ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV, S.: Symphony No. 3 / Symphonic Dances (Detroit Symphony, Slatkin)
Completed in 1936, two years after the hugely popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony was considered by the composer to be one of his finest works. Both this and the Symphonic Dances, his last work, offer a summation of his late style in blending intense rhythmic energy with rich romanticism. Leonard Slatkin and the DSO’s recording of the Second Symphony (8.572458) was hailed by BBC Music Magazine as “a performance warmed by musicians who clearly love this symphony”.
By Grego Applegate Edwards
Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 44 • Symphonic Dances, Op 45
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was among those Russian composers who chose exile, rather than remain in Russia after the Revolution of 1917. He was born at Semyonovo in 1873 into a family of strong military traditions on his mother’s side and more remotely on his father’s. A tendency to extravagance had depleted his father’s fortunes and made it necessary to sell off much of their land, while dissipating his wife’s dowry. As a result of this, Rachmaninov’s childhood was largely spent at the one remaining family estate at Oneg, near Novgorod. The reduction in family circumstances had at least one happier result. When it became necessary to sell this estate and move to St Petersburg, the expense of educating the boy for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could make use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine with a scholarship.
Showing no particular industry as a student and lacking the attention he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed all his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from her husband and responsible for her son’s welfare, arranged, on the advice of her kinsman, the well known pianist Alexander Ziloti, that her son should move to Moscow to study with Zverev, a teacher known to impose the strictest discipline. In Zverev’s house, however uncongenial the rigorous routine, he acquired much of his phenomenal ability as a pianist, while broadening his musical understanding by attending concerts in the city. At the age of fifteen he became a pupil of Zverev’s former student Ziloti, a musician who had also studied with Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rubinstein and, thereafter, with Liszt. Rachmaninov had lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev and Arensky, and his growing interest in composition led to a quarrel with Zverev and removal to the house of his relations, the Satins.
In 1891 Rachmaninov completed his piano studies at the Conservatory and the composition of his First Piano Concerto. The following year he graduated from the composition class. His early career brought initial success as a composer, halted by the failure of his First Symphony at its first performance in 1897, when it was conducted badly by Glazunov, apparently drunk at the time, and then reviewed in the cruellest terms by César Cui, who described it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, accepting an engagement in this capacity with Mamontov’s Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He was only able to return to composition after a course of treatment with Dr Nikolay Dahl, a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. The immediate result was the second of his four piano concertos, a work that has proved to be one of the most immediately popular of all he wrote.
The years before the Russian revolution brought continued successful activity as a composer and as a conductor. In 1902 Rachmaninov married Natalya Satina and went on to pursue a career that was bringing him increasing international fame. There were journeys abroad and a busy professional life, from which summer holidays at the estate of Ivanovka, which he finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, provided respite. During the war, however depressing the circumstances, he continued his concert engagements, not being required for military service, as he had anticipated. All this was interrupted by the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of the Revolution.
Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. From then until his death in Beverley Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largely on performance for a living. Now there was, in consequence, much less time for composition, as he undertook demanding concert-tours, during which he dazzled audiences in Europe and America with his remarkable powers as a pianist. His house at Ivanovka was destroyed in the Russian civil war and in 1931 his music was banned in Russia, to be permitted once again two years later. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrative concert-tours, but established a music publishing-house in Paris and built for himself a villa near Lucerne, where he completed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe, to spend his final years in the United States.
It was at his new villa at Senar in 1935 that Rachmaninov found time to start work on his Third Symphony, completing the first version the following summer. The first performance was given in America in June 1936 by Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra and it was also heard elsewhere, although its reception was less satisfactory than that accorded to the Paganini Rhapsody, which was now providing the score for a new ballet by Fokin. Rachmaninov made various revisions to the score in the following years.
The symphony starts with a distant Russian motto theme, played pianissimo by a muted solo cello, horn and two clarinets, followed by a more emphatic outburst from the orchestra. The first subject, which has still further importance in the central development of the first movement is announced by oboes and bassoons, a theme characteristic of the composer in its lyrical implications, an element still more evident in the second subject, introduced by the cellos and suggesting to some an American folk-song, much as the slow movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto had brought a less desirable resemblance. The motto theme, which has had its part to play in the development, returns to preface the recapitulation, with prominence now given to the second subject. The motto theme brings the movement to a close. In the second movement Rachmaninov follows the precedent of the concertos in which he had included a scherzo in the slow movement. The French horn introduces the motto theme, with the accompaniment of the harp, before the entry of a solo violin, to be joined by the other violins, as the thematic material is developed. A solo flute suggests a second subject and the movement moves on to the jaunty and emphatic rhythms of a colourful Allegro vivace, framed by a return of the original material of the movement. The symphony ends with a movement of some variety, opening with a flourish and containing concealed references to the Dies irae and a related fugal section. It is the Dies irae theme that starts the recapitulation and assumes further importance as the symphony draws to a brilliant and optimistic close.
The Symphonic Dances were written towards the end of Rachmaninov’s career, in the autumn of 1940, after a summer spent at an estate on Long Island. He had the idea that they might be used for a new ballet by his friend Fokin, but the latter’s death in 1942 put an end to that. The three movements of the Symphonic Dances form in themselves what is virtually a symphony. The opening dance, which may remind us of elements in Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet, has an intense melody for alto saxophone in its central section, and includes a closing reference to the disastrous First Symphony. Rachmaninov had intended the first dance to represent Mid-day. The second was Twilight, and the third Midnight. Certainly Twilight brings its ghosts, figures in some haunted waltz, while Midnight struggles between Death, represented by the Dies irae of the Catholic sequence for the dead, and the triumphant Allelujah from the Russian liturgy, with which this, the composer’s last work, ends.
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