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Program Notes for Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody

Feb 25 & 27


CONRAD TAO pianist
MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director


orch. Respighi


Cinq Études-tableaux
La mer et les mouettes (The Sea and the Seagulls)
       Marche funèbre (Funeral March)
       Le Chaperon rouge et le loup (Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf)
       Marche (March)




Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 43






The Bells, Op. 35
Allegro, ma non tanto
       Lento lugubre



Cinq Études-tableaux

Timing: approx. 25 min.
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals a2, tambourine, triangle, field drum, glockenspiel, bass drum, tam-tam, chimes, strings


The CSO has performed this work on three previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in March of 1932, Eugene Goossens conducting, and the most recent in November of 2006, Gianandrea Noseda conducting. 

Rachmaninoff was born on April2, 1873 in Oneg, in the Novgorod district of Russia; he died on March28, 1943 in Beverly Hills, California. Respighi was born on July9, 1879 in Bologna; he died on April18, 1936 in Rome. Rachmaninoff composed the first of the five Études-tableaux in 1917; the second is dated August17, 1911; the third was composed in 1917; the fourth was written on September8, 1911 and revised on September27, 1916; the fifth was composed on February 2, 1917. He first played the second of these pieces in Saint Petersburg on December5, 1911; he premiered the others on November29, 1917 in Petrograd. Respighi orchestrated the set in January1930. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the first orchestral performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Brooklyn, New York, in December 1931. 

Rachmaninoff, one of the great pianists of all times, composed a lot of music for his own instrument. In addition to the concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, often performed at these concerts, he composed numerous works for piano alone. Among these are two sets of pieces called Études-tableaux (“Study-Pictures”).

Rachmaninoff’s biographer Geoffrey Norris characterizes the etudes as miniature tone poems, evocative of visual scenes or stories. The composer did not divulge the exact nature of his programmatic references, although one of the etudes (no one knows which one) was supposed to depict gardens in the rain. Some of the etudes are extremely pianistic and exhibitionist (Rachmaninoff actually broke a string of his piano while performing one of them), while others are intimate.

The first set of etudes, Op. 33, contains eight pieces in different keys. Rachmaninoff composed it at his estate at Ivanovka in 1911. He had hoped for a summer of rest and relaxation but found that taking care of an estate was a time-consuming job. Thus he was able to compose only these few short pieces that summer.

A few years later he was suffering from depression. He looked haggard, and thought of himself as an old man (he was forty-three). In the spring of 1916 he went to a spa in the Caucasus for a cure. By summer he was feeling better and returned to Ivanovka, only to learn that his father had died there two days before the composer’s arrival. Depression returned. Rachmaninoff became obsessed with his own mortality. To keep his mind away from morbid thoughts, he composed new Études-tableaux. These nine pieces, eventually published as Opus 39, reveal in their almost unrelieved minor keys the composer’s unhappy state of mind. In addition many of them include references to the Dies irae, the old Gregorian chant “Day of Wrath” (this song of death is most famous for its appearance in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique; Rachmaninoff himself was to make use of it many years later in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.)

The conductor Serge Koussevitzky, with whom Rachmaninoff often collaborated, liked orchestral transcriptions of virtuoso piano music. In 1922 he persuaded Ravel to transcribe Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, to great success. The conductor then thought of a similar project, in which a different composer would orchestrate another group of Russian piano-pictures. The music was to be from Rachmaninoff’s Études-tableaux. The conductor thought of Respighi, because of the spectacular orchestration in his Roman triptych, the final work of which—Feste romane (“Roman Festivals”)—had recently made a big splash. Respighi’s success at scoring music by Rossini (La Boutique fantasque) and others was well known. Furthermore, since Respighi had once been a student of the Russian master of orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff agreed to Koussevitzky’s proposal.

Rachmaninoff chose five pieces from his two sets of etudes. He sent the scores to Respighi, along with some clues of the programmatic meaning behind them, so that Respighi could invent titles and devise orchestrations appropriate to the intended images or stories. The Russian composer put the slow, somber pieces first and last, but his Italian colleague changed the order. Respighi was not terribly enthusiastic about the task he had undertaken, believing it to be essentially a waste of time. But he nonetheless completed the orchestration with considerable skill and flair.

Rachmaninoff’s etudes are so pianistic that Respighi had to muster considerable inventiveness to make them work for orchestra. He used a lavish ensemble, adding vivid colors to the etudes. When he saw Respighi’s work, Rachmaninoff sent him a telegram of congratulations, full of enthusiasm for a “prodigious and brilliant orchestration” and for preserving the spirit of the original pieces. But Rachmaninoff had private reservations, finding Respighi’s scoring overdone in the more intimate music and complaining that the bells at the climax of the “Funeral March” movement seemed to turn a Russian funeral into a Roman festival. Rachmaninoff began to refer to the work as “Respighi’s suite.”

Part of Rachmaninoff’s displeasure was the result of careless editing of the orchestral version. He found literally hundreds of errors in the music. He lost all enthusiasm for the project, and even declined to attend either Koussevitzky’s rehearsals or the premiere. Instead he sent his wife, asserting that whatever her reaction was would become his opinion. Mrs. Rachmaninoff was not pleased—either with Respighi’s “overloaded” orchestration or with Koussevitzky’s “excessively fast” tempos.

In later years “Respighi’s suite” sometimes showed up on an orchestral program when Rachmaninoff was soloist in one of his own concertos. Whether or not he changed his opinion of the orchestrated Études-tableaux after finally hearing them is not known.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 43

Timing: approx. 24 min.
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals a2, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, suspended cymbals, harp, strings


The CSO has performed this work on 21 previous subscription weekends (with a number of renowned pianists in the soloist role), including the premiere in October of 1937, Eugene Goossens conducting and the composer himself as pianist, and the most recent in October of 20038, Vasily Petrenko conducting and Jon Kimura Parker, pianist. 

Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody between July 3 and August 18, 1934. The composer was soloist and Leopold Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the first performance on November 7, 1934, in Baltimore.

Rachmaninoff was one of the world’s great pianists. During his mature years he spent so much time concertizing that he was unable to compose regularly. Thus we find that in 1926 he wrote the first version of his Fourth Piano Concerto plus a work for chorus and orchestra, yet no more music was forthcoming until 1931 when he wrote a solo piano piece. Again he fell silent until the Paganini Rhapsody in 1934, after which only two more works appeared: the Third Symphony in 1936 and the Symphonic Dances in 1940.

He was able to compose only in relative seclusion. Thus he felt the urge to take up his pen once again after he had moved into a new home on Lake Firwaldstadt, near Lucerne. He had supervised the building of this house, which he called “Senar”—a name derived from his and his wife’s names: SErgei and NAtaly Rachmaninoff. He greatly enjoyed what time he could spend at Senar. He relaxed by motor boating, gardening, visiting with his children and grandchildren, and composing.

He wrote from Senar to his friend Vladimir Vilshau:

Two weeks ago I finished a new piece. It is called Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in the Form of Variations on a Theme of Paganini (the theme on which Liszt and Brahms based their sets of variations). It is a very long piece, about twenty or twenty-five minutes. That is the size of a piano concerto. I am going to try it out in New York and London, so that I can make the necessary corrections. The composition is very difficult, and I should start practicing it, but with every year I become more and more lazy about this finger work. I try to shirk practicing by playing something old, something that already sits firmly in my fingers.

Rachmaninoff based his Rhapsody not only on the music of Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840), the great violinist who in essence invented virtuosity, but also on Paganini’s personality. In some of the variations Rachmaninoff alludes to the violinist’s life and character. Rachmaninoff used not only the theme from the last of Paganini’s Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin—the same theme Boris Blacher used for his Paganini Variations—but also the ancient death chant Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), which had already been quoted by Liszt in his Totentanz and by Berlioz in his Symphonie fantastique.

Rachmaninoff wrote to choreographer Mikhail Fokine in 1937:

Why not resurrect the legend about Paganini, who, for perfection in his art and for a woman, sold his soul to an evil spirit? All the variations which have the theme of Dies irae represent the evil spirit. Variations 11–18 are love episodes. Paganini himself first appears in the theme and again, for the last time, now conquered, in Variation 23.… The evil spirit appears for the first time in Variation7, where…there can be a dialogue with Paganini about his own theme and the one of Dies irae. Variations 8, 9 and 10 are the development of the ‘evil spirit.’ Variation 11 is a turning point into the domain of love. Variation 12—the minuet—portrays the first appearance of the woman. Variation 13 is the first conversation between the woman and Paganini. Variation19 is Paganini’s triumph, with his diabolic pizzicato. It would be interesting to represent Paganini with his violin—not a real violin, of course, but something fantastic. Also, it seems to me that the other personages representing the evil spirit at the end of the piece should be drawn as caricatures in their fight for the woman and Paganini’s art. Definitely as caricatures, representing Paganini. They also should be with violins, but even more fantastic and grotesque.

Paganini, a ballet in three scenes by Rachmaninoff and Fokine, opened in London in 1939. The scenario largely followed the composer’s ideas.

KEYNOTE. The work opens with an introduction, based on the principal motive from the Paganini theme. After the introduction the music goes directly into Variation 1, in which the theme is broken up in a “pointillistic” manner (divided among several instruments, forming “links” in a chain). Only after this variation do we hear the entire theme. Rachmaninoff thus came up with an ingenious new way to treat the age-old form of theme and variations. He exposes the theme only after the first variation has been heard. The theme is unmistakable, as it is played by violins in unison, accompanied by the piano. Variations 2–6 work with this melody in its original tempo and mood. Variation 7 then introduces the Dies irae idea in the piano, while the bassoon and pizzicato cellos play the Paganini theme. Variations 8 and 9 treat the theme ever more forcefully, and then the Dies irae returns explicitly in the piano in Variation 10.

The next variations are character pieces based on the Paganini tune. Variation 11 is an accompanied cadenza. Variation 12 is an eerie waltz in the minor. Variation 13 suggests a demonic waltz. Variation 14 is in the style of a march but still in the meter of a waltz, so that it sounds like a parade of three-footed soldiers.

The following three variations, beginning with the piano solo of Variation 15, are symphonic and virtuosic. Variation 18 brings a romantic outpouring reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s earlier music, such as the passionate Second Piano Concerto and Second Symphony. This andante cantabile theme is not, as some program notes claim, Rachmaninoff’s own, but rather it is an inversion—an “upside-down” playing—of the Paganini melody.

The string pizzicati and violin runs in Variations 19 and 20 (respectively) suggest Paganini’s prodigious performing technique. Variations 21 and 22 are scherzo-like. Variation 23 brings back the Paganini theme, and Variation 24 is the finale. As it approaches the end, the music pushes toward a typical grandiose conclusion, but at the last moment it wittily becomes a whisper and ends impishly with an echo of the introduction.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


The Bells, Op. 35

Timing: approx. 35 min.
Instrumentation: STB soloists, SATB chorus, 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals a2, tambourine, triangle, bass drum, tam-tam, chimes, bells, harp, pianino, celeste, organ, strings


The CSO has performed this work only once before on a CSO subscription weekend, in February of 1974 under Erich Kunzel with choirs from Miami University, Northern Kentucky University and Highlands High School and soloists Patricia Wise, Seth McCoy and John Reardon. James Conlon led this work at May Festival concerts in 1982, 1989 and 2005.  

Rachmaninoff began work on his vocal symphony The Bells (in Russian, Kolokolá) in Rome during the summer of 1913, completing it upon his return to Russia later that year. The work is based on Konstantin Balmont’s free Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem. The first performance took place on November 30, 1913, in St. Petersburg, with soloists and chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, under Rachmaninoff’s direction. The American premiere was given by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 6, 1920. The music is dedicated “to my friend Willem Mengelberg and his Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.”

In their biography of Rachmaninoff, Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda report an interesting story about how The Bells came to be written. The narrator quoted by the authors is a friend of Rachmaninoff’s, a cellist named Mikhail Bukinik.

I had a cello pupil, a Miss Danilova, who once came to her lesson in great agitation; while she played, she seemed very excited and eager to tell me something. She finally revealed that Balmont’s translation of Poe’s poem The Bells had once made a great impression on her—she could think of it only as music—and who could write it as music but her adored Rachmaninoff! That he must do this became her idée fixe, and she wrote anonymously to her idol, suggesting that he read the poem and compose it as music. She excitedly sent off this letter; summer passed, and then in the autumn she came back to Moscow for her studies. What had now happened was that she read a newspaper item that Rachmaninoff had composed an outstanding choral symphony based on Poe’s Bells and it was soon to be performed. Danilova was mad with joy. But someone had to be told her secret—and that’s how all her emotions were unloaded during my lesson. She told me the whole story. I was astounded to think that our reserved and quite unsentimental Rachmaninoff could have been capable of being inspired by someone else’s advice—to create such an important work! I kept my pupil’s secret until Rachmaninoff’s death.

Note that Rachmaninoff is being described in this excerpt as “unsentimental”—an adjective few would associate with him on the basis of much of his best-known music. Yet Rachmaninoff was extremely reserved as a person (except in the company of his closest friends and family), and not all his music has the intense, heart-on-the-sleeve lyricism of the Second Piano Concerto or the Prelude in C-sharp minor.

In The Bells, for instance, we will hardly find the broad, sweeping melodic gestures of those all-time favorites. It is an intensely dramatic composition that operates on several levels. The imitation of the sound of bells, in turn joyful and sad, becomes a backdrop for the expression of a wide range of emotions. That expression, however, is indirect. Each movement begins with an invitation to listen to the bells, which are then described “from the outside.” It is significant that there are no verbs in the first person singular in the entire poem, except when the fire is personified in the third movement (this is an element that appears only in Balmont’s adaptation). In the last movement, which is about funeral bells, the first person plural is used to suggest communal mourning: even here, a more personal approach is avoided.

In addition to the sound of the bells, another aural element plays an important role in the music. The intoxicating rhythm of the poetry, so irresistible in Poe’s original, was matched by Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), who was one of the most respected Russian poets of his time. It was probably that rhythmic element that made Miss Danilova wish for a musical setting in the first place, and the music does full justice to Poe-Balmont’s verbal fireworks.

Rachmaninoff’s fascination with bells did not begin with the choral symphony. In his early Fantaisie-tableaux for two pianos (Op. 5, 1893), the third and fourth movements imitate the sound of bells, which also appear in his opera The Miserly Knight (1903-05).

The first movement is about the sound of sleigh bells. The merry sleigh ride “in the icy midnight air” is a symbol for youthful optimism. The orchestra, chorus and tenor solo join together in an exultant melody with a colorful accompaniment. In the slower, dreamier middle section, the chorus sings with mouths closed, before a return to the joyful Tempo I.

In the second movement, the soprano soloist sings of wedding bells. The music, however, is by no means a wedding march: it is, rather, a quiet and introspective piece concentrating on the solemn aspects of the ceremony. A gently rocking introductory theme sets the stage; a more sensuous, chromatically descending melody follows. The soprano’s first entrance echoes the gently rocking theme. The quiet choral refrains suggest a certain detachment: the chorus acts as a mere observer, not a participant.

Next comes one of the wildest movements Rachmaninoff ever wrote. The “alarum bells” are sounding: there is a fire raging. Instruments and voices (there is no soloist in this movement) express great fear as the bells announce the terrible news. A menacing tremolo in the strings introduces the voice of the fire, which subsides for a brief moment, only to flare up again in a final eruption of violence.

The last movement opens with a mournful English-horn solo. The bells or pealing for a funeral procession, led, as it were, by the baritone soloist. After images of happiness, solemnity, and horror, we are forced to confront the specter of death here, which makes this movement, perhaps, the most personal in the piece. The orchestral colors are toned down, and the solo part is more speech-like than before. The inclusion of the “Dies irae” melody from the Gregorian Mass of the Dead, heard in so many of Rachmaninoff’s works, was really appropriate here. It appears briefly in the bassoon, shortly before the tempo begins to speed up for a vivid portrayal of a frightful ghost. The initial funeral music eventually returns, and the work ends with a lyrical postlude for orchestra, singing the soul of the departed to rest.

—Peter Laki