Many people consider Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) as one of the last great romantic composers and the most important successor of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). For most of his life, he combined a career as composer and that of a pianist, continuing the tradition of composer-virtuoso. In Russia, he commuted between Moscow and Saint Petersburg and his country estate in Ivanovka, where he wrote the bulk of his oeuvre in peace and quiet. Critics have not always received his music with the same enthusiasm: in the concert hall, Rachmaninov often had to struggle against the innovative musical language of the emerging modernists. A tonal language that he would never truly make his own. Fortunately, the audience was won over by his opulent and lyrical melodies.
This programme spans a large swath of his oeuvre, from his top-notch romantic Third Piano Concerto and the famous Vocalise to the Symphonic Dances, the last work he wrote after emigrating to the United States. In this swan song, the 67-year-old composer demonstrated that he did have an ear for the music of his time. This is obvious from the rhythmic splurges, adventurous harmonies and daring instrumental combinations.
Rachmaninov had the good fortune to be born into a prosperous and musical family. As a teenager, he was admitted to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, but it failed to motivate him to study. On the advice of a cousin, the pianist and conductor Alexander Siloti, he transferred to Moscow. There he studied with the renowned but strict piano teacher Nikolai Zverev. The latter’s iron discipline worked wonders for Rachmaninov. Moreover, through Zverev he became acquainted with the professional musical life in Moscow. Soon, Rachmaninov was also accepted into the harmony class taught by Anton Arensky. It was soon 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.
As soon as he had graduated, Rachmaninov was considered a full-fledged composer, and what’s more, one who enjoyed the support of Tchaikovsky. He had already composed a number of impressive works. In addition to a number of songs and works for piano, there was his graduation piece, a one-act opera, Aleko, that was so successful that it was performed immediately at the Bolshoi Theatre. And not forgetting his First Piano Concerto – the work to which Rachmaninov gave the official title of ‘Opus 1’. A few years later, he composed his First Symphony. But the disastrous première in 1897 left Rachmaninov paralysed. He sank into depression and for three years he wrote nothing. But he found his second wind, and his Second Piano Concerto in 1901 was certainly an enormous success.
A third piano concerto followed in 1908. Rachmaninov composed the work to serve as his calling card for his very first concert tour, to the United States: “My third concerto was written specially for America, and I was to play it for the first time in New York under the direction of Walter Damrosch. Because I didn’t have much time to study during the preceding summer and because I was not familiar enough with certain passages, I took a dumb piano with me on the ship and learned it during the crossing.” The concerto was intended to highlight his qualities as a composer and pianist. Rachmaninov thus planned a particularly complex and virtuoso piano part. The extreme difficult and length of the work mean that it took some time for this concerto to become as popular as his second. The definitive breakthrough came partly thanks to the 1996 film Shine, in which the Third Piano Concerto plays a crucial role. Since then, the work has found its way onto the standard repertoire of many pianists; over the history of the famous Queen Elisabeth Competition to date, it has been performed around 25 times.
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 complete peace and quiet of his beloved estate Ivanovka, to which he used to retreat 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 had joy 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.
Around 1930, Rachmaninov had saved up enough money to build a country house on Lake Lucerne. This gave a new impetus to his career as a composer, and between 1935 and 1936 he composed his Third Symphony, a work that evokes memories of his homeland. Soon thereafter, he had to leave again, this time because of the turbulent political climate in Europe. He settled definitively in the United States, in the luxurious and spacious Honeyman Estate in New York. There, three years before his death, he wrote his very last composition: the Symphonic Dances. The substantial development of its themes give it a symphonic form, but with an explicitly dance-like character. Rachmaninov therefore changed the title from the original Fantastic Dances to its current name, and also deleted the subtitles ‘Noon, ‘Twilight and ‘Midnight’. Yet the original programmatic content shines through in the three dances, which Rachmaninov considered a symbol of the various phases of his own life.
While in the first dance, nostalgia prevails, the calls in the muted trumpets and horns in the second movement introduce a capricious and alienating waltz, full of ambiguous harmonies. For the final dance, Rachmaninov drew on the well-known Dies irae melody from the medieval Requiem Mass and the chant ‘Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi’ [blessed are you, O Lord] from his own Vespers. These musical motifs around death and resurrection seem to compete with each other in a frenetic danse macabre.
Ultimately, resurrection defeats death, a tipping point that Rachmaninov underlined in the score with the cry of joy ‘Hallelujah!’. Some historians see this epigraph as the composer’s cry of joy – as if he were thanking the creator for the completion of this composition, which he may have felt would be his last.