Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3
April 2 and 3, 2022
Audio Program Notes
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 Program Notes
by Artistic and Music Director Michael Christie
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909)
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in April 1873 in Northwest Russia and passed away in Beverley Hills, CA in 1943.
Rachmaninoff was born into a Russian aristocratic family that fell on hard times when he was a young boy. He started playing piano at 4 and his grandmother exposed him to music of the Russian Orthodox Church and Tchaikovsky, both important influences on the precocious musician.
Sergei had a rough start as a student but would eventually find his feet at the Moscow Conservatory, composing significant early works, concertizing and rising among the ranks of known composers of the day.
Following Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, a stunned Rachmaninoff would face a lack of inspiration to compose or perform. He resented teaching and faced significant rebuke from critics of new works. Ultimately he suffered from several years of depression and writer’s block that would partially break after an appointment as assistant conductor of the Moscow Private Russian Opera and success during a London tour.
His second piano concerto from 1900 followed therapy to improve his sleep patterns, mood and appetite. Success was inspiring but fleeting. He lived in Dresden, Germany for a time as political turmoil in Russia made it difficult for him to compose and ultimately began another period of professional successes and personal losses and insecurities.
Being drawn back to Russia was a reliable theme in Rachmaninoff’s life, and a combination of conducting and composing made it possible for him to survive there until the February and October 1917 Revolutions would call into question whether he could keep his family safe. A fortuitous invitation to perform throughout Scandinavia would be his ticket west and overcoming initial reluctance to settle in the United States would ultimately become his key to a stable upper middle class life in New York City from 1918. During this time he survived the Spanish Flu and famously chose Steinway pianos as his touring instrument.
He began a long association with RCA records but his heart truly belonged to Russia. He would regularly arrange to send money and food parcels to friends and family struggling there. Rachmaninoff also supported Russia’s war effort against Nazi Germany years later.
Demanding touring schedules after his arrival to the US in 1918 until 1943 left him little time to compose and only six works from this extended time period were produced including significant and popular works, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphonic Dances.
By the early 1940s, Rachmaninoff suffered from sclerosis, high blood pressure and headaches and under the advice of his doctors relocated to Beverly Hills, California where he would nurture friendships with Horowitz and Stravinsky, fellow Russians worried about war-torn Russia and Europe-based children.
He gave his final performances in February of 1943 in Chicago and Knoxville and died a month later of an aggressive form of melanoma, days short of his seventieth birthday.
Listeners anticipate several characteristics with Rachmaninoff’s concertos. The piano part is notoriously difficult and yet surprisingly clear to hear the frolicing interplay between the hands.
Rachmaninoff’s musical phrases are taut and he allows the performer and listener to breath calmly through the performance. Economy is key; Rachmaninoff doesn’t linger once he’s made his point and he doesn’t write with many layers that are difficult to keep track of. Finally, he is a master of judging the right time to build up to a grand climax and he never disappoints.
His third piano concerto, scored for large orchestra, is set in three movements. The first movement opens as if we are opening a door during a performance already under way.
It isn’t unusual for Rachmaninoff to treat the second movement of his piano concertos as lyrical displays for the entire orchestra. In this third concerto the movement begins with ravishing extended features for the woodwinds followed by the strings before the pianist joins the conversation.
There isn’t a pause between the second and third movements of this concerto. Lyricism abounds but we are launched back into episodes of technical brilliance and gorgeous climaxes. Rachmaninoff accelerates in the final seconds of the work virtually guaranteeing a wild reception from the audience.
Scott Joplin – excerpts from Treemonisha (1911)
Born into a musical family of railway laborers in Texarkana, Texas in 1868 and trained early on by a German-born American Jewish music professor, Julius Weiss, Scott Joplin would become an integral force in the evolution of “ragtime” music that swept the United States in the late 1800s, spurred on by success at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Joplin’s traveling musician biography is missing a great deal about dates, places and reactions, but his performances and education in Sedalia, MO, about ninety miles east of Kansas City are more clearly documented. He wrote his famous “Maple Leaf Rag” there around 1898. It would serve as a model for future rags and contributed significantly to being crowned the “King of rag time writers.” Whilst living in St. Louis he produced some of his best-known works, including “The Entertainer” and “March Majestic.”
Scott Joplin also composed two operas, A Guest of Honor and Treemonisha. He self-funded both undertakings with heartbreaking results. The first was undermined by an associate who stole the box office receipts during a national tour, and Treemonisha (Joplin’s second opera), stalled in New York because of a lack of financial backers. Indeed, Joplin ran up against the field of art music closed to African Americans. Treemonisha would not be produced in Joplin’s lifetime. He died of neurosyphilis in New York in 1917, aged 48 years.
Scott Joplin’s unmarked pauper’s grave would be given a marker after Paul Newman’s and Robert Redford’s 1974 Oscar winning film, “The Sting”, featured Joplin’s music.
For Treemonisha, Joplin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1976, fifty-nine years after his death.
Treemonisha was written in 1911 and given its first complete performance in 1972. Joplin intended for it to be both a “serious” opera and an entertaining piece of music. Some refer to the work as a “ragtime opera,” but its diverse musical language, set with typical operatic structures such as arias, choruses and ballet is too much of a musical chameleon to rest only on one style. It was heralded early on as an “entirely new phase of musical art, and… a thoroughly American opera.”
The opera celebrates African-American music and culture while stressing the salvation of education. Joplin’s biographers note parallels with his musical upbringing under the tutelage of Weiss and encounters with many others in his life as they consider Treemonisha’s story line.
Musical excerpts in this performance include a dance scene of strange creatures surrounding a bound Treemonisha called the “Frolic of the Bears.” Following is a sung “lecture” about good and evil called “Wrong is Never Right.” The brief suite ends with the Prelude to Act 3, that takes place in an abandoned plantation.
Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52 (1907)
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, during the last half century of Finland’s status as an autonomous region of the Russian Empire. He was an accomplished violinist, having set his goals to become a virtuoso soloist. Ultimately, he felt his late start learning violin was too much of a hindrance to achieving the necessary array of skills to succeed on the international stage. Sibelius was initially a self-taught composer, writing short works for family members, but built a distinguished inner circle during his University years and numerous international travels.
He and his young wife Aino honeymooned in the Karelia district in eastern Finland, and it was here that he became immersed in Finnish folklore through the collection of poetry known as the Kalevala. Many of his works draw directly from this epic source of Finnish folk history. As a result of the striking synthesis of symphonic music and the well-known legends, Sibelius’ celebrity increased in Finland and abroad. Throughout his life, he was sought after as a conductor of his own works.
Like so many artists through the years, even early celebrity didn’t yield the stability necessary to refine his burgeoning skills. In 1898, however, a substantial annual grant from the government allowed him to focus his attention on composing new works. With many patriotic works already widely known he embarked on the first of seven symphonies. The Russian emperor at the time, Nicholas II had set out to restrict the powers of the Grand Duchy of Finland, but the course was set for Sibelius and his patriotic music elevated him to the status of national hero.
Sibelius was a complicated person. He was away from home a great deal performing concerts and enjoying the post-performance lifestyle of decadent meals, drinks and smoking. This had a devastating impact on his wife, but her recovery from exhaustion in 1907 allowed him to refocus and reign in his excessive lifestyle. He is thought to have suffered from an essential tremor in his hand and relied on alcohol as self-medication. Excessive drinking would be a hurdle throughout his life and rear its head during subsequent years.
During pre-World War I years he continued to concertize and renewed happiness at home prevailed. The Russian Revolution of 1917 proved to be another decisive patriotic moment for Sibelius and his Jäger March was particularly popular when the Finnish parliament declared independence from Russia in December of that year.
In the years following World War 1 Sibelius was offered teaching positions and presided over performances of his works throughout Europe and North America. For a time, he was the embodiment of the vitality and creativity of the Finnish people. Until the Finnish Markka was replaced by the Euro, Sibelius’ face was seen on the 100 mark bill, the equivalent of the US $20.
In 1926 he composed his seventh symphony and would produce only a few works in his remaining 30 years. Aino reported that in the mid 1940s Jean burned a laundry basket full of his manuscripts, and it is speculated any parts of the long-awaited eighth symphony went up in smoke in the dining room fireplace.
From 1941 until his death of a brain hemorrhage in 1957, Aino and Jean Sibelius lived almost exclusively at their home north of Helsinki. This “Silence of Järvenpää” was mythologized, and certainly referred to intense interest about any new music from the aging musical titan.
Sibelius is quoted saying “for each of my symphonies I have developed a special technique. It can’t be something superficial, it has to be something that has been lived through.” This notion can be a hurdle for listeners because we naturally desire a continuation of appealing things. Sibelius has a distinctive musical voice but the goals of each work stand alone from the others. The third symphony follows the first and second’s intensely romantic disposition with a certain level of restraint in terms of structure and what some may consider a “classical” atmosphere.
The third is composed for a fairly large orchestra, but Sibelius takes care to allow sections to be heard clearly and a sense of propulsion buoying the large forces.
The first movement’s main theme is immediately introduced by the cellos and basses and is passed through the orchestra in strong but good-natured development. As one would find in a classical era symphony there is a distinct development section featuring a plaintive bassoon solo accompanied by violas ever in motion and a heroic return to the main theme, the recapitulation.
The second movement is a nocturne, inspired by the night. Listen for distant horn calls supporting the restrained melody in the flutes.
Sibelius’ grand plan for the third may have been the classical compactness that frames the work but would also include a clear desire to blur lines between movements. The “third movement” is a perfect example of these blurred lines. The oboe introduces the initial theme. Although the momentum of the music doesn’t stop, it is easy to feel that the instruments struggle to hand-off material to each other and the violins interject in a way that feels impatient for a more raucous scherzo to develop.
An intensifying overlap of musical material yields to the heroic arrival of the “finale” theme in the violas.
Although the third symphony is noted for compactness in relation to the grand second symphony, there is no shortage of heroic climaxes.
On a personal note, I conducted this symphony in the final round of the First International Sibelius Conductor’s Competition in Helsinki in 1995, just before my 21st birthday. I won a prize for Outstanding Potential and it launched my professional career. I connect deeply with its resolve, its sense of propulsion, and its desire to tell a dramatic story in a way that suspends our sense of time.
© 2022. Michael Christie