Brussels Philharmonic | programme notes: The American Years

Rachmaninov & Gershwin

programme notes


Sergei Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43 (1934)
George Gershwin
An American In Paris (1928)
Sergei Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, op. 40 (version 1941)

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


07.10.2023 FLAGEY

The American years

In 1917, Rachmaninov fled his homeland after the disruption of the October Revolution. Via Scandinavia, he ended up in the United States, where he soon developed a substantial network as a concert pianist and was thus able to provide for his family. After his departure from Russia, Rachmaninov composed only a handful of major works. His career as a concert pianist took up the bulk of his time and brought with it the inevitable stress. Most of all, he missed the culture of his native land, and the idyllic atmosphere and peace of his beloved estate Ivanovka, to which he used to retreat in order to compose. “For seventeen years, since I lost my country, I have felt unable to compose. When I was on my farm in Russia during the summers, I took pleasure in my work. Certainly I still write music, but it does not mean the same thing to me now”, he admitted in 1933 in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

In 1926, Rachmaninov found that he did have the time and drive to write a large-scale work after all: his Fourth Piano Concerto. He clearly drew inspiration for it from Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin (1898-1937), of which he had attended the premières in 1924 and 1925. A few years later, he had saved up enough money to build a country house on Lake Lucerne. It gave a new impetus to his career as a composer. He wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini there, another grand work for piano and orchestra.

George Gershwin: sounds from a new world

Gershwin is considered one of the most popular American composers. His most important merit: breaking down boundaries between musical genres. Gershwin grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a place where composers of various origins worked alongside each other, exchanged ideas and where various past and present cultural expressions mingled. As a youngster, he practised the piano for hours and attended as many performances of his favourite composers and pianists as possible. During his composition classes with Charles Hambitzer, the emphasis was mainly on the music of Debussy, Ravel and Schönberg, but his subsequent teacher, Edward Kilenyi, pushed him in the direction of popular music. This would earn him more public success. The latter came in 1919 when the singer Al Jolson recorded the joyful number ‘Swanee’ by the young songwriter. It was immediately Gershwin’s greatest hit. This was followed by classics such as ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’, set to texts of his equally successful brother Ira.

But Gershwin was not satisfied with the success of his Broadway career. His fascination with the music of modern European composers such as Schönberg and Stravinsky impelled him to strive for a synthesis of the two worlds. In 1924, at the request of the jazz band leader Paul Whiteman, he composed his first orchestral work, Rhapsody in Blue (dubbed by the press as an ‘Experiment in Modern Music’), which received great acclaim from the celebrities of the European classical music scene. The success resulted shortly thereafter in a new commission, this time from Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Philharmonic. For this new composition, Gershwin drew inspiration from his recent stay in the French capital. He recorded his experiences in the form of a symphonic poem and once he had returned to the United States, he completed these sketches and titled the whole set An American in Paris. The work received its première that same year in Carnegie Hall.

Although Gershwin indicated that he did not wish to present any explicit scenes, the listener can perfectly imagine a typical Parisian scene: the bustle of night life, the music halls, a romantic walk along the Seine and the busy traffic — including actual car horns. About the latter, the musicologist Mark Clague discovered in 2016 that orchestras had for years been playing the wrong car horns. In the score, Gershwin labelled the horns with the letters a, b, c and d, but he did not mean the names of the notes here; he had entirely different notes in mind, namely, Ab, Bb, high D and low A. Critics saw the work as a hype that would soon blow over: “To conceive of a symphonic audience listening to it with any degree of pleasure or patience twenty years from now, when whoopee is no longer even a word, is another matter.” But they were wrong, as the work has been a popular work on the orchestral repertoire for almost a century.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
“a ghost wandering in a world made alien”.

Rachmaninov had been playing with the idea of adding a new piano concerto to his repertoire as early as 1913, but it took him until 1924 before he got down to working on it. The reason was on the one hand the culture shock and trauma he experienced after emigrating, and on the other hand his busy concert agenda as a pianist. In 1926, he finally saw an opportunity to take a sabbatical year and complete the work. On 18 March 1927, his Fourth Piano Concerto had its première, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The critics were hard-hitting: fans of his previous concertos found this one lacked the expansive melodies and coherence, whereas defenders of modernism saw his composition as old-fashioned. The tone of the reviews was for the most part disdainful, such as this one in the New York Times: “Apart from the expertise, you cannot say that the concerto has much that is innovative or remarkable to offer.” Rachmaninov returned to the drawing board and undertook a thorough revision. He added to the length of the final movement and on the writing for piano. But the reactions remained lukewarm, and Rachmaninov was unsatisfied. Two years before his death, he revised the work one last time, but the work failed to attract true appreciation.

The situation was entirely different for his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Although the name given to it would suggest otherwise — a ‘rhapsody’ is generally an instrumental work of a single movement, with a freer, sometimes capricious form — this work follows a delineated structure, namely, that of a series of variations on a theme. The theme Rachmaninov took from the last capriccio of the 24 Capriccios by the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), and came up with one inventive variation after the other. The entire work is an exciting interplay of musical motifs. Thus, Rachmaninov presents Paganini’s theme only after the first variation, inverts the motif completely or combines it with the Dies Irae motif from the liturgical Requiem Mass. The choice of the latter theme is no coincidence: as legend has it, Paganini received his virtuoso powers after a pact with the devil, and Rachmaninov linked that story to one of his favourite themes in music history.

The première of the rhapsody in 1934 was again performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski and with Rachmaninov himself at the piano. It was an immediate success, and the eighteenth variation was even more popular than the original work on which Rachmaninov had based it. A few years after the première, Rachmaninov once again had to move, this time due to the turbulent political climate in Europe. He settled definitively in the United States, in the large and luxurious Honeyman Estate in New York. There, he wrote, three years before his death, his final composition: the Symphonic Dances.

Brief Encounter P Oster

Cineflagey: Brief Encounter (1945) · 07.10.2023 · 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.