Making the huge transposition to compose symphonies began in his twenty-second year, leading to the world premiere of his First Symphony two years later. But the evening was a disaster, which set Rachmaninoff back for many years. The orchestra failed to prepare for the performance of a piece that required far more than the usual demands of that time. And the conductor for the evening, Alexander Glazunov, showed up drunk! Rachmaninoff hid in the lobby of the concert hall, covering his ears, unable to listen to the damage being inflicted on his masterpiece. He plunged into a depression that took years and therapy to overcome.
For almost three years, he wrote nothing. Reflecting back on that dark period, he said, “I felt like a man who had suffered a stroke and had lost the use of his head and hands.”8 Eventually he resumed writing pieces for the piano, including his second concerto—a tour de force that remains one of his most frequently performed pieces.
Later he dared to tackle the task of composing another symphony. More than ten years after that horrific butchering of his First Symphony came the premiere of his second. In many people’s minds, the second outshines the first and continues to thrill audiences around the world.
I listen to his Second Symphony and marvel that he didn’t just shrug off the pain of rejection. Nor did he compose a work that expresses anger or bitterness. He overcame the hurt and emerged more creative and more expressive, producing a work that rhapsodically thrills its hearers.
Third, I wonder if some of us have a life-song we must sing or a life-message we must proclaim. All of Rachmaninoff’s compositions in some ways sing the same song. They fit together as a cohesive body of work. Harold Schonberg suggests, “Rachmaninoff wrote his C-minor Piano Concerto in 1901 and never deviated from the pattern, writing essentially the same kind of music throughout his life.”9 This strikes me as all the more remarkable when I consider the many pains in his life as compared to the numerous displays of beauty in his music.
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