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Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2


Program Notes


FRI FEB 3, 11 am

SAT FEB 4, 8 pm

EDO de WAART conductor | DWIGHT PARRY oboist

SCHREKER (1878-1934)

Prelude to Die Gezeichneten, (“The Stigmatized”)

R. STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra in D Major

• Allegro moderato. Vivace. Tempo I—

• Andante. Un poco più mosso. Tempo I. Cadenza—

• Vivace. Cadenza. Allegro


RACHMANINOFF (b. 1873-1943)

Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

• Largo. Allegro moderato

• Allegro molto. Meno mosso. Allegro molto

• Adagio

• Allegro vivace


Prelude to Die Gezeichneten (“The Stigmatized”)

• Born: March 23, 1878, Monaco
• Died: March 21, 1934, Berlin
• Work composed: He composed his opera Die Gezeichneten to his own libretto 1911–15
• Premiere: April 25, 1918, Frankfurt Alte Opera, Ludwig Rottenberg conducting (U.S. premiere given at LA Opera in April 2010, under James Conlon)
• Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets (incl. E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, cymbals a2, glockenspiel, low bell, snare drum, tam-tam, tambour de basque, tenor drum, triangle, xylophone, 2 harps, celeste, piano, strings
• CSO subscription performances: One previous subscription weekend | Premiere/Most recent: March 1983, Michael Gielen conducting (the CSO has also performed the version of this work titled Prelude to a Drama, in November 1924 and March 2000)
• Duration: approx. 9 minutes

One of the most striking features of Franz Schreker’s music is the unique way he treated the orchestra. The Austrian composer’s sense of form and harmony is rooted in German Romanticism in the post-Wagnerian era, but his orchestration, with its emphasis on harps, piano, celesta and tuned percussion, has something distinctly French about it. The fourth of his nine operas, Die Gezeichneten, is sung, like all the others, in German; however, the work is set in an imaginary Italy (16th-century Genoa, to be precise), again creating a synthesis of different national cultures and identities.

As for most of his operas, Schreker wrote his own libretto for Die Gezeichneten after a play by German playwright Frank Wedekind, author of the Lulu plays that later inspired Alban Berg’s opera of the same name. Several of Wedekind’s plays (including the notorious Spring Awakening) provoked scandals for breaking sexual taboos, and Schreker’s opera likewise explored topics that were considered highly risqué at the time. The painter Carlotta Nardi, the female protagonist of Die Gezeichneten, is torn between her spiritual love for the noble but physically deformed Alviano Salvago and her carnal desire for the oversexed Vitelozzo Tamare. The opera’s cast includes a whole coterie of noblemen who abduct young girls for wild orgies in a secret grotto; much of the plot revolves around the political struggles arising from Alviano’s decision to expose these criminal activities to the public.

Schreker’s lush score brings out all the emotional charge in this potent mixture of love, lust and power. The Frankfurt premiere was a huge success; during the next decade and a half, the opera had two dozen productions in 15 different cities in Germany and Austria, making Schreker the most-performed living opera composer in the German-speaking lands, alongside Richard Strauss. Schreker’s brilliant career ended abruptly in 1933, when his music was declared “degenerate art” and banned by the Nazis. The following year, the composer died of a stroke two days before his 56th birthday. By the time World War II ended, a new musical aesthetic had appeared on the horizon; Schreker’s works were no longer in fashion, and the composer was almost forgotten. His renaissance began in the 1980s; since then, a steadily increasing number of performances and critical studies have re-established him as a major figure in the history of 20th-century music.

The Prelude is a shorter version of the concert overture Vorspiel zu einem Drama (“Prelude to a Drama”), composed in 1913 and premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic under Felix Weingartner the following year. Revised as a curtain-raiser for the theatre, the prelude follows a streamlined slow-fast-slow pattern. The opening is shimmering and mysterious, finally reaching a powerful emotional climax. The central fast section is, in turn, animated, majestic and wildly passionate. At the end, the slow tempo returns with some delicate instrumental solos; the quietly flowing motion from the beginning is then restored to conclude the prelude.

—Peter Laki


Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra in D Major

• Born: June 11, 1864, Munich
• Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch
• Work composed: 1945–46
• Premiere: February 26, 1946, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Volkmar Andreae conducting, Marcel Saillet, oboist
• Instrumentation: solo oboe, 2 flutes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings
• CSO subscription performances: Two previous subscription weekends | Premiere: April 1983, Michael Gielen conducting, Heinz Holliger, oboist | Most recent: November 2001, Paavo Järvi conducting, Douglas Boyd, oboist
• Duration: approx. 28 minutes

Not many composers remain active into their 80s. Of those who do, some experience a gradual diminishing of their powers while others find a new radiance in old age. Strauss falls into the latter category. His “sunset years” began after he completed his 15th and last opera, Capriccio, in 1941.

Strauss’ last years were remarkable in that the music he wrote has a renewed sense of humanity, an inner vitality that had been missing from his works since Der Rosenkavalier of 1910. The crowning achievements of the sunset years are the bittersweet and impassioned Metamorphosen for strings and the transcendent Four Last Songs. Other works from the period have special qualities as well—the Oboe Concerto, two Sonatinas for 16 winds, Second Horn Concerto, and Duet Concertino for clarinet, bassoon, strings and harp. A glance at this list of works reveals an interesting aspect of Strauss’ late years—his renewed interest in absolute music and classical genres after decades of programmatic tone poems and stage works. The titles, in fact, recall those of the very first music Strauss published, in the early 1880s—String Quartet, Piano Sonata, Serenade for 13 Winds, Violin Concerto, Cello Sonata, First Horn Concerto, Symphony.

The earliest works were from a period of apprenticeship. Strauss was learning his craft, absorbing influences, but not yet courting originality. The late works look back on the classicism of the early works after a long period of extravagant, anti-classical, thoroughly original composition. The comparisons are fascinating. In the late works we hear a sure craft and a fertile imagination writing purposefully modest music.

Another activity of Strauss’ last years, in addition to composing this fascinating series of instrumental pieces, was writing fantasies on earlier works or extracting suites from them.

Strauss referred to his late instrumental works as “wrist exercises.” They were “craftsmanlike study materials for our worthy instrumentalists…to prevent the wrist and mind from becoming too flabby”; “a legacy without musico-historical significance”; “workshop labors intended to prevent my right wrist, freed from conducting, from going to sleep prematurely.”

KEYNOTE. The Second World War was over, and Strauss was living in retirement in Garmisch. Deeply saddened by the destruction he had witnessed, he kept to himself most of the time. Occasionally he would meet soldiers, such as John de Lancie, first oboist of The Philadelphia Orchestra. De Lancie suggested that Strauss might write an oboe concerto. The still energetic 81-year-old composer set to work, and what resulted is a charming and sophisticated work.

The concerto has a youthful exuberance and innocence that certainly do not sound like the work of an octogenarian. But careful listening to the counterpoint and the development of ideas shows a sophisticated craft that could hardly be a young man’s. One example should suffice to show this. Listen to the four-note cello figure that opens the concerto. A simple motive, you might think, but its isolation by silence makes it quite special. Then notice the myriad ways Strauss uses it—tucked away in an accompanimental figure, as part of a melodic line, enriching a texture. And notice how subtly it creates the transition into the second movement. This concerto is the work of a consummate master in full control of his talents.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

• Born: March 20/April 1, 1873 (Julian/Gregorian calendars, but the composer regarded April 1 as his birthday), Oneg (near Semyonovo), Russia | Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, CA
• Work composed: 1906–1907
• Premiere: February 8, 1908, St. Petersburg—Sergei Rachmaninoff conducting
• Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 3 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, glockenspiel, snare drum, strings
• CSO subscription performances: 13 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: February 1918, Henry Hadley conducting (Emery Auditorium) | Most recent: October 2009, Paavo Järvi conducting (also on 2009 tour to Japan)
• Duration: approx. 60 minutes

More than a decade separates Rachmaninoff’s first two symphonies. The reason is that the composer considered the First Symphony a disaster and was reluctant to make a second attempt in the genre. He could not stand listening to rehearsals or to the one performance the work received during his lifetime. At its premiere the audience was hostile and the critics were vitriolic. After the fiasco of the First Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s self-confidence was badly shaken. He was unable to compose anything for the next three years. He began to drink heavily. Although he did eventually come out of his depression, thanks to the help of a psychiatrist who specialized in post-hypnotic suggestion, Rachmaninoff never returned to the First Symphony. It lay unknown in the Leningrad Conservatory library until it was eventually reconstructed, from the orchestral parts, four years after his death.

When Rachmaninoff eventually decided, with some trepidation, to try his hand once again at composing a symphony, he at first told no one. He was living in Dresden at the time, far away from the distractions of his hectic career in Russia. When his friend Alexander Siloti visited him, Rachmaninoff confided that he was working on a symphony. Siloti invited him to conduct it in Saint Petersburg and, without waiting for a response, informed the press of the upcoming premiere. Another friend wrote from Saint Petersburg, asking about the work. Rachmaninoff explained:

A month ago, or more, I really did finish a symphony, but to this must be added the phrase “in rough draft.” I have not announced it to “the world,” because I want first to complete it in final form. While I was planning the orchestration, the work became terribly boring and repulsive to me. So I threw it aside and took up something else. Thus “the world” would not have known, yet, about my work—if it hadn’t been for Siloti, who came here and pulled out of me news of everything I have done and of everything that I am going to do. I told him that there will be a symphony. That’s how I’ve already received an invitation to conduct it next season! And news of this symphony has flown everywhere. I can tell you privately that I am displeased with the piece.

Later the composer wrote to his friend Nikita Morozov:

As for the quality of these [recent projects], I must say that the worst is the [Second] Symphony. When I get it written [and orchestrated] and then correct my First Symphony, I give my solemn word—no more symphonies. Curse them! I don’t know how to write them, but mainly, I don’t want to.

Despite his misgivings about the Second Symphony, and despite his insecurity as a conductor, Rachmaninoff did agree to lead the premiere in Saint Petersburg. He also introduced the work in Moscow a week later and then in Warsaw. The public reacted enthusiastically. The composer was vindicated as a symphonist.

The famous German conductor Artur Nikisch, who often made guest appearances in Russia, was eager to perform the symphony. As sometimes happens with well-known conductors, Nikisch let his fame take the place of diligent work. Confident that the Moscow orchestra knew the work, as Rachmaninoff had already conducted it with that ensemble, Nikisch managed to direct the concert without having rehearsed the work at all. In fact, he had not even looked at the score! Had Moscow not already heard the piece well played, this disastrous performance might have condemned the Second Symphony to the same fate that the First had suffered.

After these early performances, Rachmaninoff revised the work for publication. He dedicated it to composer Sergei Taneyev. Some months later Rachmaninoff met Nikisch in London. The conductor asked, “So, how is my [!] Symphony?” The composer replied that it was being published. Nikisch, assuming that the work was dedicated to him, scheduled it in Berlin and Leipzig. When the printed score became available, the conductor bought a copy, only to discover the title page headed “To Taneyev.” The arrogant Nikisch thereupon cancelled the German performances, although the programs had already been printed. Rachmaninoff feared that this public rejection of the symphony by one of the foremost conductors in Europe would bode ill for the work’s future. To his surprise, however, it was soon awarded the prestigious (and lucrative) Glinka Prize.

Despite Rachmaninoff’s misgivings and Nikisch’s vengeance, the Second Symphony has become Rachmaninoff’s best loved purely orchestral work, far surpassing in popularity his other two symphonies.

KEYNOTE. The symphony is a large, brooding, romantic work, more closely related to the 19th than to the 20th century. The orchestration throughout is lush and impassioned, with considerable activity in the inner parts of the dense counterpoint. An interesting feature is the frequency of sustained notes in the bass register. The result is slowly changing harmonies, which give the symphony an imposing, monolithic quality beneath its varied melodies and motives.

Like many large 19th-century symphonies, the Rachmaninoff Second is pervaded by a single figure. It is first heard at the very opening, in the low strings. Its identifying characteristic is the alternation of a note and another note a step lower. This motive is also present in the prominent violin theme, which answers the initial presentation of the motive.

The two opening ideas, which both contain the basic motive, are developed throughout the extensive introduction. When the allegro finally arrives, its violin theme contains the motive, as does the lyric second theme. One result of the first movement’s obsession with this one figure is that it favors motives and their combination over full-blown melodies. We must wait for later movements to hear the overwhelming expressiveness of Rachmaninoff’s lyricism.

The frequent upward surges toward climaxes in the first movement are balanced by the opening horn theme of the second movement. This scherzo tune has an essentially descending shape, as does its answer in the violins. A second theme in the strings (introduced and accompanied by wistful clarinet arpeggios) provides the long melodic line absent from first movement. Like the scherzo theme, this tune descends, at least at first. It changes direction, however, as it prepares for the return of the scherzo mood.

The spiky trio theme, a “perpetual motion” in staccato strings, is treated in a quasi-fugal manner. Two factors prevent it from functioning as a true fugue—the motivic repetition within the theme and the fact that subsequent entrances are in the same key. The scherzo returns after this brief polyphonic interlude.

The slow movement begins with a string melody of soaring romantic beauty—a love theme rivaling in passion Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. After just four measures, however, this theme gives way to a long clarinet melody—beautiful in its own way, but lacking the emotional fervor of the first melody. This second tune transfers to the strings in preparation for a relaunching of the opening melody. Again we are frustrated by hearing only four measures of this quintessentially romantic music. This time it is replaced by more active music. The music builds gradually toward a powerful climax. Notice the activity within the orchestral sonority as the climax approaches. After a pause, Rachmaninoff at last provides what the movement has been yearning for—a development of the opening theme. This takes place first in a series of solos for horn, violin, English horn, flute, oboe and clarinet. The love theme, so long understated, at last pervades the music—even while other materials are recalled—until the end of the movement.

The expansive finale starts vigorously, but soon we hear a ghostly march based on the fundamental motive. There is also a lyrically romantic melody and a quotation of the lush theme from the slow movement. After the final, soaring statement of the finale’s lyrical tune, a brief but excited coda ends the work.

—Jonathan D. Kramer