Symphony No. 3 (Rachmaninoff)

Symphony No. 3 (Rachmaninoff)

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 between 1935 and 1936. It was premiered on November 6, 1936, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Form

The symphony contains only three movements but its central one fulfills the dual role of slow movement and scherzo—a symphonic innovation for Rachmaninoff. The work employs cyclic form, with the subtle use of a motto theme combined, as usual with Rachmaninoff's works, with references to the plain-chant "Dies irae". [Matthew Walker, 118.] Also like Rachmaninoff's motto themes—and thus differing from Tchaikovsky's—it is short and, by tending to assume various shapes,is easily workable for further symphonic development. [Harrison, 309.] The piece is approximately 40 minutes long.

# Lento - Allegro moderato - Allegro
# Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro vivace
# Allegro - Allegro vivace - Allegro (Tempo primo) - Allegretto - Allegro vivace.

What was groundbreaking in the Third Symphony was its greater economy of utterance compared to its two predecessors. This sparer style, first apparent in the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", enhances the emotional power of the work. The deeply tragic first movement, while not morbid, depicts a collapse reminiscent of Mahler in its awesomeness and inexorability. Unlike Mahler, Rachmaninoff maintains an objectivity not unlike that of Greek tragedy, with the darkness finally overcome in a powerful finale. [Matthew-Walker, 119.]

Overview

The Third Symphony is a transitional work. In melodic outline and rhythm it is his most expressively Russian symphony, particularly in the dance rhythms of the finale. This Russian-ness, evident from the start with the Orthodox chant-like opening theme, is a conscious hearkening to its composer's roots by a man who had been cut off from them. The music is saturated throughout with a sadness and anguish. When the music does erupt, the melody and harmony almost immediately turns in on themselves introspectively rather than opening out with any sense of joy. If there were any work that showed the pain Rachmaninoff felt as an exile, it is this one. [Norris, "Rachmaninoff", 102.]

Composition

Rachmaninoff composed his Third Symphony after composing his "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and "Variations on a Theme of Corelli". He arrived at his newly built Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland in late April 1935 with the prospect of writing a symphony in mind. Satisfied with his new home and in good spirits, Rachmaninoff seemed definitely up to the task. On May 15 he informed Sofiya Satin that he had done “some work,” and during the following weeks was seriously at work with the composition. However, a three-week cure at Baden-Baden in July, along with a two-week hiatus in August, put Rachmaninoff behind. Five days before leaving Senar at the end of his summer holiday, Rachmaninov wrote to Satin with some dissatisfaction, "I have finished two-thirds in clean form but the last third of the work in rough. If you take into account that the first two-thirds took seventy days of intense work, for the last third – thirty-five days – there is not enough time. Travels begin and I must get down to playing the piano. So it looks as though my work will be put aside until next year." [Bertensson and Leyda, 313-14.]

Near the end of the 1935-36 concert season, recitals in Switzerland enabled Rachmaninoff to pay a brief visit to Senar. He evidently took the score of the symphony with him when he left, since he had it with him in Paris in February 1936 for Julius Conus to mark bowings in the string parts. Work on the last movement had to wait until the composer arrived at Senar on April 16 for the summer holiday. On June 30, the composer reported to Satin, “Yesterday morning I finished my work, of which you are the first to be informed. It is a symphony. Its first performance is promised to Stokowski—probably in November. With all my thoughts I thank God that I was able to do it!" [Bertensson and Leyda, 320.] Rachmaninoff arrived in America just in time for final rehearsals of the work’s premiere.

Reactions

Critical

In retrospect, it is difficult to assume what the critics of the 1930s expected from Rachmaninoff. Even the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", the composer’s only new work to be successful with the public, had received a mixed reaction from the press upon its premiere. The day after the Third Symphony premiered, Edwin Schloss wrote for the "Philadelphia Record" that he found the work "a disappointment," with "echoes ... of the composer’s lyric spaciousness of style" but largely sterile. [Bertensson and Leyda, 323.] Even Olin Downes, normally a champion of the composer’s works, was not so sure about this piece. Oddly, he seemed to contradict himself, accusing Rachmaninoff of saying nothing new yet admitting a greater independence of style:

The outward characteristics of Rachmaninoff’s style are evident in the work head on this occasion…. It cannot be said, however, that in these pages Mr. Rachmaninoff says things which are new, even though his idiom is more his own than ever before, and free of the indebtedness it once had to Tchaikovsky. Nor is it easy to avoid the impression, at a first hearing of the work, of a certain diffuseness. There is a tendency to over-elaboration of detail, and to unnecessary extensions, so that the last movement, in particular, appears too long. Would not a pair of shears benefit the proportions of this work? [Bertensson and Leyda, 324-5.]

Samuel L. Laciar, reviewing the work for the "Public Ledger", gave a more positive assessment. He called the symphony "a most excellent work in musical conception, composition and orchestration," adding that Rachmaninoff "has given us another example in this work that it is not necessary to write dissonant music in order to get the originality which is the greatest—–and usually the single—–demand of the ultra-moderns."Bertensson and Leyda, 324.] W.J. Henderson of the "Sun" was perhaps most accurate in summing up both the work and the situation the critics faced in assessing it:

It is the creation of a genial mind laboring in a field well known and loved by it, but not seeking now to raise the fruit of heroic proportions.... The first movement is orthodox in its initial statement of two contrasting chief subjects. They are contrasted in the customary way, in temper and tonality. But the working out section pays only polite respect to tradition…. The development of themes immediately follows their statement and this is Rachmaninoff’s method. The cantabile theme of the first movement is especially attractive in its lyric and plaintive character and the leading subject has virility and possibilities which are not neglected later. In fact, we suspect, after this insufficient first hearing, that there is more organic unity in this symphony through consanguinity of themes than is instantly discernable.Bertensson and Leyda, 324.]

Public

The public was as confused as the critics. Listeners who enjoyed the Second and Third Concertos, the Second Symphony, "The Isle of the Dead" and, more recently, the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", came expecting a quite different work than the one they heard. As Barrie Martyn phrases it, "The public had doubtless been misled by the old-style romanticism of the eighteenth Paganini variation and were perplexed to find that Rachmaninoff had after all advanced beyond the 1900’s; the critics, on the other hand, condemned him just because they felt that he had not." [Barrie Martyn, ‘’Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor (Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1990), 343] .”

Composer

Rachmaninoff, however, was convinced the Third Symphony was one of his best works, and the lukewarm reception it received both disappointed and puzzled him. He summed up the situation in a 1937 letter to Vladimir Wilshaw: "It was played in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. At the first two performances I was present. It was played wonderfully. Its reception by both the public and critics was sour. One review sticks painfully in my mind: that I didn’t have a Third Symphony in me any more. Personally, I am firmly convinced that this is a good work. But——sometimes composers are mistaken too! Be that as it may, I am holding to my opinion so far." [Martyn, 343]

The fact that Rachmaninoff stood his ground about the work, and not only conducted the work himself but recorded it in 1939 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, was a heartening development in terms of the composer regaining his self-confidence as a composer. He could be patient that perhaps, in time, both listeners and critics would come around. The reception still took its toll, however. It would be four years before Rachmaninoff would write his next composition, the "Symphonic Dances".

elected Recordings

# Sergei Rachmaninoff conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded in 1939.
# David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, recorded May 1994.

Bibliography

*Bertensson, Sergei and Jay Leyda, with the assistance of Sophia Satina, "Sergei Rachmaninoff—A Lifetime in Music" (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1956)). ISBN n/a.
*Harrison, Max, "Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings" (London and New York: Contunnum, 2005). ISBN 0-8264-5344-9.
* Mann, William. CD pamphlet: "Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3, "The Rock" -- Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Paavo Berglund". RCA Victor. Recorded June 20-22, 1988, in Philharmonic Hall, Stockholm.
*Mattnew-Walker, Robert, "Rachmaninoff" (London and New York: Omnibus Press, 1980). ISBN 0-89524-208-7.
*Norris, Gregory, "Rachmaninoff" (New York: Schirmer Books, 1993). ISBN 0-02-870685-4.

References

External links

* [http://www.milwaukeesymphony.org/purchasetickets/calendar/view.asp?id=1280 Notes to a performance of the symphony by the Milwaukee Symphony]
* Orga, Ates. Programme Note http://www.cadenza.org/library/atesorga.php


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