Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; strings; percussion
Performance time: 38 minutes
If Tchaikovsky was the central and best known of the Russian Romantic composers, and if Glinka was the first and the father figure, then Rachmaninoff embodied their artistic culmination. As a conservatory student in Moscow and St. Petersburg, he focused intensively on both piano technique and composition, and he was recognized as a great pianist throughout his career; just before his death, he was touring the U.S. as a piano soloist. Despite his latter-day moodiness and a bit of harmonic adventurism, you can hear that his style was rooted in the 1800s and in Russia as deeply as his predecessors’.
But Glinka and Tchaikovsky remained in the motherland and died there in 1857 and 1893, respectively. Listening to Rachmaninoff ’s long, brooding lines — their sweetness tinged with melancholy — it is surprising to learn that he died in the U.S. during World War II in relatively secure and luxurious circumstances, mingling with the expatriate artists who found safety in the Hollywood community. At the encouragement of another Russian expat composer, Igor Stravinsky, he had come to the United States in 1939 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had a home in Beverly Hills. But Stravinsky felt far more comfortable here, and as a composer he inhabited a very different, more modern era.
By temperament, Rachmaninoff had more in common with Tchaikovsky, who was born more than three decades earlier. Both men suffered from paralyzing dark moods that would probably be diagnosed as clinical depression today. For both, writing music was often an agonized struggle through this darkness. Yet both also desperately wanted critical approval, especially early in their careers, when success with the symphonic form was like a diploma for a serious composer.
We can scarcely imagine the debilitating sense of failure and self-doubt that Rachmaninoff experienced with the failure of his first symphony in 1895, a debacle compounded by his extreme sensitivity and sheer bad luck: after sweating over the score, he had to endure a disastrous premiere performance at which the conductor was so drunk on vodka that he could barely grasp the baton. This left him so helpless to compose that he resorted to hypnotherapy to cure his composer's block. He breakthrough composition, the glorious Piano Concerto No. 2, won deserving acclaim, but did not come until six years later.
Yet even after following this triumph with his highly successful Symphony No. 2 in 1908, Rachmaninoff was still understandably wary of the symphony. He followed his second with a remarkable cantata based on a Russian translation of Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Bells in 1913, which he labeled his "third symphony" — there was, after all, precedent with Beethoven's choral symphony and Mahler's massive "Symphony of a Thousand," which premiered in 1910 — but Rachmaninoff did not return to the symphonic genre in earnest until 1935-36, some 40 years after his first symphony and 30 years after his second. With his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, the previous, spurious "third" ceded the title.
What to Listen For
After decades of carrying the burdens of his emotional illness and insecurities, did Rachmaninoff find ways to moderate them, or work around them? Certainly, his third symphony displays the qualities we associate with his earlier music. These include plush melodies couched in luxuriously thick harmonies and sweeping, long, sculptural lines; virtuosic instrumental demands; and a willingness to venture into intense, swooning romanticism when the symphony's development takes it there. But this work doesn't spend quite so much time in those realms as Rachmaninoff did in past works; his second symphony, for example, is about 50 percent longer.
Listening to Rachmaninoff's symphonies, and to Mahler's, has been likened to drowsing in a warm bath by candlelight, perhaps with some really good wine. Our senses are lulled by the engaging melodies; rich harmonies and orchestral textures surround us, in this case starting with the depths of clarinet, cellos and muted horn before we even hear the opening movement's principal theme — a theme that will wend its way through the entire work. Enthusiasts who like to hunt for quoted themes as they listen may hear a hint of Wagner's Ring — a theme associated with a dwarf named Mime — along with the Anglo-American folk tune Home Sweet Home. The sense of emotional expansiveness continues through the second movement, but the vibrant third, marked allegro vivace, brings a jolt of energy.
As the symphony comes to a close, the themes we heard in the first movement resurface, now transmuted into brightness and positive resolution. Rachmaninoff's inner struggles and insecurities did not end with this symphony. But listening to it, we might guess that they did; its progression from an opening of deliberative exploration of themes through energetic restatement to emphatic closure shows that Rachmaninoff, 40 years after his first disastrous experience as a symphonist, found traditional mastery of the form.