Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Igor Stravinsky

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff, the last great nineteenth century Romantic, was born in Novgorod, Russia in 1873. His parents lived as aristocrats until his father’s debts forced the family to leave its estates. They moved to St. Petersburg where a diphtheria epidemic took Sergei’s sister, and financial stresses separated the parents. Rachmaninoff’s fortunes improved when he enrolled as a piano major at the Moscow Conservatory. His teacher, Nikolai Zverev, took Sergei into his home, instilled discipline and provided visits of famous composers, particularly Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff eventually added composition study with Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev to his curriculum. Two student works, the opera Aleko and the First Piano Concerto, remain in the repertoire.

Rachmaninoff’s career proceeded smoothly until the 1897 premiere of his First Symphony, which was badly undone by the performance. His nervous collapse that followed that disaster prevented him from composing large works for three years, though he did work as a pianist, conductor, and teacher. When he resumed composing in 1899, he produced works with subtlety and sophistication that surprised critics of the brash First Symphony: the Second Piano Concerto (1900), The Miserly Knight (1904), Francesca da Rimini (1905), the Second Symphony and First Piano Sonata (1908), the Third Piano Concerto and Isle of the Dead (1909), Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910), The Bells (1913), and Vespers (1915), plus piano works and songs.

In 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family fled the Russian Revolution. For many years, he traveled between the United States and Europe until war drums in Europe drove him permanently to the U.S., where he spent most of his time performing, recording, and conducting, often on whirlwind tours. He “left behind the desire to compose: losing my country I lost myself also...there remains no desire for self-expression.” His only compositions were the Fourth Piano Concerto (1927, revised 1941), Three Russian Songs (1929), Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1936), and the Third Symphony (1936).

Symphonic Dances

Symphonic Dances (1941), his “last spark”, ended a five-year compositional drought and was Rachmaninoff’s only work composed in the U.S. Its original name, Fantastic Dances, and its projected movement titles—“Morning,” “Noon,” and “Twilight” (later, “Day,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight”)—hint at its “fantasia” nature. The work may be a summation of Rachmaninoff’s compositional career and a look back on his life, as hints of earlier works appear. Some may have come from a 1913 ballet idea based on the Scyths that Mikhail Fokine rejected as undanceable. (Fokine would later adapt Paganini Variations for dance.) With its tight structure and subtle reflections of Prokofieff and Stravinsky, Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninoff’s most “modern” piece. Many critics view it as a fourth symphony, though Rachmaninoff approached Fokine about using it, too, for a ballet. That idea died with the choreographer in 1942.

Symphonic Dances is in three movements. Non Allegro begins haltingly before giving way to short downward phrases in the woodwinds. Emphatic string chords stamp out a theme reminiscent of the Queen of Shemakha’s melody in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Golden Cockerel (the only score of another composer’s work that Rachmaninoff took when leaving Russia). An “engine” starts in the lower and middle instruments driven by the tympani. The trumpet takes up the earlier woodwind theme, and a rollicking bustle of dance music ensues until the English horn calls a halt by playing the descending triad motif. A long slow section begins with a mournful melody in the saxophone, an instrument Rachmaninoff used after seeking the advice of Broadway arranger Robert Russell Bennett. Winds and horns join in, then the strings and piano, adding passion and yearning. The bass clarinet inserts the Rimsky-Korsakoff figure, the opening woodwind motif returns, and the orchestra bustles. After a fanfare in the trumpets, the stamping from the beginning of the work returns to regenerate the opening dance. Rachmaninoff then inserts the haunting main theme from his First Symphony in the strings before the movement ends quietly.

Andante con moto begins with a menacing muted brass figure, followed by an eerie violin solo. The music stumbles haltingly until the English horn introduces a ghostly valse triste interspersed with trilling woodwinds and varying tempos. The first of three reappearances of the brass call leads to a relatively upbeat quasi-trio section of woodwind arabesques. The second reappearance restarts the “trio,” but the brass jump in again, this time without mutes. The music almost comes to a halt, but the waltz resumes, at first tentatively, then with urgency and agitation, suggesting but not equaling the madness of Ravel’s La valse. After a climax, wisps of sound sweep the dancers into thin air.

The Finale pits Death (represented by the Dies irae, a theme common in Rachmaninoff’s works) against Resurrection (“Blessed Art Thou” from the Vespers). It opens with a short burst followed by downward sighs redolent of the Dies irae and the Rimsky-Korsakoff intervals that opened the work. A rhythmic sputter in the low strings hints at Resurrection. After twelve chimes (midnight?), Resurrection trickles through the orchestra, interspersed with flickering strings and sighs in the clarinets that recall the end of the second movement. (This has been called Rachmaninoff’s dance macabre.) “Resurrection” finally asserts itself in full vigor, first in the violas, then the full strings. That is followed by a brash fanfare, the sighs, which pass to the cellos accompanied by woodwind arabesques, then a flourish. After a break, a doom-laden bass clarinet figure begins a long contemplative passage vaguely related to the sighs, but now expansive and reflective. Suddenly, the sighs turn upward, as if finding comfort before the oboe jumps in with the earlier fanfare material. Resurrection darts through the orchestra. Forces gather, and the struggle plays out until Resurrection strides forth, triumphantly accompanied by the snare drum. Twenty-six bars from the end, the “Alleluia” from Vespers is heard. (Rachmaninoff marked the place in the score by writing “Alleluja.”) The piece ends with powerful thrusting chords and a final stroke from the tam-tam. At the end of the score, the composer wrote: “I thank Thee, Lord!”

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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