While Gershwin’s is definitely rhapsodic (“rhapsody” was a generic term for something that didn’t quite fit any other named kind of form like “sonata” or “minuet with trio”… but which didn’t have a story to tell like Schumann’s “Carnaval” or Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Rachmaninoff’s is not only very much like a concerto in three or four movements (without any real breaks, like Franz Liszt’s concertos) especially given the demands on the soloist, it’s actually a set of variations. But then, Rachmaninoff the composer could call it anything he wanted to…
Rachmaninoff based his variations on the last of Nicolo Paginini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin which is, in itself, already a set of variations on his own, simple theme. In fact, this theme was so fertile, it inspired many other composers to write their own variations on it – Brahms for one, Witold Lutoslawski more recently.
Despite being very popular, it’s difficult to find a complete – and good – performance on YouTube, so here’s one – Rachmaninoff himself playing it with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski and recording right after the world premiere in 1934. As historic recordings go, this YouTube poster admits to manipulating the audio (‘quasi-stereo’ &c) to make it sound less scratchy as an old monaural recording taken off old 78s (for those of you who consider CDs passe, it would take too long to describe this…).
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Paganini’s theme is heard in a bare-bones presentation just ten seconds after the introduction, first with the harmonic skeleton then the theme brought in at 0:30 to flesh out what now appears to have been the accompaniment. This goes through a great deal of “stormy and stressful” expansion before he introduces something new at 5:29 – but it’s a theme he’s often used in many of his works and its frequent presence makes one wonder about its significance for him.
This is the ancient Gregorian chant, the Dies irae (dee’-ace ee’-ray) from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead – the Day of Wrath, Judgment Day. It creates the most dramatic (and often terrifying) moments of great settings of the Requiem Mass – think Mozart and Verdi. It becomes a kind of death’s-head theme peering out from the most sinister moments of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or that staple of the Hallowe’en concerts repertoire, Franz Liszt’s Todentanz, the “Dance of Death” for piano and orchestra.
Still, what it’s doing here is conjectural, since Rachmaninoff never explained why he used here, much less anywhere else that I’m aware of. But it fits the back-story with Paganini who, legend has it, sold his soul to the Devil in order to be able to play like he did. And many people believed it – in fact, the Church even refused to allow his burial in consecrated ground! (You can read a fanciful account of meeting Paganini in the afterworld where he – eventually but quite accurately – describes his post-mortal experience over at my collection of short stories, Stravinsky's Tavern…)
The appearance of the Dies irae gives the theme a sinister back-drop, often overlapping with the theme (see 7:31) which actually makes it a “double” set of variations – two themes for the price of one. Wisps of the Dies irae can often be heard lurking in the accompaniment or perhaps fragments of it imbedded into Paganini’s theme.
This will eventually give way to a quieter, more lyrical episode. Finally, after an unsettled and rather vague variation (12:30), the moonlight breaks through the gloom for the famous 18th Variation – starting at 14:15 – the spot where you can probably hear everybody in the audience sigh collectively and lean back comfortably into their seats. This is truly a magical moment and the beauty of the melody is worth its reputation.
Ironically, as new and different as it sounds, it really is only Paganini’s theme slowed down and played upside-down!
This bit of contrast is like a slow movement in a concerto. Soon, we’re back into the dramatic turmoil, perhaps a dance-like scherzo beginning at 16:48. This gradually becomes more and more finale-like, full of virtuosic flourishes worthy of any concerto. It ends, strangely – after one more appearance at 21:40 of the Dies irae -- with a final sly wink rather than the bravura bombast it had been leading up to, what we might expect considering his 2nd and 3rd Concertos.
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Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century as well as a much loved composer. To look at him, even in the photograph (see above) where he’s sitting down, you could imagine why Igor Stravinksy described him as “a six-foot scowl.” Practically every photograph I’ve seen of him – certainly all the “official” or formal ones – evoke the Great Stone Face of Classical Music.
It’s hard to imagine him, given his buzz-cut hair, ever letting his hair down, so to speak. Yet here is a collection of private home-movies showing the composer with his family and friends, particularly with his daughters and his grandchildren. Imagine watching this “six-foot scowl” bouncing across the lawn with his daughter (at 1:35) or playing “Ring Around the Rosey” with his granddaughter (6:50).
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One of the works you can hear in this video compilation is his recording of the "Polka of V.R." (4:00-7:21) based on what he thought was a little dance tune his father, Vassily (the V.R. - or in German/French, W.R. - of the title) would play when he'd come home and his children, quite young then, would dance around the room to it. Not the kind of domestic bliss you'd expect, looking at the standard images of the mature Rachmaninoff, is it? He wrote this in 1911, the day after the world premiere of one of his few religious choral works, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, setting the divine liturgy of the traditional Russian Orthodox church service. (Speaking of contrasts...) It was only long after Rachmaninoff's death that the actual composer of this little polka - Franz Behr - was identified.
Much of the footage you see here was taken at the Swiss villa he built to emulate his old Russian family estate in the mid-1930s. He composed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini there in 1934, so these images of the composer are basically contemporary with the music you're hearing on the orchestra's concert.
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He was born in Russia to a wealthy land-owning family in 1873 and grew up during the “golden age” of the late-19th Century Russian Empire. But his father’s gambling debts helped ruin the family fortune and they moved from their country estate to the imperial capital of St. Petersburg where Sergei began to pursue his piano lessons more seriously. He eventually also began to exhibit talent as a composer and was something of a triple threat at the Conservatory, studying piano, composition and conducting.
A successful career seemed inevitable and then his first symphony was premiered at the Conservatory. It was a disaster, reviled in the press, and for almost three years, Rachmaninoff was unable to compose a thing. Someone suggested he see a therapist, Nikolai Dahl, who tried hypnosis on him and presumably by telling him “You will write a new piano concerto and it will be wonderful,” Rachmaninoff’s creativity came back to life and, in fact, his 2nd Piano Concerto was more than wonderful.
As I’ve often said, when an orchestra gives a bad performance of Beethoven (or anything well-known), the conductor is blamed but when it’s a new work, it’s the composer’s fault and that’s what happened here. Rachmaninoff withdrew the symphony but never publically blamed Alexander Glazunov, the conductor, who was a known alcoholic and according to witnesses quite drunk at the performance. Glazunov wasted rehearsal time, the orchestra was underprepared and there were two other premieres on the program. But the press had little reason to be quite so savage in their pronouncements: a leading critic (and a lesser composer of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s circle), Cesar Cui, said it would be admired in the Conservatory in Hell and suggested the symphony told the story of the plagues of Egypt. I mean, really… what 24-year-old who’s just finished a 40-minute symphony and who’s expecting to launch a highly anticipated career could have withstood that kind of public drubbing?
(Curiously, since no one would’ve heard the piece again – he’d destroyed the score but someone found a copy of the parts and was able to reconstruct it – he occasionally quoted from it, particularly in what became his very last work, the Symphonic Dances. Rachmaninoff had appended the score with an epigram from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, implying there might be a story behind the music, program or no program: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” Could that be why, all his life, he was obsessed with the Dies irae theme for the Day of Judgment? Was he, musically, having the last word? Hmmm…)
At any rate, the 2nd Piano Concerto of 1901 finally launched his career. His 3rd Piano Concerto was composed during an ocean crossing and premiered in the United States in 1909, its second performance in New York City with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler.
Incidentally, the main reason Rachmaninoff decided to make the long trip to America was because the fees were so good there, he could buy a fancy new car. He loved cars. Later, people who would visit him at his homes in America or Switzerland would find him peering under the hood of his latest acquisition, his hands blacks with engine grease.
Meanwhile, the situation in Europe was getting worse – it would only be a matter of time before everything would be ripped apart. In 1914, it finally did, and World War I made traveling in Europe. Then, the old world collapsed in Russia as the Tsar was overthrown and then the provisional government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.
Rachmaninoff was offered a concert tour of Scandinavia in 1917 and was able to leave the country only weeks after the Bolsheviks toppled the government. Driven on a sleigh from Petersburg to the Finnish border in a snowstorm one night, Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia forever, leaving all their possessions – and most of his manuscripts – behind at the estate that would soon be taken over by the proletariat.
Almost a year later, Rachmaninoff arrived in America for another concert tour, this time trying to make ends meet. Without any income from his music much less his family fortune, Rachmaninoff had to focus on staying alive and so he decided it would be better to be a concert pianist than a composer which took too much time and was, frankly, not as rewarding financially. He was offered a conducting job with the Boston Symphony but refused it.
Anywhere he lived, he tried to recreate his Russian homeland around him. The family and friends who visited saw Russian décor, spoke Russian, ate Russian food, but still Rachmaninoff, when he thought he’d try composing again, couldn’t because, as he explained, he had lost his Russian soul. It’s difficult for us to realize that with the 1917 Revolution, Russia ceased to exist as a country – it was now the Soviet Union, a very different political and social entity – and Rachmaninoff was only one of countless Russian ex-patriots wandering the globe “without a country.” Some, like Stravinsky, adapted to becoming first French then Swiss then American. But for Rachmaninoff, it was almost impossible.
Essentially between 1917 and the end of his life in 1941, he wrote only six original works. He did, however, produce numerous transcriptions – the first one being an arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner in 1918. A transcription of three movements from Bach’s Partita in E for solo violin was given its first performance here in Harrisburg at the Forum in 1934 - only months before he began to compose the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
This argument may seem over-simplified, given that most of his 2nd Symphony, the tone poem Isle of the Dead (speaking of Dies irae and total gloom) and his 1st Piano Sonata in the German city of Dresden during the winters between 1906 and 1909 when he then began the 3rd Piano Concerto, most of which was written in transit to his American tour that year. But he could spend the summers on his Russian estate and, of course, he knew that he would always return to his native soil.
When he knew he would never return and knew that whatever he might return to wouldn’t be the same, the impact was severe.
Of those few original works he composed after leaving Russia behind, most of them were poorly received. The 4th Piano Concerto never caught on, even after he revised it extensively. It just wasn’t the 2nd or the 3rd. His 3rd Symphony, for that matter – which Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony performed here a few seasons ago – was dismissed because it wasn’t the 2nd Symphony. The non-Russian Variations on a Theme of Corelli (which was actually an old Spanish dance tune, “La Folia”) had a checkered career, mostly never successful. His Symphonic Dances were panned at the premiere.
Only the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini caught the public’s attention.
Why is that?
Given Rachmaninoff’s gift for melody, his brilliance at writing for the piano, his skill at working with the orchestral palette, why only this piece?
How did this, among those few others, survive all the problems the composer had with his fragile creative energy? Given he didn't need to compose to make a living and the trouble it caused him when he tried, not to mention the disappointment much of it was causing him, it's amazing he even bothered to write this piece.
Of course, one might as well ask “what makes a masterpiece?” or “how do you create a hit?” That is one of the many mysteries of the artistic life.
At least we have this one to enjoy.
- Dick Strawser