Rachmaninov No. 3
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique

This Symphony was Tchaikovsky’s final completed work, premiered to a lukewarm reception on October 28, 1893 only nine days before the composer’s death from cholera. Although its emotional intensity and title, Pathétique, suggest that this was yet another manifestation of the composer’s periodic depression, or even a foreshadowing of his own death, the fact remains that Tchaikovsky was extremely pleased with this work from the moment he set to work on it. At the symphony’s second performance, as part of a memorial service for the composer, the audience seems to have suddenly perceived its significance, and it has remained a favorite ever since.

Tchaikovsky’s original conception was that the symphony should have a program, much like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, but he refused to specify what the program was, wanting the listener to guess it. His early, and by now well-known, scenario for the program reads: “The ultimate essence of the plan…is LIFE. First movement–all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH – result of collapse). Second movement, love, third, disappointment, fourth ends dying away (also short).” The final version can be understood to conform to this program only in part, and then only in the first and fourth movements. That it bears little resemblance to the final version of the music is clear even at a first hearing.

Still intending to call his work a “program” symphony, Tchaikovsky accepted his brother Modest’s suggestion of the Russian patetichesky, which the publisher insisted on translating into French, still the language of the Russian aristocracy and intelligentsia. The English reader, however, should be aware that the adjective pathétique actually means “highly emotional” and does not have the derogatory connotation of  “pathetic.”

The Symphony opens with a low bassoon solo introducing the first theme in a ponderous and pessimistic adagio. Example 1 The melody is then taken up in a nervous allegro and repeated by the successive sections of the orchestra. Example 2 The emotional turmoil, however, is resolved in the second theme, among the most famous in the canon of memorable Tchaikovsky melodies. Example 3 The theme was specifically meant to be a transformation of Don José’s “flower aria” from Carmen – giving a hint as to the composer’s emotional take on love. Example 4

The second movement is a “waltz” in 5/4 time, giving the impression of alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4. Example 5  Strangely enough, this meter works as a waltz, for despite its limping quality, one can imagine the alternating foreshortened 2/4 bars used for a lift or emotive pause, if the movement were actually to be used for dancing. It is a hybrid of a classical minuet and trio, or scherzo – with two themes and a series of repeats – and a ternary (ABA) song form customary for slow movements. The Trio (or B section), which proceeds with a constant timpani ostinato in the background, darkens the ballroom atmosphere. Example 6

Like the first movement, the third is best known for its second theme, a sprightly march, Example 7 which follows a scurrying opening theme in rapid triplets, out of which one can already hear hints of the march theme. Example 8 As in the second movement, however, the composer utilizes an unusual metrical structure, creating an ambiguity between duple and triple time by composing the march in 12/8 time. The movement, in G major, seems almost to begin backwards with a series of themes in the relative e minor that gradually lead into the march theme in the principal key.

The Finale can be interpreted as taking up the symphony’s original program. The opening theme, a series of short breathless, sighing motives, is a variation of the first theme of the opening movement and has the identical underlying harmony. Example 9 A programmatic interpretation of the movement suggests anxious struggle – in the rising sequences – and resignation upon the approach of the nothingness of death. It is particularly noteworthy in the history of symphonic finales in both its lugubrious tempo and fatalistic pessimism.
Sergey Rachmaninov 1873-1943
Sergey Rachmaninov
Sergey Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

Following the success of his Second Piano Concerto in 1901, Sergey Rachmaninov’s career took off and evolved successfully in three directions. He continued to compose, including his Symphony No. 2 in 1906-07, he traveled extensively both at home and in Western Europe as a virtuoso pianist, and he was a sought-after conductor. He tried to apportion his time evenly among the three.

Rachmaninov composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909 for a long-planned first tour of the United States where he would be featured in the exhausting capacity of wearing all three hats. He was ambivalent about the tour and significantly pressed for time. He did not begin the Concerto until June, taking with him a silent keyboard on which he practiced assiduously during the crossing. The tour and the Concerto were an artistic and financial success. And just as Haydn had been wooed to make his permanent home in London after the success of his “Salomon,” or “London,” symphonies, both the Boston and Cincinnati Symphonies offered Rachmaninov their podiums, which he turned down. Ironically, in 1917, he was forced into exile in Paris, his fortune confiscated and his estate demolished during the violence of the Russian revolution. He continued to tour the Untied States, primarily as pianist, and with the imminence of war in Europe in 1939, he eventually relocated with his family in Beverly Hills where he died.

The Concerto premiered on November 28, 1909 with the New York Orchestra under Walter Damrosch and repeated two months later with the same orchestra under Gustav Mahler. Unfortunately, we know nothing of what transpired between these two giants. The Concerto gained immediate and enduring popularity, especially with pianists. It requires immense stamina from the soloist and attests to the composer’s melodic inventiveness and to his outstanding pianistic abilities.

The opening movement is particularly rich in thematic material with new ideas and moods introduced throughout. Over the throbbing orchestra, the piano enters on the third measure with a sad melody of narrow range, the melancholy mood prevailing throughout the elaborate development of the theme. Example 1 The staccato second theme, introduced by the strings, Example 2 is converted by the piano into a flowing lyrical, endless melody that increases the emotional tension by delaying the cadence. Example 3 The extremely long written-out cadenza takes nearly a third of the entire movement and is briefly joined halfway through first by a flute, then by the other woodwinds. Finally, the opening theme returns and the movement ends in a whisper.

The Intermezzo is a fantasy on a single theme presented first on the oboe, Example 4 followed with a variation by the orchestra and finally by the soloist in the major mode. Example 5 The orchestra and piano continue in numerous permutations and variations that vacillate between moodiness and passion. A faster and livelier waltz-like variation, a duet between the piano and solo clarinet, brightens the mood towards the end of the movement. Example 6 But the oboe leads the movement back to the opening mood, interrupted by an exuberant display of pianistic brilliance that leads without pause into the Finale. Example 7 & Example 8

The third movement is in modified sonata form, using a transformation of the second theme from the first movement in a comparable role here. Example 9 Rachmaninov saves the most sparkling writing for the piano in this culminating movement. It includes several elaborately decorated variations on both the opening and second themes. Example 10 In a surprise move, a broad romantic melody of entirely new music announces the conclusion. Example 11

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016