Dalbergia nigra) and cobolo (Dalbergia retusa). I have several clarinet barrels  (the cylinder between mouthpiece and upper joint) of different lengths made of 'Mpingo, one made of rosewood and one made of cocobolo.

A beautiful clarinet barrel made by Chadash.
Notice the lathe above.

Each of these barrels has its own subtle and distinct timbre and resonance, based on the inherent acoustic characteristics of the specific wood.
 

"The Tree That Makes Music"
Dalbergia melanoxylon
East African Blackwood
The cortex (the heartwood) of the 'Mpingo is the hardest known material in the plant world, behaving more like stone or metal. It is this feature that makes the wood  ideal for crafting fine woodwinds as it can tolerate multiple lathe shaving and drill holes without cracking.
 
 
Until recently.
As you might imagine, like any commodity in  great demand with limited supply,  'Mpingos are being overharvested, felled before maturity, and smuggled. Poachers clear cut these magnificent trees and brush fires in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique are destroying them; the fires weaken the cortices of those trees which manage to survive.
This sad fact was brought home to me shortly after I bought my A clarinet and my Bb clarinet, at the House of Woodwinds in Berkeley, California during my internship at UCSF, in 1978.
In the early 1980s I  read a news article about clarinet and oboe  craftsman in those venerable old line manufacturing facilities - Selmer and Buffet Crampon in Paris-  and similar workshops  in Vienna and Germany, noticing that the timber was cracking under the lathes during polishing and drilling. The cracking was analyzed and  was determined to be secondary to the fires in east Africa affecting the usually extremely hard, dense and strong Dalbergia melanoxylon.
 
 
The Buffet Crampon Company in Paris  developed their Greenline series, in which scraps of cracked and broken Dalbergia melanoxylon, instead of being discraded, are crushed and mixed with resin, making a material that can be crafted into perfectly serviceable clarinets, though not quite the same as natural 'Mpingo.

Today, conservation efforts such as Clarinets for Conservation, The 'Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI), and the African Blackwood Conservation Project, are raising awareness in the region, planting new Dalbergia melanoxylon saplings, all the while teaching music to children.
 
These projects are helping to bring forth new and wondrous "Trees of Music" so that the next generation (maybe we have to wait for the generation after that, as the trees take almost 70 years to mature), and future generations will be able to play their clarinets, oboes and bagpipe chanters on wood from the 'Mpingo.
 
 
There is a wonderful movie, entitled    "'Mpingo:  The Tree That makes Music," which came out in 2001.

Here below is the world's greatest clarinetist, the remarkable phenom that is Martin Fröst,  playing Mozart's indelible concerto for basset clarinet and orchestra in A major KV 622 (a basset clarinet is a clarinet with four extra semitones at its bottom-you can see and hear it).
Fröst, himself  a god of Music, is playing a Buffet Crampon basset clarinet pitched in A, made out of, what else, the 'Mpingo, wood from the  "Tree of Music".
And isn't it perfectly appropriate that the  adagio movement of the ineffable Mozart basset clarinet concerto was made famous in the movie, Out of Africa (of course ! ).
 
 
 

 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

VIVA VERDI ! The Manzoni Requiem of Giuseppe Verdi

These are my program notes for the two performances of Giuseppe Verdi's monumental Messa da Requiem, composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, as superbly performed by the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, the Connecticut Choral Society, the New Jersey Choral Society, the NVCC Chorale, and four outstanding soloists, under Maestro Leif Bjaland, and choral directors Eric Knapp and Andrew Ardizolla, at the Leever Auditorium of NVCC in Waterbury CT, April 25 and 26.


Messa da Requiem  (Manzoni Requiem)   
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi    
(October 10, 1813  Le Roncole di Busseto-January 27, 1901 Milano)

The work is scored for four solo voices, double chorus, 3
flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 8 trumpets, 3
trombones, 4 horns, tuba, strings and percussion.

Giuseppe Verdi, at age 80, in 1893

Giuseppe Verdi is among the most admired and beloved composers in the western canon. All of his masterpieces were operas, except one: the  magisterial   Requiem Mass  you will experience this evening. It is a work of exceptional beauty, overwhelming power, raw emotion, and profound meaning, whose creator was himself highly ambivalent about religion.

When once asked about his religious views, the severely moral but anti-clerical and agnostic Verdi famously responded. “I believe in nothing.” While Verdi's religion was not that of the Church, the thought of God was deeply rooted in Verdi’s  conscience. His own earliest memories were of singing in a church coir, and later in life, with fame and fortune secured, he built a small chapel in the gardens of his beloved home in Sant’Agata. In his Messa da Requiem, Verdi has crafted a singular and very modern conceptualization of spirituality.

Verdi grew up revering two of Italy’s greatest artists, the composer Gioacchino Rossini, and the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Shortly after Rossini's passing, in Paris on November 13, 1868, Verdi asked the published Ricordi of Milano to commission a Requiem Mass in memory of the great composer, to be performed on the anniversary death date, in 1869. It was to be in thirteen sections, each written by an Italian composer, creating a broad-based remembrance of the beloved Rossini.
Gioacchino Rossini
(1792-1868)
 

Verdi was assigned the last section, entitled Libera me (deliver me), to conclude the work. The text for the Libera me is not part of the canonical Latin liturgy, but rather, a separate prayer said after the coffin of the deceased is closed.

Although everyone completed their assignment on time, the performance did not take place due to a series of petty squabbles over money (even though it had been agreed at the beginning of the project that no one was to have been paid for their services). Ricordi kept the parts secreted away for four years, and early in 1873 returned the Libera me section to Verdi. He was soon to find a very appropriate use for it.

Alessandro Manzoni was Italy's greatest living poet and novelist. It was not only Manzoni's poetry, but moreover, his sweeping historical novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) that fascinated Verdi from his teen years, and catalyzed Verdi's lifelong admiration for the author, whom he revered as a saint. Manzoni's novel, and Verdi's own indelible Chrous of the Hebrew Slaves (Va' , pensiero, sull'ali dorate) from his 1842 opera, Nabucco, that became rallying cries for Italian unification in the exciting and turbulent years of the Risorgimento, during which Italy slowly won release from the AustroHungarian dominion and became a republic (in 1861). It was also not lost on the Italian public that the five letters of "V-E-R-D-I" were both sign and symbol, a rallying cry, if you will, spelling out the first letters of  Victor Emanuel II, King of Italy (Vittorio Emanuele II,  Re d'Italia), who would soon govern the new republic.


Alessandro Manzoni (1784-1873)
 

Upon Manzoni's death in May, 1873, Verdi had found a place for his Libera me, and a worthy dedicatee for a Requiem mass.

The Requiem was first performed at the Church of San Marco in Milano, on May 22, 1874, the anniversary of Manzoni's passing, with Verdi himself conducting. Verdi had to receive a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Milano to allow the inclusion of female singers (who had to veiled and dressed in black, and except for  La Stolz and La Waldmann, also had to sing behind large grates so as not to "distract" the audience). Given the setting, there was to be no applause, just hushed silence. However, when the work was reprised a few nights later, at Milano's famed opera house, La Scala, the crowd demanded four encores and gave the work a deafening ovation, cementing it as yet another triumph for the famed composer. Verdi then took his Requiem on the road, to Europe's major cities; a performance in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, in April 1875 and with a new section (Liber scriptus, for mezzo), boasted 1,200 choristers, and led critics to explain that it was the most beautiful setting of the mass since that of Mozart eighty years earlier.
Poster for the first of three La Scala
performances of the Verdi Requiem
Monday May 25, 1874

However, opinions about the Requiem  were mixed. The conductor Hans von Bulow, without even hearing the work, criticized it as being "an opera in ecclesiastical robes."  To be sure, Verdi had selected four established opera stars as soloists (Teresa Stolz, soprano; Maria Waldmann, mezzo-soprano; Giuseppe Capponi, tenor; Ormondo Maini, bass - the first three having starred in the European premiere of his opera  Aida two years earlier) but that was for the effect he sought. When asked his opinion of the Requiem, Richard Wagner, speaking through his ever tactful wife Cosima, replied icily that "it is better to say nothing."  However, Johannes Brahms was deeply moved upon hearing the  Requiem and exclaimed that "only a genius could write such a masterpiece."

The Requiem begins with an Introit and Kyrie, as is customary, but there is no Gloria, perhaps reflecting Verdi's own agnosticism.
The Sequenza is comprised of the ten-part  Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) sequence, followed by an Offertorium, a combined Sanctus and Benedictus, the Agnus Dei, and concludes with the Libera me, which Verdi virtually rewrote from  his 1868 effort. Throughout the Requiem, it is the drama that propels the music. Unlike a traditional mass for the deceased with much of the proceedings foreseen, in Verdi’s work there are ever-changing tempi and dynamics. Moments of choral serenity are punctuated by sudden, passionate and intensely personal outcries from the soloists, whose anguished declamations soar over the orchestral accompaniment, and at times belie the very text being sung. The chorus itself erupts in fire and brimstone in the astonishing Dies irae, with its terrifying and recurring leitmotif, as if to remind one of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Deafening, quadruple forte blasts from the brass and tympani signify the day of reckoning, but elsewhere, dissonances and wavering chromatics emphasize the composer’s own unresolved spirituality. Yet, Verdi included a wondrous tenor solo in the Sequenza, the Ingemisco (“I groan”), that offers glimmers of hope.The last section of the Requiem is at once the most fascinating and ambiguous. As Cecilia Porter has written, “death is a complex character in Verdi’s Requiem, playing a number of roles - an object of terror, a comforter, and an emancipator,” yet its shadow grows longer at the end.  Whereas his predecessors (Mozart, Michael Haydn, Cherubini and Berlioz) concluded their Requiem settings within the quiet acceptance of the Agnus Dei or Lux aeterna, Verdi added a whole new section for soprano solo, Libera me, to a text that he required be sung with fear and terror, not resigned supplication. This section is extraordinary, combining fugue, counterpoint, Gregorian plainchant, and prayers for the departed and the living as entreaties of absolution. It is almost as if Verdi is stepping out and speaking to us personally, with all his conflicted feelings about the hereafter, and his Requiem continues to uplift us today with its thoroughly modern theology: relentlessly probing, questioning,  and at once, radiantly universal in spirit.

References

1.Berger, William, Verdi with a Vengeance: The Life and Complete Works of the King of Opera, New York, Vintage Books, 2000.

2. Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane. Verdi: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1993.

3. Budden, Julian, The Operas of Verdi, Oxford University Press, 1992.

4. Osborne, Charles, The Complete Operas of Verdi, New York, Random House, 1970.





 
   


 
 
 
 

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Composer and his Physician: Exploring the Genesis of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto

Vincent de Luise, M.D.


Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, Op. 18 
Sergei Rachmaninoff 
These are my program notes to the March 10 2015 performance  of the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto by the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Orchestra at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard in NYC, with Richard Kogan, M.D.  as soloist. The concerto is scored for solo piano, strings, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets, three trombones, four horns, tuba, tympani, bass drum and cymbals


Sergei Rachmaninoff ( 1873 -1943 )

There are piano concertos and then there are piano concertos. The favorites remain the Tchaikovsky first, the Beethoven fifth ("Emperor"), the Brahms first, the Chopin first, and perhaps the most beloved of all: the Rachmaninoff second, with all its lush romanticism and those unforgettable melodies. Lest one thinks that the creative process of musical composition is always something seamless, linear and positive, this essay counters that myth with the backstory of the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto, its fits and starts, its gestation, its birth and its flowering.

Sergei Vasiliev Rachmaninoff  (1 April 1873 – 28 March 1943) was born in the ancient city of Veliky Novgorod, the child of an aristocratic but impecunious Russian and Moldovan musical family. While Rachmaninoff's earliest compositional efforts cleaely display the influence of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, he soon found his own Muse, “writing music with a song-like melodicism, expressiveness, full of rich orchestral colors," as Geoffrey Norris has written. "The piano is featured prominently in Rachmaninoff's compositional output, and through his own remarkable skills as a performer, he fully explored the expressive possibilities of the instrument.” 

To this day, the legacy of Rachmaninoff’s piano works, especially the concerti, has been far greater than his symphonies. The premiere of Rachmaninoff’s first symphony in 1897 actually brought the self-doubting 24-year old composer nothing but negative reception and heartache, so much so that he became severely depressed for three years. Ironically, one of his harshest critics was his older friend, and a member of the “Russian Five”, the composer César Cui, who compared Rachmaninoff’s first symphony to “the ten plagues of Egypt,” and suggested that he had studied in a “conservatory in hell.” 

That was not exactly an encouraging assessment, and the scathing comment could easily have been the end of Rachmaninoff’s career. The composer went into a deep self-doubting depression and nothing could pull him out of it, until, by chance, a friend recommended that he see him a music-loving physician, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who restored both self-confidence and a creative spark in the composer.

Dahl was a  prominent Moscow neurologist (and a superb amateur violist) who had studied in Paris with the great Professor Jean- Martin Charcot. Charcot had begun investigating hypnotherapy as a therapeutic modality in the management of dystonia. At the turn of the last century, hypnosis was becoming accepted as a therapeutic tool. Freud used hypnosis to produce a  catharsis in his patients from their childhood traumas; Dahl’s approach was to use it as  a form of positive talk therapy. 

Beginning in January, 1900, in daily sessions over four months, Dahl worked with Rachmaninoff, using hypnotherapy, to break him of his depression. “You will begin to write your next concerto,” Dahl urged Rachmaninoff, who later recalled his many sessions with Dahl. “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day, while I lay half asleep in the armchair in Dahl’s study. Dahl would say to me, “You WILL write a Concerto. . . . You WILL work with great facility. . . . It WILL be excellent.” . . . Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. By autumn, I had finished two movements of the Concerto..."

Rachmaninoff completed not only his wondrous second piano concerto, but two more besides, and dozens of other magnificent compositions in the ensuing four decades of his life. Rachmaninoff gratefully dedicated the second piano concerto  to his treating physician,  “Monsieur N. Dahl" (see image below).

The concerto  premiered on November 9, 1901 with the composer himself as soloist, has become one of most popular classical music pieces ever written, replete with a cornucopia of sublime melodies. In the concerto, Rachmaninoff channeled the lush melodic legacy of his great 19th century Romantic forebears: Liszt, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

 Frontispiece of the second piano concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff,
with the dedication, “a’ Monsieur N. Dahl” (courtesy uh.edu)

As James Keller insightfully explains in program notes for the San Francisco Symphony: “The first movement rises out of mysterious depths, but quickly lets loose the first of many striking themes, It is surely a virtuoso concerto, yet Rachmaninoff disguised the virtuoso element, as most of the melodies in this movement are entrusted to the orchestra rather than to the solo piano. The second movement, in contrast, is a tender meditation between piano and orchestra, with both partners offering melodic ideas, and with Rachmaninoff looking backwards to the 19th century, drawing its main theme from one of his 1890 piano compositions.” The third movement’s first melody channels music from an earlier time as well. Keller relates that “the principal theme of the finale comes from a sacred choral work that Rachmaninoff had written in 1893, but it is the second theme of this movement that has captured the hearts of music-lovers. When one is looking for a musical expression of sincere, heartfelt passion, the search leads naturally to Rachmaninoff. Even as audiences have grown increasingly baffled by modern music, Rachmaninoff’s compositions have always been reassuring, comforting and meaningful.” Since its premiere, the Concerto has been a staple in the repertoire and often used in television and film scores. 

There has been much speculation that Rachmaninoff, six-foot three and with long slender fingers that could span a twelfth on the piano, may have had either Marfan syndrome or acromegaly, neither of which condition has been proven (no autopsy was performed). What is known is that he possessed an eidetic memory for music, and was able to recall whole symphonic movements, even decades later.

Rachmaninoff continually acknowledged an inspirational debt to prior masters, writing that, "if you are a composer, you have an affinity with other composers. You can make contact with their imaginations, knowing something of their problems and their ideals. You can give their works color. That is the most important thing for me in my interpretations. You need color to make music come alive. Without color, music is dead." 

Rachmaninoff died of metastatic melanoma on March 28, 1943 in Hollywood, California, a few days before his seventieth birthday, His own ineffable Vespers (All-Night Vigil) was sung at his funeral. He was buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla NY, fittingly, next to many other notable artists in the world of music.