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Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Quick Look Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor / Gautier Capuçon, cello, plays Saint-Saëns Nov. 10 - 12, 2011
© Thomas May

The Third Symphony was the final work in a genre that caused Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) much grief in his youth. He had faced debilitating shame when his First Symphony (1895) was a fiasco at its premiere in 1897-in no small part because the conductor, soused on vodka, led a miserable performance. In fact this humiliation triggered a deep depression that left Rachmaninoff creatively sterile for years. He found a cure for his block through hypnotherapy treatment and, his creativity restored, scored a breakthrough with the hugely successful Second Piano Concerto of 1901. The Second Symphony also proved a triumph when it was first given in 1908. In 1913 Rachmaninoff wrote an extraordinary choral cantata-symphony, The Bells (1913), setting a Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe's poem of the same name. This he counted as his "Third" Symphony for a time, but when he returned to the genre over two decades later, he assigned that number to the purely instrumental Op. 44. Only one more orchestral work followed the Third: the Symphonic Dances, which, aside from a late revision of the Fourth Piano Concerto, became the composer's swan song.

By the time Rachmaninoff embarked on his Third Symphony, he had been living in exile from his beloved Russia for almost two decades-a period during which his compositional output shrank significantly. The Revolution of 1917 forced Rachmaninoff to forsake his homeland for good, though he tried to recreate its atmosphere in his exile. He went on to reinvent himself as a full-time international concert pianist to support his family. From his early years, in fact, Rachmaninoff had juggled multiple roles as composer, conductor, and pianist. It was in 1909 that the thin, tall, aristocratically poised artist made his first North American tour as a keyboard virtuoso, writing the now-legendary Third Piano Concerto to showcase his skill. The success of that experience drew Rachmaninoff back to the United States in the aftermath of his native homeland's revolutionary chaos, following a sojourn in Scandinavia. He ended up establishing residences on both coasts, alternately in New York and southern California, and was eventually buried in Valhalla, New York.  

The pragmatic explanation for the sharp downturn in Rachmaninoff's composition during these years of exile points to the brutally exhausting schedule of tours he maintained. But another factor was the more spiritual one, the result of his permanent homesickness. Rachmaninoff sought to replicate the comfort and inspiration that had surrounded him at his former estate of Ivanovka in western Russia.  Through most of the 1930s, he achieved a fairly close approximation of its ambience at an idyllic retreat he set up near Lake Lucerne, surrounded by the heartening beauty of the Swiss landscape.  Rachmaninoff had a villa built on the estate, naming it Senar (an anagrammatic blend of letters from his name and that of his wife, Natalia).  The Rachmaninoffs regularly spent summers there until the advent of war prompted their permanent settlement in the U.S.  With his desire to compose rekindled by Senar's atmosphere, Rachmaninoff produced Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and, in the summers of 1935 and 1936, the Third Symphony (though composition was interrupted by touring commitments during the intervening season).

Rachmaninoff had developed a close relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which introduced the new work in November 1936 under Leopold Stokowski's baton.  The reception, however, proved yet another disappointment for the composer.  Critics accused Rachmaninoff of peddling what was by now an outdated romanticism.  Yet the Third Symphony in fact reveals what is now more widely perceived as a shift in stylistic orientation.  Its language is sparer, so it's no surprise that audiences expecting the plush, engulfing melody of the earlier works experienced a sour reaction to the Symphony's contrasts and enigmatic memories of Old Russia.  "Personally, I'm convinced that this is a good work," wrote Rachmaninoff.  "But-sometimes the author is wrong, too. However, I maintain my opinion."  He made revisions in 1938 and conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in his own recorded account of the work in 1939.  One recurrent criticism (applied to the Second Symphony as well) concerns the composer's lengthy dwelling on detail. This might be the reason he decided to forego the conventional repeat of the exposition in the first movement for the recording, though the score asks for such a repeat.  (Conductors remain divided on which choice is preferable.)

The three-movement Symphony opens with slow introductory music.  This quiet motif unfolds simply within an ambit confined to a scant three notes and is imbued with a chantlike quality reminiscent of Russian Orthodox melody.  It serves as a unifying, motto-like element throughout the rest of the work.  The scoring-for solo clarinet, solo cello, and a pair of horns-is unique in flavor and points to the careful detail of Rachmaninoff's orchestration in the Third.  His frequently surprising choices make the color and palette of the music an important part of the experience.  The chanting fades, and an orchestral whoosh leads into the first theme proper.  This dualism-meditative inwardness followed by exuberance-is a signature of the work.  A second theme sounds like the more familiar Rachmaninoff of yore, with an unforced melodic warmth (at one point it even seems faintly to allude-coincidentally?-to the old American song "Home, Sweet Home").

A sequence initiated by the bassoons inaugurates the development with a distinct hint of Wagner's music for the brooding Mime from the Ring.  This is one of several Wagnerian touches in the score.  Restless triplets open up a newly expansive vista, leading to a stridently militaristic climax that might suit the composer's compatriot Shostakovich. (The latter's own epochal Fifth Symphony would, after all, first be heard a year after Rachmaninoff's Third was premiered).  A stratospheric soaring of strings stages the recapitulation and, in the expectant close, the strings quietly trace the chant motif once again.

At the start of the second movement, a solo horn, gorgeously aureoled by harp, offers another echo of the motto chant idea.  This movement features some of Rachmaninoff's most inspired orchestral touches and is especially varied in its moods.  Like the middle movements of the Second and Third Piano Concertos, it embodies a symphonic scherzo in the form of an extended interlude.  Its kaleidoscopic interruption is followed by the return of the opening music, now gently recollected, and the movement ends with a recurrence of the cyclical motif on plucked strings.

In the finale, Rachmaninoff recalls the brightly extroverted music from the first movement. This gesture launches a dance-inflected, skittering theme (foreshadowing the first of the Symphonic Dances). Various episodes intervene, from a swooning, rhapsodic passage to another nearly Shostakovich-like outburst and an exciting fugal development. As a counterpart to the Symphony's motif suggesting Orthodox chant, Rachmaninoff injects references to the Western medieval chant of Judgment Day (the Dies Irae): personal code for a kind of fatalism that crops up repeatedly in his compositions.  But any hints of gloom are dispelled in the joyous rush of the Symphony's final minutes.