Born April 1, 1873 in Oneg (near Novgorod), Russia;
died March 28, 1943 in Beverly Hills, California.
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2 IN C MINOR, OP. 18
- First performed on October 14, 1901 in Moscow, conducted by Alexander Siloti with the composer as soloist.
- First performed by the Des Moines Symphony on January 16, 1949 with Eugene List as soloist and Frank Noyes conducting. Nine subsequent performances occurred, most recently on November 19 & 20, 2016 with Lise de la Salle as soloist and Joseph Giunta conducting.
(Duration: ca. 33 minutes)
When he was old and as mellow as he would ever get, Rachmaninoff wrote these words about his early years: “Although I had to fight for recognition, as most younger men must, although I have experienced all the troubles and sorrow which precede success, and although I know how important it is for an artist to be spared such troubles, I realize, when I look back on my early life, that it was enjoyable, in spite of all its vexations and bitterness.” The greatest “bitterness” of Rachmaninoff’s career was the total failure of his Symphony No. 1 at its premiere in 1897, a traumatic disappointment that thrust him into such depression that he suffered a complete nervous collapse.
An aunt of Rachmaninoff, Varvara Satina, had recently been successfully treated for an emotional disturbance by a certain Dr. Nicholas Dahl, a Moscow physician who was familiar with the latest psychiatric discoveries in France and Vienna, and it was arranged that Rachmaninoff should visit him. Years later, in his memoirs, the composer recalled the malady and the treatment: “[Following the performance of the First Symphony,] something within me snapped. A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent on a couch sighing over my ruined life. My only occupation consisted in giving a few piano lessons to keep myself alive.” For more than a year, Rachmaninoff’s condition persisted. He began his daily visits to Dr. Dahl in January 1900. “My relatives had informed Dr. Dahl that he must by all means cure me of my apathetic condition and bring about such results that I would again be able to compose. Dahl had inquired what kind of composition was desired of me, and he was informed ‘a concerto for pianoforte.’ In consequence, I heard repeated, day after day, the same hypnotic formula, as I lay half somnolent in an armchair in Dr. Dahl’s consulting room: ‘You will start to compose a concerto — You will work with the greatest of ease — The composition will be of excellent quality.’ Always it was the same, without interruption.... Although it may seem impossible to believe,” Rachmaninoff continued, “this treatment really helped me. I started to compose again at the beginning of the summer.” In gratitude, he dedicated the new Concerto to Dr. Dahl.
The C Minor Concerto begins with eight bell-tone chords from the solo piano that herald the surging main theme, announced by the strings. A climax is achieved before a sudden drop in intensity makes way for the arching second theme, initiated by the soloist. The development, concerned largely with the first theme, is propelled by a martial rhythm that continues with undiminished energy into the recapitulation. The second theme returns in the horn before the martial mood is re-established to close the movement. The Adagio is a long-limbed nocturne with a running commentary of sweeping figurations from the piano. The finale resumes the marching rhythmic motion of the first movement with its introduction and bold main theme. Standing in bold relief to this vigorous music is the lyrical second theme, one of the best-loved melodies in the orchestral literature, a grand inspiration in the fullest Romantic tradition. These two themes, the martial and the romantic, alternate for the remainder of the movement. The coda rises through a finely crafted line of mounting tension to bring this work to an electrifying close.
The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals and the usual strings.
SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN E MINOR, OP. 27
- First performed on January 26, 1908 in St. Petersburg, conducted by the composer.
- First performed by the Des Moines Symphony on May 7, 1950 with Frank Noyes conducting. Four subsequent performances occurred, most recently on September 14 & 15, 2013 with Joseph Giunta conducting.
(Duration: ca. 60 minutes)
Early in 1906, Rachmaninoff decided to sweep away the rapidly accumulating obligations of conducting, concertizing and socializing that cluttered his life in Moscow in order to find some quiet place in which to devote himself to composition. His determination may have been strengthened by the political unrest beginning to rumble under the foundations of the aristocratic Russian political system. The uprising of 1905 was among the first signs of trouble for those of his noble class (his eventual move to the United States was a direct result of the swallowing of his family’s estate and resources by the 1917 Revolution), and he probably thought it a good time to start looking for a quiet haven.
A few years before, Rachmaninoff had been overwhelmed by an inspired performance of Die Meistersinger he heard at the Dresden Opera. The memory of that evening and the aura of dignity and repose exuded by the city had remained with him, and Dresden, at that time in his life, seemed like a good place to be. The atmosphere in Dresden was so conducive to composition that within a few months of his arrival he was working on the Second Symphony, First Piano Sonata, Op. 6 Russian Folksongs and symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead. The Second Symphony was unanimously cheered when it was premiered under the composer’s direction in St. Petersburg on January 26, 1908.
The majestic scale of the Symphony is established at the outset by a slow, brooding introduction. A smooth transition to a faster tempo signals the arrival of the main theme, an extended and quickened transformation of the basses’ opening motive. The expressive second theme enters in the woodwinds. The development deals with the vigorous main theme to such an extent that the beginning of the formal recapitulation is engulfed by its surging sweep. The second movement is the most nimble essay to be found in Rachmaninoff’s orchestral works. After two preparatory measures, the horns hurl forth the main theme, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), the ancient chant from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead that haunted the composer for many years. The vital nature of the music, however, does not support any morbid interpretation. Eventually, the rhythmic bustle is suppressed and finally silenced to make way for the movement’s central section, whose skipping lines embody some of Rachmaninoff’s best fugal writing.
The rapturous Adagio is music of heightened passion that resembles nothing so much as an ecstatic operatic love scene. Alternating with the joyous principal melody is an important theme from the first movement, heard prominently in the central portion and the coda of this movement. The finale bursts forth in the whirling dance rhythm of an Italian tarantella. The propulsive urgency subsides to allow another of Rachmaninoff’s wonderful, sweeping melodic inspirations to enter. A development of the tarantella motives follows, into which are embroidered thematic reminiscences from each of the three preceding movements. The several elements of the finale are gathered together in the closing pages.
The score calls for piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, glockenspiel and the usual strings.