Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rachmaninoff: Symphony #3

Thanks to a drunk conductor and some harsh criticism, Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony came very close to never being written.

In 1897, at the young age of just 23, Sergei Rachmaninoff's career as a composer nearly ended before it began with the premiere of his First Symphony. He had already built a reputation for himself as a master pianist, and he had already composed an opera as well as a few other significant works. But the premiere of his First Symphony, which was poorly performed, badly conducted (by an allegedly drunk Alexander Glazunov) and excoriated by critics, nearly destroyed him.
Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor
Symphonic Dances

Deutsche Grammophon, 1998

Rachmaninoff fell into a period of deep depression. It would be four years before he would compose again, and it would be twelve years before he would write another symphony. Fortunately, that symphony, his Second, was very well received by critics and audiences alike.

Rachmaninoff completed his Third Symphony much later, in 1936, and he considered it among his greatest works. However, once again, a lukewarm reception from audiences deeply discouraged him, and it would be another four years before he summoned the courage to write his next (and last) work: his Symphonic Dances, which I will discuss in my next post.

Listener Notes for Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony:
1) I love the how the introductory soft passage (it sounds like a unison saxophone and clarinet) gets you to lean forward, ear cocked, and then whammo!--the whole orchestra comes in and blasts you right back into your seat.

2) I kept asking myself throughout the first movement, "where is this symphony going?" It's good music, and it has a beautiful 14 note melodic motif, but it has too many Shostakovitch-like film score accoutrements. This symphony doesn't really speak to me yet.

3) The opening few minutes of the second movement are another good example of film-score-itis: It sounds beautiful, yes, but at the same time it could be background music for The Blue Lagoon. The use of the harp, the glockenspiel, the soft triple-tonguing trumpets, the idiosyncratic use of percussion--they all sound like film-score gadgets to me.

4) Note the reprise of the opening "whammo chord" at the beginning of the third movement. At least this time I wasn't leaning forward in my chair!

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Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.

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