Rachmaninov And Beethoven Piano Concertos Compeared

1. Introduction: 1-2
2. Instrumentation I: Organisation of the Orchestra: 3
3. Instrumentation II: Texture and Dynamics: 4-8
4. Rhythm and Metre: 9-11
5. Conclusion: 12
6. Bibliography and Discography: 12

Abbreviations used as details to accompany illustrations:

Mvt = Movement
R = Rachmaninov
B = Beethoven
f = figure
cf = near figure
exp = exposition section
dev = development section
rec = recapitulation section

Letters describe sections within the piece, e.g.:

A = A Section
B = B section etc.

1. Introduction

Rachmaninov and Beethoven are two sharply contrasting composers; the pieces I have chosen illustrate their differences. They also existed in very different contexts, Beethoven was the last great Classical composer (it is often said that the Romantic age began with Beethoven’s death, 1827), Rachmaninov was the last great composer from the Russian Romantic school who carried the tradition until his death in 1947. But if Beethoven and Rachmaninov have a primary similar, it is they are both ‘Pianist Composers’, in that much of their work was composed with the help of a keyboard, for the keyboard, and they were both masters in pianistic writing.

More specifically, both Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 (op.15) and the Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (op.30) share the same motive as ‘show pieces’; works that demonstrate the composer’s and performer’s full range and brilliance, and at the time these two works were written both Beethoven and Rachmaninov needed to advertise.

The young Beethoven arrived at Venice an unknown. The town’s accepted top musician and composer heard about Beethoven and challenged him to a piano competition. After a series of tests such as improvisation, Beethoven was unanimously voted the winner. He would have to compose fresh works in order to win wider critical acclaim and earn a living. The Piano Concerto of 1795 is accepted as his first, although only because it was the first to be published (1801); the 2nd Piano Concerto was confusingly completed before.

Beethoven often dedicated works to friends, teachers, even Napoleon (the Eroica, at first). Piano Concert No.1 was dedicated to Princess Barbara Odelscalchi. Being an early work in Beethoven’s career (he was born in 1770 and died in 1827) it shows much influence from Mozart, whom Beethoven was once taught by. Though Beethoven could always put his personal stamp on any composition, the Mozartian influence comes through; the sound in often light, graceful, and it generally does not have the stern grandeur of an isolated and depressed Beethoven. The first official performance was given in Vienna on 2nd April 1800. The composition was well received and served its purpose, as this local paper reported:

“…this was easily the most interesting Academy for a long time. He played a new piano concerto of his own composition, which is full of beautiful moments – particularly the first two movements…”

Compared to Beethoven, reviews for Rachmaninov’s ‘Third’ were less enthusiastic. His 3rd Piano Concerto in D minor (op.30) was composed for his tour of America. It served to display, just as it did with Beethoven, the player’s talents at performing and composing. It was started in the serenity of the family estate, ‘Ivanovka’, completed on the 23rd of September 1909, and premiered on 28th November at the New Theatre, New York (with Rachmaninov himself at the piano). The second performance was infact directed under Gustav Mahler, for whom Rachmaninov had great respect. The critics’ opinions were harsh and often icy. Here are typical comments from ‘The New York Sun’:

“The concerto was too long and it lacked rhythmic and harmonic contrast between the first movement and the rest of the concerto. Rachmaninov has been looked to as likeliest after Glazunov to attain broad nationalism of idea and expression. He has not done so in this concerto unless the outside world is laboring under a delusion as to what real Russia is.”

However, the Russian media were kinder, not to mention more perceptive. Grigory Prokofiev writes in ‘Russkiye Vedemosh’:

“The new concerto mirrored the best sides of Rachmaninov’s creative power: simplicity, sincerity and clarity of musical thought. It has a freshness of inspiration that doesn’t aspire to the discovery of new paths. It has a sharp and laconic form as well as simple and brilliant orchestration.”

Despite the difference in opinions about the work, it is certainly true that the Third has taken longer to obtain the recognition of critics and the public, unlike the 2nd Piano Concerto. Even Rachmaninov himself voiced his doubts over the piece when he said “No one will ever play this work because of its difficulty and length and perhaps too… because of its dubious musical merits.”

This comment alone tells us a lot about the mind of Rachmaninov. His life is one full of tragedy and hardship. Sergey Vasil’yevich Rachmaninov was born in 1873. His parents did little to encourage his obvious talent and at nine years old he saw the family’s estate auctioned in order solve their debts. At twelve his sister died, and as a result he failed his entire end of year exams. Consequently he was shipped off to Moscow to study under the regime of Nikolay Zverev. Under this strict teacher the young Sergey would have what was left of any self-esteem squeezed out, as one of Nikolay’s central teachings was that confidence in a musician was next to egoism and self-delusion.

Being a naturally sensitive man, Rachmaninov became withdrawn and developed a cold, static manner when performing, as if Zverev was watching over him. Though Beethoven experienced hardship too (the death of his mother, a drunken, abusive father), no biographical material on him is complete without alluding to numerous acts of assertion and dominance (such as volunteering to become head of his family after his father’s death). Rachmaninov was the opposite and the Third Piano Concerto illustrates this difference. When Rachmaninov is melancholy, Beethoven is fiery anger.

Rachmaninov is part of a long tradition of troubled Russians; Mussorvsky died a penniless alcoholic; Shostakovich caved in under the Bolsheviks; Prokofiev naively returned to the place that imposed ideological muzzles on its artists.

It is certainly true that Rachmaninov and Beethoven inhabited two very different worlds that their music obviously reflects. This is possibly why comparing them proves interesting when in the context of such a flexible medium as a ‘Piano Concerto’. However, since both pieces are long and complex, for the purposes of this investigation I will limit myself to exploring and comparing the two pieces in terms of Instrumentation, Texture, Dynamics, and Rhythm and Metre.

2. Instrumentation I: Organisation of the Orchestra

The Beethoven orchestra consists of one Flute part, two Oboes, two Clarinets in C, two Bassoons, two Trumpets, two Trombones, Timpani tuned to C and G (Tonic and Dominant), a string section, and of course, a piano. This is fairly typical of a mid-Classical orchestra, which had grown out of the Baroque orchestra. Beethoven would later use an expanded orchestra in works such as the 9th Symphony. The instruments in Beethoven’s day sounded differently compared to the instruments we use today. For example, the trumpet’s valves were not introduced until the 19th century, and large advances in instrument production mean greater capacity for volume and range of texture.

Improvements to musical instruments continued well into the 19th century to achieve new standards of performance. The orchestra grew in size to fill the larger music halls that were, by that time, being visited by the proletariat. In Rachmaninov’s lifetime, the orchestra had never been bigger. Experimental artists such as Stravinsky and Messiaen were composing avant-garde works. However, Rachmaninov forever remained part of a conservative ‘Late Romantic school’ that extended into the Twentieth Century. The orchestration of his concerto is therefore much like that of a late Romantic orchestra. Compared to Beethoven, Rachmaninov’s orchestra includes considerable additions: An extra flute part, a Horn section in four parts, an added trombone, a new Tuba part, Timpani and an enlarged percussion section (cymbals bass drum, side drum).

3. Instrumentation II: Texture and Dynamics

Beethoven’s first Piano Concerto is hugely Mozartean, but with his own signature characteristics and much personal experimentation, especially in the piano writing.

One thing that is immediately clear in Beethoven and Rachmaninov piano writing is that Rachmaninov is far more impressionistic. This does not make him an Impressionist, but his ‘Impressionism’ comes as a natural aesthetic choice available to him because he lived after the Impressionist age in music. It is not, as it would have been had he lived one hundred years earlier, a technique to push musical boundaries, or an avant-garde experiment.

Though Beethoven would later move to creating more adventurous atmospheric effects, the writing outside the Cadenzas is sometimes reminiscent of Bach, in that every note contributes to the harmony and the effect. There are thousands of notes that could be removed from the Rachmaninov piano part and it would go unnoticed because the pedal smudges the sound, or the orchestra drowns out the piano.

With Rachmaninov ‘piano and orchestra writing’, the piano is often used to create a texture, like the decorated opening theme of the first Movement, with the orchestra playing the simple theme and the piano ‘bubbling’ with semiquavers. The idea of the orchestra dominating over the piano so it can barely be heard in Beethoven’s day would have been preposterous, since it was regarded as a performance failure not an aesthetic issue.

Another major difference is that Rachmaninov piano style is more percussive, sometimes sounding like distant thunder when low. When high, full chords sound piercing and sharp. In Rachmaninov the player can hit the piano with emotion, while other times playing is restrained and held back (such as the opening theme) or free and weightless (such as the lighter parts of the piano solos).

This is partly due to technology, since Beethoven was writing within the limits that the contemporary piano would allow. Beethoven is capable of light writing as well as thunder with the pedal down, but not with the same dynamic range.

Orchestrally, both composers demonstrate homophonic writing…

(R, 1st Mvt, dev.) (B: 1st Mvt, exp.)

…and polyphonic writing:

(R: 2nd Mvt, f25) (B: 3rd Mvt, C in Rondo)

Homophonic writing is more predominating in the Beethoven, as was the style at the time. Though it is no way to judge a composer, a lot can be deduced from simply looking at the score. Beethoven scores, visually, look simpler with lines of quavers alongside lines of semiquavers:

(B: 3RD Mvt, A1 in Rondo)

While the in the Rachmaninov score, similar melody can overlap and jump from each instrument almost like a canon, while other parts can start question/answer motives. One passage where this occurs simultaneously is the 1st Movement’s development section:

(R: 1st Mvt, dev)

The combination of instruments used to create texture differs too. Rachmaninov bonded the Cor Anglais and the Violas to create a rich sound…

(R: 1st Mvt, exp A)

…the Double Bass and Cello pose as full-time melodic instruments rather than occasianal textural back-up. The Brass section generally features more widely, not just as harmonic and textural foundation but as melody instruments with occasional solos.

In contrast, the Beethoven concerto still tends to use the strings as the foundation and the rest as accompaniment. However, there are passages where the brass and woodwind have the spotlight. Of particular interest is the ingenious Cor Anglais echo with the piano that leads to the recapitulation:

(B: 1st Mvt, Rec)

The way in which the two composers treat dynamics is also significant. By Beethoven’s day there are greater contrasting dynamics (compared to earlier composers) which mean greater expressive qualities and one of his traits is the abrupt change of mood and volume, as opposed to the more constant dynamics of Baroque pieces.

(B: 2nd Mvt)

But by the Romantic age the swift changing of moods and dynamics were common place and, though the overall atmosphere in the ‘Rach 3’ is minor, Rachmaninov includes a variety of other shades into the work. For example, the ending finale expresses triumph and is an example of the orchestra at it’s loudest. Rachmaninov was also capable of great dynamic subtlety such as the opening shuffle of violins, not to mention both composers’ use of silence to add suspense or act as musical ‘commas’.

It should be taken for granted that both composers double instruments to form octaves for reinforced harmony and texture at numerous points in the pieces. However, of more interest is how octaves were written for the piano in the two pieces. In the time of Bach, moving in octaves was thought of as poor harmony. Though Beethoven’s life never coincided with Bach’s, the rule was still present in Beethoven’s early period of work. Therefore, although the octave interval is often central the decorative texture and harmony of the early concerto by Beethoven, there is few octave chords played by the piano. One rare example is the innovative octave pedal in the 2nd Movement…

(B: 2nd Mvt, b91)

Rachmaninov’s piano part is, as he himself admitted, technically challenging. But the least challenging melody in the whole piece is the opening theme. Its simplicity is partly due to its single octave line, a unique texture in the piano part in terms of the piece as a whole:

(R: Mvt, exp A)

Lastly, the two composers have a different approach to unison. The main source of unison in orchestral writing comes in the Cello and Bass parts. Which, in the Beethoven act as one part, so they are always in unison. In the Rachmaninov the Bass and Cello parts sometimes play a similar melody, sometimes completely differing, but more often in unison. Apart from these lower instruments there is no unison with the piano in the orchestra and very rarely do any of the instruments double which another. On some occasions the flutes double with the oboes in the Beethoven, but in both cases the use of octaves between parts is more often used.

4. Rhythm and Metre

Both concertos start in Common Time but Rachmaninov includes far more time signature changes. At different points he uses 3/2 time, Alla Breve and 3/8, while Beethoven seldom moves from 4/4 and 2/4. In Rachmaninov the pulse is sometimes hugely ambiguous. That could be because the melody is tied over bars…

(R: 2nd Mvt, cf38)

…or cross rhythms are used (as well as rhythmic devices such as spreading the chord, which can further complicate the rhythm)…

(R: 3rd Mvt, cf53)

…or because large solo runs interrupt a strong pulse:

(R: 3rd Mvt f74)
Beethoven’s rhythm is much more regular, as was the accepted approach to rhythm at the time. The best example is the opening idea of the concerto, where every significant note falls on the first and third crotchet beat with only seven-note-semiquaver runs to break regularity:

(B: 1st Mvt, exp A)

Though in terms of runs that disrupt the pulse and add interest Beethoven occasionally breaks the beat, but the passages tend to be much shorter and purely for decorative reasons, rather than melodic features. For example:

(B: 2nd Mvt)

The only one of these ‘miniature cadenzas’ that is comparable to Rachmaninov’s is at bar 485 in the 3rd Movement:

(B: 3rd Mov bar 485)

Both composers also use syncopation. The best example in the Rachmaninov’s concerto is the first movement’s development section where the piano lags behind:

(R: 1st Mvt, dev)

Beethoven’s use of syncopation is much less obvious. The piano is rarely syncopated with the orchestra and syncopation in the piano only slight, although Beethoven does use many dotted rhythms in the 2nd Movement.

Polyrhythms appear repeatedly in the Rachmaninov concerto. The juxtaposition of triplets and a regular Common Time rhythm (made from quavers or semiquavers) is a device that Rachmaninov uses extensively, one example being the opening piano part of the 3rd Movement…

(R: 3rd Mvt opening)

When this polyrhythm is merged by the pedal, as well as extremely chromatic melody, the result is often discordant and so complex that no pulse can be detected. In Rachmaninov’s case, this effect is never used inappropriately or without justification, acting as the build-up to a simpler but stronger melody, or the let-down from an enormous orchestral tutti, or a soloist’s rising or falling sequence that builds in rhythmic complication to provide a ‘rhythmical snow-ball’ effect. Consequently, there is also the use of more exotic polyrhythms:

(R: 2nd Mvt, cf25)

No such thing occurs in Beethoven, which instead includes trills, acciacaturas, appoggiaturas, turns and delicate runs. These are all Baroque features that continued into the Classical era. They are particularly abundant in Beethoven’s ‘first stage’ of development when still under influence of the Mozartean style. When there are any decorations to be found in Rachmaninov they are used in different contexts. What was once a delicate addition is now held on over bars to add suspense or a colourful upper pedal:

(R: 2nd Mvt, cf26)

But the major difference that marks out any Romantic piece with any Classical piece is the use of rubato. The style of Beethoven frequently does not allow for this feature. However there is an opportunity in the Cadenzas, and piano solos of the 2nd Movement. As one of the last Romantic composers, Rachmaninov’s music would not do without rubato as an expressive quality.

6. Conclusion

Although the piano concertos were written 114 years apart, they do share similarities. On a basic level, both stick to tonal structure, never becoming atonal. A similarity can be found in the Concerto’s use of Sonata Form, a structure that has remained popular with composers through the Classical, Romantic and Twentieth Century eras. What is most interesting is that Rachmaninov may sometimes relate back to a ‘Beethovenesque’ style. This could be a trumpet fanfare or Classical cadence, often through a basic need for contrast but sometimes acts as a homage to a more Classical style or less chromatic harmony, almost in reminiscence. Just as Beethoven, as I have already discussed, also borrowed styles and ‘musical emblems’ from his past teacher, Mozart.

Through this investigation, I have learned that what separates Beethoven and Rachmaninov is not what they do, but how they do it. For example, there differing treatment of texture, dynamics, or Sonata Form in the concertos’ first movement.

I had heard the two piano concertos a long time before I started this investigation. I first heard the Beethoven Piano Concerto live at the Royal Albert Hall when I was 11 and I loved it immediately. I first heard Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto even earlier on the radio and I found I couldn’t stop listening to it. Having never heard anything like it before, it was probably the piece that made me want to learn the piano. Although I have known about each piece for more than six years, I never once considered comparing them. Contrasting the works as been especially interesting and now that I know more about them I can appreciate them on a deeper, more complex level.

7. Bibliography and Discography

The Dent Concertgoer’s Companion – Anthony Hokins
Concertos and Choral Works and Essays in Musical Analysis – Tovey
Analysis of Musical Classics – Annie O’Warburton
Boosey and Hawkes miniature score: Serge Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3
Ernst Eulenburg Ltd: Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1
The Grove Dictionary – Rachmaninov
The Grove Dictionary – Beethoven
CD inset notes – Lother Römer
BBC Proms ’97 Programme – article on Beethoven by Andrew Huth and Anthony Burton


Ultima: Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2, Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3, Vocalise
Alexi Sultanov – Piano
London Symphony Orchestra
Maxim Schostakovich

Philips Classics: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1, Triple Concerto
Claudio Arrau – Piano
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Eliahu Inbul

Live Performance of Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1:
Stephen Kovacevich – Piano
BBC Philharmonic
Vassily Sinaisky


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