New Bedford Symphony Orchestra (NBSO) logo

New Bedford Symphony Orchestra

January 2018 Program Notes

Kiss of the Earth

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30

Sergei Rachmaninoff began working on the Third Piano Concerto in the summer of 1908 at his family’s estate at Oneg, and rushed to complete it in time for his first tour of North America, in the fall of 1909. During the voyage to the United States, Rachmaninoff had no access to a piano, so he took along a cardboard keyboard to practice and memorize the demanding solo part.

The first performance of the Third Piano Concerto took place on November 28, 1909, with Rachmaninoff at the piano, under the direction of Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. Six weeks later, Rachmaninoff performed it again with Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic. Rachmaninoff remembered, “[Mahler] touched my composer’s heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection … according to Mahler, every detail of the score was important – an attitude which is unfortunately rare amongst conductors.” The two composer-conductors began a brief, intense friendship, which was cut short by Mahler’s untimely death the following year.

After the New York performances, Rachmaninoff arrived in Boston, where he made such a magnificent impression that he was asked to assume the post of Music Director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, an offer he declined. Despite his success, Rachmaninoff heartily disliked America. In a letter to his cousin, the composer wrote, “In this accursed country you’re surrounded by nothing but Americans and their ‘business,’ ‘business’ they are forever doing, clutching you from all sides and driving you on. Everyone is nice and kind to me, but I am horribly bored by the whole thing, and I feel that my character has been quite ruined here.” Lonely and homesick, Rachmaninoff returned to Russia in February 1910.

The Third Piano Concerto received mixed reviews. One critic from the New York Herald noted, “The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless take rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.” It took a young pianist named Vladimir Horowitz, who featured the Third Piano Concerto as a regular part of his concert repertoire in the 1920s and 30s, to give the D minor Concerto the exposure – and subsequent widespread popularity – it enjoys today. (“He swallowed it whole. He had the courage, the intensity, the daring,” said the astonished Rachmaninoff of Horowitz’s interpretation.)

The extraordinary virtuosic and musical demands of the Third Concerto make it one the most challenging works in the piano concerto repertoire. The soloist plays almost constantly throughout, and must combine ear-popping virtuosity with a chamber musician’s ability to listen, collaborate, and blend into the orchestra.

When Rachmaninoff discussed the thematic origins of the Third Concerto, he denied any specific influences. “It is borrowed neither from folk song forms nor from church services. It simply ‘wrote itself,’” he stated about the primary melody, in which the pianist enters, subdued, underneath the orchestra. “If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it – and to find a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather one that would not muffle this singing.” With regard to the melody in question, scholars have found strikingly similar music in monastic chants from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, music Rachmaninoff heard – and absorbed, albeit unconsciously – when he attended mass as a boy.

The Intermezzo and Finale are played without pause, an abrupt transition from the reflective melancholy of the second movement to the ferocious virtuosity of the Finale.
~ ©2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky’s initial concept for The Rite of Spring came to him in 1910, while he was working on The Firebird. In his 1935 autobiography, Stravinsky described a ‘fleeting vision’: “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” He floated this idea past Nikolai Roerich, a noted archaeologist, and Russia’s foremost authority on folk art and ancient ritual. Roerich was intrigued by this concept, and the two men mapped out a plot for a ballet depicting scenes of pagan Russia, culminating in the sacrifice of The Chosen One. Over the years, Stravinsky claimed several different origins of the ideas for The Rite of Spring, each contradicting the others. After his first explanation of the vision that interrupted his work on The Firebird, he began revising or purifying the history of The Rite. In 1920 he told a reporter The Rite of Spring had been conceived without any thought to storyline or ballet staging, and finally repudiated the Russian folk underpinnings of the work altogether. Why Stravinsky revised the origin story for The Rite of Spring is complex, and has to do with the initial failure of the work in its original form as a ballet, as well as with Stravinsky’s desire, after he left Russia permanently and denounced it following the 1917 revolution, to remake himself as a “Western” composer. As musicologist Richard Taruskin notes, “He rejected the parochial lore of his birthright and embraced an aggressively cosmopolitan ideology of absolute music – music without a passport, without a past, without ‘extramusical’ content of any kind.”

The Rite of Spring contains two large movements, “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice,” each one made up of numerous smaller sections. The musical structure is formed around short repeated rhythmic patterns, called ostinati. Stravinsky also quotes fragments of melodies from a number of different Russian and Lithuanian folk songs. Harmonically, Stravinsky combines the modal scales of the folksongs with an octatonic scale (a scale made of alternating whole and half steps), to create rich and unusual sonorities. What gives The Rite of Spring its unique energy is Stravinsky’s innovative decision to abandon a steady beat in favor of constantly shifting ostinati and melodic fragments. One fragment follows after another with no modulation or linkage, in an abrupt, almost dislocated manner. This method of composing resulted in music of such complexity that Stravinsky often had trouble determining where the measure lines should fall in the score.

Much has been written about the riot that broke out at the first performance of The Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The riot was actually a response to Vaslav Nijinsky’s provocative choreography rather than to the music itself, which became impossible to hear as the audience’s reaction grew louder. The open dress rehearsal a few days earlier occasioned no such violent reaction, probably because those attending were music and dance cognoscenti. In contrast, the audience attending the premiere was made up of the general public, along with supporters and detractors of Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes. This audience expected an evening of ballet that included Les Sylphides and other standard 19th century fare; it is no surprise they protested Nijinsky’s shockingly modern and primal movements. As one Paris critic noted, “At the end of the Prelude the crowd simply stopped listening to the music so that they might better amuse themselves with the choreography.” Most reviews of the opening performance paid scant attention to the music, aside from mentioning Stravinsky as the composer.

The performance continued over the riot, which included fistfights and flying debris. Nijinsky had to call out the steps to the dancers from offstage, as they could not hear the music over the increasing pandemonium in the house. The promotional value of such an opening was not lost on either Stravinsky or Diaghilev. Stravinsky recalled, “We were excited, angry, disgusted, and … happy … Diaghilev’s only comment was, ‘Exactly what I wanted.’”

Despite (or perhaps because of) the publicity firestorm that followed the premiere, The Rite of Spring ballet was performed only a half-dozen times in Paris and London. In its first revival, during the 1920s, Diaghilev’s choreographer and principal danseur, Léonide Massine, substituted his own choreography for Nijinsky’s.

Although originally conceived as a ballet, today The Rite of Spring is best known and most often performed in the concert hall. Its notorious reputation began to evolve in the spring of 1914, when Pierre Monteux first conducted it as a concert piece. The Rite’s status as the quintessential 20th century musical work did not coalesce until the end of the 1920s, after the score was published, and The Rite was performed by orchestras from Leipzig to Buenos Aires.
~ ©2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

NOTE: These program notes attributed to Elizabeth Schwartz are published here by the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at Elizabeth Schwartz is a writer and music historian based in Portland, OR. She has been a program annotator for more than 20 years, and her clients include the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and Portland Piano International. Ms. Schwartz has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today” (now heard on American Public Media).