Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra
(b. Oranienbaum [near St. Petersburg], Russia, 1882; d. New York City, 1971)
Composed for piano in 1914-1915 and 1916-1917; orchestrated in 1921.
Premiered on April 12, 1929 in Cincinnati, conducted by Fritz Reiner
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion, piano and strings.
Duration: approximately 6 minutes.
Stravinsky wrote his Eight Easy Pieces for piano duet in two sets: one in 1914-1915, the other in 1916-1917. In arranging what became the Second Suite for Small Orchestra, he took three short movements from the earlier group of piano pieces that were intended as caricatures of his friends Diaghilev, Satie and the Italian composer Alfredo Casella. Stravinsky wrote that he pictured Diaghilev in the Polka as "a circus ring-master in evening dress and top hat, cracking his whip and urging on a rider on horseback." The Valse, Stravinsky recalled in Dialogues and a Diary, is "in homage to Erik Satie, a souvenir of a visit with him in Paris. Satie had suddenly become old and white, a very touching figure for whom I felt profound sympathy. I wrote this little ice cream wagon Valse for him." Stravinsky, who was never given to modesty, credited the saucy little March he composed for Alfredo Casella with having a direct influence on Casella's espousal of neo-classicism. To the March, Valse, and Polka, Stravinsky added a Galop from the later set of Easy Pieces to complete the Second Suite. This Galop, Stravinsky wrote, "is a caricature of the St. Petersburg Folies Bergères, which I had watched in the Tumpakov, a semi-respectable nightclub in the Astrava, the islands in the Neva."
Concerto No. 2 in G Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 22
(b. Paris, 1835; d. Algiers, 1921)
Composed in 1868.
Premiered on May 13, 1868 in Paris, with the composer as soloist and conducted by Anton Rubinstein.
Instrumentation: pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, timpani, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 24 minutes.
Camille Saint-Saëns was the renaissance man among the great Romantic composers. His interests extended well beyond music to include the sciences (especially astronomy), theater, drawing and caricature, archeology, poetry, mathematics and literature. Philip Hale, the noted critic, gave a memorable sketch of him: "He was of less than average height, thin, nervous, sick-faced, with a great and exposed forehead, hair habitually short, beard frosted. His eyes were almost level with his face. His eagle-beak would have excited the admiration of Sir Charles Napier, who once exclaimed: 'Give me a man with plenty of nose.' Irritable, whimsical, ironical, paradoxical, indulging in sudden changes of opinion, he was faithful to his friends, appreciative of certain rivals, kindly disposed toward young composers, zealous in practical assistance as well as verbal encouragement. [He was] a man that knew the world and sparkled in conversation; fond of society; at ease and on equal terms with leaders in art, literature, fashion."
In addition to Saint-Saëns' other abilities, he was also a master pianist who filled his five concertos for that instrument with imposing technical challenges and then dazzled his audiences by the ease with which he handled them. His fluency at the keyboard was paralleled by the facility with which he was able to compose, a characteristic nowhere better seen than in his Concerto No. 2, which was produced in only seventeen days. Saint-Saëns left an account of the work's genesis: "I happened to be at a concert with the great pianist Anton Rubinstein in the Salle Pleyel when he said to me, 'I haven't conducted an orchestra in Paris yet. Let's put on a concert that will give me the opportunity of taking the baton.' 'With pleasure,' I answered. We asked when the Salle Pleyel would be free and we were told we should have to wait three weeks. 'Very well,' I said. 'In those three weeks I will write a concerto for the occasion.' And I wrote the G minor Concerto which accordingly had its first performance under such distinguished patronage."
Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto is in the traditional three movements. The first movement, in slow tempo throughout, begins with a cadenza that resembles the free contrapuntal style of a Bach fantasia. The piano then announces the main theme, which Saint-Saëns admitted borrowing from a composition exercise by his student Gabriel Fauré. The development section and the cadenza are given over to a working-out of this theme. The second movement is a scherzo blessed with two superb melodies placed in a graceful setting that owes much of its spirit and style to Mendelssohn. The quicksilver finale, derived from the furious Italian folk dance, the tarantella, is a grand, virtuoso showpiece, filled with scales, trills and arpeggios executed at break-neck speed.
Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 27
(b. Oneg [near Novgorod], Russia, 1873; d. Beverly Hills, California, 1943)
Composed in 1906-1907.
Premiered on January 26, 1908 in St. Petersburg, conducted by the composer.
Instrumentation: piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.
Duration: approximately 50 minutes.
How much Rachmaninov's life changed in just a half dozen years! The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was a complete failure, a total fiasco. The Russian nationalist composer César Cui ranted, "If there is a conservatory competition in Hell, Rachmaninov would gain first prize for this Symphony." Rimsky-Korsakov did not find it "at all agreeable." Young Rachmaninov — aged 24 — was plunged into a Stygian despair. For over two years, he entertained the darkest thoughts and composed nothing. Then in 1900, he began consulting one Dr. Nicholas Dahl, a physician specializing in the treatment of alcoholism through hypnosis. Dahl's method of auto-suggestion (and probably his enlightened conversation about music) restored the composer's confidence and desire to work. Within a year, the grand Second Concerto was produced and successfully launched into the world, and Rachmaninov was on his way to international fame. By 1905, he was one of the most important figures in Russian music.
Beside his prodigious talents as pianist and composer, Rachmaninov was also a first-rate conductor, and when his stock began rising after the Second Concerto carried his name into important Russian circles, he was appointed opera conductor at the Moscow Imperial Grand Theater. As with his music, he found excellent success with his conducting, but he had understandable misgivings about the way it interfered with his creative ambitions. In an interview with Frederick H. Martens, he said, "When I am concertizing I cannot compose. When I feel like writing music I have to concentrate on that — I cannot touch the piano. When I am conducting I can neither compose nor play concerts. Other musicians may be more fortunate in this respect; but I have to concentrate on any one thing I am doing to such a degree that it does not seem to allow me to take up anything else." There was much music in him that needed to be written, and he knew that a choice about the direction of his future work was imminent.
By the beginning of 1906, he had decided to sweep away the rapidly accumulating obligations of conducting, concertizing, and socializing that cluttered his life in Moscow in order to find some quiet place in which to compose. His determination may have been strengthened by the political unrest beginning to rumble under the foundations of the aristocratic Russian political system. The uprising of 1905 was among the first signs of trouble for those of his noble class (his eventual move to the United States was a direct result of the swallowing of his family's estate and resources by the 1917 Revolution), and he probably thought it a good time to start looking for a quiet haven.
A few years before, Rachmaninov had been overwhelmed by an inspired performance of Die Meistersinger he heard at the Dresden Opera. The memory of that evening and the aura of dignity and repose exuded by the city had remained with him, and Dresden, at that time in his life, seemed like a good place to be. Besides, the city was only two hours by train from Leipzig, where Arthur Nikisch, whom Rachmaninov considered the greatest living conductor and who had shown an interest in his music, was music director. The decision to move to Dresden was made early in 1906, and by autumn the composer, his wife and their new-born daughter were installed in a small but smart house complemented by an attractive garden. They arrived quietly, and lived, as much as possible, incognito and in seclusion. When he chanced to meet a Russian acquaintance on the street one day, Rachmaninov pleaded, "I have escaped from my friends. Please don't give me away." The atmosphere in Dresden was so conducive to composition that within a few months of his arrival he was working on the Second Symphony, the First Piano Sonata, the Op. 6 collection of Russian folk songs and the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead.
The Second Symphony was unanimously cheered when it made the rounds of the Russian concert societies in 1908, and it was an important item on Rachmaninov's first American tour the following year. With this work, The Isle of the Dead, the Second and Third Concertos, and the ubiquitous Prelude in C-sharp minor, he made a profound impression on the American musical scene. He was twice overed the post of music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and twice declined. For the two decades before his death in 1943, his cross-country concert tours became an institution still remembered with a swell of passion such as can only be engendered by the most important events. Many of his compositions continue to enjoy a popularity greater in America than anywhere else in the world.
Philip Hale, writing of the American renown that has attached itself to Rachmaninov's works in general and to the Second Symphony in particular, stated, "The reasons for the popularity of the Symphony are not far to seek. The themes are eminently melodious, and some of them are of singular beauty; there is rich coloring; there are beautiful nuances in color; there is impressive sonority; there are frequent and sharp contrasts in sentiment, rhythm and expression; there is stirring vitality." Underlying these attractive external qualities is Rachmaninov's philosophy of the emotional, communicative powers of music. He stated, "Music should express the sum total of a composer's experiences." Once asked specifically about the nature of music, he replied, "What is music? How can one define it? Music is a calm moonlit night, a rustling of summer foliage. Music is the distant peal of bells at eventide. Music is born only of the heart and it appeals to the heart. It is love. The sister of music is poetry and the mother — sorrow!" It is easy, as has been frequently demonstrated, to ridicule such an open-hearted theory. However, this Second Symphony generates much warmth, joy, and true sentiment, and can move many listeners more deeply than other pieces of more rigorous intellectual accomplishment.
The majestic scale of the Symphony is established at the outset by a slow, brooding introduction. The low strings and then the violins give out a fragmentary theme which generates much of the material for the entire work. A smooth transition to a faster tempo signals the arrival of the main theme, an extended and quickened transformation of the basses' opening motive. The expressive second theme enters in the woodwinds. The development deals with the vigorous main theme to such an extent that the beginning of the formal recapitulation is engulfed by its surging sweep. The lovely second theme reappears as expected, again in the woodwinds. The coda resumes the energetic mood of the development to build to the fine climax which ends the movement.
The second movement is the most nimble essay to be found in Rachmaninov's orchestral works. After two preparatory measures, the horns hurl forth the main theme, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dies Irae, the ancient chant from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead that haunted the composer for many years. The vital nature of the music, however, does not support any morbid interpretation. Eventually, the rhythmic bustle is suppressed and finally silenced to make way for the movement's central section, whose skipping lines embody some of Rachmaninov's best fugal writing. Almost as if by magic, the opening scherzo returns amid a full-throated cry from the brass. Once again, this quiets and the movement ends on a note of considerable mystery.
The rapturous third movement, wrote Patrick Piggott, "is as romantic as any music in the orchestral repertory — if by romantic we mean the expression, through lyrical melody and richly chromatic harmony, of a sentiment which can only be described as love." This is music of heightened passion that resembles nothing so much as an ecstatic operatic love scene. Alternating with the joyous principal melody is an important theme from the first movement, heard prominently in the central portion and the coda of this movement.
The finale bursts forth in the whirling dance rhythm of an Italian tarantella. The propulsive urgency subsides to allow another of Rachmaninov's wonderful, sweeping melodic inspirations to enter. A development of the tarantella motives follows, into which are embroidered thematic reminiscences from each of the three preceding movements. The several elements of the finale are gathered together in the closing pages to produce the rich and sonorous tapestry appropriate for the life-affirming conclusion of this grand and stirring Symphony.
©2014 Dr. Richard E. Rodda