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

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