The final concert of the MMF 2019 season is next Saturday. Time flies when you’re having fun!
And what fun the concert will be! Fun is such a nothing word when it comes to describing musical masterpieces, but it is a good word here to describe the joys of both huge works on the program. The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, No 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1 can hardly be called fun in terms of its emotional impact or thematic materials, but fun it is in terms of the delight and awe you will experience upon hearing the amazing idiomatic writing for piano and the virtuosic skill demanded of the soloist throughout the three movements.
The Brahms, Symphony, No 2 in D Major, Op. 73 is fun using any definition of the overused word. Surely, it has its romantic, slow, lyrical movement, and some flashes of hot temperament, but the overall description of the work is well captured by the words joy and fun!
So let me get to some background information about each composer followed by some thoughts on the works at hand.
When Rachmaninoff composed the Piano Concerto that you will hear on Thursday evening, he was a romantic energetic youth of 18. But no, this really is not true! The work you will hear is that of a mature, 46 year old. It is a work revised and rewritten between 1917 and 1919, originally composed in 1891. He performed the premiere in 1892, and it was warmly appreciated as an excellent youthful effort. Life proceeded and “Rach” went on to perform and compose. In 1908 he took a look at the piece and stated that is was then time to
“take my 1st Concerto in hand, look it over and decide how much time and work will be required for its new version…”
And here is the important phrase;
“… and whether it is worth doing…”
He decided that No. 1 would not be heard again until
“… it was in decent shape.”
By this time Rachmaninoff had fame as a virtuoso pianist and was a successful conductor as well as a noted composer. His 2nd Concerto was widely performed from 1901 when he composed it. He had suffered through public disdain, long lasting depressions, and received public adulation. He left his homeland after the 1917 Revolution. After his statement re looking the early work over, he once again laid the piece aside and finally returned to it in 1917.
A few more background facts about the man seem be in order even though they are readily available on hundreds of reliable sites. Knowing a bit about the composer as a person may well add to your understanding of his musical approach. He was born in Novgorod in 1873. The story of his youth tells of a wealthy family soon heavily in debt due to his father’s gambling and sobriety problems. The family lost their properties and moved to St. Petersburg. His sisters died and his father left the family. “Rach” was recognized early on as extremely musically talented. He was enrolled at the prestigious Conservatory in St. Petersburg starting at the age of 10! Remember that Rimsky-Korsakov and others found young Prokofieff a difficult student? Well, Sergei was certainly that as well. He showed enormous talent, but became lazy and failed his exams. He even cheated and changed his report cards. He hated practicing the piano, and longed to compose. Fortunately, he was able to transfer to Moscow at age 15 where he studied composition with Taneyev. You may remember that last year we heard beautiful chamber music by this pupil and close friend of Tchaikovsky's. The young Rachmaninoff had met Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg and they maintained a warm friendship. Life continued to put obstacles in Rachmaninoff’s path or he did so himself. Fast forward: (You obviously can fill in the many blanks by going to Google or a Library and researching his detailed chronological bio) in 1890 he spent a summer in the country where he composed and returned to school to take his piano exams and theory and composition tests early. Just when things seemed to be going well, he again became disenchanted with his life. He had an opera under his belt, several piano pieces, songs, and the first incarnation of the Concerto that you will hear on Saturday evening was almost finished. The work was a hit; a youthful, ebullient, early success. Artistically life was good, but Rach lived beyond his means so he went on to earn a living as a pianist. Tchaikovsky conducted several of his concerts. He performed Tchaikovsky and Chopin and Grieg. They were all his idols. When Tchaikovsky died, Rach fell into despair. He quit a performance tour, and again was living beyond his means. He composed his Symphony No.1 that was very badly received. Glazunov conducted the first performance in 1897. Perhaps he was drunk, or just not interested, and the debut of the work was a nightmare. Worse was the review by Cui, (one of the famous Russian “Mighty Five” along with Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky) who said, the music was:
“…written for the inmates of an asylum in Hell.”
The desolate composer commented that the criticism did not bother him, but:
“I was deeply depressed that my symphony did not please me at all after the first rehearsal.”
His Symphony No. 1 was never played again during his lifetime. He traveled extensively for several years. Once more, and this time for three years, Rach suffered severe depression. He was offered some conducting jobs that he refused. His engagement to the woman who later did become his wife, was broken. Even a series of visits to the great Tolstoy did not encourage him or help him see life in a better perspective. He supported himself giving piano lessons until he was finally cured by hypnotherapy. After he was stable and finding life bearable, he resumed composing. The Piano Concerto No. 2 was his first success after this long hiatus in his composing career. He married in 1902. In 1905 political unrest and the subsequent Revolution seemed to be of little interest to Rachmaninoff. He was aware of the Nationalistic atmosphere that surrounded him and finally took his family to Italy. This trip began years of travel for him and his family, to Germany, Paris, and the USA. He gave many successful concerts conducting his own works and many classics. As soloist, a particularly famous concert was a performance of his Piano Concerto No. 3 written in 1909 that was conducted by Gustav Mahler. This concert and others where he played the 3rd brought him great popularity. He came home to Russia, but finding antisemitism on the rise, he and his family decided to leave once again. When he finally did return, he found his apartment occupied by Social Revolutionary supporters. On the day the 1917 Revolution began in St. Petersburg, he gave a recital in Moscow, and it is said that he finished the rewriting of Piano Concerto No. 1 while gunshots rang out below his flat. He left the bulk of his belongings and earnings in his estate behind and went to Scandinavia. He was determined to support his family and devoted himself to conducting and giving concerts. For some reason he refused permanent offers such a one from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but finally in 1918 he departed for the States where he lived for most of the rest of his life. Crowds of fans surrounded the Sherry Netherlands Hotel in NYC where he stayed upon arrival here in the States. He got an apartment in the city where he maintained a Russian life. All things Russian; food, servants, furnishings, speaking mostly Russian. He longed for his homeland and wrote,
“I left behind my desire to compose, losing my country, I lost myself, also.”
He did travel again and built a home in Switzerland, summered in France in 1939 and ultimately settled in Beverly Hills near his friend and admirer, pianist Vladimir Horowitz. He continued to concertize up to the time of his death, but composed only six works after he fled Russia. One is his Symphony No. 3 and the other is a work inspired by the violinist-composer genius, Paganini. Liszt and Brahms also were inspired by the “Devil Violinist”. Rachmaninoff wrote a major work for piano and orchestra based on the theme of the Italian composer’s Caprices for solo violin. It is his famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. His health failed and he died in California in 1943.
But what of this youthful energetic work, rewritten and now focused and commanding? You shall surely judge for yourselves. Be aware of the strong influence of Tchaikovsky and of Grieg. It is derivative, yet highly personal in its rhapsodic expression of emotions. It is a combination of youthful exuberance now influenced by mature experience. It demands virtuosity at the highest possible level. It calls for an emotional, yet controlled interpretation of unleashed romanticism: all this within a clear formal framework.
In the First Movement, hear the show off passage as it opens with a brass salute and a wonderful gesture of piano chords. This opening passage is Rachmaninoff ringing his beloved Russian bells. Many of his works imitate the pealing of the large church bells that toll in his homeland. Listen for the four note cell that is within the first large melodic theme. It is the basis of the second theme. Both themes are warm and effusive. There is a solo cadenza (music for the soloist often harmonically important and a showcase for the skills of the soloist) that again seems to me to be filled with soundings of the large bells. It is a huge section that dominates the movement and in my opinion is the most important statement in the piece. Rachmaninoff radically revised this opening Vivace. Now enjoy the solo horn and yet another rendition of the four note cell from the First Movement as the gentle Cantabile opens. The peaceful music most surely brings Chopin to mind. Remember his Nocturnes, (pieces of the night) that are gems of melody over broken chords? Notice the chromatic passages and the intriguing harmonic texture.
The Third Movement Allegro vivace is in Sonata-Rondo form. It is a movement filled with changing rhythms. It truly examines the virtuosic possibilities of the piano. It is a highly charged, dramatic, actually, melodramatic section. This is Rachmaninoff at his most flamboyant; an impetuous wild romp of technical skill and dramatic flair. The second theme is lighter, still illuminating the piano timbre. Boldly energetic measures of chords in rapid sequence bring the work to a brilliant close. Isn’t Rachmaninoff’s youthful treasure a magnificent mature masterpiece?
“I shall never write a symphony! You can never know what it is like to hear such a great tramp behind you.”
These were Johannes Brahms words as he struggled to compose his first symphony. Beethoven’s shadow weighed heavy on German composers, for that matter on European composers such as Berlioz, Frank, and Saint-Saëns when it came to composing a symphonic work. Schumann managed four symphonies, and Mendelssohn wrote four mature works in the genre (plus 11 or so string symphonies as a youth). It took Brahms until he was 43 to finally produce his first. He struggled for more than fifteen years to get it right. The good news is that once this initial hurdle was behind him, the second came quite easily. It is this Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op. 73 that you will hear on Saturday evening. Again we find Brahms walking in the countryside, humming melodies that will be the thematic material of his new work. You may recall that he made notes on the window shutters in Baden some years before. Perhaps he did so in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, an Austrian lakeside town in the summer of 1877 as he went about writing the cheerful, bucolic opus. I say bucolic and you may think of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the so called, “Pastoral”. Yes; the mood is joyous and happy, but Brahms is his own man here and comparisons are not really of interest. At least that is my take on the matter. Did Brahms think about his predecessor’s nature inspired work? Probably! By the way here is another bit of trivia to store away for intellectual conversations: Glazunov and Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote “Pastoral” Symphonies. When a good friend of Brahms’ received a copy of the score late in that summer, he played through the work Brahms had just finished and wrote, “It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine, and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach.” Clara Schumann predicted a great reception for the symphony when she read the score that fall. And so indeed the first performance in Vienna on December 30th was a hit. The audience, that snowy winter night, warmed by the melodic reflections of Brahms’ summer vacation, loved the Symphony. The composer was not the Maestro for the premiere, Hans Richter led the Vienna Philharmonic that evening. Brahms conducted the second performance in Leipzig to cheers and cries for encore. His real moment of glory was the reception he received in his home town of Hamburg the following summer. It was heard in NYC that summer as well. For a most interesting history of Brahms Symphonies and their performances in the US, read the article titled, “Playing Brahms in Chicago” by Phillip Huscher. It is readily available online.
Now some guideposts to the work itself. Some comparisons and connections to the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 can be made right off the bat. Not connections concerning mood, or romantic approach, rather, thematic material and instrumentation are the links I hear. As I mentioned earlier, the germ of the thematic interest in the First Movement of the Piano Concerto was a grouping of four notes. Here in the First Movement it is a cell of three notes that the cellos and basses play that introduces us to the theme heard many times in varied statements throughout the piece. Variation is a genre Brahms excelled in writing. Listen to his Variations on a Theme by Haydn for a great example of his skill. The second connection, rather a comparison, is the use of the horns. Brahms loved the timbre of the brass and the woodwinds. He was a master of composition for those instruments. The melodic use of the instruments and the textural filling he wrote for them is exquisite. Brahms introduces the second theme with the horns followed up by the woodwinds. Do you hear a famous Lullaby in the mix of the second theme? Do you recognize the timbre of bassoons? There is a marvelous attention getting passage for the instruments. Do wait for it. A restful third theme is presented. There is a fugal sentence or two that will go past us in the development. The marvelous quiet reprise of the first theme goes to a solo horn heard in the coda. The Adagio non troppo is serious, meditative, but never tragic in my opinion, as some sages have declared. A fascinating effect is the presence of the first two themes at the same time. The cellos go down and the bassoons go up creating a slightly disconcerting moment or two. There is a sense of a hymn here as well. The third theme is a light syncopated one played by the woodwinds. The calm is disturbed by a brief uprising. A storm? After all this is pastoral music, it can be expected. Tranquility is restored.
The Third Movement usually is a Scherzo in classical Symphonic form. But not in this work. Here again a connection can be made to Brahms chamber works and piano pieces. It is an Intermezzo that serves as the movement. It is a genre Brahms really made his own, particularly writing for piano. Schubert is another master of the Intermezzo. Remember the definition; it is an independent piece, light in character in-between two sections of a larger work. The oboe gets the first theme with a pizzicato string accompaniment. There is a look back at the Minuet movements of the Classical period; two contrasting sections follow; trios, one in the spirit of a dance, the other stronger, more emphatic. A last presentation of the main theme closes this Allegretto grazioso third movement. It is all charm. It is so ingratiating that the Viennese audience demanded an encore of the movement at the debut performance of the symphony! The Allegro con spirito finale begins with almost regal restraint only to burst with exuberance a few measures later. There is “Haydnesque” fun and humor here. The orchestra, with woodwinds leading the way, proclaims the thematic materials. What started out as a quiet melody transforms to an energetic theme for tutti orchestra. The coda uses the second theme to form a rousing farewell salute as the Symphony ends on a most joyful high.
To close here is a “fun” (again I use the word from my introductory paragraph way above) quote from the usually serious Brahms found in a note to his publisher concerning his Symphony No. 2. He wrote in November 1877, just before the publication and near future premiere of the ebullient work:
“My symphony is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written something so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.”
Have fun listening to the joy in this most cheerful music of Johannes Brahms!
What a “grand finale” of a concert! It will be a concert filled with music of deeply felt passions, light joyous emotions, exquisite melody, and intense orchestral textures and color. As the Ira and George Gershwin song, “I Got Rhythm” asks; “Who could ask for anything more?”