Notes on the Concerto:
Rachmaninoff’s 3rd is an iconic piece, as much for its fabled “impossibility” as for its musical beauty. For a pianist to attempt mastery of this Bete Noire of the classical canon it is regarded as an act of heroism, and the ultimate expression of virtuosity. The lilting, almost folksy lyricism of the main theme, which opens the 1st movement and returns throughout, belies the extraordinary intricacy and technical difficulty of the work. There are few, even among the world’s elite pianists, who are prepared to attempt it: Even Joseph Hofman, the virtuoso to whom the work is dedicated, eschewed all public performances, claiming that this work was too difficult even for him. It was also this beast of the classical canon that supposedly precipitated the mental breakdown of the young German-Australian pianist, David Helfgott- it was Helfgott’s biography, and specifically its better known film adaptation (Shine, 1997) that was responsible for launching the Rach 3 into the public consciousness, and enshrining its reputation as one of the most difficult, even dangerous, pieces of piano music ever written.
Rachmaninoff composed his 3rd piano concerto whilst still in Russia, at his family’s estate. It was composed especially for the composer’s first tour of the United States in 1909- there was no time for him to rehearse the work before he left Russia, so he practiced for the first recital on a silent keyboard during his Atlantic passage. He was famously unimpressed by his first visit to America, a bitter irony, considering that this would be the country in which, following the revolution and his subsequent exile, the composer would be forced to live out the rest of his days.
Notes on my father:
My father has the hands of a pianist- they’re expressive and intelligent, his fingers are long, slender, tensile. My father is not and has never been a pianist- he was born into a household where middle-class things like piano lessons were never a possibility- though he has a profound passion for the instrument.
Notes on music and solitude:
The piano, in the house where I grew up, was situated, as pianos often are, in the lounge room. The windows of that room looked outwards over acres of empty grazing land. Mists descended and shifted. Grey was the prevailing tone. To the left there was a large Ghost Gum. Hanging from its branches were two lengths of chain, to which a tree swing might have once been attached. To the left, there was a disused water bore, which hummed with mosquitoes in the summer, and in the winter, froze. The windows were framed by heavy drapes, and the piano was set against the wall on the right hand side. I was the only child of a single parent and spent a lot of time alone in that house, and a lot of time with that piano.
When I say “piano”- it was actually a Yamaha electric organ. The kind that plays three settings of Salsa beats at the push of a button. But it had a full size keyboard, and weighted keys, and the fact that I could adjust the volume meant that I could play it in the middle of the night, on the lowest setting, without waking my mother (a feature I’m sure Rachmaninoff would have valued, on his passage to America) Alternatively, when I was alone in the house, I could turn the volume up to full, put it on the PIPE ORGAN setting and bang out the first few bars of a Bach fuge into the cavernous reaches of an empty house, feeling like the Phantom of the Opera.
Notes on prodigious children:
My parents still recall a moment when I was very young, maybe 4 or 5 (young enough not to remember the incident myself) I was heard playing the classical theme to some movie or another which I had apparently replicated after hearing it the night before on the telly. I wasn’t yet able to read, let alone read music, so whatever I played on the piano were generally my own little compositional mash-ups, and aural renditions of tunes I’d heard elsewhere. I was experimenting, as children do, with sound, and with things that make noise. But it seemed that I had an affinity for this big, toothy black and white noise-making contraption in particular, and was able to elicit noises from it that were kind of sensible and melodious, that might have even been music.
This led, of course, to formal piano lessons. Twice a week I found myself in the dusty music room of Ms. Ryan, a curly haired, smiling woman with a large collection of interesting earrings and breath that smelled always of stale coffee. Ms. Ryan, who declared that I was “gifted”. She made the mistake of telling my parents that, with another couple of decades of dedicated practice, I could- no, would- be a concert pianist. They made the mistake of believing her.
Notes on failure:
What is the potential of failure? how might our failures be more interesting than our triumphs? the completion, of a great and difficult piano concerto, by an elite pianist who has sacrificed their life to the study of an instrument, and to the interpretation of another’s music, represents a great triumph, a spectacle in fact, of triumph, which is so compelling principally because the stakes are so high. A great pianist is lauded, adored. There are conventions to their performance which are strict and steeped in tradition. There are expectations and there is sacrifice, turmoil, grace.
What happens to the thousands of infant prodigies who, dressed for eisteddfods in oversized formal attire, never quite make it to the concert stage? what happens to those who, after years of driven practice, suddenly, for whatever reason, stop? What survives in the space after an all encompassing discipline? how is the individual marked by the (failed) pursuit of virtuosity? relief? trauma? both?
Anybody who has had the misfortune of being saddled, as a child, with the dubious mantle of “Gifted and Talented” in any given discipline will likely have as many stories, if not more, of their failures, than of their achievements. Because with the early recognition of talent comes the corollary recognition of failure- the potential for it, the dreadful ever-presence of it, utter terror of not succeeding.
Notes on not-succeeding
I never succeeded at piano: I rebelled, eventually. I loved playing the instrument but I hated studying it. I never practiced my scales or my sight reading. I never learnt any of the pieces that my tutors tried to make me learn. I never turned up to my lessons, I failed my exams and therefore, I failed the piano. I failed my parents, who paid for the lessons and wanted to see me realise some misguided notion of “potential”. But, I continued, privately and ecstatically, to play pieces that I liked, acquired as much by ear and intuition as from the notes on the score. I composed pieces and improvised. I retreated into music, to the point where I became neurotically secretive. This got to the point where I could only play if I was absolutely sure I was alone and not being listened to.
When the bullying at school was bad (and it did get bad) my refuge was always the practice cells of the music centre. I hung out in those rooms and skipped whole days of classes. I was in there one day, practicing a Beethoven sonata, that I had been learning from sheet music illicitly photocopied from the library. It was during lunchtime, and the music centre was empty- The door to the cell burst open without warning- it was the head of the music department, a blind man by the name of Mr. Cooper. He stood at the door in a state of some excitation, staring forward demanding to know who was playing. I thought I was in trouble, and gave my name hesitantly. I’ll never forget the look of disbelief on the man’s face when I told him it was me- this was long after the era of Ms. Ryan and her declarations of my prodigious natural talent, I was 15 by this stage and was regarded by most of the music department as a punk and a waster without discipline or interest, a notion I did little to dispel. He was silent for a long time, before finally saying- “I’ve taught students at the conservatory who have not played that piece so beautifully, or with so much passion”.
If this was a film, a Billy Elliot sort of thing, this would be the point where the underdog girl virtuoso would suddenly be rescued by a brilliant but eccentric maestro- they would find a pathway forward together, find a way to buck the stuffy orthodoxy, and passion, rebellion and sweet, sweet music would prevail. However, what actually happened was: I sat, looked at my hands, looked at the keys, and suddenly felt incredibly frightened and exposed. Mortified, is the word, actually- as though I had been caught jerking off in a public bathroom. I closed the piano, closed the music, and left. That was my last day at that particular school, and the following week we moved to a new house where there was no room for the piano. I didn’t lay my hands on one again for 15 years.
Notes on my father:
Whenever I see my father, he asks me: so, do you still play the piano? Every. Single. Time. And the answer is always the same. I shake my head regretfully, and he lowers his eyes, and after a period of silence he says: “Such a pity.” And I know he is speaking as much to his own loss as mine. My father is one of the very few people whom I ever allowed to hear me play. And even then, I preferred it if he didn’t look at me while I did it. Many of the pieces I chose to learn, I chose because I knew he liked them.
There was a period, through my late teens and early twenties, when my father and I didn’t speak. Quitting the piano was one of the numerous things that compacted his image of me as a failure, and this was one of the numerous things that compacted my image of him, at the time, as an arsehole. We’ve since mended this fracture, and a mutual enjoyment of classical piano has been one mechanism of our bridge-building- one of our tentative, adult father-daughter outings was to see a concert by Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the greatest living interpreters of Rachmaninoff.
Notes on the Great Romantics:
Sergei Rachmaninoff was Late, rather than Great, Romantic. Compared to, say, (lovelorn, syphilitc) Schubert, or (insane, deaf) Beethoven, or indeed his mentor and most immediate stylistic predecessor, (homosexual, suicidal) Tchaikovsky, he was a relatively staid character. He was hard-working, upper-middle class, happily married, a Russian nationalist, moderately but not stupendously successful in his lifetime, neither maligned nor lauded. His biography is basically unsexy; no one in Hollywood would be likely to make a film about him. Yet the sheer melodrama of his piano works are total Hollywood- the sweeping, wave-like arpeggios, punctuated by soft, loving conversations between piano and orchestra, which escalate suddenly into crashing rows, and simmer back down into maudlin introspection. And like most classical musicians his work has been plundered by pop- the opening bars of, for instance, “All By Myself” (Eric Carmen, 1975), the power ballad to end all power ballads, is a direct quotation from the 2nd concerto.
Notes on music and solitude:
I am sitting in a soundproofed windowless room, alone, with a piano. It smells like every music room I have ever been in- they smell, universally, of damp carpet and wood polish. They smell of failure and solitary pleasure. Sordid. The lights are out, because I can’t bear the sight of the thing, with its open jaws, its many teeth. I need to touch it first in the safety of darkness: when I rest my hands, gently on the keys, my arms stiffen, my heart thumps, my breath grows shallow, and I feel the bulbous urge to cry rising in my chest. I wanted to find some kind of confluence between my breath, my body and that instrument, my failure at which has haunted me for years. I wanted to invite, into that gentle darkness, a healing spirit.
Sitting in my lap I have the sheet music for one of the most maddeningly difficult piano works of all time. I want to see what it sounds like if I play it all wrong: willfully, beautifully.