Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto: Daniil Trifonov in Concert

One hundred and ten years ago today, on November 4, 1909, Sergei Rachmaninov made his American debut with a recital at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In the weeks that followed, the 36-year-old composer appeared in cities including Philadelphia and New York, where he premiered the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor—newly written for the tour—with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. The American tour came at a time when Rachmaninov was cutting …

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Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead”: A Tone Poem in Black and White

In 1907, Sergei Rachmaninov saw a black and white reproduction of Isle of the Dead, a painting by the Swiss symbolist artist, Arnold Böcklin. The haunting dream image depicts a solitary rowboat carrying a coffin, bound for a desolate, rocky island. The scene suggests the mythological River Styx and the transition of a recently deceased soul to the afterlife. The image affected Rachmaninov deeply and inexplicably. It was a powerful, immediate, and spontaneous creative …

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Rachmaninov’s “Cherubic Hymn,” from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

Last week, we listened to Tchaikovsky’s meditative a cappella choral work, Hymn of the Cherubim, an excerpt from the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, one of the central eucharistic services of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Completed in 1878, this work has the distinction of being the first “unified musical cycle” of settings from the Liturgy, most of which is attributed to Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th century. Today, let’s listen to another later …

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Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto: An Eruption of Youthful Vitality

Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto begins with a bold announcement. It’s a striking fanfare in the horns which evokes all of the ominous power of the fateful opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This fanfare unleashes an equally exuberant proclamation in the virtuosic solo piano, which erupts like a force of nature. Filled with audacious youthful vitality, this unstoppable sonic torrent seems to be saying, “My time has come, and nothing is going to get …

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Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony: Freedom in Exile

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 …

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Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances”: Releasing Old Demons

There is a fascinating moment of emotional release near the end of the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  Completed in 1940 and dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, this was Rachmaninov’s final composition. This music, which Rachmaninov described as “my last spark,” stands as an extraordinary musical summation. It reflects on the past with wistful nostalgia, yet we also get the sense of a spirited and joyful march into the sunset. In …

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Rachmaninov’s First Symphony: From Despair to Posthumous Triumph

The world was not ready for Sergei Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. The disastrous premiere of Symphony No. 1 in D minor in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1897 shattered the 23-year-old composer’s confidence, plunging him into a psychological breakdown. For three years he would compose no music, emerging in the autumn of 1900 with the soaringly melodic Second Piano Concerto only after extensive psychotherapy. “Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov …

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