Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Behind the Music with Mendelssohn's "Elijah"

Felix Mendelssohn
This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina will present one of the great choral works in the repertoire, Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio, Elijah. The performances on Saturday (8pm) and Sunday (3pm) at the Forum will feature the Susquehanna Chorale, the Messiah College Concert Choir and Choral Arts Society (prepared by Linda Tedford) with Jonathan Beyer, baritone, as Elijah and soloists Ilana Davidson, Susan Platts, Eric Rieger and Lynlee Copenhaver.

In my previous post, I explained a little of the background and included a complete performance with the legendary Robert Shaw, a recording available on Telarc which includes a star-studded cast of soloists like Thomas Hamspon as Elijah, Barbara Bonney, Jerry Hadley and Florence Quivar.

Stuart Malina's excited about conducting the piece – the first time he's performed it – and he spoke about it at the Pre-Season Preview held in September at the Midtown Scholar:

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Unfortunately, there was a technical glitch with the choral excerpt, there, but you can listen to the whole work in the blog-post I mentioned above.

It's the only work on the program and is about two hours long (with intermission between Parts 1 and 2). It will be sung in English with “super-titles” projecting the text above the stage.

By the way, the first performance (see below) had an orchestra of 125, a chorus of 271, and since it was intended to be a 3-hour concert, the committee planning the event also scheduled – following the oratorio! – two “Italian selections and a Handel chorus.” This, despite Mendelssohn's own protests. Can you say “anticlimax?”

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After the death of George Frederic Handel, the idea of the “oratorio” fell into disfavor. Mozart had prepared an “updated” version of Handel's Messiah for his friend and fellow Mason, the Baron van Swieten, who also played a significant part in Haydn's oratorio, The Creation. Haydn had returned from London in 1794 full of praise for Handel's Israel in Egypt. Swieten translated the English sketch for the libretto into German and, following its success in 1798, crafted a secular meditation for Haydn's next oratorio, The Seasons, in 1801.

If you look at a list of oratorios, you'll notice nothing listed between Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives, premiered two years later, and Mendelssohn's St. Paul in 1836.

Now, Beethoven's only oratorio came about on the heels of his teacher's success. But what influenced Mendelssohn to take on this out-dated genre when no one of note had essentially bothered with it for 34 years?

Mendelssohn as a child
As I mentioned in my earlier post, Mendelssohn received a copy of the manuscript of Bach's then long-forgotten St. Matthew Passion for his 16th birthday, a gift from his grandmother (her sister, by the way, had studied with Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann). When he was 20, Mendelssohn conducted the first public performance of the Passion since Bach's death, usually regarded as the start of the “Bach Revival” when more and more people (not just scholars and composers) became aware of Bach's music: he was already old-fashioned well before his death in 1750. (You can read more about Mendelssohn and Bach, here.)

In 1833, Mendelssohn also gave the first performance in Germany of an oratorio by George Frederic Handel: Israel in Egypt, prepared from a copy he'd found in London on a recent trip.

Mendelssohn at 26
In 1835, when he was 26, he accepted a post as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the town where Johann Sebastian Bach had been the music director, his duties centered on the St. Thomas Church.

The following year, then, Mendelssohn gave the world premiere of his oratorio, St. Paul which he had begun working on in 1832, crafting a text with his childhood friend, Julius Schubring, now Rector of St. George's Church, Dessau, about 40 miles north of Leipzig, though actual composition on the work didn't start until 1834.

In style, the mixture of solos and choruses with interpolated chorales easily brings to mind more the influence of Bach. It would go on to become a very popular work, receiving its English premiere in an English translation by Mendelssohn's friend Carl Klingemann in 1836 and its American premiere in Boston the following year! It was frequently performed during his lifetime but would quickly become overshadowed by Elijah and the general popularity of other works like Handel's Messiah.

If nothing else, the success of St. Paul got Mendelssohn's creative juices flowing again, looking around for another possible subject. He wrote to Schubring in August, 1836, “If you would only give all the care and thought you now bestow upon St. Paul to an Elijah, or a St. Peter, or even an Og of Bashan!”

Elijah
Mendelssohn began corresponding with Klingemann for almost a year, looking around for a suitable new oratorio (leaving out the possibility of Og), suggesting he send him a new text as his wedding present, perhaps one based on the story of Elijah (“his going up to heaven in the end, would be a most beautiful subject”)

After conducting St. Paul at the Birmingham Festival in 1837 in Klingemann's translation, Mendelssohn stayed in London where they spent two mornings outlining a possible oratorio based on the story of Elijah.

Then he decided to turn to Julius Schubring again, and they began work on Elijah's libretto in 1838 but Mendelssohn went nowhere with it. In 1840, Schubring asked if he's put Elijah aside. Later that year, Mendelssohn writes he has “given up composing oratorios.”

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Basically, Mendelssohn's Elijah begins with England, Handel aside.

His first visit to Britain had been in 1829 and resulted in two musical postcards: the famous Hebrides Overture, a.k.a. Fingal's Cave and what eventually became his Symphony No. 3, the Scottish Symphony (the Symphony No. 3) which he didn't actually put the finishing touches on until 1842 and wished to dedicate to Queen Victoria.

Mendelssohn & The Royals
She and her husband, Prince Albert, were big fans of Mendelssohn's music. Once, the Royal Couple invited the composer to Buckingham Palace – curiously, not including his wife, Cécile – where, after the Queen sang for him, he in turn improvised on two themes she gave him as a challenge: “Rule Britannia,” for obvious reasons, and the “Austrian Hymn.” The Queen's own journal entry describes how wonderfully he worked out these different themes, at one point playing the Austrian Hymn in the right hand and “Rule Britannia” in the left. “Poor Mendelssohn,” the Queen wrote, “was quite exhausted when he had done playing.”

At another visit three weeks later, prior to Mendelssohn's return to Germany, Prince Albert prevailed upon his wife to sing for their guest, first asking the parrot be removed from the room “since he screams louder than I can sing,” she explained. The first song she chose was actually one written by Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, which he confessed to her, much to both their amusement.

(It had been published under his name because it was considered unseemly for a woman to appear in print, much less compose: it had nothing to do with plagiarizing and Mendelssohn had plenty of his own songs to go around. But he delighted in writing this little incident to his family – both to congratulate his sister as to tweak his father that she actually was a good enough composer to win praise from a queen.)

Musical visits with the Royals occurred during his next visit to London, in 1844, which this time included some of his Songs Without Words especially arranged as four-hand duets so he could play them with the Queen.

It was during this visit Mendelssohn's performances put the Royal Philharmonic Society in the black (their 1844 surplus was twice their 1842 deficit). Among his concerts was the first appearance of a 13-year-old violinist name Joseph Joachim who was playing some long-forgotten concerto by Beethoven, despite the society's “no-prodigy” rule.

(That makes Three Degrees of Separation between our April and March concerts: Mendelssohn conducted Joachim's London debut in 1844 – Joachim heard 4-year-old pianist Arthur Rubinstein play for him in 1891 – Rubinstein had a student in the 1960s named Ann Schein.)

It was also the season he attempted to introduce London to the wonders of Schubert's “Great” C Major Symphony. The orchestra didn't like it and rebelled, so Mendelssohn set it aside but also refused to conduct his new overture – Ruy Blas – that was also to be a London premiere.

Handel Performance, London, 1859
Meanwhile, he was also asked to prepare an edition of Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt for the English Handel Society. Apparently they expected him to “Mendelssohnize” it (as Mozart had up-dated Messiah for Vienna, a common occurrence when performing such “old” repertoire) and were disappointed he had instead gone back to the original sketches and earliest editions from 1739 to create something much closer to the composer's initial intentions. There were some heated arguments when people in the society strongly suggested he should at least add trombones!

Then, he received a request from the Birmingham Festival, where he had previously conducted St. Paul.

At a meeting of the Birmingham Festival Committee, held June 11, 1845, the following resolution was carried, apparently unanimously: "That it appears to this Committee desirable that the services of Dr. Mendelssohn be obtained to act as Conductor at the next Festival; and that he be requested to consider whether he can provide a new oratorio, or other music, for the occasion."

Initially, he turned it down because of his schedule but then he compared the freedom and flexibility he would have there to the political chicanery going on in Prussia where he was working at the time. He was writing incidental music for the King's theater – this time including plays by Sophocles and Racine (Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream had been written in 1843) – and trying to organize a music school there as he had done a few years earlier in Leipzig.

But there was so much intriguing against him in the Prussian court (no doubt because of his Jewish heritage), he decided to accept Birmingham's offer after all, and in December 1845, he began another lengthy correspondence with Schubring so that, by May the following year, they had gone so far in working out the details, Mendelssohn was asking him if Elisha, Elijah's apprentice prophet, “could sing soprano” since he seemed to be a youth but is mentioned in one place as having a bald head.

Schubring mentions that nowhere is Elisha mentioned as a boy (one who “plows a field with twelve oxen” is no child) but then, he points out, Mendelssohn had already set the words of Christ for a chorus.

Mendelssohn's Study, Leipzig
Having completed his commitment to the Prussian production of Oedipus at Colonus, he finally began work on Elijah in mid-October.

About a week later, an English contralto, Charlotte Dolby, making her debut with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was having dinner "at Dr. Härtel's, and [we] were all seated at the table. The guests included Dr. and Madame Schumann [Robert & Clara]; but Mendelssohn, who was also invited, came late. A vacant place had been left for him by my side. He arrived after the soup had been served, and excused himself by saying he had been very busy with his oratorio; and then turning to me he said, 'I have sketched the bass part, and now for the contralto.' 'Oh!' I exclaimed, 'do tell me what that will be like, because I am specially interested in that part.' 'Never fear,' he answered, 'it will suit you very well, for it is a true woman's part—half an angel, half a devil.' I did not know whether to take that as a compliment, but we had a good laugh over it."

Not long after this, Jenny Lind (the “Swedish Nightingale”) also appeared in Leipzig and Mendelssohn was much impressed by her voice, requesting that the Birmingham committee engage her as his soprano soloist for next summer's Elijah. The beauty and quality of her F-sharp (top line of the treble staff) was of special attraction to Mendelssohn and so he wrote the opening aria of Part 2, “Hear ye, Israel,” for her in B Minor and Major so as to make frequent use of that particular pitch.

Unfortunately, she was already committed to other performances during that time and had to decline, much to Mendelssohn's disappointment.

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Work on the oratorio went slowly. Even in April, four months before the premiere, he was suggesting the possibility of substituting the music he'd composed for the Prussian king's production of Racine's Athalia (known today primarily for its famous “War March of the Priests”). He had not been able to find a “first-rate baritone” for the part of Elijah, and he was sometimes “confused” since he found it necessary to compose certain sections of the text as it struck him, not in continuous order.

But in late May, he sent the completed First Part to England with a promise that, "God willing," the Second should follow in July. The premiere was set for August. He sent instructions to William Bartholemew who was making the English translation of the German text, suggesting he work with his London-based friend Klingemann “who understands both languages thoroughly, and who understands my music better than both languages.” By the way, this lengthy correspondence with Birmingham was carried out entirely in English, so the composer was also well acquainted with both languages. Later, there would be many questions back and forth about the suitability of this word for this musical phrase and so on, right up to the performance.

The summer had been particularly hot – Mendelssohn complained he was “living the life of a marmot.” He also had three other festivals to conduct before leaving for England (a most un-marmot-like schedule).

There was also a terse letter in which he requested the committee reconsider hiring the London orchestra who had refused to play Schubert's “Great” C Major. “There is nothing I hate more,” he wrote, “than the reviving of bygone disputes; it is bad enough that they should have occurred. This one of the Philharmonic is, as far as I am concerned, dead and buried, and must on no account have any influence on the selection made for the Birmingham Festival. If men are to be rejected because they are incompetent, that is not my business and I have nothing to say in the matter; but if it is because 'they made themselves unpleasant when I was there,' I consider that an injustice, against which I protest.”

There was also some concern about the alto aria in Part 2, “O Rest in the Lord.” It sounded too similar to the popular English ballad, “Auld Robin Gray,” and Mendelssohn wanted it removed from the performance. The translator protested, suggested changing a note or two to minimize the familiarity but not spoil its melody or the effect it has within the oratorio.

Here is Kathleen Ferrier, the great British alto, singing “O Rest in the Lord,” recorded in 1946:
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When Mendelssohn arrived in London for his first rehearsals with the orchestra, chorus and soloists – a week before the Birmingham premiere – the fate of “O Rest in the Lord” (No. 31) was still in doubt but he'd brought a new arioso for Elijah, No. 37 – “For the mountains shall depart.”

Curiously, No. 31 has gone on to become one of the glories of the oratorio. You'll notice in many performances today (including ours), No. 37 has been eliminated.

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The first rehearsal in Birmingham was described in the local paper:

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Mendelssohn was received by the performers with great enthusiasm, renewed again and again, as his lithe and petit figure bent in acknowledgment of these spontaneous and gratifying tributes to his genius, personal affability, and kindness.... His manner, both in the orchestra and in private, is exceedingly pleasing. His smile is winning, and occasionally, when addressing a friendly correction to the band or choir, full of comic expression. He talks German with great volubility and animation, and speaks English remarkably well. He possesses a remarkable power over the performers, moulding them to his will, and though rigidly strict in exacting the nicest precision, he does it in a manner irresistible—actually laughing them into perfection. Some of his remarks are exceedingly humorous. In the Overture to the "Midsummer Night's Dream" [also to be played at the Festival], the gradations of sound were not well preserved; a rattle of his bâton on the music-stand brings the band to a dead halt. "Gentlemen," says Mendelssohn, "that won't do. All fortissimo, all pianissimo, no piano! A little piano between, if you please. Must have piano, gentlemen; when you come to fortissimo, do as you like."
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Unfortunately, Ignaz Moscheles, the pianist and composer who was also a close friend of Mendelssohn's and who was the “conductor-in-chief” of the entire festival, fell ill and Mendelssohn had to take over his duties as well.

Joesph Staudigl, the 1st Elijah
One concert, however, was canceled and replaced by an extra rehearsal for Elijah. He and Mrs. Moscheles stayed up till 1am working on the translation with Bartholemew.

Incidentally, there were 398 performers hired for Elijah: the orchestra (or “band” as its constantly referred to in the correspondence) consisted of 125 players – 93 strings, double wood-wind and the usual brass (including an ophicleide, a now obsolete instrument replaced by the tuba).

The chorus, including a contingent of 62 from London, totaled 271: 79 sopranos; 60 altos (all male voices, by the way, "bearded altos," as Mendelssohn called them); 60 tenors; and 72 basses.

In addition, there were 10 soloists: the principal quartet and six subsidiary, incidental roles. And an organist.


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Birmingham Town Hall
It hardly needs to be said, the premiere was a success.

The concert began at 11:30am on Wednesday, August 26th, 1846 at the Town Hall. Eight numbers had to be encored – including “He, watching over Israel” and the on-again/ off-again aria, “O Rest in the Lord.”

Writing home to his brother Paul after the performance, Mendelssohn was delighted how much the performers liked it and how well everything went. He also mentioned that the “young English tenor [Charles Lockley] sang the last air [Then shall the righteous shine forth] so beautifully, I was obliged to collect all my energies so as not to be affected, and to continue beating time steadily. As I said, if you had only been there!"

To Jenny Lind, he wrote, “The performance of my 'Elijah' was the best performance that I ever heard of any one of my compositions. There was so much go and swing in the way in which the people played, and sang, and listened. I wish you had been there.”

It's interesting to note that, at the Friday morning concert, which concluded with some Handel arias and the anthem, Zadok the Priest, the musicians realized there was no recitative for the one aria. This was brought to Mendelssohn's attention while he was sitting offstage, enjoying the concert. He sat down and, in a few minutes, wrote a recitative for the tenor along with string quartet and two trumpets. It was immediately copied out, slipped into the musicians' folders during the intermission and performed at sight without anyone knowing it was not, in fact, by Mr. Handel.

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Soon afterward, Mendelssohn stopped in London to visit friends, spend a brief visit to the beach (where he began working on the piano arrangement of the oratorio, presumably for amateur performances) and then returned to Leipzig exhausted, living “a vegetable life,” as he called it, “doing nothing but eat, sleep and take walks.”

Mendelssohn in 1847
Still, by December, he started making revisions to Elijah and began considering a new opera for London, based on Shakespeare's Tempest. Unfortunately, news of this latest project leaked out prematurely as a "done deal," annoying the composer since it was not yet entirely firm in his mind.

London performances of this revised version of Elijah were set for April, 1847 and Mendelssohn returned to London to conduct. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attended the second one and the Prince Consort wrote this to the composer afterward:

"To the Noble Artist who, surrounded by the Baal-worship of debased art, has been able, by his genius and science, to preserve faithfully, like another Elijah, the worship of true art, and once more to accustom our ear, amid the whirl of empty, frivolous sounds, to the pure tones of sympathetic feeling and legitimate harmony: to the Great Master, who makes us conscious of the unity of his conception, through the whole maze of his creation, from the soft whispering to the mighty raging of the elements.
Inscribed in grateful remembrance by
Albert.
Buckingham Palace, April 24, 1847."

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It would be nice if we could end this story happily, but history, alas, is not always kind to us, despite our best intentions and fonder hopes.

Following the protracted business of arranging for Elijah's publication in England, Mendelssohn was on his way home, once more exhausted and detained at a border-crossing after being mistaken for a Dr. Mendelssohn who was a political fugitive (the 19th Century equivalent of a “terrorist watch list”) wasting hours before he could prove his identity.

Fanny Mendelssohn
He had been home in Leipzig only a couple of days when news reached him from Berlin: his beloved sister Fanny was dead!

She's had a stroke a few days before – in the midst of rehearsing one of Felix's compositions for an at-home concert that Sunday when her hands fell from the keyboard and she had to be carried into the next room. She never regained consciousness and died at 11pm that night. She was 41.

Felix and Fanny had been so close, not only growing up. Society at the time was not kind to talented women and Fanny was as brilliant a pianist as Felix was (if not better) and a fine composer in her own right who, because of her gender, was unable to have her music performed in public much less published. She had no better champion than her brother whose fame carried him across Europe and his music around the world.

After Felix received the news of her death, he collapsed and remained “insensible for some time.” When he came to, he could not stop crying. Even though he seemed to recuperate, the shock changed him. They met his brother Paul and Fanny's husband, Wilhelm Hensel, but the time together was uncomfortable, reminding him of who wasn't there.

So Cècile took him to Switzerland. A friend visiting him there commented about how gray he looked, how he had aged. One day, he couldn't stand the idea of playing the piano; the next day, he thought he might write a new piano concerto. He sketched a good deal (like this water-color of Lucerne, see left) and eventually began to compose a string quartet. It is very dramatic and uncharacteristically emotional: he called it his “Requiem for Fanny.”

He went back to work, getting ready for the Berlin performance of Elijah but when he entered the family house and saw the room where Fanny had died – and his score still sitting on the piano's music-rack – he broke down again and decided he could not conduct, so the performance was canceled. He would probably cancel the Vienna performance, too.

He submitted his resignation to the Gewandhaus but returned to get ready for the Conservatory's new year but in early October, he was ill again, though for no apparent reason. Later in the month, he had great spasms of pain – his symptoms that could have indicated a series of strokes except doctors then didn't understand them. A few days later, on November 4th, he died around 9:30 that night at the age of 38.

He never finished his intended revisions for Elijah and when the time came, Jenny Lind was unable to sing its Vienna performance, this time because she was so overcome from the news of its composer's death.

She did, however, sing a memorial performance of it in London in 1848, a gala raising money for the Mendelssohn Scholarship Fund she and other friends of the composer had established in his honor.

The money was allowed to accumulate in the bank until 1856 when the first scholarship was given to a promising young composer named Arthur Sullivan. He would go to Leipzig and study at Mendelssohn's school. He composed a suite of incidental music for The Tempest as his graduation piece, followed by a symphony, concertos, overtures, operas and choral works including hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and songs like “The Lost Chord.”

But in 1870, he met a fellow named William S. Gilbert which changed his career considerably and who can blame him for becoming half of one of the most successful teams in music history?

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Elijah went on to become one of the most frequently performed choral works from the 19th Century, especially popular with amateur choral societies as it is with professional choirs and orchestras still today.

It is not without its detractors – and there's a whole lot of controversy about Mendelssohn I haven't even touched on which would more than double the length of this post and still not cover (or explain) it – but that's not the point.

I know Stuart Malina is looking forward to these performances – it's the first time he's conducted it – and there will be not only our anticipation of hearing the work, but his own excitement of coming face-to-face with it.

So I hope you'll be able to join us for one of these performances – Friday night at 8:00 at the new High Center of Messiah College, or the usual weekend concerts at the Forum on Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 3pm.

Dick Strawser


Monday, April 7, 2014

Mendelssohn's Elijah

Mendelssohn in 1846
This weekend's Masterworks Concert presents one of the great choral works of the 19th Century by one of the most popular composers in classical music: the oratorio Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony joined by the Susquehanna Chorale, the Messiah College Concert Choir and the Messiah College Choral Arts Society, all prepared by Linda Tedford, with soloists Jonathan Beyer, baritone, as Elijah, plus soprano Ilana Davidson, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, tenor Eric Rieger, and soprano Lynlee Copenhaver.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk presented by HSO assistant conductor Gregory Woodbridge an hour before each concert.

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First of all, you may be wondering, “what is an oratorio?”

If you're familiar with Handel's Messiah, you'll have an idea what that answer might be, even though (technically) it's not a typical example.

Basically, an oratorio is a large-scale work with soloists, chorus and orchestra similar to an opera – it tells a story, has arias, duets and other various combinations for solo voices, as well as what we call “recitatives” (the equivalent of “spoken dialogue” that is somewhere between speech and full-out melodic song-like arias) along with more work for the chorus than you'd usually find in an opera – but unlike an opera, it is not staged: there are no sets and costumes and the stories they tell are largely sacred (usually biblical) rather than secular (usually mythological) in nature compared to what you might see on stage at the opera house.

Opera essentially originated around 1600 but it was quickly prohibited from performance during the Lenten season (too immoral for that most penitential of times). So composers instead turned to writing and producing non-staged works based on biblical plots which were presented as concerts rather than operas. The subject matter was therefore uplifting and the music more “edifying” even if some people heard this as nothing more than opera-in-sheep's-clothing (so much for the wicked stage).

Handel was not the first composer of oratorios but he is usually the first name we associate with the genre. And while some of the 25 he composed deal with specifically biblical stories like Esther or Judas Maccabeus, others like Messiah are contemplations on biblical themes rather than direct, action-oriented story-telling or, like Semele which deals with the mother of the Greek god Dionysus, have nothing to do with Christianity at all (in fact, Semele was later staged in the opera house).

While Bach's Christmas Oratorio and his Easter Oratorio are really collections of cantatas for the given season, there is also the St. Matthew Passion and we should remember, speaking of “degrees of separation,” that Felix Mendelssohn was 16 when his grandmother gave him a copy of the manuscript for Bach's St. Matthew and which he conducted, in its first performance since Bach's death in 1750, when he was 20 years old in 1829.

When traveling in England as a young man in his 20s, he had the opportunity to hear several choral works by George Frederic Handel and gave the first (then-)modern performances of several of them in Germany, most notably the then-largely-unknown Messiah, Judas Maccabeus and Israel in Egypt.

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This weekend's concert consists of a single work – but be advised, it's in two parts of about an hour each with an intermission in between, not like those ninety-minute Mahler symphonies which the weak-of-bladder fear attending. It will be sung in English and will be accompanied by “super-titles” projecting the text above the stage.

If you are not familiar with the biblical story of Elijah, you can check this link.

To explain how Mendelssohn treats this story in his oratorio, I quote from Richard Rodda's program notes while adding three famous paintings on subjects related to the story:

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The first of Elijah’s two parts is divided into three scenes prefaced by the prophet’s curse of drought sung to the solemn intonations of trombones and winds and a tempestuous Overture in fugal style that depicts the effect of the misfortune on the people of Israel. The Israelites voice their despair in the choruses that follow, while a tenor aria (“If with all your hearts ye truly seek me”) offers the hope of divine comfort.

Louis Hersent
Scene Two opens with Elijah at the brook of Cherith, guarded by a host of angels. At the end of the chorus “For He shall give His angels charge over thee,” an angel commands Elijah to go to Zarepath, where a widow will provide food that God promises will sustain him through the drought. Upon his arrival, the widow tells him that her son is near death. Elijah prays three times over the boy, and he revives. A chorus of praise closes the scene.

(The painting by Louis Hersent (d.1860) - see above - depicts "Elijah rejuvenating the son of the widow of Sarepta.")

Lucas Cranach the Younger (c.1545)

In Scene Three, one of the most gripping episodes in the entire realm of oratorio, Elijah announces the end of the three-year drought, and presents himself to Ahab. He challenges Ahab’s priests of Baal to prove the power of their god. The priests call upon Baal to bring down fire upon a sacrificial animal without success. Elijah’s prayers are answered, and the Israelites are moved to again profess the true faith.

(Lucas Cranach the Younger depicted the challenge of Elijah against the Priests of Baal in the painting - see above - from 1545.)

Elijah orders them to slay the priests. With Israel repentant, Elijah prays once again, this time for an end to the drought. A youth is sent to watch for rain clouds, at first reports nothing, but then sights an approaching storm. The people rejoice (“Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty land!”).

Gustave Doré
Part II is looser in dramatic structure than Part I because of Schubring’s frequent insertion into the libretto of pious and rather preachy texts that are extraneous to the story. (For more on Schubring, who was Mendelssohn's advisor on creating the text for the oratorio, see the next post.) The main occurrences are Queen Jezebel’s rousing the people against Elijah and his flight into the desert; the appearance of God to the prophet; the reinvigoration of Elijah’s faith and his mighty acts; and his assumption into heaven in a fiery chariot (depicted in 1865 by Gustave Doré - see right).

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Rather than give a handful of excerpts, I found an excellent recording of Mendelssohn's Elijah with none other than the legendary Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus, sung in English. It is divided into its two parts and the person who posted this on YouTube was kind enough to break down the individual “numbers” (arias, duets, choruses, &c). In the first part, he offers the start-time for each number but did not do so in the second part.

Still, since the diction in the singers' performance is quite good, you should still be able to follow along without needing to rely on the specific text.

In this recording – available on the Telarc label – the soloists are Thomas Hampson, baritone (Elijah), Barbara Bonney , soprano (The Widow), Henriette Schellenberg, soprano (Angel), Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano (Angel), Marietta Simpson, mezzo-soprano (The Queen), Jerry Hadley, tenor (Obadiah), Richard Clement, tenor (Ahab), Thomas Paul, baritone and Reid Bartelme, boy soprano (The Youth).

Part 1

0:00 Introduction (Elijah) - As God of Israel liveth
0:57 Overture
4:28 Chorus - Help Lord
7:50 Quartet Recit. - The deep affords no water
8:48 Duet with chorus - Zion spreadeth her hands for aid
10:56 Recit (Obadiah) - If with all your hearts
Chorus - Yet doth the Lord see it not
19:00 Recit (Angel) - Elijah! get thee hence (Florence Quivar)
19:55 Double quartet -For He shall give His angels
23:04 Recit (Angel): Now Cherith's brook is dried up (Florence Quivar)
24:22 Air (Bonney): What have I to do with thee - Recit (Elijah, Widow) Give me thy son!

Part 2

Air: Hear ye, Israel! (Barbara Bonney)
Chorus: Be not afraid
Recit (Elijah, Queen) and chorus: The Lord hath exalted thee
Chorus - Woe to him
Recit (Obadiah, Elijah) Man of Godnow let my words be precious
Air (Thomas Hampson): It is enough, O Lord
Recit (Richard Clement) See, now he sleepeth
Trio of Angels (Bonney, Schellenberg,Simpson): Lift thine eyes
Chorus: He, watching over Israel
Recit (Angel, Elijah): Arise, Elijah (Florence Quivar)
Air (Angel): O rest in the Lord (Florence Quivar)
Chorus: He that shall endure to the end
Recit (Elijah, Angel): Night falleth 'round me (Henriette Schellenberg)
Chorus: Behold, God the Lord passed by!
Recit, Quartet & Chorus: Above him stood the seraphim
Chorus: Go, return upon thy way - and recit (Elijah) I go on my way
Arioso (Thomas Hampson): For the mountains shall depart
Chorus: Thus did Elijah the prophet break forth
Air (Jerry Hadley): Then shall the righteous shine forth
Recit: For Godsent his people the prophet Elijah (Barbara Bonney)
Chorus: Thus saith the Lord
Quartet: O come, everyone that thirsteth
Chorus: And then shall your light break forth
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In the next post, you can read more about the biographical background to Mendelssohn's Elijah

Dick Strawser

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For more information about Mendelssohn's biography, check these posts at Dr. Dick's “Mendelssohn's World,” especially this post about “Being German in the early-1800s” when Mendelssohn was growing up, especially the “Biedermeier Age” which is reflected not only in the composer's life and musical style but also in the Victorian Era of 19th Century England which may go far to explain why Mendelssohn was so popular there.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ann Schein in Harrisburg, Part 2: This Week's Master Class & Recital

If you hadn't heard Ann Schein's performance with the Harrisburg Symphony this past weekend – or heard the buzz about it: check this link to read three reviews – you missed an incredible performance and an amazing collaboration between soloist, conductor, orchestra and composer.

Malina & Schein after Chopin
And if you stayed for the “talk-back” after the concerts, you probably heard her talk about the importance of teaching, not only in her own teachers but also in how she teaches her students.

So, here's something to consider: you can hear Ann Schein play some more right here in Harrisburg this coming weekend – 8pm, Satudary night at Whitaker Center – in a program for Market Square Concerts in which she'll be playing more Chopin (his 3rd Sonata) as well as Beethoven (his famous Les Adieux Sonata) and works by Liszt, Debussy and Ravel.

You can also, in a manner of speaking, hear her teach.

On Friday afternoon, she'll be offering a Master Class at Messiah College's new performing arts center in Grantham – it begins at 5:00 but it's free and open to the public. Students from around the mid-state will be playing for Ms. Schein and she'll listen and give advice. It's a chance for the young pianist to have a “mini-lesson” with a master and sometimes you can impart an amazingly significant bit of information in such a short amount of time than can affect how you approach that piece or this technical detail or the way you practice in general. It can be very inspiring and, for these young artists, I'm sure it will be a great memory.

This is an event sponsored by both the Harrisburg Symphony and Market Square Concerts, part of a “mini-residency” with Ann Schein in Harrisburg.

And the common denominator in these two organizations is Peter Sirotin, currently the concertmaster of the orchestra and the artistic director of Market Square Concerts. His wife, Ya-Ting Chang, a pianist who's also executive director of Market Square Concerts, had been a student of Ann Schein's when they were both attending Peabody. Sirotin refers to Ann Schein as an important mentor in his own life, not just as a musician.

Schein, her husband, and Rubinstein
So when Peter and Ya-Ting had the idea of bringing Ms. Schein to Harrisburg for a concert, was there something else you could do? I mean, she's not only a famous teacher and but she's also studied with some of the great pianists of a tradition now nearly forgotten, like Arthur Rubinstein and Mieczysław Munz as well as Dame Myra Hess. (These links will take you to video clips of some of their performances of Chopin and I highly recommend them.)

And if you've heard the Chopin concerto she played, you heard how wonderfully transcendent that tradition can sound, compared to the way a lot of pianists today perform this very intimate music. For a diametrically opposed concept of Chopin, check out this video which is from a video and CD recording that will be seen and heard by more people than have heard of Ann Schein, who will think this is the way classical music (or at least Chopin) should be played.

Let me quote from two articles that appeared last week to promote the symphony's concert, “Schein on Chopin,” which also mention the master class and recital coming up this week:

Ellen Hughes wrote in the Patriot-News
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"She's a musician with equal comfort as a soloist, chamber musician and concerto performer," HSO concertmaster and Market Square Concerts' artistic director Peter Sirotin said of Schein. "It's hard to find a musician who can cover this range."

She's articulate, sophisticated and unpretentious," he continued. "Besides being a great musician, she's one of the nicest human beings I've ever met."

When he and his wife, pianist Ya-Ting Chang, were students at Peabody Conservatory, Shein taught Chang and coached them both in chamber music. Sirotin and Chang, executive director of Market Square Concerts, still consider Schein a mentor, and its through that relationship that this mini-residency came to be.

"She's had a life in music. She brings a richness of experience through the multiple facets of a mature artist." Echoing Malina, Sirotin said, "She continues the great transition from Rubinstein to the present day."

"A half-century of playing this music means that her interpretations are a profoundly moving musical experience. Her timing and use of color create the feeling that the music has just been composed on the spot," he added.

Sirotin strongly urged me, and anyone else for that matter, to attend Schein's master class. "She uses a higher order of thinking to help students solve technical challenges," he said. "It's rare to experience such an intelligent guide. Attending the master class will open doors to music that are not possible to open while attending a concert," he said.

"I love this program," Schein said about her Market Square Concerts recital, when I spoke to her last week. "I've been doing it on and off for several seasons. Each work has a mini-story. I love all of them for reasons that become obvious."
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David Dunkle, in his article for the Carlisle Sentinel, included this personal anecdote:
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Why is Schein suddenly shining her talents on the greater Harrisburg area?

Part of the answer is HSO concertmaster Peter Sirotin, a violinist who nonetheless considers Schein one of his most important musical influences.

“She was one of my mentors at Peabody,” Sirotin said. “She’s very dear to me personally. She’s also one of my favorite musicians.”

Peter Sirotin & Ya-Ting Chang
Sirotin, along with his pianist wife, Ya-Ting Chang — another Peabody graduate and a Schein protege — are co-directors of Market Square Concerts.

And to complete the loop, Sirotin and Chang, along with HSO principal cellist Fiona Thompson, comprise the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, the ensemble-in-residence at Messiah.

“Yes, there is a link there,” Schein said of her friendship with Sirotin and the Taiwan-born Chang. “Ya-Ting was one of the finest pupils I ever had. One day, she told me she had met a young violin student. With her parents back in Taiwan, I was her surrogate mother. Unless I approved, she wouldn’t go out with him.”
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So you see, a teacher can have a big impact on a person – not just in the way they play the music!

The master class is being held in the High Foundation Recital Hall of Messiah College's new performing center. For directions, click here. For a campus map, click here  (the High Center is #5 on the map). The recital hall is toward the back of the building.

The recital on Saturday – at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg at 8pm – will include Ravel's Sonatine, Debussy's L'isle joyeuse, and the Tarantella from Franz Liszt's musical holiday in Italy, Venezia i Napoli. The program opens with Beethoven's Les adieux Sonata and closes with Chopin's 3rd Piano Sonata.

If you've heard the symphony's concert, then you can still hear more great music making from this artist. It's an opportunity we don't often have in our community, something to take advantage of and treasure.

Please note: the Master Class is free to everyone and anyone may attend to observe; for students, the tickets for Saturday's Whitaker Center recital are $5 for college students with ID and FREE for students K-12 (an accompanying parent or relative or a teacher can purchase a ticket for $5 for bringing a K-12 student).

Dick Strawser

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Schein on Chopin: The Reviews Are In

Following Saturday night's performance with Ann Schein, the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina in a concert that included Guillaume Connesson's recent Cosmic Trilogy: Aleph, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 and Frederic Chopin's 2nd Piano Concerto, here are some reviews for you:

From Kari Larsen with the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

From David Dunkle with the Carlisle Sentinel.

From blogger Dick Strawser, a.k.a. me, not-a-critic writing not-a-review, with his thoughts about the Chopin at his blog, Thoughts on a Train.

Check out our Facebook page for a ton of photos taken by marketing director Kim Isenhour, four of which I include here:

 One of the great opportunities for young audience members to meet a member of the orchestra before the concert - in this case, hornist Bill Hughes explains the mysteries of the French Horn.

Hard to tell from a still photograph how fast everyone's playing during Guillaume Connosson's whirlwind of a cosmic dance, "Aleph" from his Cosmic Trilogy which met with whoops and wows when it exploded at the end.

Ann Schein in the midst of a more contemplative moment from Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2.

The concert concluded with a compelling argument to consider Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony as a work deserving better credit than it has received.



Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony, Part 2: The Man Behind the Music

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony & Stuart Malina perform Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony which you can read about (and hear) in this earlier post; about the other works on this weekend's program, Guillaume Connesson's Cosmic Trilogy: Aleph and the Chopin 2nd Piano Concerto with soloist Ann Schein, check this post. You can also read (and hear) more about Ms. Schein at this post at the Market Square Concerts blog.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, c.1936
“I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is a product of the temperament and so it is Russian music. I never consciously attempt to write Russian music, or any other kind of music. What I try to do when writing down my music is to say simply and directly what is in my heart.”

That is how Sergei Rachmaninoff described himself in 1941 in his last major interview when he was in his late-60s.

But Russia has always been a country caught between two continents – Europe and Asia – both of which have strongly influenced its history and culture.

To American concert-goers, this is perhaps most evident in the two “types” of Russian composers they hear with any regularity: the folk-influenced, often “Oriental” style of the nationalists like Rimsky-Korsakoff and Mussorgsky or the Western symphonic tradition we hear reflected primarily in the symphonies and concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff or their Soviet counterparts, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. 

This post is about Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony, composed between 1935-1936, most of it written during the summers he'd spent between concert-tours at his villa in Switzerland beside Lake Lucerne, a magical place he called Senar, taking its name from his and his wife Natalie's first names and the initial of their last.

It was here he completed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and the popular reaction to this new work gave him the courage to begin a new symphony the following year.

Rachmaninoff was described by no less a Russian composer than Igor Stravinsky as “a six-and-a-half-foot scowl.” And judging from the usual photographs we see of him, who would disagree?

So here is a wonderful video I found courtesy of YouTube which includes “home movies” of the composer among friends and family – some of them were taken in New York City where they lived during the “season” but most of them were filmed at Senar during his summer holiday.

At one point, the narrator says the audio recording was made in 1933, so I'm guessing most of these were shot about the same time – in other words, the summer when Rachmaninoff was working on the Rhapsody about a year or two before he began work on his 3rd Symphony.

The Great Stone Face of Music? Who has ever seen photos of Rachmaninoff laughing – or could imagine him clowning for the camera and playing “Ring-Around-the-Rosey” which his children and grandchild?

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This was a happy time in his life: he was a famous pianist and a composer despite the fact he had composed little since he left his native Russia in 1917. But a lot had happened to him in those intervening 16 years.

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Born into an aristocratic family on April 1, 1873, Rachmaninoff grew up during the Golden Age of the Russian Empire – at least as far as we in the West think of it culturally with the music of Tchaikovsky and the Russian Nationalists of the “Mighty Handful” (a.k.a. The Russian Five) and the novels of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. We imagine nights at the ballet with Swan Lake or the opera with Boris Godunov.

But this was but a small fragment of the Russian World: beyond the palaces and country estates of the landed gentry, it was another situation, entirely.

Rachmaninoff's father, after gambling away the family fortune and their estate, abandoned them and his mother took the boy to St. Petersburg when he was 9 so he could take piano lessons (she had started him herself when he was 4). Her nephew, Alexander Siloti, studied piano with the Rubinstein brothers (Anton was one of the greatest pianists of the day) and later with Franz Liszt. He was also a student and friend of Tchaikovsky's.

Siloti & Tchaikovsky
Siloti recommended bringing his cousin to Moscow to study with his own teacher, one of the finest (and strictest) piano teachers in Russia. It was there he met fellow student Alexander Scriabin and where Tchaikovsky heard the boy play and encouraged his early attempts at composition.

One of the most brilliant pianists at the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff also developed into a potentially significant composer and conductor. He wrote an opera for his graduation piece and a little piano piece called the “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” when he was 19 (whose popularity would dog his entire career).

Naturally, all this went to his head. After playing a piece for Rimsky-Korsakov who liked it well enough but made one small suggestion, he later recalled, “I was silly and stuck on myself in those days. I was 21 – so I shrugged my shoulders and said 'And why?' and never changed a note.” Later he realized how justified Rimsky's comment had been – it was only in later years Rachmaninoff realized Rimsky's true greatness as a composer and teacher and regretted that he never got to study with him.

It was another piece and another Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov, a protege of Rimsky's, that were responsible for the first great crisis in Rachmaninoff's life.

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Remember what I said in my earlier post about the difference a conductor can make in hearing a piece for the first time, how a conductor who plays Beethoven badly is at fault but one who plays a new piece, it's always the composer who gets blamed?

In 1897, a few days before his 24th birthday, Rachmaninoff's new Symphony No. 1 (completed three years earlier) was finally premiered – the orchestra in St. Petersburg was conducted by Alexander Glazunov and it was one of three premieres on the program. The long delay in getting it performed was one thing but the other problem was that Glazunov clearly did not understand or even care for the music he was conducting.

During the rehearsal, Rimsky said to Rachmaninoff, "Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable."

Rimsky-Korsakoff & Glazunov
Glazunov was never a good conductor. Even Rimsky, his mentor, wrote in his memoirs about Glazunov's conducting. "Slow by nature, maladroit and clumsy of movement, the maestro, speaking slowly and in a low voice, manifestly displayed little ability either for conducting rehearsals or for swaying the orchestra during concert performances."

The performance was one of the great debacles of music history – but not in the way The Rite of Spring caused a scandal. Another conductor attending that performance wrote,

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"The Symphony was insufficiently rehearsed, the orchestra was ragged, basic stability in tempos was lacking, many errors in the orchestral parts were uncorrected; but the chief thing that ruined the work was the lifeless, superficial, bland performance, with no flashes of animation, enthusiasm or brilliance of orchestral sound."
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Afterward, there were reports that Glazunov was drunk at the time. Granted, he had a drinking problem (a young Shostakovich, studying with him in later years, wrote that he kept a flask in his desk with a tube that ran up under his coat to his lapel so he could drink during lessons without being seen), but judging from these other reports, it's quite possible he didn't need to be drunk to have lost control of the performance if he had trouble understanding it and lacked any sympathy for it.

Rachmaninoff ran from the hall.

Cesar Cui, one of the “Mighty Handful” and the leading critic in Moscow, wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell, Rachmaninoff would get first prize for this symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us.”

Well, with wrong notes left uncorrected in the parts and a lack-luster interpretation much less a conductor who didn't have the skill to keep a difficult piece under control, drunk or not, the public didn't have a chance to hear what the composer intended.

He supposedly destroyed the score and it was never performed again during his lifetime. Only after his death did someone find the set of parts from that performance and reconstruct the score to give it a second performance in 1945, two years after Rachmaninoff's death.

There is a bitter-sweet moment in what became Rachmaninoff's last work, his Symphonic Dances written in 1941, when he quotes a theme from his 1st Symphony: who would recognize it? It was obviously a very personal reflection not intended for public recognition.

Rachmaninoff, Summer 1897
ere is much written about Rachmaninoff's reaction to this experience – how he went into such a depression he needed a psychoanalyst to bring him out of it so he could compose he next piece, his 2nd Piano Concerto which became (and remains) perhaps his most popular piece (after that C-sharp Minor Prelude).

But there's more to it than that: Rachmaninoff wrote to a friend of his a month later that the bad performance was one thing and the savaging in the press another, but what really bothered him, he said, was that...

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“...I am deeply distressed and heavily depressed by the fact that my Symphony, though I loved it very much and love it now, did not please me at all after its first rehearsal.... Either, like some composers, I am unduly partial to this composition, or this composition was poorly performed. And this is what really happened. I am amazed—how can a man with the high talent of Glazunov conduct so badly? I speak not merely of his conducting technique (there's no use asking this of him), but of his musicianship. He feels nothing when he conducts—as if he understands nothing!... So I assume that the performance may have been the cause of the failure (I do not assert—I assume). If the public were familiar with the symphony, they would blame the conductor (I continue to "assume"), but when a composition is both unknown and badly performed, the public is inclined to blame the composer. ...In any case I will not reject this Symphony, and after leaving it alone for six months, I'll look at it, perhaps correct it, and perhaps publish it, but perhaps by then my partiality for it will have passed. Then I'll tear it up.”
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But he did not take it up again and, in fact, did not “tear it up,” either. But it was another three-and-a-half years until he began work on the 2nd Piano Concerto which he premiered with his cousin Siloti conducting in 1901. Whatever his psychoanalyst Nikolai Dahl did for him in those sessions (and he dedicated the concerto to him), he at least restored the young man's self-confidence he could get over his writer's block.

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So by now, Rachmaninoff was on the road to recovery and soon became not only an acclaimed pianist and composer but also a conductor. Eventually, he found his busy schedule detracting from the time he needed to compose, so he packed his family off to Dresden, Germany, mostly to avoid the political unrest happening in Russia – this was following the failed 1905 Revolution and the Russo-Japanese War. Aside from summer holidays spent at his in-laws' country estate, Ivanovka, he spent three years in Dresden and composed his 2nd Symphony.

with his daughter (b.1907)
Writing a symphony is different than writing a concerto or a tone poem or short piano pieces. There's more than just writing well for the orchestra: there's also the structural challenge of maintaining a long-form piece and with the memory of his 1st Symphony's premiere nine years earlier still very much in his mind, he wasn't sure he could write a symphony.

He finished it the following year (1907) and premiered it in St. Petersburg but he conducted it himself (one lesson learned). It's popular – and critical – success, despite concern for its hour-long length, no doubt helped him feel more secure about his creativity. He thought maybe he would revise that 1st Symphony, see what he could make of it, but he put it aside. Again.

Still, it was another 29 years till he composed his next symphony – but much happened in between.

As I mentioned, Rachmaninoff was a member of the landed aristocracy – in 1910, he and his wife inherited Ivanovka – if not a titled aristocrat. The political situation in Russia had been on the downward slope for a long time and when the first revolution happened in 1917, Rachmaninoff, never very politically involved, thought he could wait it out.

In the midst of World War I, the tsar had been overthrown and a provisional government showed promise. Concertizing in Europe was impossible and now things were dubious at home.

It was the second revolution in 1917 that changed everything.

The Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government and set up the communist regime that would soon become the Soviet Union.

At Ivanovka, the peasants forced Rachmaninoff to abandon his home, often running around drunk with flaming torches, stealing the cattle and “breaking into the stores” (according to one of the villagers). After the Rachmaninoffs left, they looted the house and burned it down.

Here is a Russian video montage of photographs of Ivanovka as it was during Rachmaninoff's life there and as it is today, converted into a museum:
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The music is from his 1st Piano Concerto, his Op.1, most of it composed there.
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In 1931, Rachmaninoff would recall it as a place with “no special wonders – no mountains, ravines or ocean views. It was on the steppes [northeast of modern-day Ukraine] and instead of the boundless ocean there were endless fields of wheat and rye stretching to the horizon.”

“The Russians,” he said in another interview in America, “feel a stronger tie to the soil than any other nationality. It comes from an instinctive inclination towards quietude, tranquility, admiration of nature, and perhaps a quest for solitude. It seems to me that every Russian is something of a hermit.”

Whether it's true stereotypically of Russians then or now, it was certainly true of Rachmaninoff.

When a request came to him for some concerts in Scandinavia, Rachmaninoff jumped at the chance. On December 22nd, 1917, he left Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) for Finland, crossing the border in a snowstorm in an open sleigh. Careful not to provoke the authorities by appearing to escape, he left with only what one might normally travel with, leaving behind practically everything but a few notebooks and a couple scores. All his music not to mention his money and property were left behind.

Among the manuscripts left in the Petersburg apartment was the Symphony No. 1. While others were removed by family members and placed with his publisher, the symphony disappeared. Its whereabouts is still unknown.

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Like many Russians fleeing the collapse of the Russian Empire, Rachmaninoff found himself without a country – their money was worthless, they didn't even have legal passports and those issued by the League of Nations created bureaucratic hurdles that made another emigree, Igor Stravinsky, who found himself stranded in Switzerland at the time, feel like a third-class citizen.

With this loss of national identity and the death of the culture that had nourished him, Rachmaninoff also felt he had lost his soul.

First, he had to concentrate on making money and the best way to do that was perform, so he stopped composing and conducting. Without the nourishment of that Russian soil, he lost all interest in composing, anyway, and from 1917 on, there are few compositions compared to the promise his earlier works had implied.

Settling eventually in New York City, the family tried to maintain whatever ties it could to the Old Country. Like the emigree communities that flourished (more or less) in Paris and Berlin, the Rachmaninoffs maintained an apartment furnished in the old Russian style, hired Russian servants, spoke only Russian at home, and socialized mostly with Russian friends.

Still, nothing seemed to work.

In 1926, he wrote a 4th Piano Concerto but it failed to please and he revised it in 1941 but still without any luck. A setting of Three Russian Songs allowed him to explore a more directly nostalgic route but this choral work never caught on, either.

Aside from ten paraphrases and transcriptions – ranging from The Star-Spangled Banner in 1918 to some works by his frequent collaborator Fritz Kreisler to excerpts from Bach's E Major Partita for Solo Violin (which received its first performance here in the Forum in Harrisburg PA on a recital tour in 1934) – mostly intended as encores, he wrote only six published works over the next 24 years.

Senar
It was the sudden appearance of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 that seemed to ignite renewed creative juices. He had by now moved into the villa overlooking Lake Lucerne that would serve as his summer home, the Villa Senar.

It was designed and landscaped to remind him of the family estate, Ivanovka, back in Russia, complete with its great avenue under rows of birch trees, so quintessentially Russian. He spent every summer from 1932 there until the outbreak of yet another war in 1939: World War II would keep him from returning to Europe before he died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, in 1943.

So it was at Senar, buoyed by the confidence he felt after the Rhapsody, that he began not another piano concerto – which would have made sense for a concertizing pianist – but another symphony in 1935.

He completed his 3rd Symphony – you can read more about the piece itself and hear two different performances of it on that earlier post, here – that next summer and scheduled it to be premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra with whom he'd had a long and happy relationship, with Leopold Stokowski conducting.

Unlike the reception given the Rhapsody, the audience was cool to the new symphony and the critics even cooler. Though Rachmaninoff was still convinced of the piece's worth, when he was asked to conduct and record with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939, he chose the 3rd Symphony.

That recording is available on an RCA CD. Here is the first movement:

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Given the lukewarm reception to his 3rd Symphony and especially the earlier 4th Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff wrote one more work, his Symphonic Dances which, after it also met with a poor response, he wrote nothing else during his final years.

By this time, he was pushing 70 and was not in the best of health, though he was still busy performing on a regular basis, living now in Beverly Hills, California, where other emigrees would settle – like the German novelist Thomas Mann and composers as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Diagnosed with an advanced melanoma in 1942 (though he was not told), he and his wife became American citizens on February 1st, 1943. On the 17th, he was giving a recital in Knoxville TN and became ill, returning home instead of continuing the tour. He died five weeks later, four days before his 70th birthday.

Rachmaninoff suffered from being too nostalgic for a long-gone world and incapable of moving with the times, even though harmonically and texturally there are things happening in his 3rd Symphony that are clearly a response to newer ideas. But as often happened, he fell between both worlds – too modern for those who wanted another 2nd Piano Concerto and too conservative for those expected something more modern.

His mood as a rootless emigree at odds with the world and especially its new art and music, can be summed up in a comment made in a 1939 interview that he would not allow to be published during his lifetime:

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“I felt like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me... I always feel that my own music and my reactions to all music remain spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty... The new kind of music seems to come not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt – they mediate, protest, analyse, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.”
(from an interview with Leonard Liebling in The Musical Courier quoted in Orlando Figes's Natasha's Dance.)
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with grandson (b.1933)
While such comments were leveled at Brahms in earlier times, it was certainly a complaint leveled by many others at composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Brahms struggled against such criticism especially in his later years (destroying another symphony and at least one more violin concerto he had begun, perhaps even finished) and Rossini and Sibelius were just two composers who, having difficulty adapting to the new musical styles that were becoming accepted if not popular in their days, gave up composing entirely.

But then, they didn't have to deal with losing their country. For Rachmaninoff, that was always a major issue with his being a creative artist. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong point in time.

Perhaps when listening to this symphony, then, we should remember the laughing Rachmaninoff, playing “Ring-Around-the-Rosey” with his grandchild, living and writing in his idyllic if carefully reconstructed atmosphere at Senar remembering not only Ivanovka but the very air of Imperial Russia that was once the breath of life.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Rachmaninoff and his Third Symphony: Part 1


Back in the mid1970s, when I was teaching a college course in Russian Music, I had the chance to talk to a visiting Soviet “social anthropologist” who was visiting the University of Connecticut and so I asked her “why does Russian music sound so sad?”

Thinking for a few seconds, she said “I don't really know: perhaps the long winters?”

Now that it will officially be Spring by this weekend's Masterworks Concert - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - we, having survived an undeniably long, intense winter, may better understand the mood behind that six-and-a-half-foot scowl called Sergei Rachmaninoff as Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in his Symphony No. 3 in A Minor.

It's not as well known or as frequently programmed as his 2nd Symphony and while the 2nd & 3rd Piano Concertos and the ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini are staples of the repertoire, his symphonies appear less often.

Perhaps the most recognizable hallmarks of Rachmaninoff's style are his lush harmonies and gorgeous melodies, especially in the more lyrical passages. There's a reason most of Hollywood's composers imitated Rachmaninoff's style with its direct emotional appeal back in the day. And while themes from his 2nd Piano Concerto went on to become popular songs in their own right (“Full Moon and Empty Arms,” for one), why does the 3rd Symphony get the short end of the stick?

Written in the mid-1930s and given its world premiere in Philadelphia, it opens with a very strange little passage that quickly erupts into the dynamic main theme. The lyrical second theme may not match the star quality of the 2nd Piano Concerto's or the famous 18th Variation from the Rhapsody (very little could), but it certainly has a lot to offer with its song-like quality.

The symphony is in three movements rather than the traditional four. The middle movement combines both the slow movement and the scherzo into 12 minutes where the 2nd Symphony's two middle movements spanned about 25 minutes. On the other hand, “voluptuous” is a word we might apply to a lot of Rachmaninoff's slow movements, but perhaps not to this one – or at least not voluptuous enough.

The finale is full of that typical vigor we associate with Rachmaninoff's dramatic music and it's certainly an exciting ending.

Now, I've heard works that haven't fared well with the public and sometimes can understand that. Then along comes a performance that stands the others on end and I think, “wow, this is an entirely different piece.”

As a case in point, I found myself disliking a lot of Shostakovich's last three symphonies which, in this country, we normally first heard in recordings by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm not sure why but they just didn't do anything for me. The 15th was something I found boring and, with its quotes from Rossini's “William Tell” Overture, silly.

Then I listened to Maxim Shostakovich's recording of his father's last symphony and a lot of things suddenly grabbed me and I found it riveting (even if still full of questions but not ones I was tempted to dismiss as “bad composing”).

Not to put down Ormandy – who, without doubt, was an incredible musician – but I just didn't find his performances compelling (at least of these Shostakovich symphonies).

Rachmaninoff's 3rd is another work I'd never gotten into. I don't remember whose recording I'd first heard of it, but I decided I didn't like the piece and more or less ignored it, thinking in this case the public's lack of interest was justified.

Then a few years ago, I heard Stuart Malina conduct it with the Harrisburg Symphony and I went to listen to a couple other recordings, including one the composer himself made in 1939 with the same Philadelphia Orchestra that had premiered the work to little acclaim.

I changed my mind.

And Stuart convinced me this is a much better piece than I'd ever thought it was. It's the difference a committed performer can make in a piece.

Usually when something new (and therefore unfamiliar) fails, it's blamed on the composer. If Beethoven's 5th fails, it's the conductor's fault.

So, first, here's a recording by Russian-born pianist-turned-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, one of the more acclaimed performances available on YouTube:
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1st Movement: Largo – Allegro moderato

2nd Movement: Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro vivace

3rd Movement: Allegro

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Normally, I like to find actual live concert performances so you can watch the orchestra as well as listen, but I couldn't find a satisfactory interpretation and recording that served both purposes.

For those who read music and like to follow along with the score, here's a recording by Gennady Rozhdestvensky with the USSR Ministry of Culture Orchestra that uses a two-piano reduced score:
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One of the things that listeners find confusing is that odd opening. Lots of symphonies begin with slow introductions – and Tchaikovsky, for one, often used an introductory “motif” that recurred throughout the symphony either outright or altered in various ways, helping to tie the piece together: the fanfare representing “Fate” that opens his 4th; the march in the 5th (a full-blown theme); the bassoon solo in the Pathétique.

Rachmaninoff's idea which sounds more like a single note with a note or two above or below it doesn't sound very promising. And it certainly doesn't help establish any sense of it being in “A Minor.” So what is it doing there?

For some reason, Rachmaninoff, though Russian and Orthodox by birth, had a fascination – or perhaps “obsession” is the better word – with the Dies irae chant from the Roman Catholic liturgy for the dead: you really only need the first ten seconds.
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While composers like Franz Liszt might base a whole set of variations on the theme, complete with rather horrifying effects for the mid-19th Century, Rachmaninoff often embedded it into his works even when there was no real programmatic reason for it. But because of its association with the Day of Wrath and the Final Judgment, it automatically thrusts all of that cultural baggage into the forefront.

Even writing a theme that merely suggests it was enough to make people notice: “Oh, he's using the Dies irae there...” Berlioz used it outright in his Symphonie fantastique during the Witches Sabbath to its obvious affect, but Brahms opened his E-flat Minor Intermezzo with something that sounded like it – did he mean to suggest this infamous “dance of death” or is it just a coincidence?

Now, obviously, in something like Rachmaninoff's tone poem The Isle of the Dead, it makes sense, but he also quotes it in the middle of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – because the legend goes that Paganini sold his soul to the devil?

There are at least 17 different pieces Rachmaninoff composed – and he did not compose a great deal of music – that either quote or suggest the Dies irae.

So, go back and listen (or look at) that opening motive again: notice how it revolves around that single note very much like the Gregorian chant? It's even presented as a single line in an odd orchestration that would make most listeners sit up and wonder “what's playing that?”

Now, how does this end up in the rest of the symphony?

For theory nerds, I could point out how A Minor with a B-flat in it is not only not your typical A Minor, you could also look throughout the symphony and hear how that half-step relation affects the harmony and makes the sense of tonality more fluid.

Listen to the conclusion of the 1st movement (the motive is in the bass, under an A Major chord) and again the end of the 2nd movement (again in the bass, but under a C-sharp Major chord). There is also a reminiscence of it in the opening of the 2nd movement, as well.

Then there are places where that opening motive is contained within a passage's harmony – not as melody – undergoing numerous transformations.

But then listen to the very ending of the symphony – the last two measures – some 40 minutes after you first heard this odd little, vague and unassuming motive (in the Ashkenazy clip #3, at 12:09; at 36:08 in the one with the score) has become a very dramatic conclusion.

And while the work is certainly tonal in an age when music had begun exploring atonality and serialism which "destroyed" that familiar sense listeners had with tonality, he often substitutes an E-flat major-ish chord (with a B-flat in it) for the expected E Major dominant chord of the standard V-I Cadence - as he does at the very end. And since the opening motive is built on A-G-A-B-flat-A, using the G-natural instead of the usual G-sharp of the A Major Scale weakens the traditional cadential drive even further.

Bonus points for music nerds: the relationship between E-flat and A is the dreaded tritone, an interval known since the medieval era as "The Devil in Music." Hmmm...

In one sense, Rachmaninoff's style, here, may sound different from, say, Beethoven or Brahms to us, but not that much, compared to Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Yet this was one of the problems audiences in the 1930s had with this new symphony: too modern for those who missed their traditional tonality (especially those who enjoyed wallowing in his rich harmonies and lush textures of his earlier piano concertos and the 2nd Symphony) but too conservative for those who wanted something more modern.

In this next post, we'll explore the time in Rachmaninoff's life when he composed his Third Symphony and its impact on his life as a creative artist.

- Dick Strawser