For a sunny week in November, Rachmaninoff is my undoing.
In the frosty, see-your-breath morning, I stroll past the graveyard. As yet another tree sheds the last of its leaves, the intense opening chords of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor build into the swell of an orchestra. A statue of an angel bends its gray head in salute. Then the piano begins a low rumble of arpeggios as the entire string section joins in a broad, mournful melody. I recognize the sound — Rachmaninoff and I belong to the camaraderie of the broken-hearted.
In the slanting midafternoon light, I squash myself into a shuttle seat next to well-bundled strangers. The cellos pick up the melody briefly before the piano sends it flinging into a rapid, dancing tune. The orchestra answers with a furious pizzicato, like the sound of rain on a tin roof. As the shuttle lumbers along between stops, the swell of the orchestra builds, layering timpani and brass until the full orchestra reaches that same desperate intensity of the opening chords. Abruptly, the melody ceases. There is a heartbeat of quiet. I forget about the bus entirely. I am not here. I am floating somewhere above time and reckoning, somewhere in a dazzling soundscape of Rachmaninoff’s creation.
In the newly-dark evening, I trek down Science Hill, mourning the premature loss of daylight. Into the pause of music and dusk, the violas enter in a delicate theme that is altogether sweet and sad. The piano answers, weaving its own rich melody as I pass a warmly glowing street lamp. Cellos join the piano, then strings. I remember for a brief and glorious moment what real living tastes like. It tastes like this, like passion and power, like a raw, hungry yearning for beauty, meaning and pain.
Rachmaninoff gets it. He’s full of drama and pure, needless decadence, but he knows something about beauty too. Listening to him is like eating chocolate in bed on a Saturday morning — entirely indulgent.
Let’s be clear: I know basically nothing about classical music. I spend more time listening to Taylor Swift than Franz Liszt. Even my discovery of Rachmaninoff started in the most sacrilegious of all internet corners: TikTok. I’m also not sure that it’s acceptable to describe a piece by a 19th century Russian romantic composer as a “certified banger,” but it’s true.
I haven’t had an interesting thought all semester. I spend most evenings in the library, whiling my life away on psets and papers. Sometimes, for a change of pace, I schedule crying into my GCal. But Rachmaninoff makes me want to write sloppy poetry and call my mother and eat cantaloupe with an unwarranted vigor and bury my heart under a granite angel.
The weight of midterms and looming final projects and vanishing sunlight and onset of winter is held, momentarily at bay. Even seasonal depression takes on a grand and cosmic meaning. Rachmaninoff quenches the thought that I shall be vastly ordinary until I die. He demands greatness or nothing at all. After all, what grade could matter as much as the capacity to feel passion and fury and artistic angst?
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Go and listen to it right now. I like the Yuja Wang recording on YouTube. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, at least listen to the first 30 seconds of the Moderato to hear those dazzling opening chords.
I don’t care if you don’t like classical music. I don’t care if you’re suffering from the yague and I don’t care if you’re studying in the stacks and I don’t care if you’re in the middle of a pivotal physics exam. These 35 minutes and 25 seconds of your day are more important than anything else in your life at this moment. Possibly more important than anything in your life ever.
And if you see me walking the sidewalks, headphones on, beaming and crying all at once, just know that it is because Rachmaninoff ate my soul.