Program Notes: Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto

Program Notes: Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto

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Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born: April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, near Novgorod, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 1

Rachmaninoff was an 18-year-old student of piano and composition when he completed the first version of this concerto in 1891. But in 1917 he reworked it, tightening the design, making the textures more transparent and the piano writing less cumbersome. Thus, in spite of the “Opus 1” designation, this is not an apprentice work. In its final form, though it uses material invented by a prodigiously gifted teenager, it is a composition by a man of 44, a musician of fully achieved maturity.

Rachmaninoff’s first important teacher was Nikolai Sergeyevich Zverev, who ran a sort of pianists’ hothouse in his Moscow apartment. Rachmaninoff stretched his horizons by taking some lessons with his cousin Alexander Siloti; as he became increasingly interested in writing music, he studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory. The completion of the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the tone poem Prince Rostislav, also in 1891, made it clear that the young man had a future as a composer.

Rachmaninoff wrote prolifically during the next few years, completing, among many other works, the Symphony No. 1. The brutal reception accorded that work in 1897, when it was horrendously conducted by Alexander Glazunov at its premiere, threatened to silence Rachmaninoff for good, but after a long course of psychotherapy and hypnosis with a wonderfully empathetic physician, the composer could once again face the sight of blank manuscript paper.

By 1917, when he wrote the version of the Concerto No. 1 we hear today, Rachmaninoff had composed another symphony, two concertos, major choral works and a treasury of piano pieces and songs. He had made a reputation as one of the great pianists of the day and was regarded as a conductor of front-ranking importance. The revision of the Concerto No. 1 was the last compositional task Rachmaninoff undertook before leaving Russia in the aftermath of the Revolution.

He went to the United States, lived in Switzerland for a time, then returned to America. He composed less, and, except for the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with less immediate success— although his later works, notably the Symphony No. 3 and the Symphonic Dances, have come to be highly regarded. To support his family, he became a pianist nearly full-time, but except for occasional performances of his own works he gave up conducting, even though he had been offered permanent posts with the Boston and Cincinnati symphonies soon after his arrival here.

The Most exciting Opening Of All

Rachmaninoff certainly knew how to find arresting beginnings for his works for piano and orchestra: the solemn series of sonorous piano chords that lead to the entry of the orchestra in the Second Concerto; in the Third, a haunting chant, presented with utter simplicity; the firestorm orchestral crescendo in No. 4; the diabolic spring-loaded mechanism that sets the Paganini Rhapsody in motion.

vivace. The Concerto No. 1 has the most exciting opening of all, a stern fanfare for the brass introducing the soloist in a cascade of double octaves, crashing chords and tumbling arpeggios. If we want to look for models, we could say that here is the opening of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Grieg’s, but raised to the nth power in exuberant post-Lisztian virtuosity and flamboyance. The tempo slows to moderato, and the violins introduce an intense melody instantly recognizable as Rachmaninoff and soon taken up by the piano. A second theme is more capricious. The brass fanfare returns near the end of the movement to announce a grand cadenza.

andante. The second movement is a lovely nocturne, almost startlingly brief, and beautifully scored both for the piano and the orchestra. Like the first movement, the finale is based on two contrasting themes. The big departure here is a sweetly melancholic episode in the middle of the movement, set apart from its surroundings not only in mood but harmonically.

allegro vivace. In the finales of his Second and Third concertos, Rachmaninoff creates an exciting climax by bringing back the lyric second theme in a huge apotheosis. That was his original plan in this concerto, too, but in the leaner 1917 revision he resists the temptation to repeat himself; instead, the pianist seizes the reins and leads the music to a barn-burner of a conclusion.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, triangle and strings

Excerpted from a program note by the late Michael Steinberg; used with permission.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich
Born: September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died: August 9, 1975, Moscow

Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Opus 65

After the gigantic effort and at least momentary triumph of the Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony, Shostakovich—newly awarded the title of Honored Art Worker and granted a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory in addition to the one he already held in Leningrad—composed a number of songs on texts from Alexander Pushkin, a piano sonata and what turned out to be an unfinished opera on Nikolai Gogol’s The Gamblers.

Then, in the summer of 1943, he settled at the House of Creative Work that the Union of Soviet Composers maintained near Ivanovo, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, and began composing his Eighth Symphony. On September 20 of that year, Radio Moscow announced its completion. It was performed immediately, by Yevgeny Mravinsky, the conductor of Shostakovich’s choice, and upon an important occasion: as part of a Festival of Soviet Music to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union.

Within a year it was heard in the United States and England. It was not badly received—the chronicler of the People’s heroism at the siege of Leningrad had too much credit just then—but commentary was respectful, reserved, puzzled, and the work was fairly quickly lost from view. When the Eighth was remembered again, it was in an unhappy context: in January 1948, when Andrei Zhdanov of the Central Committee of the Communist Party was promulgating resolutions on the proper conduct of music and musicians, this work was singled out for special attack.

Zhdanov was a master at playing on mutual antagonisms and jealousies among artists, and the nastiest assault on the Eighth Symphony was delivered by another composer, Vladimir Zakharov. He began by declaring that “our symphonists have put up an iron curtain [!]...between the People and themselves....These composers are alien and completely incomprehensible to our Soviet People....There are still discussions around the question whether the Eighth is good or bad. Such a discussion is nonsense. From the point of view of the People, the Eighth is not a musical work at all; it is a ‘composition’ which has nothing whatever to do with art.”

Critics such as Shostakovich’s biographer Ivan Martynov who had praised the Eighth were called to account for their opinions and to revise them. In 1956, however, when there was something of a thaw, Shostakovich actually dared to voice a public lament “that the Eighth Symphony has remained unperformed for many years. In this work there was an attempt to express the emotional experiences of the People, to reflect the terrible tragedy of war. Composed in the summer of 1943, the Eighth Symphony is an echo of that difficult time, and in my opinion quite in the order of things.”

On May 28, 1958, the Central Committee adopted a resolution “rehabilitating” three opera composers who had been brutally drubbed a decade earlier, also noting that “comrades Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Popov, Miaskovsky and others, whose works at times revealed the wrong tendencies, [had been] indiscriminately denounced as the representatives of a formalist anti-People trend.” With that, the Eighth Symphony returned to the repertoire.

An Unconventional Work

Perhaps if Shostakovich had given the Eighth the sort of slam-bang ending he had found for six of his first seven symphonies—the great and long-suppressed No. 4 is the exception—most of this discussion, questioning and acrimony would never have come up. But then nothing in this symphony is conventional, except perhaps the opening, where Shostakovich returns to the striking formula of the Fifth Symphony of 1937: declamatory, quasi-canonic dialogue of low and high strings in sharply dotted rhythms, subsiding into a lyric melody for violins.

How unexpected, though, is the shape of the work as a whole. The first Adagio (which, however, traverses a range of tempi up to an extremely energetic allegro) is itself nearly half the symphony. Next what the critic Daniel Zhitomirsky called a sequence of three marches: a heroic march, a scherzo-march and a funeral march. Then the finale, reserved and brief. Shostakovich articulates all this in a special way by making his last break after the “heroic march,” the last three movements then being played without pause.

A plan like this puzzles us less than it did audiences in the 1940s. That is because we know our Mahler better now. Shostakovich knew him all along: major conductors who held permanent posts in the Soviet Union and others who visited there were Mahlerians, long before it was trendy. Mahler’s symphonies are one adventure after another in rethinking symphonic design, with only the First (in its revised version) and the Sixth built according to familiar four-movement schemes. Such Mahlerian ideas as a first movement hugely larger than any other (Symphony No. 3), linked pairs or groups of movements (No. 5), a series of character pieces in the middle of a symphony (Nos. 2 and 7), a finale surprisingly gentle and modest after what has gone before (No. 4)—all these have left their mark on the Shostakovich Eighth.

A Sound Hard-Edged and Lean

Something that is all Shostakovich’s own is the sound, and the beginnings of that personal palette are already present in the Symphony No. 1, which he wrote at 19. Here in No. 8, he uses a normal large orchestra and, like Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, writes for it with the knack of making it seem much larger than it is. He divides his orchestra into clearly defined blocks, and any one sonority is likely to dominate for a substantial amount of time, whether it is a tutti of a particular coloration, an accompanied solo or one of his eccentric combinations (there is much play with these in the second movement, with its shrilling piccolos and E-flat clarinet). It is a sound that is hard-edged and lean rather than lush, tending more toward high treble and low bass than into the middle. Much of this, too, Shostakovich learned from Mahler, but the result is quite individual.

adagio—allegro non troppo. To the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, the opening Adagio was a movement “which, by the power of its human emotion, surpasses everything else created in our time.” It is a masterfully controlled flow of sound, and rich in event: the beautiful, stretched, pianissimo melody with which the first violins enter (and how skillfully Shostakovich uses flute and trumpets briefly to support the melody and its accompaniment at the climax); the second, even more expansive violin melody, now espressivo, and in an enigmatic 5/4 meter over quietly pulsing chords; the first intervention of military music; after the first climax, over bounding strings, the scream of oboes and clarinets; the wonderful English-horn recitative, turning gradually into arioso; and in the coda, the subtly new combinations of ideas from earlier until the last four quiet notes on the trumpet set the music with gentle firmness into its C-major haven.

allegretto. allegro non troppo. One could argue with Zhitomirsky about his characterization of the next two movements as a heroic march and a scherzo-march. The first of these seems grotesque, a parody, and not possibly something genuinely heroic. Nor am I convinced by the third movement as scherzo: I hear a savage, relentless machine. Only Shostakovich could persist so long, longer than anyone else would dare, with such a brutal ostinato. Its most insistent feature, other than the pounding quarter-notes, is again a scream. I think every time of the cellars of the Gestapo and the GPU [Soviet Political Police].

largo. Two great cries pierce the nightmare and open the way to the next slow movement. This is a solemn march indeed, written as a passacaglia, variations over a repeated bass. Shostakovich used this form with great power in a number of other situations, including the Trio No. 2, the Second, Third, Sixth and Tenth string quartets, the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Symphony No. 15. Here, the ten-measure bass, which begins with energy and concludes with a broadly composed-in ritard, is first played by itself in a marvelously-scored decrescendo, and then repeated 11 times. What Shostakovich achieves in the seventh and last variations with his combination of flutter- tongued flutes and muted, plucked strings is one of the eeriest moments in all orchestral music.

allegretto. Then, quietly, as though it were no feat at all, the clarinets lift the music from G-sharp minor into C major. The finale has begun.

Shostakovich had made his public and militant victory statement in the Leningrad Symphony. To know only the Shostakovich of the most famous symphonies and concertos is to know him very incompletely: the private Shostakovich of the chamber music, particularly the 15 string quartets, travels in worlds of which the big orchestral works scarcely dream.

This finale gives some hint of what that world is like. The war music, the scream, intervene once more. But before and after, this is music of timidly awakening life. Shostakovich offered to put it into words: “Life is beautiful. All that is dark and ignominious will disappear. All that is beautiful will triumph.”

An expectation to be at best timorously entertained, as he knew better than most. He was charged with having written a gloomy symphony. But in those last pages, so spacious in the way they draw breath, so lovely in sound, with the memory of tragedy still present in the hushed dissonances, there is firmness, acceptance, serenity. Perhaps even something of hope.

Instrumentation: 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tamtam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

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