MasterWorks 05: Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 3
The season finale opens with a piece by LSO Composer-In-Residence and a Piano Concerto featuring Gilmore Young Artist, Harmony Zhu. We close our 94th season with the sonorous and romantic Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor. For those who know the Second Symphony, this symphony delivers that and more in a slightly more compact package featuring only three movements, a format Rachmaninoff adopted from his successful Piano Concerti. Rachmaninoff was a unique voice of the Romantic Era with diverse orchestral colors, emotional depth, and a broad expressive palate.
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major K. 488
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
Duration: 40 minutes
“Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic. Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.” That was Igor Stravinsky’s summation of his fellow Russian. He had a contradictory compliment as well: “He was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. This is a great deal.”
In spite of his demeanor, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a commanding presence in the music world as a virtuoso pianist, conductor, and composer. As the first half of the twentieth century grappled with modernism in all of its forms, Rachmaninoff remained an unrepentant romantic. “I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new,” he said. “I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.”
Rachmaninoff began his Third Symphony in the summer of 1935. It was not easy going. He wrote to his friend Vladimir Wilshaw: "My health has been wretched. I’m breaking up rapidly! When I had health – I possessed extraordinary laziness; as that begins to disappear—all I can think of is work. . . . Rebirth can’t be expected in old age! Thus, to increase the total of my activity is now difficult. This means that in my lifetime I have not done all I could have done, and this realization will not make my remaining days happy."
Another year of concertizing interrupted his work on the symphony. Still, he managed to complete it the following summer. Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered it in November 1936. Critics were not encouraging: “No, the critics are not helpful. When my first symphony was played, they said that it was so-so. Then when my second was played they said the first was good, but that the second was so-so. Now that my third has been played – just this fall – they say my first and second are good but that my – oh, well, you see how it is.” Rachmaninoff was discouraged. He wrote to his secretary, “Since I began a record of those who love this work, I have turned down three fingers. Its second lover is the violinist Busch, and the third – excuse me – is I! When I run out of fingers on both hands, I’ll give up counting! Only – when will this be?”
The symphony is in three movements. The first begins very quietly and then suddenly explodes as the orchestra plays an extended theme starting like an Orthodox chant and ending with flash and dash. It gives way to a second melody, first played by the cellos, full of ache and nostalgia. The rest of the movement explores and develops both themes. The second movement is actually two combined. The slower outer sections are pure, constant melody. The music expands and eventually weaves its way into a faster central section that starts as a scherzo and ends as a march. The melodic material for the last movement comes from the first movement, again with a contrast between a driving dance-like rhythm and soaring melody. Ever the pessimist, Rachmaninoff injects a snippet of the Dies Irae, a sung prayer from the Mass for the Dead (and something of a signature tune for him) into the proceedings. It turns out it has been hiding in the main theme all along.
©2023 John P. VarineauProgram notes by John Varineau