Sergei Rachmaninov spent much of his life in exile, both literally and as a composer.
In December of 1917 at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov and his wife, Natalia, fled Russia, eventually building their Villa Senar on the idyllic shores of Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. It was here that Rachmaninov composed the Symphony No. 3 in A minor during the summers of 1935 and 1936. His work on this final symphony was interrupted by an exhausting international touring schedule as a concert pianist. Soon, the Second World War would precipitate a second, permanent move to the United States.
As a composer, Rachmaninov was out of step with the times, resulting in a kind of artistic exile. His troubles began with the First Symphony, which seems to have been too progressive for the insular Russian academic musical establishment of the time. Its disastrous 1897 premiere, poorly conducted by an inebriated Alexander Glazunov, plunged Rachmaninov into a deep and debilitating depression. Later, critics dismissed Rachmaninov’s music as too conservative and lushly melodic. Rachmaninov once wrote,
I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.
Yet, as time goes by, the prejudices of both Rachmaninov and his critics disappear into irrelevance. Listen to the Third Symphony, and you will hear music which unfolds with a sense of inevitability that transcends questions of style and category. Like Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, his final composition completed four years later, it springs to life with an unabashed sense of freedom and abandon. Its spirited and lamenting voices come out to play in an indomitable drama. Following a lukewarm reception at the Third Symphony’s November, 1936 premiere by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rachmaninov seems to have internalized this feeling of freedom with this statement of faith:
Personally, I’m convinced that this is a good work. But-sometimes composers are mistaken too! Be that as it may, I am holding to my opinion so far.
The first movement (Lento- Allegro moderato- Allegro) opens with a haunting, solitary strand which evokes a Russian orthodox chant. This desolate, plaintive line forms the seed for the entire symphony. Heard as a meditative murmur, it is quickly swept away by a spirited sonic eruption which sets the Symphony in motion. Illusory fragments of the Dies irae, the ancient chant of the dead which emerges throughout Rachmaninov’s music, lurk just beneath the surface. (This motive returns even more prominently in the final movement around 35:56). Soon, we turn a corner and arrive at a beautiful second theme which is both sensuous and nostalgic. As this theme develops, listen to the array of voices (from the woodwinds to the horns) which weave and wrap around it.
This Symphony is filled with kaleidoscopic transitions, in which a new musical line emerges magically and overlaps with a previous fading line. One example comes as the exposition’s comfortably euphoric F major resolution is overtaken by restless new adventures which plunge us into the tumultuous development section (around 7:30). When we arrive back in familiar territory with the recapitulation, it’s only after an extended, tension-inducing delay which gives us a glimpse of ghostly terror. The rest of the movement has a transcendent quality as solo instrumental voices draw us into an intimate dialogue previously reserved for the larger ensemble. In the final bars, the opening chant motive returns in the darkest depths of the orchestra- sounds which might remind you of moments in the music of Tchaikovsky.
The second movement (Adagio ma non troppo- Allegro vivace) opens with another statement of the chant motive, this time with the solo horn and harp taking us to a serene dreamscape. In this three-movement Symphony, the second movement melds the traditional adagio and scherzo movements into one. The result is a dizzying juxtaposition between dreamy, lamenting, solitude and swirling, mercurial spirits. An ominous, persistent presence, the chant motive returns in the hushed pizzicato of the final bars.
The final movement (Allegro- Allegro vivace- Allegro (Tempo primo)- Allegretto- Allegro vivace) is a vivacious celebration of Russian dance rhythms. In one thrilling moment, a teasing dialogue between motivic fragments explodes suddenly into a vigorous and exhilarating fugue. With a wild, restless enthusiasm, this is music which never seems content to stay in one place. We have the feeling that we’re always arriving. The final minutes bring another kaleidoscopic transition as the concluding cadence of a soaringly Romantic melody is rudely interrupted. The final bars bring a flash of bright color and a swirl of dizzying motion.
Five Great Recordings
- Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (This 1998 recording is featured, above) Amazon
- Sergei Rachmaninov and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the premiere 1939 recording
- Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in a 1963 live concert recording
- Mariss Jansons and the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
- Yevgeni Svetlanov and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra