Rachmaninov's Second Symphony

Like many of his most famous works, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto traces a journey from darkness toward light. This work, which occupies the central position on our program, begins with dramatic music whose harmonies and restless melodic ideas suggest spiritual turmoil and struggle. But it proceeds to a beautifully serene slow movement and concludes with a joyous, rhythmically energetic finale.

That transformation is mirrored by our concert’s program as a whole. We first hear a tone poem by the remarkable Scottish composer James MacMillan, a threnody for a fallen Celtic hero. Beethoven’s splendid concerto follows. It is followed in turn by Sergey Rachmaninov’s lushly melodious Second Symphony. This, too, begins in a somber tone but turns to brighter and ultimately exultant expression before it is finished.

JAMES MACMILLAN The Death of Oscar
BORN: July 16, 1959, in Kilwinning, in Ayrshire, Scotland
WORLD PREMIERE: July 11, 2013, in Stuttgart; Stéphane Denève conducting the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

In ancient Celtic legend, Oscar was a renowned fighter and son of the warrior-bard Ossian, leader of the Fianna, a brotherhood charged with protecting the king of Ireland and maintaining his rule. But King Cairbre determined to break the power of the Fianna and turned against Ossian. In the battle of Gabhra, Oscar met the king on the field of combat and challenged him. Although Oscar defeated Cairbre, he soon died of the wounds he received in the fight. Now, some 1700 years or more later, his sacrifice is commemorated in a musical elegy.

Oscar’s heroic death would seem a natural source of inspiration for James MacMillan. Scotland’s foremost composer, MacMillan is fiercely proud of his nationality and heritage, which often finds reflection in his music. One of his best-known compositions, a monodrama titled The Tryst, is set in the style of an old Scottish ballad. Other works have been inspired by Scottish folklore or history. Jointly commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Royal National Scottish Orchestra, The Death of Oscar received its first performance last summer. These performances by the Seattle Symphony mark the work’s American premiere.

The single movement of The Death of Oscar unfolds in three broad parts. Its initial sounds are low in volume and pitch, with tolling figures for harp and percussion against a deep drone sounded by the low strings and bassoons. Over these funereal sounds, horns and cellos initiate a bardic lament. Soon, however, the music swells and accelerates into a faster, more energetic section. Here the mood is martial, with concerted trumpet fanfares, tramping rhythms in the strings and shrill cries from the woodwinds evoking the fury of battle. At length the fight reaches its conclusion and the frenzy subsides, leaving the English horn to sound a mournful threnody for the fallen hero.

James MacMillan’s music has been performed by major orchestras throughout the world, as well at the Edinburgh Festival, the London Proms, the Cabrillo Music Festival, the Saint Magnus Festival, the Welsh National Opera and elsewhere. His percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel has become a signature piece for the remarkable deaf percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie, who has played it several hundred times. MacMillan has also written concertos for pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, violinist Vadim Repin and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, among others. A longtime advocate of school music programs, the composer also remains actively involved in music education for children. His many sacred compositions reflect his devotion to the Catholic Church.

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
BORN: December 16, 1770, in Bonn
DIED: March 26, 1827, in Vienna
WORLD PREMIERE: April 5, 1803, in Vienna; Beethoven performing the solo part and conducting from the keyboard

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto
partakes of many of the traits that have made his music so enduringly popular. It is dramatic and energetic in its outer movements, ethereally beautiful in its central slow movement. And the interaction between soloist and orchestra is lively and never routine.

Composed in 1800, this work occupies an intermediate position in style and chronology among the composer’s five concertos for piano and orchestra. Its formal outline resembles the Classical model followed so closely in Beethoven’s First and Second piano concertos. The opening movement, for instance, begins straight off with an orchestral exposition of the themes without benefit of the novel introductions by the soloist we find in the composer’s Fourth and Fifth piano concertos (as well as in the concertos of most 19th-century composers, who took their cues from Beethoven in this and so many other matters).

Yet there are unmistakable signs of the bold departures that would mark those succeeding works. The scale here is larger than that of any 18th-century concerto. Distant harmonic relationships, which increasingly were fascinating the composer, are skillfully exploited. And the development of the thematic material is accomplished with a thoroughness typical of Beethoven’s mature style.

The long first movement unfolds under the pervasive influence of C minor, a key Beethoven associated with tragic, desperate struggle. The principal theme is actually forged from two dramatically opposed ideas: In the first four measures, the strings present a rather brusque and ominous motif which, after being echoed a step higher by the winds, is followed at once by a more lyrical and impassioned phrase. The coexistence of such diverse and powerful elements, which occurs throughout the opening movement, accounts for much of the energy and tension Beethoven achieves here. Additional thematic material presented by the orchestra and the soloist enriches the drama.

The ensuing Largo unfolds in the key of E major, a tonality remote from the first movement’s C major. Following the stormy outbursts of the first movement, its almost religious tranquility is all the more effective.

The closing Rondo returns us to C minor, but not to the dramatic struggles of the first movement. Rather, its initial theme sounds lively and somewhat in the “Turkish” manner Viennese composers used for exotic color. Between episodes of more sunny music, Beethoven develops this melody with his characteristic inventive flair. It forms the subject for a striking contrapuntal passage and later, transformed to C major, launches the rollicking coda that brings the movement, and the concerto, to a close.

SERGEY RACHMANINOV Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
BORN: April 1, 1873, in Semyonovo, near Novgorod, Russia
DIED: March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California
WORLD PREMIERE: February 8, 1908, in Moscow; the composer conducting

The music of Sergey Rachmaninov represents the final flowering of the Russian Romantic tradition. Nowhere is Rachmaninov’s Romanticism more evident than in his Second Symphony, whose expressive melodies and lush textures are the major source of its appeal. But this symphony also is notable for its thoughtful construction, evident in the close relationships among its themes.

The creation of this symphony marked a turning point in Rachmaninov’s career as a composer. That career had started hopefully. Rachmaninov had developed his talent rapidly. By the time he was 20, Rachmaninov had completed a piano concerto; an opera, Aleko, which was triumphantly produced at the Bolshoi Theater; several tone poems and chamber pieces; and a number of keyboard works, including the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor. The stage seemed set for a lifetime of rich creative accomplishment.

But Rachmaninov’s artistic progress came to an abrupt standstill in 1897 with the disastrous premiere of his Symphony No. 1. The scathing reception of that work, on which Rachmaninov had pinned much hope, plunged the composer into a prolonged state of depression and inactivity. During the next three years he composed nothing, and only after undertaking a course of therapeutic hypnosis, in 1900, did he regain the confidence to begin writing music again. Still, he pointedly avoided symphonic composition and continued to subordinate his creative work to his career as a performer.

By 1906, however, the life of a part-time composer was no longer satisfactory. Rachmaninov’s confidence and ambition had recovered considerably, and he now wished to establish himself as a major creative artist. Resigning his conducting post at the Bolshoi Opera, Rachmaninov moved to Germany and in Dresden rented a secluded house where he could devote his energies fully to composition.

The first work Rachmaninov completed in his Dresden retreat was his Second Symphony. A piano draft of the music was finished in early 1907 and orchestrated during the summer. The new work was received enthusiastically at its first performances in Saint Petersburg and Moscow in February 1908, and its success encouraged Rachmaninov to proceed with one of his most famous works, the tone poem The Isle of the Dead, completed later that year.

Although its very immediate emotional appeal constitutes its most obvious and winning quality, we can admire the Second Symphony also for its thoughtful construction, evidenced in the close relationships among its themes. We find this particularly in the first movement, whose introductory Largo is based entirely on a brief “motto” figure — that is, a thematic idea recurring conspicuously at different points over the course of the composition — which is presented in the opening measures by the cellos and basses. Rachmaninov builds this section with care, restraint and a skilled use of counterpoint, making it one of the most satisfying passages in his symphonic output. The main body of the first movement, which follows in a quicker tempo, also issues from the motto theme. The principal melody, heard in the violins over a plaintive clarinet accompaniment, begins with an almost literal rephrasing of the motto, and the graceful second theme develops the motto’s tail of descending eighth notes.

Rachmaninov replaces the melancholy tone of the first movement with a distinctively Russian vigor in the ensuing scherzo. Here a brash opening gives way to a more lyrical second subject and a lively, rhythmic central episode. Rachmaninov plays his strong suit in the ensuing Adagio, spinning out the kind of voluptuous, romantic melodies at which he excelled.

The finale presents a succession of contrasting themes: a playful opening subject, a march-like figure and a warmly expressive melody for the violins. As the movement progresses towards its conclusion, the composer recalls ideas heard earlier in the symphony, most notably the motto theme and the principal subject of the Adagio.

© Paul Schiavo

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