Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 into a family of wealthy Russian landowners. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory at age nineteen with a gold medal in composition, having already made a name for himself with his first piano concerto and the set of preludes which included the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor. In the next few years he toured as a pianist and by 1897 had begun to conduct as well. He composed his first symphony in 1895 but it was not premiered publicly until 1897. By then he was so well-known that the performance took place on a prestigious concert series in the Moscow Conservatory under Alexander Glazunov, himself a composer of some note and later director of the Conservatory.
The premiere was a disaster, for many known reasons and probably some still unknown. The concert was ill-prepared, partly because there were two other new compositions on the program and partly because of the very inept conducting of Glazunov. Rumors surfaced that Glazunov had been inebriated at the performance, a possibility reported later by his then-student Dimitri Shostakovich, that Glazunov kept a bottle of vodka in his desk drawer and sipped on it during composition lessons with his students. Whatever the causes, the critics dug their claws in. The most quoted is from fellow composer César Cui, who among other epithets declared that, “If there were a conservatory in Hell and if one of the students were given an assignment to compose a programmatic symphony on the theme of ‘The Seven Plagues of Egypt’ and composed a symphony like Rachmaninoff’s he would have fulfilled the assignment brilliantly and thrilled the inhabitants of Hell.” Other critics echoed the sentiment but also criticized Glazunov’s sloppy conducting. Rachmaninoff himself felt that Glazunov had let him down, but also expressed some self-doubts about his symphony, and declined to have it published. After a few months he slipped into a profound depression that lasted nearly three years. During this time he did not compose at all, and only recovered after being convinced to consult a hypno-therapist named Nikolai Dahl. When Rachmaninoff and his family fled Russia during the 1917 Revolution the score was left behind. It disappeared, but a two-piano arrangement and a set of orchestral parts were later found. A score was reconstructed from the parts, and a second, very successful, performance took place at the Moscow Conservatory.
The symphony is in four movements following a standard pattern of fast-minuet/scherzo-slow-fast finale. A distinctive turn motive begins each movement and the Dies Irae (chant for the dead) is at least alluded to in each movement. The first movement has traces of Tchaikovsky but also looks forward to Shostakovich. The so-called ‘gypsy’ scale with two augmented seconds is featured extensively. The second movement is a quite delicate scherzo. The third slow movement exhibits the broad lyricism for which Rachmaninoff would become known. The last movement, as the tempo marking indicates, is fiery and angry. The Dies Irae theme is almost fully quoted, and the movement ends with a menacing coda.
Rachmaninoff was an intensely private man who did not much reveal his inner thoughts. He did add a quote at the end of the manuscript, one from the Bible which Tolstoy had also used at the beginning of his novel Anna Karenina: Romans 12:19, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” Suggestions that the music follows the story of the novel have never been proven. This symphony was Rachmaninoff’s first big orchestral work, and of course derives inspiration from his predecessors, such as Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Mussorgsky. Nonetheless, it shows the incredible genius of the works to come.
Rachmaninoff composed the Vocalise as the last of his 14 Songs or Romances, Op. 34, in 1912. The original is for wordless soprano and piano. Rachmaninoff himself arranged it for soprano and orchestra. The evocative and melancholy melody has been transcribed for almost every possible solo instrument, including the theremin. For performers on wind instruments or voice the piece requires a superlative sense of phrasing and excellent breath control.
The 1917 Russian revolution forced Rachmaninoff, his wife, and two daughters to leave Russia, a move which turned out to be permanent. The necessity of earning a living meant that Rachmaninoff spent most of his time doing arduous tours as a solo pianist, so he had very little time to compose. By the 1930s he was able to build a villa on the shore of Lake Lucerne. There he wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini during two summer months of 1934. He played the solo part at the premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski in November the same year. The work was a huge success, recorded within six weeks of the premiere and performed New York and in England soon after.
The theme Rachmaninoff chose had been used for variations by several other composers, notably Brahms and Paganini himself. Niccolo Paganini, 1782-1840, was an Italian violin virtuoso and composer whose astonishing abilities led to rumors that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. The theme is the 24th in a set of Caprices for solo violin, which of course exploited Paganini’s incredible technique.
The Rhapsody begins with a short introduction followed unusually by one variation, before the theme appears intact. The ensuing twenty-three variations present all kinds of virtuosic challenges. The last variation is so difficult that Rachmaninoff himself expressed anxiety about it before the premiere. A friend persuaded him to take a glass of crème de menthe and Rachmaninoff thereafter called the finale the “Crème de Menthe Variation.” The Dies Irae chant appears in Variation VII and again just before the throw-away ending. (Rachmaninoff was not the first to use the chant; Liszt and Berlioz had already done it. In the 20th century Stephen Sondheim quoted it in Sweeney Todd.) By far the most famous variation is XVIII, a serene interlude in D-flat major which cleverly inverts the original theme. As always, Rachmaninoff was reticent about providing information about the piece. However, when the dancer Michel Fokine approached him about collaborating on a ballet, Rachmaninoff suggested the Rhapsody and provided a scenario which roughly followed the story of Paganini, including his pact with the devil. Whatever the provenance of the piece, it has become a much-loved staple concert piece for virtuoso pianists.
Angela Carlson studied flute, piano and harpsichord at the University of Idaho, the University of Wisconsin, the Guildhall School of Music in London, and the Aspen School of Music. She served as opera preview lecturer for the Linn-Benton Opera Guild over two decades and as accompanist for many local and OSU music events during the past forty years. With her husband Marlan she co-founded the Music a la Carte series in the fall of 1969. She currently devotes most of her time to teaching music theory and literature at OSU, and enjoys writing program notes for the Corvallis-OSU Symphony orchestra and serving on the board of Chamber Music Corvallis.