2015-2016 Subscription Series February 13 and 14, 2016 Program Notes By Dr. Richard E. Rodda RHAPSODY ON A THEME OF PAGANINI FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA, Op. 43 (1934) Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) The legend of Nicolò Paganini has haunted musicians for nearly two centuries. Gaunt, his emaciated figure cloaked in priestly black, Paganini performed feats of wizardry on the violin that were simply unimagined until he burst upon the European concert scene in 1805. Not only were his virtuoso pyrotechnics unsurpassed, but his performance of simple melodies was of such purity and sweetness that it moved his audiences to tears. So far was he beyond the competition that he seemed almost, well, superhuman. Perhaps, the rumor spread, he had special powers, powers not of this earth. Perhaps, Faust-like, he had exchanged his soul for the mastery of his art. The legend (propagated and fostered, it is now known, by Paganini himself) had begun. Paganini, like most virtuoso instrumentalists of the 19th century, composed much of his own music. Notable among his oeuvre are the breathtaking Caprices for Unaccompanied Violin, works so difficult that even today they are accessible only to the most highly accomplished performers. The last of the Caprices, No. 24 in A minor, served as the basis for compositions by Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, and was also the inspiration for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Rachmaninoff’s work is a series of variations on this theme, which is characterized as much by its recurrent rhythm (five short notes followed by a longer one) as by its melody. Taking his cue from the Paganini legend, Rachmaninoff combined another melody with that of the demonic violinist — the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) from the Requiem Mass for the Dead. This ancient chant tune had long been connected not only with the Roman Catholic Church service, but also with musical works containing some diabolical element. Berlioz associated it with the witches’ sabbath in his Symphonie Fantastique, Liszt used it in his Totentanz (“Dance of Death”), Saint-Saëns in his Danse macabre, and Rachmaninoff himself in his earlier Isle of the Dead. In devising a scenario for a 1937 ballet based on the Paganini Rhapsody, Rachmaninoff wrote to the choreographer Mikhail Fokine describing the program he had in mind for the
work: “Why not resurrect the legend about Paganini, who, for the perfection of his art and for a woman, sold his soul to an evil spirit? All the variations which have the theme of Dies Irae [Nos. 7, 10, 24] represent the evil spirit. The variations from No. 11 to No. 18 are love episodes. Paganini himself appears in the ‘theme’ (his first appearance) and again, for the last time, in variation No. 23. The evil spirit appears for the first time in variation No. 7. Variations Nos. 8, 9 and 10 are the development of the evil spirit. Variation No. 11 is the turning point into the domain of love. Variation No. 12 — the Menuet — portrays the first appearance of the woman. Variation No. 13 is the first conversation between the woman and Paganini. Variation No. 19 — Paganini’s triumph.” The Rhapsody, a brilliant showpiece for virtuoso pianist, is a set of 24 variations. The work begins with a brief, eight-measure introduction followed, before the theme itself is heard, by the first variation, a skeletal outline of the melody reminiscent of the pizzicato opening of the variation-finale of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. The theme, 24 measures in length, is stated by the unison violins. The following variations fall into three groups, corresponding to the fast–slow–fast sequence of the traditional three-movement concerto. The most familiar section of the Rhapsody, and one of the great melodies in the orchestral literature, is the climax of the middle section. This variation, No. 18, actually an inversion of Paganini’s theme, has a broad sweep and nobility of sentiment unsurpassed anywhere in Rachmaninoff’s works. The Rhapsody was an immediate success at its 1934 premiere, and became one of the staples of Rachmaninoff’s concert tours in this country and abroad during the last decade of his life. During those final years, he returned twice more in his compositions to the Dies Irae as a musical reminder of life’s transience, employing it in his Third Symphony (1937) and the Symphonic Dances of 1941, his last work. The ancient melody had become for him a musical motto representing his brooding and fatalistic frame of mind. It seems therefore fitting that the Paganini Rhapsody in which it figures so prominently was the last work he played in public with orchestra, only two months before his death.
SYMPHONIC DANCES, Op. 45 (1940) Sergei Rachmaninoff Above the score for the first movement of his Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff wrote the curious indication, “Non allegro.” Now, virtually all of the music written during the last
four centuries bears some similar inscription as an instruction to the performers about the work’s tempo. What is unusual here is the negative instruction implied by “Non allegro.” Musically speaking, “Allegro” simply means “fast,” but “not fast” (slow? medium? very fast?) is frustratingly ambiguous, and it may be that with this unusual heading Rachmaninoff was trying to convey a message greater than merely the speed of the music. When tempo markings first came into common use around 1600, they employed the lingua franca of the art — Italian. Originally, these markings indicated the mood and spirit of a work rather than its precise tempo. (Metronomes to measure exact speed were not invented until Beethoven’s time, and the method of determining tempo by heart beats suggested by certain 17th-century theorists was inherently problematic.) “Largo,” for example, means “wide, broad”; “Grave,” “heavy, stern, serious”; “Adagio,” “at ease”; “Andante,” “walking”; and “Allegro” means “cheerful, merry, happy.” If Rachmaninoff’s indication is interpreted in this wider sense, it means “not cheerful” or “unhappy,” and this seems to be as much a guide to the man himself as to his Symphonic Dances. The word that most easily attaches to Rachmaninoff and his music is “melancholy.” His photographs, invariably unsmiling, tell of the basic strain of sadness inherent in his personality. It is said that the only time he laughed or showed any joy was among his family and his most intimate Russian friends, and even then, only rarely. Perhaps he never fully recovered from the complete failure of his First Symphony in 1897. Of that painful experience he wrote, “The despair that filled my soul would not leave me. My dreams of a brilliant career lay shattered. My hopes and confidences were destroyed.... When the indescribable torture of this performance at last came to an end, I was a different man.” He suffered a nervous collapse as a result of the fiasco, and was treated in Moscow by Dr. Nicholas Dahl, whose technique of hypnotic auto-suggestion (“I will compose again. I will be successful,” intoned Rachmaninoff for hours on end) proved effective in reviving the composer’s self-confidence, if not in altering his basic pessimism. World War I, of course, was a trial for Rachmaninoff and his countrymen, but his most severe personal adversity came when the 1917 Revolution smashed the aristocratic society of Russia — the only world he had ever known. He was forced to flee his beloved country, leaving behind family and financial security. He pined for his homeland the rest of his life, and did his best to keep the old language, food, customs and holidays alive in his own household. “But it was at best synthetic,” wrote David Ewen. “Away from Russia, which he
could never hope to see again, he always felt lonely and sad, a stranger even in lands that were ready to be hospitable to him. His homesickness assumed the character of a disease as the years passed, and one symptom of that disease was an unshakable melancholy.” By 1940, when he composed the Symphonic Dances, he was filled with worry over his daughter Tatiana, who was trapped in France by the German invasion (he never saw her again), and had been weakened by a minor operation in May. Still, he felt the need to compose for the first time since the Third Symphony of 1936. The three Symphonic Dances were written quickly at his summer retreat on Long Island Sound, an idyllic setting for creative work, where he had a studio by the water in which to work in seclusion, lovely gardens for walking, and easy access to a ride in his new cabin cruiser, one of his favorite amusements. Still, it was the man and not the setting that was expressed in this music. “I try to make music speak directly and simply that which is in my heart at the time I am composing,” he once told an interviewer. “If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.” It is nostalgic sadness that permeates the works of Rachmaninoff’s later years. Like a grim marker, the ancient chant Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead courses through the Paganini Rhapsody (1934), the Second (1908) and Third (1936) Symphonies and the Symphonic Dances (1940). The Symphonic Dances were his last important creation, coming less than three years before his death from cancer at age 70. After they were done, he lamented that he no longer had the “strength and fire” to compose. “I don’t know what happened,” he told a friend about them. “That was probably my last flicker.” Despite all, however, there is nothing morbid about the Symphonic Dances. They breathe a spirit of dark determination against a world of trial, a hard-fought musical affirmation of the underlying resiliency of life. Received with little enthusiasm when they were new, these Dances have come to be regarded as among the finest of Rachmaninoff’s works. When he was composing them, Rachmaninoff may have had an eye toward producing the Symphonic Dances as a ballet. Even before the orchestration was completed, he called in the renowned Michael Fokine, who had successfully choreographed the Paganini Rhapsody. After hearing the composer play his new piece on the piano, Fokine told him he liked the music very much, but felt it held little balletic promise. It is only the second movement
(subtitled “Tempo di valse”) that bears a clear relationship to a particular dance type, while those flanking it are more symphonic in substance and form. Once he had been discouraged from a stage presentation of these movements, Rachmaninoff dropped their temporary titles of “Midday,” “Twilight” and “Midnight” — which may have been philosophical references to the ages of man — and never said another word about the programmatic intent of the music. He was proud of the Symphonic Dances, both as music and as accomplishment, and he wrote the appreciative phrase “I thank thee, Lord” on the last page of the manuscript. The first of the Symphonic Dances, in a large three-part form (A–B–A), is spun from a tiny three-note descending motive heard at the beginning that serves as the germ for much of the opening section’s thematic material. The middle portion is given over to a folk-like melody initiated by the alto saxophone. The return of the opening section, with its distinctive falling motive, rounds out the first movement. The waltz of the second movement was inspired by the music of Tchaikovsky rather than by that of the Strauss family. It is more rugged and deeply expressive than the Viennese variety, and possesses the quality of inconsolable pathos that gives so much of Rachmaninoff’s music its sharply defined personality. The finale begins with a sighing introduction for the winds, which leads into a section in quicker tempo whose vital rhythms may have been influenced by the syncopations of American jazz. Soon after this faster section begins, the chimes play a pattern reminiscent of the opening phrase of the Dies Irae chant. The sighing measures recur and are considerably extended, acquiring new thematic material but remaining unaltered in mood. When the fast, jazz-inspired music returns, its thematic relationship with the Dies Irae is strengthened. The movement accumulates an almost visceral rhythmic energy as it progresses, virtually exploding into the last pages, a coda based on an ancient Russian Orthodox chant (which he had earlier used in his All-Night Vigil Service of 1915) whose entry Rachmaninoff noted by inscribing “Alliluya” in the score. Was a specific message intended here? As the Alliluya succeeds the Dies Irae, did the composer mean to show that the Church conquers death? Optimism, sadness? Rachmaninoff was silent on the matter, except to say, “A composer always has his own ideas of his works, but I do not believe he ever should reveal them. Each listener should find his own meaning in the music.”