Eight things you didn’t know about Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 is one of the most popular and recognisable concertos in the classical repertoire. Widely enjoyed but played only by the most skilful pianists, it has been performed in concert halls consistently since 1901. But how much do you really know about this landmark piece?

1. He wrote it from a pit of despair

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto was written after a very dark period in the composer’s life. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was disastrous and the piece was poorly received. One critic wrote, ‘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…’ Rachmaninoff walked out of the performance early and was crushed by the overwhelmingly negative response. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov told him, ‘Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable’.

2. The piece probably saved his career

After the disastrous First Symphony, Rachmaninoff sank into a deep depression and found himself unable to compose for three years, finding work as a pianist while he rebuilt his self-esteem. When he finally premiered his Second Piano Concerto in 1901, his career was saved, opening to great critical acclaim and reaffirming his status as a world-class composer.


3. He dedicated it to his therapist

Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to Dr Nicolai Dahl, a Russian neurologist and musician. After Rachmaninoff’s breakdown, Dr Dahl held daily sessions of hypnosis and positive suggestion therapy, enabling Rachmaninoff to rebuild himself and begin composing again.

4. Pianists need bigger hands to play it

In 1970, the LSO recorded the piece with principal conductor André Previn and piano legend Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy is reported to have said that, in playing Rachmaninoff, he wishes that his fingers were a little longer.

It's notoriously difficult to play as the piece requires a large handspan, particularly in the first movement with its signature wide-spread piano chords. Rachmaninoff could span an extraordinary 12 piano keys with each hand. It has been speculated that Rachmaninoff had Marfan’s syndrome, a disorder of the body’s connective tissues which allowed him to spread his fingers so wide and to compose and play such challenging pieces.

pianist hand span infographic 1414410936

5. The bells, the bells

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 opens with a series of chords, reminiscent of church bells. The motif of bells features in many of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, and is said to have been inspired by the Russian Orthodox services he attended with his grandmother as a boy.

6. Accidently been shipwrecked? Take it with you

The concerto is a popular choice on BBC Radio 3’s Desert Island Discs. Castaways who have chosen the piece include eminent conductors John Barry and John Rutter and by stars outside the classical world like Lauren Bacall and Gracie Fields.

7. Cinemas are full of it

The concerto has made numerous appearances in big blockbuster films. You might remember hearing the piece in David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), The Seven Year Itch starring Marilyn Monroe (1955) and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010).

8. It has spawned many a pop classic

It has also been reborn in pop music of the 20th century. The piece was repurposed by Frank Sinatra for his 1945 song Full Moon and Empty Arms and by Eric Carmen in his 1975 power ballad All By Myself, resulting in another famous cinematic outing for the concerto.