Utah Symphony

History of the Music

History of the Music

Hamilton Park Interiors

By Jeff Counts

Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14

Duration: 6 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873–1943) – That Rachmaninoff is remembered best today as a virtuoso pianist and a composer of multiple evergreen masterpieces for his chosen instrument is perhaps no surprise. The concertos. The études. The Preludes. These would be load-bearing columns for any legacy. But they are only part of Rachmaninoff’s history. He was gifted with one of the purest melodic souls of his or any time, and he also used it to create stunning orchestral scores (including the symphonies, Isle of the Dead, and Symphonic Dances) and a surprising amount of vocal music. In addition to six operas (some completed, some only planned, all sadly forgotten now), Rachmaninoff wrote several choral works and some 80 songs for solo voice.

THE HISTORY – 13 of the 14 lieder that make up the Op. 34 set of songs were written in 1912, but the final number was completed three years later in 1915. As the closing part of the set, No. 14 (Vocalise) stands out at first glance for the wordlessness that fueled its eventual ubiquity. In fact, it has been argued that the entirety of Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous and lengthy song catalogue would be a standard part of the repertory if not for their Russian language, and the popularity of the culturally neutral Vocalise seems to prove it. Rachmaninoff wrote the song for the star coloratura soprano Antonina Nezhdanova of the Moscow Grand Opera. She initially balked at the lack of text, but the composer convinced her that, in her capable care, the music required no such context and that the single syllable of “Ah” was enough. “What need is there of words,” he asked her, “when you will be able to convey everything better and more expressively…by your voice”. That smart bit of flattery settled matters and the 1916 premiere was very well received. By then, Rachmaninoff had already converted the piano accompaniment into an orchestral score to be conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky’s connection to the Vocalise goes even further. Thanks to some recent scholarship on the publication history of the song, we now know that the famed maestro (a good friend to the composer and virtuoso string instrumentalist in his own right) performed the Vocalise previously in December of 1915 on the double bass! No recording of that night exists, unfortunately, so it must remain the stuff of letters and legend. We can still enjoy the prophecy of that event, however, as Koussevitzky’s rendition predicted the countless arrangements, for nearly every instrument imaginable, that have come since. Rachmaninoff’s own orchestral version (without soloist) was penned right after the official premiere.

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1915, war raged across Europe, but it was also a year of great art in every discipline. Kafka published his masterpiece The Metamorphosis, Picasso produced his oil on canvas Harlequin, and Sibelius premiered his 5th Symphony.

THE CONNECTION – Utah Symphony last performed Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise it in 2019 with Thierry Fischer on the podium.

Concerto No. 2 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 18

Duration: 33 minutes in three movements.

THE COMPOSER – SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943) – The 1897 premiere of Rachmaninoff’s 1st Symphony was a disaster. By one account the conductor (Alexander Glazunov) was severely intoxicated but by all accounts, he was truly awful on the podium. Conductors aren’t typically blamed for the failure of a premiere, however. Composers must own that alone. “Forgive me,” Rimsky-Korsakov reportedly said about the piece, “but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” It was, by far, the nicest of the many published comments on the Symphony. The failure threw Rachmaninoff into a deep depression that resulted in a three-year compositional drought. The turn of the century found him splitting time between piano performance and opera conducting.

THE HISTORY – Today, Rachmaninoff’s most enduring masterpiece is the 2nd Piano Concerto. It is a work that might never have been written if not for the interventions of Dr. Nikolai Dahl. Dahl was a Moscow physician and amateur chamber musician who had an interest in hypnosis therapy. The existence of that hypnosis fascination has led to some rather wild conjecture regarding the nature of Dahl’s “treatment” of Rachmaninoff’s malaise. The two men began meeting daily in early 1900 and though it is tempting to imagine the composer drawn out of his depression under the spell of a pendulating pocket watch, it is much more likely that the highly cultured doctor cured Rachmaninoff with a generous blend of conversation and positive suggestion. However he did it, Dahl’s efforts worked. Rachmaninoff began to sleep better, eat more, drink less and, most importantly, compose again. The project that would benefit first from this restored confidence was the 2nd Piano Concerto, which would be appropriately dedicated to “Monsieur N. Dahl.” The second and third movements of the new concerto were finished later that same year and performed to great success, even without the iconic opening movement, in Moscow. This was an important moment, as Rachmaninoff’s newly bolstered self-image probably still had an element of fragility to it. He need not have worried. As the reception in Moscow proved, he was on to something special with the 2nd Concerto. Completed in 1901, the full work was a lush, agreeable and instantly popular declaration of Rachmaninoff’s maturing voice. References in popular culture to this music are almost too numerous to count, but the films Brief Encounter (1945) and The Seven Year Itch (1955) as well as Frank Sinatra’s Full Moon and Empty Arms certainly make the case for its legendary status as boundary-breaking art.

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1901, the first Nobel Prize ceremony occurred in Sweden, Queen Victoria died in Britain, the Commonwealth of Australia was created, and US President William McKinley was assassinated.

THE CONNECTION – The 2nd Concerto is Rachmaninoff’s most frequently programmed work. Utah Symphony last performed it in 2019 with Thierry Fischer on the podium and Alexander Gavrylyuk as soloist.

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 70 (“Pathétique”)

Duration: 46 minutes in three movements.

THE COMPOSER – PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) – Tchaikovsky’s last years were colored by the fact that he recognized them as such and his earlier preoccupation with fate had to make room for a new one—mortality. This mindset did not create the maudlin atmosphere one might have expected, especially if virtually any previous period of his life was allowed to serve as guide. Instead, much of Tchaikovsky’s late work benefited from an uncharacteristic run of good spirits. It was a time of legacy, not lethargy, and he was as sharp compositionally as he had ever been. In addition to the 6th Symphony, two operas and the unfinished 3rd Piano Concerto, this period included the ballets Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

THE MUSIC – First, a word about the subtitle. “Pathétique” in its Russian form does not mean what it does in English. Hardly “pathetic” or “pitiable,” in this context it was intended to conjure an “enthusiastic,” “passionate,” and “emotional” experience. It is also worth noting that the 4th Symphony had a specific program attached to it while the 5th did not (an admittedly nebulous fact that has not kept biographers over the years from attempting to assign one). The 6th Symphony most certainly did have a program, but unlike the 4th, it was not at all specific and therefore subject to at least as much ongoing speculation as the 5th. The fact that Tchaikovsky originally called the 6th his “Program Symphony” hasn’t helped the debate in any way, because it did not mean that he planned to share the story with the world. He envisioned it from the start as an enigma and when considering the questions of future curious listeners, he simply wrote, “let them guess.” Other than a mention that the symphony was “saturated with subjective feeling,” the specifics of the program are with him still. The only thing we know now without doubt is that he held his Symphony No. 6 in very high regard. “[It is] the most sincere of all my creations” he wrote in a letter at the time, “I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical offspring.” The structure of the “Pathétique” is unique and the juxtaposition of the third and last movements is particularly daring, even for today. The third movement is a march that builds to an incredible level of excitement and is so effective in its rousing climax that audiences, nearly without exception, still applaud luxuriously at the end of it. The ensuing finale is a patient funereal dream and fittingly, given Tchaikovsky’s matter-of-fact view of death and the beyond, it simply disappears into itself without comment or conclusion.

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published The Final Problem (the story that ends with the death of Sherlock Holmes) and New Zealand became the world’s first self-governing nation to give women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

THE CONNECTION – Tchaikovsky 6 has not been programmed by the Utah Symphony on the Masterworks Series since 2019. Thierry Fischer conducted.

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