Shrinking the Score; Did Psychotherapy Change Rachmaninov from a Serious Composer to a Popular One?

By Lebrecht, Norman | The Evening Standard (London, England), April 16, 2003 | Go to article overview

Shrinking the Score; Did Psychotherapy Change Rachmaninov from a Serious Composer to a Popular One?


Lebrecht, Norman, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

IN the unending debate about the effectiveness of psychotherapy, the creativity question remains unresolved. What happens to art when medicine meddles with an artist's mind? There are two known instances of composers who sought psychiatric help. On the afternoon of 26 August 1910, Gustav Mahler spent four hours discussing his marital difficulties with Sigmund Freud as they strolled through the Dutch town of Leiden. The two great minds achieved instant rapport. Freud said later that no one had ever grasped psychoanalysis so swiftly. Mahler, for his part, felt much better. "Be joyful!" he cabled his young wife, Alma.

Exactly what Freud cured is unclear.

Emmanuel Garcia, psychiatric consultant to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, has postulated a theory that Mahler's libido was restored by talking to Freud. If so it made little difference, as Alma continued seeing her young lover, the future Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. As for any effect on Mahler's music, there was none.

He died nine months later, of heart disease. Freud, seeing the obituary, sent the estate a backdated invoice. Privately, he acknowledged that his treatment of Mahler had been superficial. It was, he said, "as if you would dig a single shaft through a mysterious building".

More mysterious still is the case of Sergei Rachmaninov, who suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 23 after the failure of his First Symphony in St Petersburg on 15 March 1897. The conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was drunk, the orchestra was under-rehearsed and one of the foremost critics, Cesar Cui, called the music "perverse" and "evil".

Rachmaninov was smitten by listlessness, unable to compose for the next three years.

His friend Chaliapin, the mighty bass singer, took him to see Tolstoy who, after hearing them play a spellbinding recital, proceeded to disparage every piece of music ever written, from Beethoven on. "I must tell you," hissed Tolstoy, "how much I dislike it all."

Rachmaninov slunk away dejected and began drinking heavily.

In desperation, his family sent the troubled young man to see a Moscow hypnotherapist, Nikolai Dahl, who had some success in treating alcoholics.

They also urged the doctor to address his creative block by getting him to write something that the critics might like - a piano concerto, perhaps.

Sending the composer into a trance, Dahl chanted: "You will begin to write your concerto, you will work with great facility ..." After three months of this, Rachmaninov composed his Second Concerto in C minor, the catchiest piece ever written for piano and orchestra. Deeply grateful, he dedicated the score to Dahl.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Rachmaninov lived happily ever after.

Although he married in great contentment and enjoyed world fame, pictures of him are studies in sombreness. The violinist Nathan Milstein, who summered with the composer in the 1930s on his estate beside Lake Lucerne, described Rachmaninov to me as a remote, abrupt man who reserved whatever warmth he gave to those who could engage his mind in topics that ranged from mechanics to metaphysics.

Yet this considerable intellectual was, remember, a composer of unrivalled mass appeal whose best-selling C-sharp minor prelude goes straight to the heart, bypassing the brain. …

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