In the time of coronavirus lockdown, chasing the romantic sublime in Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2

The idea of music affecting wellbeing and emotions is at least as old as the writings of Plato:

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”

Music, even sad music, can evoke positive emotional responses. A 2,400 subject study from Durham University in the United Kingdom and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland finds a third of the participants experienced that sad music can bring forth intense yet pleasurable experiences that are accompanied by positive mood changes. In face of California’s recently re-issued lockdown, a stricter new region-based stay-at-home order, I am finding ways to cope by pretending like I am going to a concert by listening to YouTube music of past performances attended. Don’t laugh. In all seriousness, join me and dive into Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The lone voice of the piano, in the form of brooding chord sequences, unveiled Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. With each play, a heightened sense of foreboding is introduced until the tension escalates into a breaking point and erupts into a scaled musical statement that reverberates throughout the concerto. The passion exuded, whether uttered through powerful arpeggios or sweet romantic melodies, comes rolling like unrelenting waves and leaves one breathless with the distilled essence of love—both the pleasure of love anticipated and the pain of love unfulfilled.

To me, the piece represents the pursuit of the Romantic ideal of the sublime.

The idea of the sublime revolves around the idea that the most memorable experience is not made up of pleasure alone, but also suffering. It was first introduced by Edmund Burke, an Anglo-Irish politician, orator and political thinker. He wrote that pain, torment and suffering are “a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling,” according to his Philosophical Enquiry (1757). The sublime is connected with a sense of awe, terror and danger, which is why Burke saw nature as the most sublime subject.

The concept proved influential for generations of artists, including Rachmaninoff, who was born nearly 150 years after Burke. While Rachmaninoff is considered a “very late Romantic” composer, the idea of the sublime is prominently displayed in the Russian composer’s music—achingly sweet and beautiful, as well as at times intense melancholy.

Whether you are a classical music fan or not, I hope that you will at least listen to the first minute of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Prepared to be sublimed!

This, is how I am living dangerously during the coronavirus time.

Concert Background:

The May 31-June 2, 2018 performance featured pianist Boris Giltburg, Pacific Symphony and guest conductor Ben Gernon. The program consisted of Sergei Prokofiev’s Russian Overture Op. 72; Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2; and Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1947 version).

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