Brussels Philharmonic | programme notes: The Early Years

Rachmaninov & Rimsky-Korsakov

programme notes


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade, op. 35 (1888)
Sergei Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, op. 1 (version 1919)

[read also: Rachmaninov Festival]
[read also: Rachmaninov Deconstructed]
[discover also: festival schedule]
[all programme notes]


08.10.2023 FLAGEY

The early years

Rachmaninov had the good fortune to be born in a prosperous and musical family: his paternal grandfather composed songs and salon music after his career as an officer, and his mother gave him his first piano lessons. But as a result of his father’s lavish lifestyle, soon there was very little left of the family’s extensive lands. His parents’ marriage also did not last long, and so the young Rachmaninov moved with his brothers, sisters and mother to a small apartment in Saint Petersburg. As a teenager, he entered the conservatory there, but he lacked the motivation to study.

On the advice of a cousin, the pianist and composer Alexander Siloti, Rachmaninov was sent to Moscow. There, he studied with the renowned but strict piano teacher Nikolai Zverev. The latter’s iron discipline worked wonders. Moreover, through Zverev, Rachmaninov became acquainted with professional musical life in Moscow. Soon thereafter, he was also accepted into Anton Arensky’s harmony class. It soon became obvious that he was extraordinarily talented: in 1888, he graduated with the highest distinction in music theory, and in 1892 he passed his examination in piano and composition a year earlier than expected – a performance that earned him a gold medal.

harbinger of a promising future

Immediately after graduation, Rachmaninov was considered a full-fledged composer. “For him I predict a great future”, Tchaikovsky is said to have exclaimed a few years earlier. After all, Rachmaninov had already composed a number of impressive works. In addition to several songs and works for piano, there was his graduation piece, a one-act opera, Aleko, which was so successful that it was performed immediately at the Bolshoi Theatre. And of course, there was his first Piano Concerto – the work to which Rachmaninov gave the official title of ‘Opus 1’.

Rachmaninov made the first sketches for Piano Concerto No. 1 in the summer of 1890, after he had left Zverev’s piano class to focus on his study of composition. ‘I am writing a piano concerto”, he wrote in March 1891 to his friend Natalya Skalon. "Two movements are finished, and the last one is not yet on paper but has been composed; by the beginning of the summer, I will probably have finished the entire concerto, so that I can spend the summer orchestrating it."

He dedicated the work to his cousin Alexander Siloti and also made an arrangement for two pianos. The first movement had its première on 17 March 1892 at the Moscow Conservatory, with Rachmaninov at the piano. He was not entirely satisfied with his composition. He made various attempts at reworking it, but the success of his second and third piano concertos meant that this initiative was postponed. It was only in 1917 that Rachmaninov found the time for a thorough reworking, in which he refined the orchestration, among other things, and wrote a new cadenza for the opening movement. He also made a few structural adjustments to the finale.

NIKOLAI RIMSKI-KORSAKOV: mastermind of orchestration

“When I had to leave my home and my beloved Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, my family and I were allowed to take only 500 roubles per person, and of all the music I owned, I opted to take only Rimsky’s Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel).”

This short fragment of an interview titled ‘Rachmaninoff is Reminiscent’ that appeared in The Musical Observer on 1 May 1927 makes clear the importance of the legacy of his countryman Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) for Rachmaninov. Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to The Mighty Handful, a group of five composers who strove to develop their own national musical language, with Russian folk music as the main source of inspiration. Apart from Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), all the composers of this group, including Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), César Cui (1835-1918) and Modest Mussorgsky, were autodidacts. Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, was a naval officer by training, until he met Balakirev in 1861; Balakirev encouraged him to use his musical talent. Not even ten years later, he had become a university lecturer in composition and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where his students included Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky.

Although he had produced a relatively small body of work, Rimsky-Korsakov made a great mark on music history. Audiences and his peers far beyond the borders of Russia admired him chiefly for his refined orchestration and his play on musical colours. His highly imaginative symphonic suite Scheherazade, op. 35 became his best-known composition. While composing this work, Rimsky-Korsakov was also putting the finishing touches on Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. Borodin had suddenly succumbed to a heart attack in February 1887, and Rimsky-Korsakov wanted at all costs to finish his mentor’s final masterpiece. In the exotic melodies of this opera one can hear echoes of Scheherazade.

Rimsky-Korsakov based his orchestral suite on the Arabic tales from the One Thousand and One Nights (also known as the Arabian Nights). Convinced that all women would be unfaithful to him, Sultan Schakhriar spent each evening as a wedding night with a new bride, only to murder her afterwards. Until the young Scheherazade was able to deceive him by telling him one exciting story after another for a thousand and one nights, ending each on a cliff-hanger to be continued the following night. The Sultan was gradually cured of his madness, and they lived happily ever after.

Rimsky-Korsakov brought this story fully to life in the music. In the first movement, he introduces the sultan with a self-assured theme in the brass. The violin, often accompanied by the harp, interprets the role of Scheherazade. Her voice returns as a golden thread throughout the entire work. The lively sound of the wild waves on the sea are remarkable, represented by a rising and falling accompaniment in the cellos and the intense roll of the timpani. In the first edition of the score, Rimsky-Korsakov included fragments of the story, but he soon did away with them when he noticed that the audience and the press were slavishly following them: “These references were intended purely to stimulate the listener’s imagination. [...] All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other."