Why you should come to my concert Saturday- Rach 1 Rules….

The sad tale of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony is one most music lovers are familiar with through program notes for his infinitely more popular Second Piano Concerto.

The story is simple- the young Rachmaninoff was so devastated by the failure of his first symphony, which had been a complete fiasco with audiences and critics, that he fell into a deep depression and was unable to compose. Finally, he met an inspirational psyco-therapist who used hypno-therapy to cure him, saying again and again “you will begin work on a new piano concerto. It will progress quickly, and will become a huge success.”

Of course, he did, it did and it did, and music history lived happily ever after. The errant young composer had seen the error of his ways and changed course, writing one of the most enduringly popular works in the literature.

But what of that poor symphony into which the young man had poured his soul? S.R. never allowed another performance during his lifetime, and the work was presumed lost until it was reconstructed from the set of orchestra parts used for the premiere.

I never gave the symphony a whole lot of thought until one day I was talking to my graduate advisor at CCM about what piece I might do my conducting lecture recital about. He suggested Rak 1.

“You could analyze the piece, see if you can come up with a reason while it was such a failure- probably that crazy ending- then perform it. Maybe you could even write another ending and save the piece for future generations.”

I suppose the idea of proving why a piece was a failure seemed like a bad preface to a concert, but in any case, I did my lecture recital on the Mozart Requiem (a piece I’m returning to with the OES for my last concert with them as Music Director in April).

The years passed, until last winter I was tossing around program ideas with the leader of the WSO, Mark Lansom. We were both keen to do a Russian program, but everything I wanted to do they’d either done or was too expensive to rent. “What about Rach 2,” I enquired. I’d just done Rach 2 with KCYO and was seriously in love with the piece.

“No, we just did it, but you could do Rach 1,” Mark offered. Well, I had gone and listened to it once and flipped through the score when I was considering it for my lecture recital, and it seemed attractive, doable and I’d never done it. This might be my only chance- people don’t usually ask you to do famously unpopular works.

When I finally opened the score last summer, I got a real shock. It had almost none of the qualities that made me love the 2nd Symphony so much- none of the amazing counterpoint, none of the miraculous voice-leading, and almost none of those great Rachmaninoff tunes. I was worried I’d just programmed a turkey.

Well, turkey or not, I was stuck with it, and got to studying, and soon I fell in love with it. It may even be a better piece than the 2nd Symphony. It is certainly a different piece- you have to experience it separate from your expectations of later Rachmaninoff to fully appreciate it.

Perhaps an apt comparison is with Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony- withdrawn under mortal threat for being too long, too dark and too experimental, the much more accessible Fifth that followed it proved to be his most popular piece. Shostakovich’s ironic subtitle, “A Soviet Artist’s Humble Reply to Just Criticism” was taken as sincere for many years.

Then, in the 1970’s, as Shostakovich’s many close friends and collaborators began to move to the West, and later as the USSR fell, it became clear that Shostakovich himself never thought of the Fourth as a failure or a wrong path- he changed out of necessity. Modern consensus today is the opposite of 30 years ago- the Fifth used to be the correction to the mistake of the Fourth, but today the Fourth is the pure, the hones, the real, and the Fifth is the expedient, the compromised, the necessary.

What both views miss is the fact that Shostakovich was a genius, and could write as a genius in any style- the Fifth and Fourth are both masterworks, and only a genius could say for certain which is the better of these two very different works.

Likewise, I think for the first two Rakmaninov symphonies. While the Second has that magical synthesis of melodic genius, perfection of contrapuntal craft and feels like a complete journey towards catharsis, the First has a more sophisticated formal design- it’s actually one of the most interesting cyclical symphonies I’ve ever studied, and a huge, overpowering force of energy.

Like Shostakovich 4, Rach 1, shows us a glimpse of the composer he didn’t become. The Rachmaninoff we ended up with was still melancholic, but never again was he the angry modernist he was in this piece. While most of his mature music shows the profound influence of Tchaikovsky, the First is permeated with the dark violence of the best of Mussorgsky (we’re opening the concert with Night on Bald Mountain).

On the final page of the score, Rakmaninov left the following dark inscription- “Vengeance is mine: I shall repay.” I think the ending of this piece is one of the great tragic finales of any symphony- a real symphonic cataclysm of Shakespearean proportions. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to writing a new ending!!!

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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7 comments on “Why you should come to my concert Saturday- Rach 1 Rules….”

  1. Robert Berger

    According to the stories I’ve heard, the performance was terrible. Glazunov was the conductor, and he did not like the symphony at all, and was drunk while conducting it !

  2. ComposerBastard

    “Glazunov was the conductor, and he did not like the symphony at all, and was drunk while conducting it !”

    Glazunov was always drunk. Perhaps he was sober during this experience?

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Robert is quite right, as is CB- Shostakovich’s memoirs are full of stories about Glazunov’s drinking. More to the point, Glazunov wasn’t really a conductor.

    The blessedly forgotten “composer” Cesar Cui (the one you always missed on music history exams when you had to list the “mighty handful” said of Rach 1-
    “ If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students was 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.[41]

  4. Zoltan

    Interesting comparison to Shosty, to look at this work as “how I would’ve written”. Though, I find “angry moments” in the second symphony too (first movement climax), the “Isle of the Dead”, the first Symphonic Dance (esp the return to the opening theme — love the contrabasoon pedal point!), or the dark brooding halfway in the first movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto (the slow rising of both piano and orchestra to the climax), you could be right that this piece is indeed different due to the history of its reception, and thus the developing of Rachmaninoff’s musical language.

    Definitely a great work to listen to! Even at first listening the motif from the start of the symphony is apparent. It’s really all over the piece. I wonder if it appears in all instruments?
    The tam-tam crash just before the end is mind-blowing (my neighobours should love it by now ;), when everything seems to fall apart (in D minor), and I feel that from the ashes the words “Vengeance is mine” appear in the last notes (in D major).

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan-

    It’s good to hear from you again- it’s been a while. I think I need to do more dark Russian pieces to get you to comment mroe often (I remember your comment on Haydn a few years ago!).

    It was an awfully great experience doing this piece- it really changed my outlook on SR…. The quotation at the end fascinates me- I can see that the appearance of the same quote in Anna Karenina is no accident, but I think there is more to it than that….


  6. Zoltan

    Always reading you, Ken!
    So, no surprise that I’m very happy that the local amateur orchestra I play in has an all-Russian program, with the dark and brooding Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Sadko” (the symphonice poem — now there’s a concert opener!) and M&R-S “Night on the Bald Mountain”, Tch’s “R+J” but also some lighter pieces, Borodin’s “Steppes…” and Glinka’s “Kamarinskaya”. And if you’re interested in more unknown piano concertos (like Dvorak’s, we talked about some time ago), Scriabin’s is a fantastic one! I really fell in love with the piece — it has the strongest finale of any piano concerto I heard until now. Perhaps you’ve done (some of) the pieces: Would love to hear more about them!

    As for Rach: Perhaps it’s about a lost love, A.L, who never appears again in his life. There’s “Capriccio bohemien” and the opera “Aleko” around the time of the writing of the First Symphony (both based on Gypsy themes), yet no more mentioning of A.L. again…

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan-

    I’ve done most of those, but not the Scriabin. Suzanne played for a recording of the Scriabin last year with CBSO, but they had to cut the final session short because someone in the neighborhood chopped through a power main and left the studio (and dozens of businesses and restaurants) in the dark. I haven’t seen the disc yet- I hope they had enough in the can to finish it….

    We do have a performance of the Steppes…. here on the website- just an extended excerpt, but it turned out well.
    I’ve always loved Rach, but I do feel like my sense of him has changed from doing the 1st. Doing Isle of the Dead this summer, which I’m very excited about.

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