Rachmaninoff Symphony no. 1 in D minor, op. 13

performed live by (again) the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, or in a very nice performance below by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra (perhaps before they were ‘Royal’?) under Vladimir Ashkenazy

This, this other terrible first. The piano concerto we discussed was perhaps dismissed as just a student work from a young composer, and he was able to go back and polish it up and turn it into a really nice, kind of respectable but still obviously young work. I enjoy listening to it.

However, nothing matches the level of catastrophe that was the premiere of the composer’s first symphony. The symphony was composed at the composer’s estate in Ivanovka throughout most of 1895, and premiered on March 28, 1897 in a performance so disastrous that the composer walked out before it was finished. I want to steal two big quotes from Wikipedia’s article on this work, and then we’ll talk more:

If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme 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. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.

-Cesar Cui

And a quite opposite sentiment:

The climax of the concert, Rachmaninoff’s D minor symphony, was not very successfully interpreted, and was therefore largely misunderstood and underestimated by the audience. This work shows new impulses, tendencies toward new colors, new themes, new images, and yet it impresses one as something not fully said or solved. However, I shall refrain from expressing my final opinion, for it would be too easy to repeat the history of Tchaikovsky‘s Fifth Symphony, only recently [thanks to Nikisch] “discovered” by us, and which everyone now admires as a new, marvelous, and beautiful creation. To be sure, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony may not be wholly beautiful, integrated and definite, but some of its pages seem far from mediocre. The first movement, and especially the furious finale with its concluding Largo, contains much beauty, novelty, and even inspiration….

Nikolai Findeisen

Polarizing, to say the least. Let’s talk for a bit about the work itself and then the reasons why it got the reactions it did, and what effect it had on the composer. Oh, and about the music too.

Studying under Anton Arensky, Rachmaninoff was given the assignment to write a symphony, and he did so, but subsequently lost three of the movements. What was left was recycled and published in 1947 as the composer’s Youth Symphony. That is to say, the op. 13 is not actually the composer’s first stab at writing a symphony. Wiki mentions that his first piano concerto, while by no means a success, still gave him practice with and a better understanding of large-scale form and forces.

As stated earlier the composition process lasted from January 1895 to October of the same year, which was apparently an unusually long time for the composer. He mentioned in letters having spent whole days working at composing but getting virtually nowhere. I’ve been there. This may have been only the first misfortune in a process that would eventually end in disaster.

Mitrofan Belyayev, of the eponymous Belyayev circle, had performed Rachmaninoff’s The Rock, op. 7, at one of the Russian Symphony Concerts in St. Petersburg. Strangely enough, although Taneyev and Glazunov seemed not to have approved of the earlier symphony or even the piano concerto, they still suggested that Belyayev schedule a performance of Rachmaninoff’s symphony. One wonders what the reasons for this were, because apparently Taneyev had yet to hear the work for himself. Upon hearing Rachmaninoff play it at the piano, he said, “these melodies are flabby, colorless – there is nothing that can be done with them.” How untypical of his later works. Rimsky-Korsakov also offered his two cents (rubles?), saying, “Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” Granted, he was more likely one of the most conservative of the time.

In any case, the work was eventually scheduled for performance and RK’s comment above was apparently made after hearing a rehearsal, conducted by the apparently unqualified Alexander Glazunov, whose third symphony we heard last week. While it seems he rather loved to conduct, he also apparently loved his liquor, but he was far more adept at the latter, people having made the statement that he wasn’t that great a conductor, and appeared to be sauced during the concert. That aside, rehearsal time was apparently grossly inadequate, and there were two other premieres on the same program. Also, it seems Glazunov ruined the interpretation and even changed some of the orchestration to the piece before the performance. The premiere was a disaster. It seems the composer even snuck on stage to try to.. I’m not sure, give suggestions or boost morale or salvage the performance between movements, but even Rachmaninoff left before it was over. The work was torn to shreds afterward, by the likes of conservatives like Cesar Cui, who seemed mostly peeved that a young whippersnapper would lay his hands on a form as sacred, as special as the symphony, and do such vulgar things with it. The Moscow vs. St. Petersburg camp was a thing, and after we chat about the music, we’ll talk about this idea of expectations and perceptions coloring the reception of a piece of music that today is considered a very solid work. But that all comes later. For the time being, the failure threw the composer into a depression and dread of composition that would only be broken by his second piano concerto, thankfully a roaring success.

First, to start talking about the work, there’s the Dies Irae:

Listen to the beginning of that, maybe a few times. You’ll recognize it form works we’ve discussed before, such as Liszt’s Totentanz or the final movement of Alkan’s Trois Morceaux. It was a common theme, and one Rachmaninoff quite enjoyed incorporating into his works, almost like one of those hidden signature details in a painting. Anyway, you’ll hear it throughout this piece. I’m surprised this symphony hasn’t been given a nickname related to its use of this theme, the Dies Irae symphony or something, because that’s essentially what it is.

And that’s a good clue for this symphony. If you want a far more rigorous but still not completely thorough analysis of the structure of this symphony, go read the ‘Form’ section of the Wikipedia article. Essentially, as should be expected, the opening of the piece sets the tone for what we are to experience. It’s heavy, dark, and ominous, powerful. Then the two main themes of the piece are presented, the first being the Dies Irae chant that is almost literally everywhere in some form or other, and the moderato theme that uses “a gypsy” scale. Go have a look at any version of Dies Irae written out on a score, even just those first four or six notes, and once you see and hear it, you’ll identify it everywhere in this work. As Robert Simpson is quoted as saying throughout the Wiki article, the piece is very economical in its use of content, so the entire work feels very tightly-organized.

This seems like a really great idea for a young composer of an early symphony: pick your characters that will form the foundation of the entire work, really strong motifs  and use them as a springboard for everything else. It can’t not sound structured and unified.

Anyway, the first movement is largely stormy, even violent at times, and the darkness of the Dies Irae theme overshadows whatever cheer the second theme brings us. There are bold moments of explosive energy that could easily have been off-putting or even offensive to audiences of the time, I feel. It’s a really solid movement, and one that gives us a good idea of what’s to come, and builds plenty of tension.

When the second movement begins, you may be fooled into thinking you’ve arrived at the slow movement, but no. It’s marked as allegro animato. Flutes do pretty things here but it begins to get more and more lively. You may realize from the jumpy flitteriness of the flute that we’re actually in a scherzo. It’s maybe the gypsiest movement of the four, but not without its Dies Irae moments. It feels much more like another first movement than a scherzo in the seriousness and focus of its content, shifting between the quiet, flute-led jumpiness and the heavier passages. It is the shortest movement of the four.

The third movement is finally our slow one, a larghetto. It is another lighter movement, having given up some of its aggressive tension, but it isn’t without its heavier moments.

The final movement is suddenly, inspiringly, and gloriously triumphant and rhythmic. It feels militaristic and gypsy and celebratory, and in a contrasting melody, low strings come in with what begins to sound ominous and evil, but it doesn’t quite turn out that way. Eventually, though, low brass does not disappoint; they bring us the Dies Irae. But there’s tambourine and stuff, so how could it be dark? It certainly has its dramatic, more stormy moments, as it should. It’s not a sudden out-of-nowhere gypsy family reunion, and actually ends quite heavily, as feels suitable for this symphony, but it brings some delightful contrast to the work.

I feel like this symphony may definitely have been a bit too grotesque or unpolished or untraditional for some at the time, especially Cui and his ilk who had awful things to say about it, but after listening to it in the context of his far more famous compositions, I am really shocked that this work hasn’t gained far more attention than it has. People and sources have acknowledged that the work has had a kind of revival, or a reappraisal, but that the scorn heaped upon the piece took some time to fall away and for people to discover it for themselves. As for being compared to his other works, it has a tightness, a unity of concept and thought that seems stronger than any of his other works (that I’m familiar with). While this may come off as somewhat pedantic at first, it is a solid, approachable yet very powerful, ambitious work for a young composer, and listening to Rozhdestvensky or Ashkenazy’s renderings above, it seems strange that such a wonderful work could be such a disaster. But that is history.

While there have been many symphonies so far that I’ve enjoyed discovering and becoming familiar with, this is probably one of the few (if not the only) that I know I will come back to now and then because of its power and personality. The more I listen to it, the more it grows on me. But next week, we move on to someone else, as you may already know. See you then.

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One thought on “Rachmaninoff Symphony no. 1 in D minor, op. 13

  1. Loved it. The few seconds which follows the gong at 39:05 sounds delusional. Like someone suddenly woke up or was cut from the struggle. But then it comes back. He’s forced to think about it to survive.

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