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!!!