by Katherine Yeejin Hur
BWR 47.2 Nonfiction Contest winner
I. Allegro ma non tanto
I have always seen things in threes. 27 is my number, and though I don’t know if it is lucky, I know that it is mine. Three to the power of three. I am in my third year of college when my mother dies in a hospital on the 27th of March, the third month. A year later, on April 27, I tell someone I have not spoken to in nearly six months that I love him. He confesses that he’s always known we would grow old and arthritic together.
Once you start thinking like this, it’s hard to stop. In music, three movements to a concerto. In Catholicism, my mother’s religion, the Holy Trinity: God from God, Light from Light, true God from true
God, who suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day.
In history: three waves of Korean immigration to America. Sugar-cane- plantation workers to war brides to liquor-store owners. Morning, afternoon, evening. A lifetime dictated by an eternal cycle of threes. My mother hangs herself in the basement of 931 West Conway Drive.
It is October of 1893. This will be the last time you ever see Tchaikovsky, though you do not know it at the time. He asks about your new compositions, and you play him excerpts from a symphonic poem that you have been working on. You were prolific this summer, and Tchaikovsky is astounded. Serezha! he says. A symphonic poem, a concerto, and a suite? All I’ve managed to write is just this one symphony. You tell him that you will attend the premiere of that symphony a month from now in St. Petersburg.
But instead you travel to Kiev to conduct your first opera, Aleko. When you return home, you receive news that Tchaikovsky died mere days after the world premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. The cause is unknown. Some say cholera, contracted from drinking tainted water. Butothers say the composer took his own life.
Many years ago, you were offered the chance to leave Moscow and study in St. Petersburg under the great pianist Anton Rubenstein. You refused the invitation out of loyalty to Tchaikovsky, one of your mentors at the Moscow Conservatory. In the nights leading up to the first performance of Aleko, Tchaikovsky was present at every rehearsal; at the premiere of the opera, he was the first to stand up and lead the applause of your work.
Now his remains lie in a cold tomb in St. Petersburg. And you, Rachmaninoff, are alone in Moscow.
At night I cannot sleep. I show up to school tired and snap at my friends. “You are keeping up the whole house,” I tell my mother, but every night it is like this, every night trying to fall asleep while music winds its way around the halls and slips into the rooms, ignorant of such arbitrary barriers like floors or walls. Long, lonely notes, and I spend the night with my eyes shut trying to follow them. I have never hated the sound of a piano more. When it becomes too much, I go downstairs and pause at the entrance of the living room.
My mother slumps against the upright speaker whose volume is set so high that I feel rather than hear the music. It is a while before she turns to look at me.
For years afterward, this is what I think of whenever I hear Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto: my mother, with a wine flush staining her cheeks, lips purpled, eyes dark and glassy, enraptured. Sweat gleams from her forehead and neck, trickling down the line of her throat.
Her shirt hangs loose across her collarbone, and I can see the angry pink patches where I scrubbed her raw the night before. Have you ever bathed your own mother? To see her vulnerable, head bowed between her knees, exposing the nape of her neck, whimpering softly as dead skin sloughs away under the pressure of your own hands.
She looks at me, but she does not see me. If she recognizes me, she does not say.
You compose a symphony. From January to October, you work on the piece for seven hours a day without fail—by the last few months, you are composing for ten hours a day. But in 1897, the thing is finished, and your first symphony premieres in St. Petersburg where Tchaikovsky’s final symphony premiered just a few years prior. You are only twenty-four.
This symphony almost ruins you. The concert is a complete disaster. You flee the hall before the performance is even over. Rimsky-Korsakov, meaning well, tells you that he does not find your music agreeable; Cui, less generous, writes that you must have studied at a conservatory in Hell and compares the symphony to the Biblical plagues of Egypt.
Rachmaninoff, Rachmaninoff. The history of music and of art and of literature is built upon works which endured years of contempt and criticism, only to survive and be recognized later as masterpieces. Your First Symphony will be among them.
But you return to Moscow a changed man. You try to distract yourself by blaming Glazunov, who gutted the score with nonsensical cuts to shorten its run time and was so dismissive of the symphony from the start that he conducted the concert while drunk, but you cannot ignore the doubt fermenting in your mind—perhaps you were never meant to compose, perhaps you simply do not have the mind for it. Always you will be stuck playing the works of others, of those greater than you.
When you were sixteen and studying piano with Zverev, you hinted at an interest in composing. He told you that pianists should not waste their time on composition, and when you pushed him further, he lifted a hand to strike you. But you, Rachmaninoff, towering above him at nearly two full meters, looked him in the eyes and said, You don’t dare to hit me.
Zverev did not speak to you for years, not until you presented him with Aleko. Then he removed the gold watch from his wrist and gave it to you—Aleko, the opera that Tchaikovsky defended from critics, defended even from yourself, the opera for which you missed the performance of his final work and his death. Everything in life a series of looping circles. In music, this is the recapitulation: the return to a theme.
It is this watch which you now take to a pawn shop to sell for rubles. You need the money. You cannot even bring yourself to perform anymore, much less compose, though the income from recitals would have helped.
Three years pass. Someone asks why you do not compose anymore. The melody has gone, you tell him. I can no longer compose. If it returns, then I shall write again.
II. Intermezzo: Adagio
When someone famous dies, Wikipedia has hundreds, maybe thousands, of people rushing to edit their page. Within seconds, these editors add the date and time of death, switch the verb tenses from present to past.
My mother was not so famous, and I have no such editors for my brain. It takes months for me to train myself to say, “My mother’s favorite composer was Rachmaninoff” instead of “My mother’s favorite composer is Rachmaninoff.”
All experiences are new to me again. I am twenty-two and celebrating my first birthday since my mother’s death. I keep track of all these firsts: first Mother’s Day, first Thanksgiving, first Christmas since we took her off the life support which kept her heart beating, though she’d been dead by then for weeks. On 설날, the Lunar New Year, my father burns sticks of incense and we kneel for the first time before a framed photograph of my mother.
This is my mother. A woman of contradictions: she loves to garden but is terrified of earthworms, a fear I’ve inherited. She fries pork cutlets and makes an entire pot of sticky rice but eats only romaine lettuce and wine herself. She lives in America but her mind is far away in a country where the pine trees do not grow straight and tall, as though they might poke holes into the sky, but instead curve gracefully like dancers, their limbs bent in strange and painful arches. She loves me and my brother, but she had no love for herself.
On the window sill above our sink: three jars with clippings from the African gardenias she grew in the backyard.
Eventually your depression calcifies into apathy, and this is when your family decides something must be done. In January of 1900, your aunt takes you to see Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a hypnotherapist. He is an elderly man with a large nose and a brow jutting out like a promontory which belies his kindness; though you have no money to pay him, he treats you free of charge. You learn that he sees many other patients without demanding payment.
Dahl tells you three things, over and over: You will begin to write your concerto. You will work with great facility. The concerto will be of excellent quality. You will begin to write your concerto. You will work with great facility. The concerto will be of excellent quality. You will begin to write your concerto. You will work with great facility. The concerto will be of excellent quality.
Several months later, you perform a small recital with Chaliapin in Yalta. Afterward, a small bearded man you have never seen before approaches you backstage. The man chats with Chaliapin and then turns to you. He shakes your hand. Mr. Rachmaninoff, he says, nobody knows you yet. But you will be a great man one day.
Later you find out this person is Anton Chekhov.
At first I’m surprised by how quickly everything comes back. I laugh without thinking. I daydream about grilled mackerel and sticky rice cakes. I go dancing with my friends, I complain about homework.
Then I turn angry, so angry that it surprises me. I could be a bad person, if only I would let myself. I look at someone and think, I know exactly how to take you apart. This instinct for cruelty scares me. I make a list of the ways I’ve mutilated or killed fictional animals and people, then psychoanalyze my own writing: jars of live dragonflies with their wings torn off, a fox chewing its way through the muscle fibers and bone of its own leg. A son bashes his father’s head in with a convection oven. Mothers frequently kill themselves. I am not sure what I’m trying to prove.
I’m sitting in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s. My car is twenty years old and the engine overheats easily. I moved to Baton Rouge just a few months ago, but I’ve already lost track of how many times my car has left me stranded for hours in various places. Gas stations, school parking lots, the post office. Because the car will not start until the engine cools down, I flip the hood up; because the air conditioner does not work, I roll down the windows.
My father texts me to say that my brother has been suspended from school for five days. My brother is angry too, but the difference between us is that he’s had years of practice at being angry. He was kicked out of elementary school for fighting and then kicked out of middle school for fighting and now my father is afraid he will be kicked out of high school too. “I am not sure where our family is going,” my father says. “I feel our family is falling apart all of a sudden.”
In the middle of the Trader Joe’s parking lot with my windows rolled down and the hood of my car popped open, I begin to cry. I call the boy I love looking for comfort but soon I’m yelling at him instead. He says that he loves me and that he’ll always support me. This is not what I want to hear. Fight me, goddamn you, give me a fight, but he does not give in. I love you, he tells me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
An old man stops by and bends over to peer through the window. “Is this the new way to pick up boys?” he asks. “Haha!” I say to him, blinking through tears and snot. “No.” In the trunk of my car, bags of frozen broccoli thaw into green mush.
Hours later, my car cools down enough that I can drive home feeling dizzy and exhausted. My roommate takes me out for drinks and a movie. She’s just been through a bad breakup and we both want to get out of the apartment. The movie she picks is A Star is Born, which I know nothing about. When Bradley Cooper grills an entire ribeye for his dog and sets it on a plate before hanging himself in the garage, I have to look away.
I leave the theater in tears. My roommate assumes I’m crying because the movie was sad, which it was, yes, but I can’t stop thinking about that ribeye steak. That last act of love. I call my friend later that night and tell her about my day. “It feels like the universe squirted a stream of lime juice into my eye,” I tell her.“That is not lime juice,” she says. “That is a fucking catastrophe.”
Then I start laughing, because the whole thing is so ridiculous and stupid and sad, all of it, and I laugh and laugh and when she asks, “Are you okay?” I laugh some more. Yes. Yes. I think I will be.
You are in Moscow, your hands dashing off the piano keys in the final exultant chords of your Second Piano Concerto.
Four years after the disastrous premiere of your First Symphony, you bow before the audience at the premiere of the piano concerto that for many will become the defining work of your career. Some will consider this the greatest piano concerto ever written. The Concerto No. 2 marks your triumphant return to composition after years of despair, cementing your status as a virtuoso pianist and one of the great Russian composers.
You dedicate this concerto to Dahl, who coaxed the music from you without expecting anything in return.
For your second piano concerto, Rachmaninoff, you are renowned—
- Finale: Alla breve
—but for your third piano concerto, you are feared.
You spend some years in Germany to escape the increasing political tension in Russia, where the Bolsheviks have been causing unrest. While in Dresden, you accept the offer to tour overseas in America and in preparation for your American debut, you compose your Concerto No. 3.
It is destined to fail because of the very thing that makes it legendary. Your fans speak of the concerto with awe. Skeptics say that the piece, though brilliant, will fade because of the sheer technique needed to play it, much less perform it.
Because this concerto requires such a high level of technical mastery, it develops a reputation. Soon it becomes defined by this reputation. Josef Hofmann, one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists, to whom you dedicate the work, refuses to perform it. Years after your death, the director of the Curtis Institute laments that he did not learn the concerto when he was still too young to know fear.
Pianists view it as an accomplishment rather than art. Hollywood will reduce it to a demonic creation that drives a young performer to madness in his attempt to master it. But you are not mad, Rachmaninoff, nor are you a monster. In your scores you draw smiley faces when the phrase should sound happy and little angels when the tone should sound heavenly.
The Concerto No. 3 calls for absolute rhythmic precision maintained at breathtaking speed. When you were young, you loved to skate in dizzying circles on the ice. This energy stays with you as you grow older, hurtling on motorboats through the waters of Lake Lucerne or whipping down long winding roads in a car. You did not look forward to performing in America, sick with longing to return to Russia before you had even left, but you were comforted by the idea that you could buy a fast car with the money from the tour.
An image that comes to mind: you as a young boy, skating in the ice rinks of St. Petersburg, whizzing past your sister and tugging on her braid as you fly by on flashing silver blades.
Here is the difficulty in writing about music: how to describe in words something that must be heard or felt? Even the most beautiful piece of music can be broken down to sound waves passing as vibrations through the ear canal, transmuted into electric signals sent to the brain for processing. Any written analysis of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 will detail the key changes, the chordal progressions, the switches in meter, all useful for understanding the intricate structure of the concerto. But analysis is still reflection, which exists after the moment of experience.
The boy I love has tickets to see a performance of the Third in Atlanta. In the weeks leading up to the concert, I prepare by listening to the concerto while driving to school and grading papers and brushing my teeth.
Perhaps it is a kind of translation, reworking music into a series of ideas that convey sound or feeling. In Rachmaninoff’s concerto: the high pealing of bells above the swirled domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the sweeping golden stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, the cold clear skies of Moscow, the composer’s own yearning for Russia—for home.
But for me there is only my mother, drunk and lonely, pressing herself against the speakers to feel the vibrations of something filled with music. I cannot look away.
No, you tell everyone, the main theme from your concerto was not taken from any Russian folk songs or church music. No one seems to believe you when you tell them that it simply wrote itself. Poetry or art or nature cannot inspire on their own. The artist must first find within himself that divine spark of creativity. There is a difference, you feel, between influence and inspiration.
But your performances as a pianist are extraordinary because they are so bare. You play without ego, without a sense of self. You are a conduit for the music, an unbroken contact of your entire being with the art.
You do not understand this obsession with the difficulty of your Third Concerto because you wrote it for yourself, making perfect use of your capabilities as a pianist and the limits of the keyboard, and because so much of yourself is in this piece. You pay homage to the people who shaped you and guided you along the way—to Zverev, whose watch you had to sell, whose love for the music of the Romani became your own love; to Tchaikovsky, your treasured friend and mentor, who encouraged you to compose all those years ago, whom you memorialize through a nod to his beloved First Piano Concerto in the scherzo of the second movement. The use of the cadenza as a recapitulation. You build your concerto as a series of interlocking rings, a cycle of themes in conversation through past and present and future.
Atlanta Symphony Hall is over 5,000 miles from Moscow. Nikolai Lugansky, the soloist, studied at the Moscow Conservatory where you studied a century earlier. Three generations of Russian pianists tether you to Lugansky: his teacher was Tatiana Nikolayeva, whose teacher was your good friend, Alexander Goldenweiser.
Lugansky is tall but unassuming. You couldn’t tell just by looking at him that this man learned your legendary Third Piano Concerto in three days at the age of 19. He adjusts the bench, shakes out his hands. The conductor waits for Lugansky’s nod and then raises the baton, cueing the orchestra to start. Lugansky enters a few bars later with a main theme that even a child could play, composed of single notes in each hand separated by a single octave, soon unraveling into a kaleidoscope of sound.
In classical music concerts, I always experience a feeling of dissociation. Music often evokes memory, and I have spent so much time trying to reconcile it with image. But this does not happen in Lugansky’s performance of your third, greatest concerto. He pulls the strength from his feet and through his body to his hands; he plays with quiet force and terrifying rhythm—the beating, living pulse of the concerto. Everything falls away—there is nothing else, not the boy I love sitting beside me, nor my mother, no, not even you, Rachmaninoff—there is only your music, the soaring vibrato of the strings, the brilliant warmth of chords in the piano, and then a rolling cascade of triplets to mark the return of the first theme, the start of it all, in the third movement of your third concerto, one whole, one entity unbroken, something complete. A feeling like coming home.
Katherine Yeejin Hur is a Korean American writer from Atlanta, Georgia. Her poetry has appeared in The Southern Review, and she is currently at work on her first novel.