Brussels Philharmonic | programme notes: The Romantic Years

Rachmaninov & Tchaikovsky

programme notes


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet: overture-fantasy, TH 42c (final version 1880)
Sergei Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, op. 18 (1901)

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


12.11.2023 FLAGEY

The Romantic years

Writing a first symphony is a symbolic moment for every composer. For Rachmaninov, this event was accompanied by even more pressure after the death of Tchaikovsky in 1893. The public saw him as his great successor. Rachmaninov worked for years on his First Symphony, but the première in 1897 was a disaster: an allegedly intoxicated Alexander Glazunov conducted a pitiful performance, and César Cui called the symphony “an evocation of the seven plagues of Egypt”. Rachmaninov sank into depression and for the next three years did not compose a single note: "A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent on a couch. I had given up in great despair.” But Rachmaninov sought help, and found it with, among others, the neurologist Nikolai Dahl, who helped him out of his writer’s block via hypnosis and numerous conversations. Thus, around the turn of the century, Rachmaninov tried his hand at a Second Piano Concerto. It was an instant success.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: navigating between two worlds

The story of the rival families and impossible love in Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet could be seen as symbolic of Tchaikovsky’s turbulent love life. His style of composition was midway between the Russian tradition and European innovations, and this did not always earn him positive comments. For aficionados of the Russian composers and The Mighty Handful — which included Balakirev — his music did not sufficiently reflect the national style. European composers, for their part, criticised the fact that his music did not follow Western norms strictly enough. These reactions did not prevent Tchaikovsky from following his own path, and he would ultimately become the first Russian composer to be lauded worldwide. In 1892, he was admitted to the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, and a year later the University of Cambridge conferred an honorary doctorate in music on him.

Despite their differing conceptions of how Russian music should sound, Balakirev and Tchaikovsky became friends. They also share a working relationship, albeit without losing sight of their respective interests. It was also Balakirev who urged Tchaikovsky to set the play Romeo and Juliet to music. He went so far as to sketch the main lines of the work, including a tonal scheme and the opening measures. Throughout the process drafts went back and forth between them, with Balakirev once expressing enthusiasm for the love theme, but then criticising the way Tchaikovsky gave his ideas shape. The work had its première in 1870, but the reactions were lukewarm. Tchaikovsky was not satisfied either, and he reworked the composition two more times. Only in 1880 did he achieve a definitive version.

Although the composition has much in common with a symphonic poem, Tchaikovsky styled the work a ‘Fantasy Overture’. In terms of structure, it follows the sonata form, beginning with a solemn chorale in the clarinets and bassoons. This is followed by a brutal first main theme that introduces the two battling families. The second main theme, the lyrical love theme of Romeo and Juliet, is first played by the English horn and violas, but later returns in various guises. Balakirev was a great fan of that love theme: “I often play it, and would very much like to hug you for it. Here are tenderness and the sweetness of love.” He was not the only one who thought so, for the melody has since been used in several television series, including Columbo and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It was even dubbed the loveliest love music there is.

Pianoconcerto no. 2
from the doldrums to the peak

Like Tchaikovsky’s love theme in the Romeo and Juliet Overture, fragments of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto have been used repeatedly in films, including The Seven Year Itch and Brief Encounter. Even Frank Sinatra based two of his songs — I Think of You and Full Moon and Empty Arms — on some themes from the concerto.

Rachmaninov began the first draft sometime in the summer of 1900, during a stay in Italy with his friend the bass singer Feodor Chaliapin, and finished the last two movements upon his return to Moscow. He completed the second, lyrical movement first, and then wrote the third movement, just in time for a benefit concert on 2 December 1900. Rachmaninov was very nervous, and to make matters worse, he caught a bad cold a few days before the concert. But his anxiety seemed to have been for nothing: the applause was exuberant, and the press reviews were also lavish with praise. For example, the Russian Musical Paper said the work contains "much poetry, beauty, warmth, rich orchestration, healthy and buoyant creative power. Mr Rachmaninov’s talent is evident throughout." The event gave Rachmaninov sufficient self-confidence to finish the composition. The following summer, he finished the first movement, and the full concerto — which he dedicated to Nikolai Dahl – had its première on 9 November 1901 conducted by his cousin Alexander Siloti.

The power of the concerto lies in the seemingly endless variation in melodies — from the tolling of the bells in the first movement to the so beloved extensive lyrical theme of the second movement – which are connected to each other with a sophisticated structure. Nowhere does the virtuosity stand in the way of the lyricism; in the first movement, the pianist is more of an ensemble player than a soloist, and it is the orchestra that introduces the theme. The concerto was considered a masterpiece and represented a fresh start for Rachmaninov, as both pianist and composer. The demand for the concerto was great outside Russia as well: after the European première in Leipzig, there came performances in London, Vienna, Prague and the United States.

Brief Encounter P Oster

Cineflagey: Brief Encounter (1945) · 12.11.2023 · Flagey

Rachmaninov and an impossible love story set in 1940s England – what more could stir one's emotions? Lean directs with captivating intensity, while the Johnson-Howard duo engraves this passionate love tale indelibly into the annals of cinema history.