Article by Tony Sokol

In the book “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington says a critic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Reviewers at the time had the power to devalue art with a quip. Artists, and people in general, can be sensitive to criticism. The great Russian composer SeRgei Rachmaninoff was so traumatized by bad reviews of his First Symphony, he shut himself off from writing altogether. Had it not been for the work of the pioneering hypnotist Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninoff may never have composed his “Second Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 18.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Russia in 1873. He studied with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and was on his way to stardom when his “First Symphony” premiered in St. Petersburg. Rachmaninoff fled the orchestra hall before the symphony finished.

“It is true that the performance was beneath contempt,” wrote Rachmaninoff, in his memoirs “Rachmaninoff’s Recollections.” “Its deficiencies were revealed to me with a dreadful distinctness even during the first rehearsal.” One critic compared the piece to the ten plagues of Egypt. “If there was a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us,” newspaper critic Cesar Cui sneered.

“Something within me snapped,” Rachmaninoff wrote. “All my self-confidence broke down. … A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent on a couch sighing over my ruined life. My only occupation consisted in giving a few piano lessons in order to keep myself alive.”

Shortly after the performance, Rachmaninoff reportedly played some of his compositions on the piano for the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who asked the pianist whether “such music” was “needed by anybody?…I must tell you how I dislike it all.” The composer’s depression lasted for three years. Rachmaninoff continued his career as a pianist and conductor, but hit a creative wall and was unable to compose music.

Nikolai Vladimirovich Dahl was a Russian physician who specialized in the fields of neurology, psychiatry and psychology. He was born in 1860 and graduated from the Moscow University in 1887. Dahl was also an amateur musician who played the viola. Dahl treated Rachmaninoff after the composer’s breakdown. After the 1897 Symphony No. 1 reviews, Rachmaninoff lived with his cousins who urged him to visit a psychiatrist in Moscow who was working with a new therapy called autosuggestion.

“My relatives had informed Dr. Dahl that he must by all means cure me of my apathetic condition and bring about such results that I would again be able to compose,” Rachmaninoff wrote in his “Recollections.” Dahl started his treatment on Rachmaninoff in in January 1900. The daily treatment program included hypnotherapy and psychotherapy and went on for more than three months.

By the early 1900s, hypnotism was becoming accepted as a therapeutic tool. While Sigmund Freud used hypnosis to provoke a catharsis in his patients that might jar repressed trauma, Dr. Dahl took a more modern approach. His daily sessions were motivational. “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in an armchair in [Dahl]’s study,” Rachmaninoff wrote. “You will begin to write your concerto,” Dahl told Rachmaninoff. “You will work with the greatest of ease. The concerto will be of excellent quality.”

Dahl wasn’t the only person giving Rachmaninoff pep talks. The playwright Anton Chekhov attended one of Rachmaninoff’s concerts and told the master pianist he would one day be a “great man.” The great man had big hands that few pianists could easily reproduce without breaking the chords. Rachmaninoff’s fingers spanned a perfect 12th, from C to G 1½ octaves above.

“Dr. Dahl had inquired what kind of composition was required of me, and he was informed, ‘a concerto for pianoforte,’ for I had promised this to people in London and had given up in despair the idea of writing it,” Rachmaninoff wrote. “Although it may sound impossible to believe, this treatment really helped me. I began to compose at the beginning of the summer. The material grew in volume, and new musical ideas began to well up within me, many more than I needed for my concerto.”

“I felt that Dahl’s treatment had strengthened my nervous system to a miraculous degree. Out of gratitude I dedicated my Second Concerto to him,” Rachmaninoff concluded.

Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor” is one of the most romantic pieces of music ever composed. The slow opening minor piano chords evoke the sad tolling of church bells. The pop singles “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” which was sung by Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, “I Will Bring You Music,” and the 1976 hit “All By Myself (Don’t wanna be all by myself)” by Eric Carmen, all paid it musical homage.

The piece appeared in such films as “Grand Hotel,” “Brief Encounter,” “I’ve Always Loved You,” “Rhapsody,” “September Affair,” “Groundhog Day,” and “Somewhere in Time.” The piece gave Marilyn Monroe’s Candy Kane character “The Seven-Year Itch.” Dahl and Rachmaninoff’s relationship was dramatized in the 2015 Off-Broadway musical “Preludes” by Dave Malloy, which ran at Lincoln Center Theater.

Rachmaninoff fled the Communist regime in 1917 and immigrated to the United States, where he lived in New York City and Beverly Hills. Dr. Dahl emigrated from Russia in 1925 and settled in Beirut, Lebanon. According to Wikipedia, Dahl played “the viola in the orchestra of the American University of Beirut. On one occasion, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto was performed, with Arkadie Kouguell as soloist and conductor. The audience was informed that the dedicatee of the concerto, Dr. Dahl, was a member of the viola section of the orchestra, and they demanded he rise and take a bow.”

Dahl died in Beirut in 1939. Rachmaninoff fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942. He died of melanoma, in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943, four days before his 70th birthday.