Romantic composers from the 19th century were known for wearing their emotions on their sleeves, allowing their work to reflect their innermost thoughts. Interestingly enough, a majority of Romantic pieces reflect a dark, melancholy mood – revealing the inner agony and depression of the artists.
The works of Rachmaninoff are no exception. Despite graduating from the Moscow Conservatory at the top of his class and becoming an internationally recognized pianist and composer by the age of 20, Rachmaninoff struggled with manic depression. Igor Stravinsky described him as “six foot six of Russian gloom,” and he actually fell into such a depressed state that he was unable to compose a single note from 1897-1900, requiring intense hypnotherapy sessions to draw him out of this black hole.
But why? Why do so many artists, like Rachmaninoff, struggle with this overwhelming sense of artistic melancholy?
Rejection – The Bitter Pill
Rachmaninoff’s life offers a few clues as to what caused his terrible mental fate. He considered his life’s work to be his Symphony No. 1, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1897. The symphony was a complete failure, and faced bitter criticism. This was too much for Rachmaninoff to bear, and it continued to bother him until the day of his death.
Such is the plight of the artist. We pour our heart and soul into our work, and each time we reveal these creative treasures to the public, we face the possibility of failure and rejection. Whether you’re a musician, a writer, a preacher, a public speaker, or a painter, the temptation to despair over what others think of you will threaten to steal your joy from time to time.
Raising Our Gaze
The Bible warns against worrying what others think, teaching us instead to do all that we do for God and God alone – herein lies true happiness and fulfillment:
“The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe.”
Of course, no matter how hard we try, there will be times when we give in to the fear of man and worry will begin to rear its ugly head in our lives. In these moments, I love the picture that Psalm 3:3 paints for us:
“But You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.”
I imagine myself with my head hung in shame and despair, or bent over with the burden of stress or grief. But instead of leaving me to deal with my misery, the LORD promises to lift my head – to help me to stand again – to remember Who I am really here to serve. What an encouragement!
Don’t allow artistic melancholy to take you hostage as it did for poor Rachmaninoff. Raise your eyes above the jeering crowds, and focus on the Loving Creator who gave you these gifts and takes delight in you when you make use of them.
Let’s forget Romantic Melancholy, which leads to brokenness and pain, and dive instead into the rich, endless depths of the Divine Romance God offers each of us.
Daily Dose of Rachmaninoff:
Click the link below to hear a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Elegie in E-Flat Minor, composed in 1892 (when he was only 19 years old), and performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff himself!
I performed this piece as part of my senior recital in college, and it has always been one of my favorites. Written only five years before his mental break, the piece reveals the dark thoughts that had already begun to plague Rachmaninoff’s young mind, but also contains a note or two of hope. Enjoy!
Picture Credit: Courtesy of www.tourofmoscow.com
 Woo, Brent. “Letters from Sergei Rachmaninoff: Substantiating a Context for His Depression in 1897-1900.” UCLA. http://www.international.ucla.edu/media/files/woo-journal.pdf