Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rachmaninoff - Symphony No. 1

Sergei Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony was not his first foray into symphonic form. He wrote a scherzo for orchestra when he was thirteen, and as a student wrote the first movement of a symphony. His official first symphony was composed between January and October of 1895 when he was 22 years old. Rachmaninoff was typically a composer that worked very rapidly, but the first symphony caused him much effort and work. He finally dedicated ten-hour workdays to see the work through to completion.

It did not have its premiere until nearly two years later. Rachmaninoff played the work in a version for piano for the composer and teacher Sergei Taneyev in 1896. Taneyev's negativity towards the work led Rachmaninoff to make changes in the symphony, and he was finally granted a performance of the work in March of 1897 in St. Petersburg with Alexander Glazunov conducting.

Rimsky-Korsakov attended the rehearsals of the symphony and was not overly impressed, and neither was the conductor Glazunov. Glazunov was not a very good conductor to begin with and his control of the orchestra was not strong. Rachmaninoff tried to make suggestions to the conductor but Glazunov ignored him.  Glazunov even had the nerve to make some cuts in the work and change some of the orchestration, with neither action benefiting the symphony. To add insult to injury, people who attended the performance thought that Glazunov, a heavy drinker, was drunk. Whether he was drunk or sober, Glazunov never much cared for or understood Rachmaninoff's music.  The effect on Rachmaninoff was devastating. He left the hall before the work ended. Critics were brutal, especially one of The Five composers César Cui who in part wrote:
 "If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a program symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell."
As for Rachmaninoff, his initial reaction was calm, but with the passage of time the negative reception of his symphony caused him to lose his self-confidence and he gave up composing until 1899. He did not destroy the work, but it was not performed again in his lifetime. Rachmaninoff put the score in his writing desk and it was left in Russia after Rachmaninoff fled the country in 1917.

In 1944 the instrumental parts and a two-piano reduction done by the composer were found in the archives of the Leningrad Conservatory Library. The manuscript score has never been found. Using the available parts and piano version, the symphony was reconstructed and given its second performance at the Moscow Conservatory in 1945.

The symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Grave - Allegro non troppo - The reasons for the poor reception to the symphony are many. Rachmaninoff was not a member of the 'ruling elite' of Russian music at the time. The Five (at least the three that were still alive; Mussorgsky and Borodin were dead) had become the gatekeepers of what constituted 'Russian' music. Rimsky-Korsakov had grown conservative, Cui was more of a critic than composer and Balakirev was increasingly irrational, with honorary member Glazunov being borderline reactionary. What was once a group of progressive and forward-looking composers could not support the changes Rachmaninoff brought to the symphony.

The first movement begins with a slow and powerful introduction. It is only seven bars long, but sets the stage for the entire symphony. The simple motif:
Makes an appearance in each movement of the symphony and acts to unify the entire work, as does the main theme of the movement. The main theme of the first movement is taken from the medieval Dies Irae plainchant, a kind of idee fixe that appears in different guises in many of Rachmaninoff's works. The second theme first appears in the strings, a gentle melody in contrast to the first theme in texture and volume.  This theme climaxes and then is brushed aside by a fugal treatment of the first theme. The theme is thoroughly worked out and developed before the recapitulation. The two themes are presented again along with the outburst heard after the exposition, which is followed by a coda. The movement ends suddenly with a figure derived from the first theme.

II. Allegro animato - A scherzo in everything but name, the movement begins with snatches of notes from the introduction and the main theme of the first movement. The main theme of the movement (Dies Irae in another disguise) is interrupted by call-like motives. The middle section has a new tune made from bits and pieces of what has gone on before. Thematic material floats in and out and the movement comes to a quiet close.

III. Larghetto - A lyrical tune punctuated by the opening motive of the introduction. There is a middle section that is darker in mood, but the tune reappears and is repeated until it becomes very quiet. The music gently evaporates with the sounds of clarinets and plucked strings.

IV. Allegro con fuoco - The finale begins with martial music in a variant of the Dies Irae theme. The music grows in lushness before it resumes its march-like quality. The music remains tuneful with brass added for emphasis. Rachmaninoff keeps everything moving with energy as snippets of motifs somewhat familiar make their appearance. The tension builds, syncopations are heard. The bass drum and percussion add texture to the music that grows until a tam tam signals the beginning of the end. The opening motif insistently reappears and guides the brass and orchestra to the final chords


  1. If only one piece of music in my life it would be this one. How amazing it would be to hear it as he conceived it.

  2. It is a mysterious work, fully and uniquely conceived by a very young man. One has to wonder how Rachmaninoff's career would have proceeded if the piece had been correctly performed at its introduction.