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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV, S.: Isle of the Dead (The) / Symphony No. 1 (Detroit Symphony, Slatkin)
After the disastrous failure of its première in 1897, Rachmaninov’s youthfully exuberant Symphony No 1 had to wait until after his death before it was reconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts and performed again, in Moscow in 1945. Since then it has taken its rightful place as one of the great Russian symphonic works of the late nineteenth century. The Isle of the Dead, Op 29 is a vivid and powerful symphonic poem based on a well-known nineteenth-century painting by the Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin.
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
The Isle of the Dead, Op 29 • Symphony No 1 in D minor, Op 13
Sergey 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, the childhood of Rachmaninov 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failed all his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn.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 Sergey 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. Belyayev arranged for it to be heard at a Russian Symphony Concert in St Petersburg in 1897, when it received a largely hostile reception. Rachmaninov found the experience humiliating, presuming that a better performance might have earned the work more favour. He withdrew it immediately and it was not performed again in his lifetime.
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.
Rachmaninov wrote his Symphony No 1 in D minor, his second attempt at the form, in 1895. The score was lost, but in 1945 was reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts.
The second of the three elements that make up the short slow introduction to the first movement provides a source for the first subject, heard initially from the clarinet, while the second subject is introduced first by the oboe. There is a central development that starts in fine contrapuntal style and the thematic material duly returns in varied recapitulation, with its recurrent use of the rhythmic figure with which the symphony had started. This suggests the opening of the second movement, with a following element derived from the second subject of the first movement and a principal theme drawn from its first subject. This scherzo is followed by a perhaps overextended slow movement that starts with the same motto figure from muted violas and brings in a derivative of the second subject of the first movement. The now familiar introductory figure starts the final Allegro con fuoco extended in a dotted rhythmic figure, the trumpets then ushering in a Marciale passage, its theme derived from the second element of the opening of the symphony, always accompanied by the trumpet fanfares. The first material returns, to be superseded by a theme derived in rhythm from the second subject of the first movement. The violins introduce a subsidiary theme worthy of the Second Symphony and there is a passage of tranquillity at the heart of the movement, before the return of the opening theme and a return to the vigour with which the movement had started. This breaks off in the final pages, with a concluding return to the ominous rhythmic figure with which the symphony had begun.
The second of Rachmaninov’s three symphonies was completed in 1907, followed in 1909 by the symphonic poem Die Toteninsel, The Isle of the Dead. The latter was based on a well-known painting, or rather a black-and-white reproduction of a painting, by the Swiss-German artist Arnold Boecklin, the leading German Romantic painter of the late nineteenth century. The picture shows Charon, the ferryman of the dead of Greek mythology, who rows the dead across the River Styx on their journey to the Underworld and to the crags and cliffs of the ominous Island of the Dead of Boecklin’s imagination.
In the symphonic poem Rachmaninov makes constant use of fragments of the traditional plainchant Dies irae, a hymn that for centuries had formed part of the Catholic Requiem Mass and had inevitable associations with death in the minds of its hearers, associations exploited by Berlioz and Liszt among others in the nineteenth century, and elsewhere by Rachmaninov himself, notably in the popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Here the listener may imagine Charon rowing his boat with its passengers across to the Toteninsel, their arrival provoking a musical climax. As Charon returns to the hither shore, the music subsides once more into the ghostly stillness with which it had begun.
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