MW 5: Rachmaninov Third Symphony
Jonathan Leshnoff	 b. 1973
Jonathan Leshnoff
b. 1973
Jonathan Leshnoff

Jonathan Leshnoff composed Starburst in 2010 for the Baltimore and Kansas City Symphonies, and for the Fundación Orquesta de Extremadura in western Spain. In a review following the premiere, it was called “a curtain-raiser in the best sense of the word, full of energy and anticipation.” Leshnoff commented that he liked the image of light in the title, and that the work has “lots of orchestral shimmer.”

New Jersey born Leshnoff is a graduate of Peabody Conservatory and the University of Maryland. He is currently Professor of Music at Towson University, teaching theory, orchestration and composition; he is composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.
Camille Saint-SaŽns 1835-1921
Camille Saint-SaŽns
Camille Saint-SaŽns
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22

Composer, organist and pianist Camille Saint-SaŽns was a man of wide culture, well versed in literature, the arts and scientific developments. He was phenomenally precocious and gifted in everything he undertook. As a child prodigy he wrote his first piano compositions at age three and at age ten made his formal debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, where, after playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos as well as some solo works by Bach and Handel, he offered to play any one of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as an encore – from memory. A child prodigy who grew to become a phenomenal polymath, Saint-SaŽns wrote articles and books on many scientific topics, including astronomy, biology and archaeology in addition to his composing and musicological studies. Although his music was often perceived as passé, he was the first composer to write an original film score in 1908 for L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (The assassination of the Duke of Guise).

In his youth he was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a conservative pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition, conventional forms and harmony in France and expressing open disdain for the new trends in music, including the “malaise” of Wagnerism. He was supportive of some younger composers, but his visceral dislike of Debussy actually engendered endless headlines in the tabloid press. As an accomplished organist and pianist – he premiered his five piano concertos – he sported elegant, effortless technique. But neither his compositions nor his pianism were ever pinnacles of passion or emotion. Berlioz noted that Saint-SaŽns “...knows everything but lacks inexperience.”

Saint-SaŽns was a consummate craftsman and a compulsive worker. “I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples,” he commented. He was a proponent of “art for art's sake” but his views on expression and passion in art conflicted with the prevailing literary and emotive Romantic ideas. He wrote in his memoirs: “Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotion, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music.” And also: “Beware of all exaggeration.”

Saint-SaŽns composed the Second Piano Concerto in 1868 at the request of the famed Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein, who wanted to use it to advance his conducting career. The composer gave the first performance with Rubinstein conducting, and it was an instant success. Popular with virtuosi di bravura, it has become one of Saint-SaŽns’ most frequently performed major works.

The first movement, Andante sostenuto, opens with a lengthy introduction, a massive and splashy solo fantasia Example 1, which is followed by a thunderous entrance by the whole orchestra. The leisurely first theme is introduced by the piano and developed as an interplay between the soloist and the woodwinds, especially the flute. Example 2 The second theme is also an interplay between piano and woodwinds. Example 3 The movement becomes an increasing display of brilliant pianistic virtuosity, ending with a near-repeat of the solo fantasia, followed by massive orchestral chords, recalling the opening of the movement.

The second movement, Allegro scherzando, opens with a rhythmic ostinato on the timpani. Example 4 The two catchy themes become pianistically more puckish with each repeat. Example 5 The end of the movement is reminiscent of the whimsy of Mendelssohn’s scherzi. Example 6

The Presto, alla breve finale is a tarantella, too fast for human feet by far. Example 7 The tarantella theme is contrasted with an equally lively subsidiary theme in duple time. Example 8 It is full of crashing chords and glittering runs, which received – not unexpectedly – the warmest praise from Franz Liszt.
Sergey Rachmaninov 1873-1943
Sergey Rachmaninov
Sergey Rachmaninov
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

With a well-established reputation as composer, conductor and pianist, Rachmaninov left Russia in December 1917 with his family, having lost all his property in the revolutionary upheaval. With a family to support, he resigned himself to life as a full-time career pianist, leaving little time to compose. The Third Symphony is one of the few works he composed after settling in the West.

Achieving such a reputation had been a hard-won battle for Rachmaninov. The premiere performance of his First Symphony took place in St. Petersburg in 1897. It was a dismal failure, in large part due to the shoddy conducting of Aleksander Glazunov, who was drunk. The disappointment brought on a severe depression, and for three years Rachmaninov was unable to do any significant composing. Finally, in 1900 he went for therapy and hypnosis to Dr. Nikolay Dahl. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Rachmaninov was able to return to creative work, resulting in his Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Dahl. Relapses into depression dogged Rachmaninov, however, for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions, as well as most of the rest of his oeuvre, are in minor keys.

Rachmaninov refused to publish the failed symphony, only acknowledging its existence by calling his next one, composed in 1906-07, No. 2. It took him nearly 30 years to premiere his Third Symphony, composed in 1935-36, with his favorite orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.

This Symphony is to some extent a departure from the late-Romantic language of its predecessors. Except for the first movement, which is quite accessible both melodically and formally, the composer’s lush themes and flowing melodies are significantly attenuated. Instead, the musical language is more austere, chromatic and dissonant, also revealing Rachmaninov’s interest in the qualities of individual instruments. One idiosyncrasy of the Symphony is the abrupt change in tempo and the introduction of new music about halfway through every movement, where the composer goes off on a musical digression – a fast one in the middle of the slow movement, and a slow one in the middle of the allegro movements. There is also considerable thematic unity in the Symphony, both within movements and between them.

One of the bits of thematic glue occurs in the opening notes – a feature not uncommon in composers as early as Haydn – but Rachmaninov puts a slightly different take on it by using a major second instead of a minor second and adding a third note in the motive in the opening of the second movement while retaining just enough of its features, including its melodic contour and rhythm, to be recognizable. Example 1 & Example 2 The contrast in tempi that characterizes the Symphony are suggested early in the crashing measures after the slow opening of the first movement, after which the movement begins in earnest with the first in a series of themes introduced by a pair of oboes. Example 3 Typically with Rachmaninov it is the second theme that is the most lush and the one that he develops most thoroughly in his orchestral works, but in this Symphony, the second theme is similar to the first, although now in the major. Example 4 After a repeat of the exposition and a short foray into a classical development, Rachmaninov proceeds on his first "intra-movement" digressions, a series of short, often nervous and unmelodic themes – including a folksy xylophone lick – that provide the climax to the movement. Example 5 The burst of energy exhausts itself with a recapitulation of the brief three-note introduction and the formal classical recapitulation. A short coda provides the final repeat of the introductory motive. Example 6

As already noted, the introductory measures of the Adagio are based on the introduction of the first movement. The principal theme of the movement makes its first appearance as a lovely violin solo. Example 7 This movement also undergoes an long digression with sparkling orchestration. A long fanfare leads into its main theme. Example 8 As in the first movement, the energy gradually winds down into a reprise of the Adagio and a repeat of the introductory motto from the first movement.

By comparison with the familiar morose Rachmaninov and his seemingly inevitable quotes from the Dies irae, the Finale seems positively joyous. Example 9 Nevertheless, the chromatic and tonally ambiguous second theme is not as lyrical as expected of this composer. Example 10 While this movement does not contain a lengthy section in a contrasting tempo, it does regularly alternate between the sprightly main theme and more attenuated passages. A third theme that begins as if its going to be another Rachmaninov blockbuster melody is cut off by a whimsical interruption by the bassoon. Example 11 In the same vein, later the composer inserts a short Hispanic dance Example 12 and further on a Russian one, a slow version of the little xylophone passage from the first movement Example 13 & Example 14 that creeps up the chromatic scale, gradually increasing in tempo. The Symphony's motto appears in its final form, now embellished and as a quiet but jaunty dance in the upper winds Example 15 just preceding the exuberant conclusion.

The Symphony disappointed the audience and critics, who had expected another “Second.” The lukewarm reception at the premiere, in turn, disappointed the composer, who felt misunderstood. He wrote to a friend after the premiere that the Philadelphia Orchestra played wonderfully. “…both audience and critics responded sourly. Personally I’m convinced that this is a good work. But – sometimes the author is wrong, too! However, I maintain my opinion.”

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018