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Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Quick Look Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Osmo Vanska, Conducting/Christian Tetzlaff, Violin Nov. 21 - 23, 2002
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

The Symphony was composed in 1895 and received its first performance on March 27, 1897, in a Russian Symphony Society concert in St. Petersburg, Alexander Glazunov conducting, and was not heard again for 48 years. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score, dedicated to "A.L." (Anna Lodyzhenska), calls for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, military drum, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, and strings. Approximate duration, 42 minutes.

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Rachmaninoff, only 22 years old when he composed his First Symphony, was already one of the most respected musicians in Russia. Three years earlier he had been graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with a gold medal in composition. Even before his graduation he had introduced his First Piano Concerto (a work vastly revised some years later) and published a group of piano pieces and some cello pieces. In 1893 Tchaikovsky, who had taken an interest in Rachmaninoff's work, interrupted his work on his own final symphony, the Pathétique in order to attend the premiere of his young colleague's first opera, Aleko, and shortly before his death later that year he received the dedication of the first of Rachmaninoff's two suites for two pianos (the "Fantasy," Op. 5). By that time, too, Rachmaninoff had already made some tentative gestures toward composing a symphony: the first was a Scherzo in F major which he composed at the age of 13; the second was an Allegro in D minor completed in September 1891 (two months after the original version of the First Concerto) and definitely intended to be the opening movement of a symphony. (The latter piece has come to be known as the "Youth Symphony.") Not long after his graduation Rachmaninoff was also touring as a pianist, and by 1897, the year of the First Symphony's premiere, he had begun conducting as well; but he did not conduct the First Symphony himself, then or ever.

So important a work as a symphony, by so highly regarded a composer as the young Rachmaninoff, was naturally given a prestigious premiere, which all of musical Russia awaited with the greatest eagerness. The event proved to be a disaster, not only for the work itself but in terms of the effect its failure had on Rachmaninoff. César Cui, who holds the dubious distinction of being the only member of the group of Russian nationalist composers known as "The Five" whose music is never performed now (his more successful comrades were Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov), is remembered for his work as a critic, and in particular for his blistering denunciations of certain works of Tchaikovsky's as well as the premiere of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony. His review is usually represented by this single sentence:

If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of the students were given an assignment to compose a programmatic symphony on the theme of "The Seven Plagues of Egypt" and composed a symphony like Rachmaninoff's, he would have fulfilled his assignment brilliantly and thrilled the inhabitants of Hell.

Music critics have frequently proved to be poor prophets, of course, and even more frequently have not spoken for the majority of listeners present, but in this case most of Cui's colleagues and much of the audience shared his reaction to the new work. Some of them did suggest, however, that at least part of the fault lay not in the score itself but in Glazunov's unsympathetic and generally inept conducting. Rachmaninoff felt that Glazunov, only eight years older than himself but revered as one of his country's outstanding musical figures (he had produced his own roundly admired First Symphony at the age of 16), had let him down: "How could so great a musician as Glazunov conduct so badly? It is not even a question of his conducting technique, poor as that is, but of his musicianship; he beats time as if he had no feeling for music at all."

While his opinion of Glazunov's conducting may have been justified, it was his own doubts about the Symphony itself that caused Rachmaninoff the most grief. Years later he recalled, "The despair that filled my soul would not leave me. My dreams of a brilliant career lay shattered. My hopes and confidence were destroyed." He withdrew the work and forbade its publication; the depression he suffered deepened to such a point that he was unable to compose at all for nearly three years. It was not until the end of 1899 that he got round to consulting Dr Nikolai Dahl, a psychotherapist who was able to bring him out of his funk in April of the following year, after nearly five months of almost daily sessions. The treatment got Rachmaninoff back in such good shape that he proceeded to compose his immensely successful Second Piano Concerto (which he dedicated to Dr Dahl), but he did not reconsider his First Symphony, then or at any time later; his only acknowledgement of it lay in his labeling his next symphony "No. 2" and his not reassigning the opus number 13 to another composition. (A further acknowledgement of sorts is to be found in the half-echoes of the Symphony's first movement in that of Rachmaninoff's valedictory work, the Symphonic Dances of 1940.)

While Rachmaninoff did not go as far as actually destroying the score of the First Symphony, he did not bother to take it with him when he left Russia to settle in the West, and for decades it was regarded as lost. It was not until a few months after his death that a two-piano transcription came to light in Moscow; then a set of orchestral parts was discovered at the St Petersburg (then called Leningrad) Conservatory, and a full score was assembled from this material. When the Symphony was performed in 1945 (in Moscow), for the first time since its 1897 premiere, it was a grand success, and this led to a new and more enthusiastic evaluation of Rachmaninoff's music in his homeland. In March 1948 Eugene Ormandy conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra in the similarly successful American premiere, and the work proceeded to establish itself in the general repertory.

The item that immediately precedes the Symphony in Rachmaninoff's catalogue of works is his Caprice bohémien, Op. 12, which was completed in August 1894 and introduced in Moscow on November 22 of the following year (by which time the Symphony had been completed). This "Capriccio for Large Orchestra, Based on Gypsy Themes," is thought to have been a gesture toward the enchanting wife of Pyotr Lodyzhensky, the friend to whom Rachmaninoff dedicated that score. Anna Lodyzhenska was of Gypsy parentage, and the young Rachmaninoff, whose opera Aleko was based on Pushkin's poem The Gypsies, seems to have been under her spell at the time. He dedicated his First Symphony to Anna herself, but in the discreet form of her initials only; it was apparently the last time she figures in his musical thoughts.

There is another "Anna" possibly connected with this score, at the end of which Rachmaninoff wrote enigmatically, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." Since the same words had been inscribed by Lev Tolstoy at the beginning of Anna Karenina , there has been some speculation as to whether the Symphony may have been inspired by the novel or in some way related to it. It has been suggested, too, that in repeating Tolstoy's inscription Rachmaninoff simply indicated his wish to forge a link in the chain of continuity of the Russian creative sprit in both music and literature; and the words may have had a totally unrelated, more personal meaning for the young composer, who may have chosen them to connect his real-life Anna, for whatever reason, with Tolstoy's heroine.

Rachmaninoff never elucidated that point, but the opening of the Symphony (Grave) does suggest the continuity of the Russian symphonic tradition, through its fleeting but noticeable resemblance to the opening of Borodin's Symphony No. 2 in B minor. A theme then appears which is to be heard, in variously altered form, in all of the succeeding movements; if its shape seems vaguely familiar, listeners acquainted with Rachmaninoff's subsequent works may recognize it as related to the Dies irae, the ancient chant for the dead, a motif he had cited in his 1891 tone poem Prince Rostislav and was to use in varying degrees of prominence in virtually every major work he produced until the end of his life. Such a reference would certainly not be out of place in a work bearing the motto inscribed at the end of this score, and in a sense the entire Symphony might be regarded as an elaborate sequence of variations on that famous motif, which never quite appears in its unaltered form.

The material of the first movement proper (Allegro ma non troppo) is worked up to awesome proportions, much in the manner of Rimsky-Korsakov's treatment of old liturgical themes in his Russian Easter Overture. But it is possible to find almost anything and everything Russian in this movement--from echoes of Tchaikovsky to anticipations of Shostakovich. What is most conspicuously and unmistakably present is the distinctive personal style, by turns brooding and lyrical and yearning, that was to stamp virtually all of Rachmaninoff's music as his, even more emphatically than his persistent reference to the Dies irae.

The subsequent movements all begin with citations of the work's opening motif. second movement ( Allegro animato ), which fills the function of a scherzo, is no less distinctively Rachmaninoff, but it also suggests a specific link with the past. It is not a boisterous piece, but a somewhat delicate one. Its opening page might almost have come from the Nursery Scene in Boris Godunov, and subsequent passages further evoke the flavor of Mussorgsky's masterwork, while in general the movement follows the outline of the corresponding one in another seldom heard First Symphony, the one in E-flat by Borodin.

Borodin may have provided the model for the ensuing Larghetto as well, in the slow movement of his Second Symphony, but Rachmaninoff interjects a fierceness in the middle of the movement, and there are echoes of still another Russian First Symphony, the beautiful and unaccountably neglected one by Balakirev. But again there is more originality here than there are echoes of any kind; in this slow movement is the genesis of the expansive ones to come in Rachmaninoff's later symphonies and concertos.

The final movement (Allegro con fuoco) is colorful and grand in the festive Russian tradition, but not without its darkly contrasting--even menacing--episodes. It is in this finale that the Dies irae comes nearest to breaking through fully formed, and it is in the grotesque coda, amid "pre-echoes" of Shostakovich's grand-scaled symphonic gestures, that the undercurrent of malevolence intensifies to remind us of that unexplained inscription at the end of the score.