Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Novgorod, Russia in 1873. His family were landed aristocrats until his father’s debts forced them to move to St. Petersburg, where nine-year-old Sergei enrolled at the music conservatory. After diphtheria took his sister, and fåinancial stresses separated his parents, the boy moved to Moscow in 1885 where his teacher, Nikolai Zverev, took him into his home, instilled some discipline, and introduced him to composers who visited there. Among them was Piotr Tchaikovsky, who would later call Anton Arensky, Alexander Glazunov, and especially Rachmaninoff the most promising Russian composers of his time.

In 1888, Rachmaninoff enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory where he studied with Alexander Siloti, one of Zverev’s pupils, as well as with Arensky and Sergei Taneyev, who would become a revered mentor. The young man graduated as a pianist in 1891 and in composition in 1892. A few of his student works are still performed, including Prince Rostislav, Aleko, Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, and Piano Concerto No. 1. His career proceeded smoothly from there until the 1897 premiere of his Symphony No. 1, which was mangled in a performance conducted by the in-over-his-head and possibly inebriated Glazunov. Cesar Cui called the work an attempt to describe the seven plagues of Egypt by a graduate of a “conservatory from Hell.” Rachmaninoff’s confidence was so shaken by the symphony's failure that he disowned it and reportedly refused to take the score with him when he left Russia for good in 1917. (The orchestra parts survived, the score was reassembled, and Symphony No. 1 was introduced in 1945.)

That debacle left Rachmaninoff blocked as a composer for three years, but he thrived as a pianist and conductor. After hypnosis therapy and a trip to Italy, he was able to compose again. He started work on Francesca da Rimini (1905), but the real breakthrough was his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901), dedicated to his therapist. He thought of writing a second symphony, but instead wrote a Cello Sonata, the first set of Piano Preludes (1903), and The Miserly Knight (1904). Thoughts of a second symphony lingered, but he was too busy conducting, concertizing as a pianist, and dealing with the disruptions created by the political turmoil in Russia. He finally responded to the latter by moving his family to Dresden, Germany where Artur Nikisch was conducting at the Gewandhaus, and the city was filled with his memories of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. During his three years there, he produced his Piano Sonata No. 1, Piano Concerto No. 3, Isle of the Dead, and finally, his second symphony.

In 1909, Rachmaninoff went to the United States where he played his new concerto under Gustav Mahler in New York and turned down job offers, including the music directorship of the Boston Symphony. After returning home, he served as director of the Moscow Philharmonic Society Orchestra and performed as a pianist, all while sharing the stage with more innovative figures like Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Scriabin, and Serge Koussevitsky. In addition, he had to endure the deaths of his father, Scriabin, and Taneyev. Through all of that, he managed to compose a second set of piano preludes, songs, The Bells, Piano Sonata No. 2, All-Night Vigil, and a second set of Études-Tableaux.

After the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 and peasants seized an estate owned by the composer’s in-laws, the Rachmaninoffs fled their country, never to return. Their escape was facilitated by an invitation to concertize in Scandinavia. They arrived (reportedly on a sled) with little money and few possessions, but Sergei earned enough as a conductor and pianist to enable his family to sail to the United States in November 1918. Adjusting to the U.S. was difficult. The composer was homesick, and his pen remained silent for eight years while he led a whirlwind existence as a pianist, conductor, and recording artist. By the time he resumed composing, his style had evolved from Russian to a more international tone in his Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1927 (revised 1941) and, despite the title, Three Russian Songs in 1926. Alas, the concerto’s unenthusiastic reception revived memories of his failed First Symphony, and his pen was stilled until 1931 when he completed Variations on a Theme by Corelli. In 1932, he built Villa Senar (derived from Sergei and Natalia Rachmaninoff), an escape home on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland where he wrote Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini in 1934. Its success encouraged him to compose his last two major works: Symphony No. 3 in 1936 and Symphonic Dances in 1940. Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the symphony that same year to an indifferent reception. Stokowski and his successor in Philadelphia, Eugene Ormandy led the work several times more, but many years passed before it was appreciated for the masterpiece that it is.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 blends the somewhat militant, more classical style of his first symphony with the lush Romanticism and harmonies of his second, and is more clear-toned and straightforward than both. Its most prominent quality is nostalgia, with long melodies often answered by short phrases. It opens with a brief, chantlike motto, a short phrase that is treated throughout part or all of a work, played quietly by two clarinets, muted horn, and cello and developed throughout the symphony. After an orchestral outburst, a searching prelude begins in the winds. The main section then begins with the  sumptuous main theme rising from the cellos to the violins. After the tempo picks up, the earlier theme gains power in the brass. The motto and the theme are presented in the winds, then the strings. The earlier theme returns and leads to a brassy outburst. The development section is jittery with uneasy triplets in the strings, and the orchestra thrusts about until the horns settle things down. The trumpets let loose a march, and the full brass proclaim the motto. The calm opening melodies peek about, the opening languor returns first in the winds, then the strings. After another climax, the music finally settles down, the motto is sounded by a trumpet and bass trombone, and the strings march quietly off the stage.

The middle movement is divided into an Adagio and an Allegro vivace that play the role of the inner movements in a four-movement symphony. The Adagio opens with a sad extended version of the motto in the horns over the harp. A rhapsodic violin solo is answered by strings that seem to climb toward the sky. Wind solos are developed by the strings and woodwinds, culminating in an outpouring of emotion tempered by caution. The tempo picks up with some lively wind figures that eventually yield to the yearning strings. An English horn solo gives way to the Allegro vivace’s vigorous stirring mostly in the strings before setting off a quirky, bustling march. After a rush to a powerful climax, the march resumes. After another powerful climax that is almost an assault, a breezy almost Alpine passage leads to what resembles a clock clicking off time. The opening yearning reappears and leads to a large sigh followed by solos similar to those that began the movement, which then ends in mystery with the motto in the pizzicato strings over a dark chord in the bassoons and clarinets.

The finale opens with jubilation, propelled by a rolling syncopation, like a cloud rising to reveal a celebration below. The strings enter with a languorous melody, the orchestra springs to attention,  the opening rolling figure reappears, and good will takes flight. A sad oboe brings us back to Rachmaninoff’s pensive world now darkened by a touch of Mahler. Strings and winds gather strength, a flute reflects, other winds converse, the opening figures return, and the symphony rushes to a triumphant conclusion.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra. He is a former member of Bay Colony Brass (where he was also the Operations/Personnel Manager), the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony, as well as trombonist and orchestra manager of Lowell House Opera, Commonwealth Opera, and MetroWest Opera. 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 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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