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.

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

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