Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in D Minor, Op13
NOTE: This script is the original version, but due to it overrunning our time slot, the final programme omits some of the introductory analysis. I have left it in here for interest.
“If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a programme symphony on “The Seven Plagues of Egypt”, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr Rachmaninov’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would bring delight to the inhabitants of Hell. But for the time being we are still living on earth, and this music has a depressing effect on us, with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, the meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the intense crash of brass, and above all the sickly, perverse hamonization and quasi-melodic outlines, and the complete lack of simplicity and naturalness, the complete lack of themes.”
With these words were dismissed the ambitions of a twenty-four year-old graduate pianist and composer; not just any graduate either, but the Gold Medal-holding Sergei Vasileyevitch Rachmaninoff, lately of the Moscow Conservatoire. This is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme is given over to Rachmaninoff’s extraordinary First Symphony, a work repudiated by him after a disastrous premiere at St Petersburg, given by the Russian Orchestral Society and conducted by Alexandr Glazunov.
Rachmaninoff himself tore up the score and later described it to a close friend as strained, childish and bombastic, but not wholly weak, its worse fault being bad orchestration; furthermore, he could not understand how a musician like Glazunov - one of Russia’s foremost composers and teachers, a great figure among the staff at the St Petersburg Conservatoire - could have conducted so badly. Rachmaninoff’s cousin, later his wife, claimed Glazunov had been drunk.
The First Symphony in D Minor is scored for large orchestra. From double-basses and (superb) tuba up to piccolo, the instrumentation is extremely well judged. The form is cyclical with a short, snarling motto that colours or generates all the matter of its four movements. Autocratically expressive, this is possibly the first Russian symphony to take its chapter and verse from knowledge of znameniy or Orthodox liturgical chants as well as folk-music, and it echoes also the bells of Mousorgsky’s Boris Gudonov. Moreover, the Catholic chant, Dies Irae, an idée-fixe of that other pianist composer, Franz Liszt, Is never far from the shape of things. Rachmaninoff was to make this fate-motif his own - it occurs in almost all his large-scale works!
Cue: Extract from Piano Trio in D Minor, RachmaninoffThe first four notes of the motto-theme and an element of the second subject may have been carried over deliberately from the massive slow movement of the elegaic second Piano Trio in D Minor - written in memory of Tchaikovsky, who had mostly been very encouraging of Rachmaninoff’s efforts; assisted as an examiner in his graduation and died tragically two years before the Symphony was begun. The score is headed with the words, “Vengeance is mine (saith the Lord) I will repay.” This quotation from the Scriptures occurs in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, of which more later..
The brass motto with which the symphony opens is reminiscent of the beginning of Borodin’s Second Symphony.
Cue: Opening of Second Symphony In B Minor, Borodin
Cue: Motto and 1st Subject, Rachmaninoff
Besides a hint of the Dies Irae, there’s a woody coolness and purpose to the first subject, a continuation of the motto-theme - clarinet and then oboe prominent - the first subject is built up of phrases from liturgical chants, a process his listeners would have been aware of on first hearing. The subject has kinship with the allegros of Rimsky-Korsakov, athletic, loose-limbed only because relying on sequence, the self-repetition of Jchoice narrow intervals, and contrapuntal entries. Descending scalic figures - the clarinet’s being most noticeable - are built into the material. A curious, overshadowed quality comes with changes in dynamics and scoring. Tension rises to the hard-hitting first brassy climax, with its repeated-note tattoo - powerful in the lower brass and with an edge of hysteria added by the trumpet; it falls away in murmurs - and in twirls the sinuous, feminine second subject on violins, astringent appoggiatura not permitting sinuousness to be relaxed. The oboe, flutes and clarinet add plangency, the swell of the theme given the Tchaikovskian treatment - passionate first violins in unison, the horns glowing.
Cue: Second Subject, Rachmaninoff
A kind of gipsy-music or orientalism is found in it, not unlike the orientalism of Balakirev, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov - composers venerated by the St Petersburg Conservatoire. Rachmaninoff had written a stipulated one-act opera for his graduation exercise - Aleko, a story of gipsy life. After a close - the motto murmuring - the development begins as does that of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, The Pathetique: with a loud crash on brass and percussion. Here is the Tchaikovsky.
Cue: Diminuendo and Outset of 1st Movt Development of Sixth Symphony in B Minor, Tchaikovsky.
And, for the last of these brief cues, here is the Rachmaninoff:
Cue: Diminuendo and Outset of Development, Rachmaninoff
A trumpet-shriek - the motto theme in an instant! The divided strings launch into a fugato based on it. Their lack of support elsewhere makes keeping their pitch tricky.
More is brewing, with vindictive fanfare- and plainchant-like brass twitted by high woodwind, even as the motto sounds underneath on horns. The strings reassert themselves: in crashes a variant of the motto, with new, perhaps ‘perverse’ brass chords of real keenness - piccolo - and in some performances, glockenspiel -tingling atop what seem like deepbells. The trumpets answer trombones and horns in antiphon. Sublimity! Yet the effect of an upward pressure narrows the harmonic scope of the fanfare, if not the melodic.. It is an intensely personal, memorable transformation, terse and ringing, swaying between feelings of major and minor. The music moves on as the strings take the theme over, returning it to its striving first subject shape.
A diminuendo. All seems indistinct, misty - and clears as the second-subject comes in on flute. It is now possible to hear this theme as a feminized development of the first subject; its deeply appoggiatura-ed hesitancy and ultimate fervour, and, at last, rich scoring remain moving in this reprise. The episode of misty indistinctness heard earlier is altered to be like the swing of the tide, rocking. The brass - gapped chords moving up the scale - presage the close of the movement. Building up to a savage end derived from what went before it, dovetailing, canons and imitations between the sections of the orchestra now rend reticence to bits. Derived from the first and second subject and the upward scale that accompanies the first subject, the final cadence, several lashing blows of Fate or impatience, is masterful.
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme is devoted to one piece, the Symphony in D Minor by Rachmaninoff. What hectored critics missed at the premiere was that the ‘perversity’ they perceived is a source of great expressive power. They reacted against the music’s commandingness, its organization, its aesthetic consistency and yet originality. The orchestral parts survived, mostly complete, and were exhumed from the Leningrad Conservatoire archives in 1944. The Symphony was performed in a typical Soviet volte-face the following year: the performance of Rachmaninoff’s works in the Soviet Union had been banned a while after his escape from Revolutionary Russia. A celebrity world--wide, he had made no secret, everywhere he went, of his hatred of the crimes of Bolshevism. He had died in Beverly Hills the previous year, and the discovery proved that he belonged to Soviet Russia after all... Rachmaninoff, who’d suffered from crippling nostalgia for his country, would not have liked the irony.
That quotation, Vengeance is mine (saith the Lord) I will repay. Rachmaninoff meant it to be a reference to Anna Karenina - the verse is quoted in the novel, apparently - but also to a lately-concluded affair with a married lady of gipsy blood! The piece was dedicated to her - A.L. - Anna Alexandrovna Lodizhenskaya.
Beginning with the motto-theme made douce, a simple, telling transformation in context, The second movement is an intermezzo rather than scherzo, mostly lightly scored. It seems like woodland music, darting, as if breeze-blown among birch-trees - delicate with woodland flowers, the viola at times wry in solos less airy than the flute’s. It is a hypersensitive mood-piece, a fantasy of alternate tensions on derivatives of first movement material. There are harsh, driven moments on brass and lower strings, the first movement’s snarl and motto-theme never distant. Where the music is brightest, most fine--spun, where it suggests sweetness or the slightest shade or fragrance, is perhaps where Anna is found and dwelt on. Glazunov made a cut in this movement for the premiere.
After the viola’s nervy solo, the dark elements rise - only to be partly soothed and brought back to the mercurial mood and music of the opening. Contrarities die out at last in the motto and semitonal oscillation.
Track Two: ll Allegro Animato.Another movement of kaleidoscopic orchestration, the third movement is a beautifully-scored love song with lyrical woodwind solos and delicate touches of appoggiatura from the violins and violas. It begins with the fate-motif and develops the Symphony’s first and second subjects. Beauty is interrupted by a passage of savage foreboding in the bass of the orchestra, symbolizing jealousy with the Dies Irae, perhaps. The viola picks up the song where it left off, and real passion - and hypersensitivity - return to the music, building through repetition and counterpointing of the two tunes of the first movement, the masculine first subject smearing the outline of the feminine second. These processes are the structure of this music. Appoggiatura in lower strings and horn-tone seem either to soothe or to increase pain. The music dies away overshadowed by a rocking alternation of tones on clarinet. Dies Irae tells us that the day of judgement is near.
Track Three: lll Larghetto
The last movement is lashed by brass and percussion into beginning proudly, with dotted-note fanfares. The first subject of the symphony returns, triumphant and sinister. It is continued by a zigeuner-like insistence on rhythm in the cellos and double-basses in particular - the horn adds foreboding. This music was written years before Stravinsky’s percussive, motoric but rhythmically disruptive style became fashionable. The feminine second subject sweeps one on, now, with Tchaikovskian swelling horns in canon, and castanets imitated by tambourine. Hectoring brass breaks in with the motto fanfares; a diminuendo brings in the oboe in Anna’s theme. It is taken up with an accompaniment of nervous quivering in the strings - time is running out. The deep strings add a swell to the yearning - the horn still doesn’t achieve more than pathos - the gipsy-dance moments drop in exhaustion. A lulling episode is followed by a bass-led revivification of the gaunt fate-music, with its odd rhythms and ruthlessness more marked, the violas characteristically dry and wiry in tone.
The sweep of the movement continues -down, the obsessive motto brushing aside gipsy tambourine, growing ever more frenetic yet apt to its context, and now, we’re at the ferocious climax of the entire Symphony, repeated whiplash phrases of the first subject or motto-theme continuation more and more short, sharp and frantic, reaching the listener’s breaking point, which comes soon enough, with the finality of drums and tam-tam, the motto-theme sombre in slow deep waves that return us to an image of the tide, one bleak stretch of coast; then, like a tidal wave that one has not seen in its rising, but turns to as it topples - or the wave that one has waited for and now throws oneself into - that last terrifying conflict, a downward chromatic scale pitted against, and out of step with, an upward, and broken thematic phrases in addition, the violins divided, sounding their own semitonal clash, screaming their way down on and through those upward, harmonized sequences of chromatic brass and other interjections until the alto and deeper instruments harmonizes in the downward scale, the violins still out of step - bearing down on everything. The scale ends in a two-fold downward sequence derived from a four-note element of the second - feminine - subject, semitone-minor-third-semitone; in fact, the whole climax is an immense development of the feminine subject against first subject upward scale and Dies Irae. Curiously there is an echo of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in there.
We are left with reiteration of the opening of the motto-theme - altered subtlely from its other appearances - and at first with a response-phrase reminiscent of Dies Irae. The procession is accompanied by regularly spaced drum-beats and crashes from the tam-tam, until, after five repetitions in the major, the movement is brought to a dead stop, by two identical, thudded chords. Anna Karenina dies by suicide - throwing herself under the wheels of a railway-engine. Here, antedating musique mechanique by about thirty years, Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony ends by appearing to evoke just such a death - one is left with the blind, remorseless force of steam driving tons of steel.
Track Four: lV Allegro Con Fuoco
Glazunov’s fluent, ingratiating First Symphony had been premiered when he had been sixteen. It had been a triumph. At the premiere of his First Symphony, the twenty-four year-old Rachmaninoff left the hall to pace outside, wringing his hands at the terrible discords he heard. Had he truly written these sounds? Of course, he most probably had written many of them - calculated them ruthlessly, as contrapuntal clashes and as-logical harmonic progressions.
The critique that headed our programme - was by Cesar Cui, the least talented of the Mogoyucha Kuchka or ‘Mighty Handful’ of great St Petersburg composers - Balakirev, Borodin, Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov having been the others. Regarding themselves as the Pan-Slavist torch-bearers for Russian music, they had been rivals to the ‘westernizing’ Nicolai Rubenstein/Tchaikovsky axis in Moscow. Years previously, Rimsky--Korsakov had groomed Glazunov for stardom...Rachmaninoff had been groomed by Zverev, Arensky and Taneiev, the first two figures Tchaikovskians, the last an expert in Flemish polyphony whose counterpoint-classes had taught Rachmaninoff a great deal. In Rachmaninoff’s last major work, the Symphonic Dances, there is a moment where the first subject of his First Symphony rises almost as if from the grave, shining and beautiful: and the late work - from nearly fifty years on - builds on the quotation of an Easter chant in its later stages.
Cue from Symphonic Dances, l Non Allegro, Rachmaninoff
Resurrection came, beyond the imagining of the critics of that first performance - or the conscious hopes of Rachmaninoff, himself, who had the misfortune to be a young man caught between old factions fighting for influence over the future of Russian music, the death of Tchaikovsky having left everything to play for! Pace Mister Cui, it is possible not to be an inhabitant of Hell and yet see the critic as a brilliantly perceptive bigot: his descriptions of the symphony apt so long as one discounts his aesthetic, which leads him to enumerate strengths as weaknesses! You’ve been listening to Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will join us again soon. Goodbye!