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Rachmaninov - Shrinking the ScoreBy Norman Lebrecht / April 16, 2003
Did psychotherapy turn Rachmaninov from a serious composer into a popular one?
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 Bauhau 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 back-dated 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 spell-binding 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 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 went away and composed his second concerto in C minor, the catchiest piece ever written for piano and orchestra. Deeply grateful, he dedicated the score to Dr Dahl.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Rachmaninov lived happily ever after. Although he married in great contentment and enjoyed world fame, his photographs are a study 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 formidable 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. Between the hit-spinner and the cerebralist lies an unfathomable gulf. Something in his creative equation does not add up.
Dr Garcia, the Philhadelphia consultant, has come up with an analytic explanation. In a paper published by the US conductors' guild, Garcia examines Rachmaninov's crack-up in Freudian terms. The first symphony, he asserts, was a brutal rejection of Tchaikovsky, peppered with discords yet written in the same key, D minor, as a trio that Rachmaninov dedicated to the memory of his lamented predecessor. Garcia adds that he was also conflicted at the time over a love affair with his best friend's wife.
Rachmaninov regarded the symphony as revolutionary. 'I had discovered and opened up entirely new paths in music,' he felt. He took its failure as a punishment for his 'murder' of Tchaikovsky and for engaging in an adulterous affair; he never allowed the symphony to be performed again so long as he lived.
Dahl assured the young man he had done nothing wrong and, if he had, he could make amends by writing a nice piano concerto. The cure gave him new creative powers. 'Very often,' argues Gracia, 'the devastations of love propel the creator, desperate to heal himself in the content and process of the creative act, into territory that would ordinarily be inaccessible.'
Seen in this light, therapy turned Rachmaninov from a composer of ambitious discordances into a tinkler of popular tunes - a kind of unconscious Faustian pact that induced him to give up his revolutionary rage in exchange for peace of mind and endless pleasanteries.
It is a persuasive theory. The contrast between the furies of Rachmaninov's first symphony and the smooch of his second can be verified in a ten-second sampling of both. He was undoubtedly a changed man, but whether therapy directly affected his creative voice is a matter of contention.
There are two grounds for disputing the Garcia hypothesis. First, the symphony that Rachmaninov considered so radical is tame by comparison to the imminent efforts of Skryabin and Prokofiev, let alone the atonalities that Schoenberg was attempting in Vienna. Rachmaninov was never more than a salon insurrectionist; he did not have much radical baggage to shed when he started to write family favourites.
More significant is the curious isolation of his case. Of no other creative artist can it be safely stated that his art was transfigured by psychotherapy. Even Woody Allen, who must have spent more time on his back than any patient in history, retains in his recent films the laconic, self-mocking voice that marked his 1969 debut, Take the Money and Run.
If we were to accept that Rachmaninov was turned by Dahl into a different type of composer, we would have to imagine that any good shrink could, given time, turn Andrew Lloyd Webber into Harrison Birtwistle - or, heaven forbid, vice versa. But the creative mind is a mighty fortress. The artist may rise from the couch feeling better, but the art is unaltered. Rachmaninov did not undergo a creative personality change when he saw Dr Dahl. He simply awoke from the therapy with a weight off his mind.
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