skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Quick Look Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Andrew Litton, conductor / Stephen Hough, piano, plays Rachmaninoff Apr. 19 - 21, 2012
© Paul Horsley

Even as Rachmaninoff's Second and Third Piano Concertos have been revered as major additions to the repertoire, the First and Fourth have lived in their shadows. In recent years, however, a consensus has been building that this neglect is unjust, at least for the First. This has come about partly as the result of the advocacy of prominent soloists, who have revealed the First to be a lively, ebullient work that brims with youthful enthusiasm. It is gradually taking its place alongside its more popular siblings.

The First began its life when Rachmaninoff was 17, shortly after he had made the impetuous decision to leave the piano studio of Nikolai Zverev and devote his life to composition. He had long complained about the rigors of piano practice, and he despaired of the melodies that filled his head yearning for expression. "Zverev was so upset that he almost fainted," wrote fellow student Matvey Presman of the confrontation. "One needed the determined character of a Rachmaninoff to endure the whole scene." As we know today, Rachmaninoff did indeed go on to become a major composer of the 20th century, but ironically he also became one of the premier pianists of his generation-a composer-pianist like Mozart or Beethoven who made his career chiefly by playing his own concertos and solo works.

"I am composing a piano concerto," Rachmaninoff wrote to his friend Natalya Skalon in March 1891. "Two movements are already written; the last movement is not written [down], but it is composed; I shall probably finish the whole concerto by the beginning of summer, and then in the summer orchestrate it." The First Concerto was not his first composition: During his studies with Alexander Taneyev at Moscow Conservatory he'd written piano pieces, songs, a D-minor orchestral Scherzo and even a Piano Concerto in C minor, later abandoned. The sources of his style in these were already beginning to emerge: Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Russians such as Rubinstein and Arensky.

But the First Concerto was a leap forward, even in its raw first version, completed in July 1891. He dedicated the work to his cousin, the pianist Alexander Siloti. The composer himself played the premiere at the Moscow Conservatory on March 17, 1892. But it was not long after that he became dissatisfied with it-even though Siloti was already performing it in public. In 1908 Rachmaninoff determined to "take my First Concerto in hand, look it over, and then decide how much time and work will be required for its new version, and whether it's worth doing." By that time the composer had already written his popular Second Concerto, and the public clamored to hear the First again. "But it is so terrible in its present form that I should like to work at it and, if possible, get it into decent shape."

What followed was not the much-awaited revision, but instead the U.S. tour of 1909, for which he composed the Third Concerto. Finally in 1917-shortly before fleeing Russia and revolution for good-Rachmaninoff revised the First Concerto, radically altering its shape and greatly increasing its virtuosic demands. While much of the boisterous extroversion of the 18-year-old's initial impulse remained, the orchestration and formal design were refined, and the first-movement cadenza completely rewritten.

The first theme of the initial Vivace-Moderato is an expansive "big tune" that contains all the effusive warmth of the composer's mature style. The imploring second theme is built from a fresh permutation of the four-note motto from which much of the work's thematic material grows. The lyrical second movement (Andante), a delicate nocturne, also opens with the solo horn sounding another version of the motto. The headlong finale (Allegro vivace), Tchaikovskian in inspiration and slightly meandering in its thematic development, gives free reign to Rachmaninoff's most demonic and thrilling virtuosic vein.