Monday, August 19, 2013

Rachmaninoff Reprised

Our virtual tour of the Creativity and Madness Conference will begin with the presentation of Dr. Richard Kogan, psychiatrist and concert pianist.  Dr. Kogan is masterful in his biographies of composers. He speaks entirely from memory and then rushes to the piano to flawlessly perform a portion of work that illustrates his point about the composer. I have never experienced anything like Dr. Kogan's presentations.
This year Dr. Kogan highlighted the work of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  Disclaimer: This post is from my notes, any mistakes/errors in the biography are my own.  I am admittedly starstruck with Dr. Kogan, and may wander off in my note taking . . . 

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Russia to an aristocratic family although his father was irresponsible financially, and the money didn't last long.  His grandmother was a very religious Russian orthodox and had a strong influence on Sergei's growing up years, taking him to daily mass after his father abandoned the family.
His parents did not find anything remarkable about Sergei during his childhood, he would often refuse to practice the piano and they considered him lazy.  When he was caught forging his grades at 12 years old he was sent to the equivalent of "Pianist Boot camp." Once there Sergei demonstrated an ability to compose music but he eventually had to leave the school because of a conflict with the headmaster.
Sergei then went to the Moscow Conservatory where he met and was mentored by Tchaikovsky.  This was a key relationship in Rachmaninoff's life and Tchaikovsky quickly recognized something special in his student.  By 19 Sergei was "world famous" and was paid $20 for his Prelude in C sharp Minor.  He reported having heard the composition form in its entirety inside of his head and was quoted as saying "it had to be so there it was." If you listen carefully to this piece you will hear the church bells tolling as a nod to his grandmother.
Tchaikovsky died suddenly and his death had a profound effect on young Sergei.  He wrote Trio élégiaque No. 2  to express his sorrow for his friend and mentor and it received terrible reviews.  Sergei suffered from major depression for three years and was completely blocked in his composing which led him to seek counseling from a hypnotherapist named Dr. Dahl. 
Dr. Dahl was also a skilled violaist.  His treatment plan for Rachmaninoff was:
  1. Sleep through the night.
  2. Improve his daytime mood.
  3. Reawaken his desire to compose.
  4. Improve his eating.
Dahl's posthypnotic suggestion was that Sergei would begin to compose with great facility and it would be of excellent quality.
Sergei began composing again and ended treatment in 1900.  His Piano Concerto Number 2 in C Minor was written during this productive time.  Typically the violins introduce the melody to the symphony but in this work it is the violas that bring the melody.  He dedicated this piece to Dr. Dahl.
Sergei Rachmaninoff  battled depression on and off for the rest of his life and openly acknowledged his mental illness. He is quoted as saying "My mental sickness sits in me so firmly . . . the pain only stops when I am playing . . . "
As a grown man, Sergei was 6'6" and may have had a pituitary disorder (like Abraham Lincoln) which could account for his hand size and expansive finger span.  His compositions are challenging for even the most skilled pianists.  He was reported to be a "meticulous pianist" known for his craftsmanship- a far cry from his early "lazy years."
Rachmaninoff was successful in his marriage and had a good relationship with his children.  He died of melanoma in 1943 and his last words were reportedly "Farewell my poor hands."
Dr. Kogan recommended these biographies for more information:
Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings by Max Harrison (2006)
Rachmaninoff by Michael Scott (2008)
We are all eagerly anticipating 2014 Creativity and Madness with Dr. Kogan, I wonder who we will study next?!


  1. Very interesting and educational, Lisa! So glad you are sharing highlights of the conference with us. I'm looking forward to future posts.

  2. Thanks for the glimpse into into such rich history and for the lovely music.

    1. Knowing more about the artists adds a lot to the enjoyment of their work- don't you think? Thanks for the comment!

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Can't wait to read more!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Heather, appreciate your feedback and linking! :)

  4. I have officially rediscovered my spellcheck. Deep apologies to Sergei's family and my faithful readers for consistently misspelling the composers name. Learning all the time with this blog thing! Rachmaninoff, Rachmaninoff, Rachmaninoff. I think I've got it now!

  5. Fascinating, Lisa! This conference sounds amazing.