Musical Musings

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff's Wild Ride

Fasten your seat belts ladies and gentlemen, you're in for one wild musical adventure! Ironically, the creation of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909 could owe its birth to an automobile.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was desperate for money in 1909. He wrote to a friend about the possibility of a tour in America to make some extra cash: "I don't want to go. But then perhaps, after America I'll be able to buy myself that automobile... It may not be so bad after all!"

Rachmaninoff did in fact purchase his first car in 1912 and it is purported that he bought himself a new automobile every year after that. He got the car, and audiences got Piano Concerto No. 3. (Not a bad trade!)

Many say that "Rach 3" is one of the most difficult piano concertos of all time. In fact, the pianist it was originally written for (Josef Hoffman) declined to perform it, unwilling to take the risk publicly.

Rachmaninoff had a mostly off-again relationship with critics and audiences for his compositions. Known and beloved for his skills as a pianist, his compositions weren't what turn of the century audiences were looking for. Perhaps his concerto's difficulty is a jab to his critics.

Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff's music persevered. Vladimir Horowitz, a Russian-born American classical pianist and composer, championed the work in the 1920s and it is now beloved by audiences and critics all over the world.

"Rachmaninoff said that he wrote the Third ‘for elephants,' and with its massive chords, cascading and leaping octaves, high-speed runs, dense counterpoint, and wide-spaced, busily embellished textures, it does demand a pianist with strength, dexterity, control, and stamina — and big hands."

Kevin Bazzana, Canadian music historian and biographer

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