The Symbolic Meaning of Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 3
Every once in a while, I'm privileged enough to experience a work of art that completely overwhelms me. I come away momentarily transformed and so swept away with emotion that I feel courageous enough to reach for the stars and strive for my own impossible dream. Alas, quite quickly reality creeps back in, and I reluctantly return to my mundane existence. Michelangelo's stunning Pieta in St. Peter's Cathedral, the tragic pas de deux in the third act of Romeo and Juliet, the lovely adagio movement of Debussy's La Mer, and the quixotic Scott Hicks film, Shine, have all inspired me in such a fashion. This magnificent movie recounts the true story of Australian piano prodigy, David Helfgott, played to brilliant Academy Award-winning perfection by Geoffrey Rush. In it, we witness his impoverished childhood and tumultuous relationship with his overbearing father, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl; we silently cheer his rebellious decision to break away from the stifling paternal hold and travel to London to study at the Royal College of Music; we are horrified and brokenhearted when he suffers a nervous breakdown, just as he is achieving fame; and we applaud his long, lonely road to recovery that eventually leads him into the arms of a compassionate woman and back to his beloved piano. Throughout the beautifully told story there is always 'the music.' Various composers come to represent the different stages of young David's musical and emotional development: Chopin, Lizst, Ravel; but his father's obsession is Rachmaninov and his Piano Concerto No. 3. The mastering of the Rach. 3, deemed "the hardest piece in the world," symbolizes to Mr. Helfgott the ultimate musical achievement; to David it symbolizes the fulfillment of a promise: the day his father will finally be proud of him.
From the very beginning of the film, it is obvious the Rach. 3 is held up on a pedestal by Mr. Helfgott. The director first insinuates its importance in a scene where the entire family is viciously silenced, so the father can listen to a broadcast of it in peace on an old dilapidated radio. Later, in the middle of the night, the father is disturbed from his sleep with the sounds of little David quietly struggling to teach himself the piece. In a very poignant scene, the young boy sweetly asks for instruction on the difficult concerto; his father pulls the sheet music down, and it is covered with intricate and impossible scores. Mr. Helfgott promises that one day, David will play it, and on that day he will be very, very proud.
The emotional complexity of the musical composition is suggested to the audience by the constant altercations between David's' father and his new tutor. At the boy's first lesson, Mr. Helfgott thrusts the Rach. 3 into Mr. Rosen's hand, insinuating that this is what should be taught. The teacher incredulously exclaims, "Davis is just a boy. He can't express such passion!" But at every milestone of David's adolescence, we hear his father saying, "Now he can play Rachmaninonv!" The continual reference to the composer is used to illustrate the father's insatiable need to push the boy's talent down dark, psychological roads the boy just isn't ready to traverse. Mr. Rosen, portrayed as the protector of David's vulnerable talent and gentle soul, stands up to the tyrannical father and ominously wards off the infliction of the dreaded Rach. 3.
Later, at the Royal College, when David earns a place in the final of the school's concerto contest, he chooses to confront the formidable Rach. 3, hoping to please his father and rekindle their relationship. Under the tutelage of Professor Parks, he takes on the challenge of the piece and symbolically the challenge of his father's aspirations. The Rach. 3 is described as "two melodies jousting for supremacy," indicative of David and his father's battle for control over his life and talent. The professor commands David to use his hands as if they had ten fingers each; this is a wonderful symbolic allusion to his father's hands
supplying the additional fingers and being right there alongside him. The piano is compared to a monster that, if not tamed, will swallow him whole, epitomizing the father's selfish ambitions. David is directed to play with endless emotion, to give everything to his performance, as if there is no tomorrow--the same demands his father has placed on him his whole life: to give his talent and soul over to him.
David's attack on the Rach. 3 leads to his collapse--just as he stands to take his bow to an enthralled audience. Later in a mental institution, as David is subjected to electric shock therapy, we see his father in Australia listening to the tape of the performance--holding his first place medal. He should be satisfied and proud; he should fulfill his pledge; he should go to his son's side and praise his triumph. Sadly, he further rejects David, perfectly illustrating the truth: now that David is damaged, he really has no use for him.
The rest of the movie is about David's eventual path to recovery. Deliberately, we never hear of the Rach. 3 again. It has come to symbolize the dark side of David's passion and talent. The only reference to it is when an old Mr. Helfgott tries to reconcile with David, bringing the medal as a peace offering and a reminder of the supposed ultimate achievement. David leaves the medal around his neck as he silently rejects his father. He finally accepts the accomplishment as his, and like his God-given talent, something than can never again be taken from him.
Ultimately, the Rach. 3 comes to symbolize so many tragic aspects of David's life: the victimization of his fragile spirit, the aggressive abuse of his talent, and the constant threat of losing his father's love. Yet David, with his great capacity for joy, survives and stumbles upon a rich and fulfilling life. David learns to live successfully without the concerto--or his father's conditional love.
© Joan Samuelson and Kingwood
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