If at first you don’t succeed …

July 31, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Gazillions of hours of human effort are spent trying to keep us motivated as we slog through life. We like the idea that if we work hard enough, eventually we’ll achieve our goals. We are told that “90%*** of life is just showing up,” that we should not give up, learn from our failures, and press on,

Sergei Rachmaninoff had a successful career as a pianist, conductor, and composer. Because his writing was relatively conservative during a time of great experimentation and fragmentation of styles, he was getting a lot of play time with major orchestras while other composers were causing scandals. His Fourth Piano Concerto was one of his later compositions – and as he was a highly-regarded composer, everyone expected another smash-hit (like his previous three piano concertos, his tone poems, and his symphonies.)

Well … the Fourth Piano Concerto was no hit. In fact, just about everybody hated it. Rachmaninoff was deeply hurt, but didn’t give up. He immediately cut nearly 10% of the work, hoping a shorter piece would be a little easier to swallow.

Nope. Another 10% was cut. The work was revised over and over again, until at last, 15 years after it was premiered, Rachmaninoff gave up, despite being unsatisfied with the final version. 90% of life might be just showing up – but that means there’s another 10% lurking around – and what should we do with that?

*** according to some experts, only 80% of life is just showing up.


Row, row, row your boat

October 30, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Sergei Rachmaninoff was inspired to write a symphonic poemThe Isle of the Dead” after he saw this painting by the same name:


The unusual meter of 5 beats per measure makes the motion of the piece feel like the gentle rocking of a boat as it carries a soul across the river styx. The quotation of the Dies Irae chant was clichéd by the time Rachmaninoff wrote this piece, having been worn out by both Berlioz and Lizst. Nonetheless, this marvelous work deserves more credit than it is given, and is far more interesting than any of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies – and nowhere near as long!


a sort-of spooky piano piece

October 24, 2016 at 10:30 am

Today’s piece isn’t necessarily scary, but it is dark, deep, and heavy. I don’t associate it with Halloween, but I do remember an old Halloween cartoon in which a crazy old man played it on the piano in his haunted house.

There’s a tradition in keyboard composition to write a set of pieces in all 24 keys – that is, all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale (A, A#, B, C, C#, etc), in both major and minor tonalities. The idea to write this sort of musical collection can be traced to composer Vincenzo Galilei (who, incidentally, was the father of Galileo … lest you think musicians are dumb performing monkeys.) However, the first successful set of compositions in all 24 keys is without a doubt Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Well Tempered Clavier. The Well Tempered Clavier has since become one of those magical works which is all things to all people. It is used as a teaching tool for children and adults, pianists, composers, and more; and yet, you’ll hear selections from it on many piano concerts, and regularly see performances of all 24 pieces (memorized, usually.) Since its completion, all the great pianists have played it, and most composers refer to it as one of their inspirations.

Sergei Rachmaninoff would have known this work, as well as Chopin‘s and probably Scriabin‘s sets of 24 preludes. Being one of the greatest composers for piano in the early twentieth century, it would be wrong if he didn’t contribute his own exceedingly difficult set of pieces in every key. This Prelude in C# minor is practically a right of passage for young pianists, since it calls for a number of skills that are necessary as they graduate to more advanced literature. There are large chords, big jumps, and the middle section requires finger dexterity. And it has the added benefit of being not too hard, but sounding hard – making it good for impressing friends at parties.

This video contains a performance by Rachmaninoff himself!