The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, is a concerto for piano and orchestra composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff between the autumn of 1900 and April 1901. The second and third movements were first performed with the composer as soloist on 2 December 1900. The complete work was premiered, again with the composer as soloist, on 27 October 1901, with his cousin Alexander Siloti conducting.
This piece is one of Rachmaninoff's most enduringly popular pieces, and established his fame as a concerto composer.
Rachmaninoff in the early 1900s
At its 1897 premiere, Rachmaninoff's first symphony, though now considered a significant achievement, was derided by contemporary critics. Compounded by problems in his personal life, Rachmaninoff fell into a depression that lasted for several years. His second piano concerto confirmed his recovery from clinical depression and writer's block. The concerto was dedicated to Nikolai Dahl, a physician who had done much to restore Rachmaninoff's self-confidence.
The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B♭ (I mov.) and A (II & III mov.), 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in B♭, 3 trombones (2 tenor, bass), tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, solo piano, and strings. It is written in three-movement concerto form.
Moderato: C minor
First eight bars
of the concerto
Main theme first played by the two violin sections and viola section
The opening movement begins with a series of bell-like tollings on the piano that build tension, eventually climaxing in the introduction of the main theme. In this first section, the orchestra carries the Russian-character melody while the piano makes an accompaniment made of arpeggios riddled with half steps. After the statement of the long first theme, a quicker transition follows until the more lyrical second theme, in E flat major, is presented.
The agitated and unstable development borrows motives from both themes changing keys very often and giving the melody to different instruments while a new musical idea is slowly formed. The music builds in a huge climax as if the work was going to repeat the first bars of the work, but the recapitulation is going to be quite different.
While the orchestra restates the first theme, the piano, that in the other occasion had an accompaniment role, now plays the march-like theme that had been halfly presented in the development, thus making a considerable readjustment in the exposition, as the main theme, played by the orchestra has become an accompaniment. This is followed by a piano solo, which leads into a descending chromatic passage and concluding with an eerie French horn solo. From here the last minutes of the movement are placid until drawn into the agitated coda, and the piece ends in C minor fortissimo.
Adagio sostenuto: C minor → E major
The second movement opens with a series of slow chords in the strings which modulate from the C minor of the previous movement to the E major of this movement. The piano enters, playing a simple arpeggiated figure. A flute then introduces the main theme. The motif is passed between the piano and other soloists before the music accelerates to a short climax centered on the piano. The original theme is repeated, and the music appears to die away, finishing with just the soloist in E major.
Allegro scherzando: E major → C Minor → C major
The last movement opens with a short orchestral introduction that modulates from E (the key of the previous movement) to C, before a piano solo leads to the statement of the agitated first theme. After the original fast tempo and musical drama ends, a lyrical theme is introduced by the oboe and violas. This second theme maintains the motif of the first movement's second theme. After a long period of development tension is built up considerably. Near the end, Rachmaninoff restates the second theme in loud, fortissimo orchestration. After this, a fast, ecstatic coda draws the piece to a close, ending in C major.
The Moderato provides the basis for Frank Sinatra's "I Think of You".Muse's "Space Dementia", "Butterflies and Hurricanes", "Megalomania" and "Ruled by Secrecy" all contain quotes from this movement.
The Adagio sostenuto theme appears in Eric Carmen's 1975 ballad "All by Myself". Carmen first composed the song's interlude, then took the verse from Rachmaninoff and the chorus from his own "Let's Pretend". Carmen explained that Rachmaninoff was his "favorite music". This movement also provides the basis for Amici Forever's "Nostalgia" from the album Defined and David Bowie's "Life on Mars?".
The Allegro scherzando provides the basis for Frank Sinatra's 1945 "Full Moon and Empty Arms". and The Gospellers's "Sky High," which was also the opening theme for hit anime Nodame Cantabile Paris Hen Arc.
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