Immediately after graduation, Rachmaninov was considered a full-fledged composer. “For him I predict a great future”, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is said to have exclaimed a few years earlier. After all, Rachmaninov had already composed a number of impressive works.
As a composer, he primarily drew inspiration from examples within his own country. From early works like "The Rock" to "The Isle of the Dead," and even to the "Symphonic Dances" composed a few years before his death, the musical narratives of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and the Russian nationalism of "The Mighty Five" always shine through. Rachmaninov is regarded by many as one of the last great romantic composers and the primary successor to Tchaikovsky. Among the general public, his Second Piano Concerto is especially well-known. Just as Tchaikovsky's theme of love from his "Romeo and Juliet Overture" has been widely used, excerpts from Rachmaninov's second concerto have been extensively featured in numerous films, including Brief Encounter. Even Frank Sinatra based two of his songs, I Think of You and Full Moon and Empty Arms, on some of the themes from the concerto.
Although the public was won over by his expressive melodies and rich sound colours, critics have not received his music with equal enthusiasm, and labelled his music old-fashioned. In the concert hall, Rachmaninov often had to compete with the innovative musical language of emerging modernists. A tonal language that he would never really make his own. It is a criticism the composer had to endure during his lifetime. While his compatriot Igor Stravinsky consistently pushed the boundaries of what was possible and generally accepted, he, as a twentieth-century artist, kept on delving into the past - or did he reach the pinnacle of the romantic movement? It depends on how you look at it.
Rachmaninov began the first draft sometime in the summer of 1900, during a stay in Italy with his friend the bass singer Feodor Chaliapin, and finished the last two movements upon his return to Moscow. He completed the second, lyrical movement first, and then wrote the third movement, just in time for a benefit concert on 2 December 1900. Rachmaninov was very nervous, and to make matters worse, he caught a bad cold a few days before the concert. But his anxiety seemed to have been for nothing: the applause was exuberant, and the press reviews were also lavish with praise. The event gave Rachmaninov sufficient self-confidence to finish the composition. The following summer, he finished the first movement, and the full concerto — which he dedicated to Nikolai Dahl – had its première on 9 November 1901 conducted by his cousin Alexander Siloti.
A few years before Rachmaninov composed his Second Piano Concerto, he was not feeling well. Writing his first symphony was a struggle, and for Rachmaninov, this event came with even more pressure after Tchaikovsky's death in 1893. The premiere in 1897 was disastrous: reportedly, an intoxicated Glazoenov conducted a pitiable performance, and César Cui labeled the symphony as 'an evocation of the seven plagues of Egypt.' Rachmaninov sank into depression and wouldn’t write music in the following three years:
“A paralyzing apathy took hold of me. I did absolutely nothing and found no pleasure in anything. I spent half of my days on a sofa. I had given up and was in great despair.”
In 1900, Rachmaninov sought help with neurologist Nikolai Dahl. What took place behind those four walls, we will never know with certainty. What we do know is that the neurologist specialized in hypnotherapy. Various biographers describe a mantra-like treatment in which Dahl would speak to Rachmaninov while he slept: “You will start writing your concerto... You will work with great skill... The concerto will be of excellent quality.” Some musicologists are more cautious in their statements and claim that the two men resolved the problem in a more traditional way through cognitive therapy. What is certain, however, is that Dahl played a significant role in helping Rachmaninov overcome this trauma. After three months with the doctor, supported by his family, Rachmaninov recovered. In gratitude, he dedicated the Second Piano Concerto to his doctor.