Virtual Music Hour

  Rachmaninoff Archive

  Introducing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

  Listen to the Music

Movement 1

Movement 2 & 3

  This week's Virtual Music Hour is dedicated to the musicians and staff of the Colorado Symphony.


Welcome to Virtual Music Hour. In preparation for your listening experience, Assistant Principal Violist Catherine Beeson has made guides with activities that can be enjoyed alone, with your quarantine buddies at home and online, or with your students. These activities can be mixed, matched, and altered to create an experience that’s right for you, or as inspiration to create your own. Get as creative as you’d like. Share it with us on social media! If you like seeing and hearing the Colorado Symphony musicians online, imagine how uplifting it would be for us to see and hear you too!

Rachmaninoff composed three concertos for piano and orchestra. He wrote Piano Concerto No. 3 during a time when he was feeling buoyed by professional success, and when he was about to embark on his first US performance tour. He has said it was his favorite of the three. It received a warm initial review, but really became popular with audiences two decades after its premiere when legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz made it a performance priority. Enjoy listening to this thrilling concert by your Colorado Symphony and piano soloist Lukáš Vondráček!

  Rachmaninoff composed Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909 and premiered it himself in NYC later that same year. **Piano teachers and students, shut your eyes for this next fact! He actually ran out of time to practice the piece at home before traveling to NYC for the performance, so he brought a fake keyboard and practiced on the way there. He was 36 years old when all of this happened though, so he probably knew his scales by then. **Teachers/students you can open your eyes now!

  Piano Concerto No. 3 is in D minor, lasts for about 45 minutes, and is in three sections called movements, like chapters of a book. It follows a typical concerto structure for these musical chapters, fast-slow-very fast. If it sounds like there are only two movements, or chapters, it’s because Rachmaninoff uses an excellent trick making the final note of the second movement the blast-off beginning of the third movement!

  Pianists everywhere agree Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is one of the most monumental and difficult pieces to play. The orchestra accompaniment is also richly detailed and often takes a more central role, making this piece of music extra engaging to listeners and performers alike.

  Rachmaninoff’s compositions have a cinematic sound to them, so it’s no surprise to find them used in films. For extra credit, binge watch these movies and listen for Rachmaninoff’s music: Brief Encounter, The Seven Year Itch, To the Wonder, Somewhere in Time, Groundhog Day, Shine, and Limitless. Piano Concerto No. 3 plays such a prominent role in the film Shine that it practically becomes a character itself!

  Rachmaninoff’s score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, and the usual string section of violins, violas, cellos, and basses.

Here is a listening map that can guide you through each movement. Read it in advance or while you’re listening!

Movement 1

Allegro ma non tanto
In English: Quick, but not too much

This music begins with a restless urgency in the orchestra while the solo piano plays a simple melody over the top. At :54, right about the time we are lulled into thinking this is all just a nice tune, the tempo picks up and the piano takes the restless role while the low strings play the melody. The music rides along like this, shifting roles through the orchestra, until at 3:03 a lush interlude introduces new ideas on the horizon. This new material shows up at 3:31 in a dialogue between solo piano and groups of instruments within the orchestra.

A beautiful, intimate conversation begins between the piano and solo bassoon at 4:08, which again blossoms into including more instrument groups. The restlessness begins to return and we get moving again just to fall into a slightly fancier statement of the opening material at 6:44. From here, the attitude morphs and changes but the restless quality stays somewhat prominent as the music figures out what it’s trying to say.

An extended cadenza, or rhapsodized solo section, for piano alone begins at 10:28. This pure-power-chord festival lasts until 13:20 with the entrance of a solo flute, who passes the melody to the oboe, then clarinet, and finally to the horn before melting into another solo piano section at 14:15. The entrance of the horns at 15:56 signals our return to the world of the orchestra and the final statement of the opening melody to take us out to the end of the movement.

  Consider the ‘title’ of the third movement – “alla breve”.

This is actually an interesting piece of ‘inside baseball’ music lingo. Generally, when music is structured around a pattern of 4 pulses, a composer can notate in what is referred to as Common Time, or in Cut Time. Common Time gets a repeating count of 4, one for each of those steady pulses so the “heart” of the music “beats” on each pulse. Cut Time [secret agent code name Alla Breve, which means “on the half”] generally moves much more quickly through those 4 pulses, so much so that it sounds more like a repeating count of 2 beats – each on the first and third pulses. In this case Rachmaninoff wants the pianist and the orchestra to move very quickly, with a sound that practically levitates as it flies through the pulse pattern. When performers see an indication for “alla breve” they typically understand the tempo will be brisk and flowing.

  How might the music feel or sound different if we were more aware of each pulse (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4) rather than every other (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4)?

  Can you imagine it having just one beat for every 4 pulses (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4)?

  How might that further change the way it feels or sounds?

Did you know that composers have signatures they use in their work like painters? Some of them use the letters of their name that correspond to pitches in the musical alphabet to create a melodic signature. J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich famously used this technique, creating a signature on B flat-A-C-B (B-A-C-H) or D-E flat-C-B (D.-S-C-H), respectively. Rachmaninoff used the rhythm of his last name as his signature. Right at the end of Piano Concerto No. 3 is an example of his signature “LONG shortshort LONG” following the pace and accent of “RACH manin OFF”.

  Try making a musical signature with your own name!

Let’s use last week’s Virtual Music Hour composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an example. His name has 8 syllables, a pattern of LONG LONG shortshortshortshort LONG LONG, and is weighted LONG LONG shortshortshortshort LONG LONG.


To make your own musical signature, first say your name confidently a few times to hear it fresh. Note how many syllables there are, which of them seem longer or shorter, and which of them seem heavier or lighter in weight. If it helps, you can also write your name down, mark each syllable, underline the longer sounding ones, and then circle the heavier sounding ones. Now try clapping the rhythm of your name following the length and weight of the syllables. Some names can be exciting or firm: Yael or Joe. Others might be more florid: Xiomara or Jessica Marie.

  How does your name seem to sound?

  What instruments do you imagine playing your musical signature?

Now that you’ve had a chance to consider, discuss, and get active around Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, it’s time to listen to the Colorado Symphony performance. There are all sorts of ways to engage as a listener, especially when listening at home instead of the concert hall. Sing/hum/whistle along, move and dance, journal or draw what you hear, or just turn the volume up and listen for sheer pleasure!



Please share your musical adventure with us through social media! We would love to hear about it or see any of your activities, journaling, or creations!


What do you think?

Help us make your next Virtual Music Hour better by taking this quick survey.

Take Survey

Love the music?
Consider a donation!

Your support means more to us now than ever before - by making a donation, you are supporting the staff and musicians that are keeping this music alive.

Make a Donation

  Board of Trustee Site