|Rachmaninov & Franck|
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. The staccato second theme, introduced by the strings, is converted by the piano into a flowing lyrical, endless melody that increases the emotional tension by delaying the cadence. 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, followed with a variation by the orchestra and finally by the soloist in the major mode. 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. 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. &
The third movement is in modified sonata form, using a transformation of the second theme from the first movement in a comparable role here. 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. In a surprise move, a broad romantic melody of entirely new music announces the conclusion.
Symphony in D minor
A Belgian by birth who lived and taught most of his life in France, César Franck was one of the most influential music teachers of the period and a famous organist. Although he enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire at age 15, his maturation as a composer came late in life – he composed his most lasting compositions while in his 50s and 60s. Franck was an easy-going, unassuming person, who never knew how to promote his works. As a result, much of his music was either ignored during his lifetime or derided by the doctrinaire academicians. He achieved worldwide recognition only in the twentieth century. But his students adored him, calling him “Pater seraphicus,” and his influence on the future of French music was enormous. He was appointed in 1871 as professor of organ at the Conservatoire, but his classes evolved into de facto composition classes for the succeeding generation of major French composers, including Vincent d’Indy, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson and Paul Dukas.
The Symphony in D minor was a late work. Franck was reluctant to try his hand at a symphony and, ironically, it was the success of his pupil Vincent d’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air in 1887 that encouraged him to try his hand at one as well. He finished it in 1888 and it premiered in the following year. The Symphony was a dismal failure. Critics, music professors and in particular composer Charles Gounod lambasted it as: “...the affirmation of impotence carried to the point of dogma.” A pedantic teacher at the conservatory decided that the work could not be called a symphony at all because of the English horn solo in the second movement. “Who ever heard of writing for an English horn in a symphony?” he asserted (Wrongly, by the way; Haydn had two in his Symphony No. 22 and Hector Berlioz, another Frenchman no less, opens the slow movement of the Symphonie fantastique with one of the most famous English horn solos in the repertory (FYI, Dvorák composed the Symphony No. 9 in 1893, after Franck’s.)
The Symphony digresses from the classical form in other ways as well. It has only three movements and its structure is cyclical – all the themes recur towards the end, a method widely used by Franz Liszt, one of Franck’s models, and a feature of some of his other works, particularly the Violin Sonata. The opening three-note phrase of the slow introduction is a variant of the famous opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s last quartet (Op. 135) where he wrote Muss es sein? (Must it be?) above the notes. Liszt had also used the phrase in the opening of the tone poem Les Preludes.
Franck opens the Symphony with slow, foreboding statements of the motive, later expanding it into a full-fledged theme in an aggressive, even threatening transformation in the Allegro. The movement vacillates between the two tempi. There are only two themes in this movement, the second a contrasting, but equally strong-willed, lyrical melody. The movement is something of a pitched battle between the two themes; the fact that they resemble each other in rhythm and in their constituent motives makes it easier to make them compete head to head. In the end, the first one wins out, although resolving in D major.
The second movement opens with a haunting theme on the harp and pizzicato strings playing pianissimo. The “notorious” English horn takes up the melody, which is completed by the horn. Franck uses the theme as a refrain between a series of new melodies, & which he combines melodically and contrapuntally into the original theme at the end of the movement.
The final movement opens with a melody in D major and a contrasting secondary one. Soon, however, the “English horn” theme from the previous movement recurs. This is no example of cyclical tokenism. Rather, Franck incorporates all three themes together, contrasting them in the kind of dappled effect of sunlight and shade one gets on a partly cloudy day. The climax of the movement occurs with the full orchestra playing the “English horn theme” against a counterpoint of violins. Franck then brings in a repeat of the second theme from the first movement. The Symphony concludes with a restatement of the opening three-note motive from the first movement, setting up the triumphant conclusion.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019|