Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, was composed in the summer of 1909. In the spring of 2022, Staff Sergeant Christopher Schmitt played it very, very well.
I don't have a metaphor ridiculous or crass enough to do it justice, so I'll simply say it was stunning.
Technically, it's one of the most difficult pieces to perform that has ever been written. Over 30,000 notes, all of them on purpose, and it is pushing what is possible for a human to play, or hear. Kudos to Sgt. Schmitt for not just playing it, but playing it as it deserves to be played - at the very highest level. There are perhaps 50 people on earth that could play it as well as he did... and without being an expert in this world, you could count on one hand the virtuosos that could have played it better.
I didn't hear a single buzz, or note that seemed out of place... on the contrary; he was calling out individual notes in the nutty 64th note runs - playing with dynamic - with his hands literally leaving blurry afterimages and moving faster than the eye can follow. It was, as my Karen would say... Musical.
He just clobbered it. I was there. Evangeline was too, which I am thankful for. And I will remember the performance forever. The communal spirit of the audience was with me, happily doling out four standing ovations, followed by the lovely foot stomping from the Band itself, and the encore was a breathy, afterglowing, momumental testament to a highly musical moment.
Also, a hearty handclap for Major Ryan J. Nowlin for the gumption to program this piece. That's a risky move, showing a lot of trust in Chris, and in the Band, somehow knowing they could pull it off. And he prepared the band well to lay a most excellent foundation for Chris to soar. He put a guy on the tightrope, in high wind, over the canyon... and brought him back alive.
You could have heard a pin drop, it was breathtaking.
Ok, Ok, I'll stop gushing. But one more thing...
It may be my lack of knowledge or taste, but I prefer older composers to newer ones, at least outside of movie making. Too often the modern composition will be technically incredible, with neat ideas, that quickly drive off some atonal cliff into "something", without heart or resonance, at least for me.
But Sergei is doing something else. He is pushing the technical further than almost anyone, without sacrificing the idea of beauty or coherence. Rachmaninoff is such an interesting composer and it seems to me that a central communication of his music is the idea of human potential and how it touches the ideas of chaos, or madness, or hubris that has potential to fall to it's own destruction. Is it possible to go too far? Is it possible for humankind to reach too high? Is it possible to create too well and have that not be Good? Is there a line where it is too much to bear, or understand, or see, or express? If there is such a demarcation, Rachmaninoff has his toes on that line.
It's a popular theme in myth making; Icarus flying too close to the sun and being destroyed. The nations gathering for the Tower of Babel, only to be frustrated, confused and scattered by direct divine intervention. You have Prometheus with his liver and chains and Sisyphus with his rock and hill. In our shared bedrock of stories, the verdict is clear enough: reach too high at your peril.
Our knee jerk is to take the side of the punished and shake our fair fists at the gods. But maybe, just maybe, there is something true here. That there are some things we shouldn't reach for on our own.
Is there a possible truth in that terrifying and disturbing thought? That we can overspend the currency of genius or the limits of our own soul in our attempts to control Everything and there are times when we get beaten back for our own good?
We see it and shake our heads in popular culture as well; even in the small subculture of music, as recent decades have seen Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse, and Jaco Pastorius (and many others) shining brightly, and flaming out all too quickly in troubled and genius ridden light. Can we agree that it would be better to back off just a bit, find some pace and live?
It seems to me that the Rach 3 in particular dances with this idea. The movement of the piece flows from a lovely theme, surrounds it with harmony, and then steps on the gas. Increasing in complexity and speed, while retaining beauty, the music starts to add notes of dischord, followed by runs of beauty battling with dissonance and surprising flourishes of what can only be genius and with speed so complex it can scarcely be apprehended and the torrent of notes starts to wiggle into chaos.
But then he pulls back, from the cliff's edge as it were, from the burning of the melting wax, from the building of the forbidden tower, back into beauty. Back, into humanity and community and serenity and rest and peace.
Then he does it again. A few times actually. Sgt. Schmitt was as cool as the other side of the pillow... but my hair was all messed up and my eyes were bloodshot and haggard just from listening.
With Rach, we all took a moment to peer into the abyss, then he reminds us that there is an edge to our map and there be dragons. He takes us for an Icarusian flight, but somehow gets us back to earth alive, if a little singed.
The idea that I'm struck by is this: that the limit here isn't a bad thing. To recognize these boundaries can be a protecting influence for the better angels of our natures and in the final calculus, Plato and Christ are better guides for human flourishing than Sartre, and Nietzsche, and Epicurus with the freedom that flings itself off of the edge. We can deny the existence of the edge itself, or spin ourselves off of it claiming that it doesn't matter anyway. That only jumping matters.
Don't misunderstand what I'm suggesting here. I think we're much more beguiled by sloth in our screens and games and shows and food and comfort and you get the idea.
I think you should put your phone down and go for it. Whatever "it" is for you (well for the most part). I really do. But Sartre's vision of get moving isn't the only game in town. Rachmaninoff is a lot of things, but I'm not buying that he is the waiter in bad faith.
Rachmaninoff is making a compelling case for the existence of beauty, for the reach of human greatness and for, perhaps, our human relationship to the limiting principle of the sacred... which frames, bounds, and focuses our ambition to the Good.
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.