Brussels Philharmonic | The Monumental Years

the monumental years

Third Piano Concerto

One of the best-known photos of Rachmaninov is one taken in the summer of 1910, where he is sitting at a little round table, putting the finishing touches on the score of his Third Piano Concerto. The photo was taken at Ivanovka, Rachmaninov’s summer house in the southern Russian steppe. From his teen years, Rachmaninov and his cousins spent every summer on this estate, which belonged to his uncle and aunt, Alexander Satin and Varvara Satina. He married one of his cousins, Natalia Satina, in 1902. The annex to the domain was their wedding present. Every summer, Rachmaninov went there to draw inspiration from the surroundings and to be able to compose in peace and quiet, far from the bustle of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. One of the compositions that saw the light of day there was his Third Piano Concerto.

Ticket to the USA

Rachmaninov composed his Third Piano Concerto to serve as a calling card for his first concert tour of the United States: “My third concerto was written specially for America, and I was to play it for the first time in New York under Walter Damrosch. Because I didn’t have much time to practise during the preceding summer and was not familiar enough with certain passages, I took a dumb piano with me on the ship and learned it during the crossing.” The concerto was intended to highlight his qualities as a composer and pianist. Rachmaninov thus planned a particularly complex and virtuoso piano part.

The première of this monumental concerto took place on 28 November 1910 in the New Theater in New York with the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch, and was repeated on 30 November. The reactions were rather cool. On 16 January, a new performance followed, this time with Mahler as conductor, and with more success. But the extreme difficulty and the length of the work meant that it took some time for this piano concerto to become as popular as his second. One of the reviews said: “Honesty, simplicity, and clarity in musical thinking […] It possesses a freshness of inspiration that does not strive to discover new paths.” Rachmaninov firmly dismissed the remark that the singing opening melody resembles traditional Russian Orthodox chants: “The theme is not borrowed from a folk song or from church music. It wrote itself. If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound.” The definitive breakthrough for his third concerto came partly thanks to the 1996 film Shine, about the obsessive fascination of the pianist David Helfgott with the ‘Rach 3’.

Rachmaninov's hands

The size of Rachmaninov's hands has long been a topic of discussion - would his Third Piano Concerto have been as complex if his hands were smaller? The composer reportedly had a span of over 30 centimeters between his thumb and pinky. This above-average size certainly helped emphasize his stereotypical virtuosity and play incredible chords. For instance, contemporary concert pianist Cyril Smith once saw Rachmaninov play a chord 'C-E-G-C-G'. A range of up to one and a half octaves between the root note and the top note. Even after significant stretching, few pianists can reach that.

The third concerto was intended to showcase his qualities as both a composer and a pianist. Therefore, Rachmaninov provided an extra complex and virtuosic piano part. Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto is often called the "Mount Everest of concertos." It is a monumental composition: the length, technical virtuosity, expressive melodies, and the subtle interplay between the piano and the orchestra make it a true highlight in Rachmaninov's oeuvre.

In 1910, Rachmaninov wrote an article for the magazine "Etude." In this article titled "Ten Important Attributes of Beautiful Pianoforte Playing," he provides some recommendations for what he considers to be good piano playing. You can read the article here.


Composing in the United States would never be the same for Rachmaninov: discover the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and his Fourth Piano Concerto.

next chapter: The American Years