Program Notes: Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto

The three works on today’s musical smorgasbord were written in a span of less than 30 years, but each has a distinctive compositional voice. Rachmaninoff’s monumental Third Piano Concerto harkens back to the virtuosic days of the Romantic era, while Shostakovich’s First Symphony—penned just five years later—speaks with an entirely different Russian accent. Samuel Barber’s First Essay appropriates a literary form to fashion a convincing musical statement.

Essay No. 1, Op. 12

Samuel Barber
(Born 9 March 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania; Died 23 January 1981 in New York, New York)

Composed: 1938

Premiere: 5 November 1938; New York

Last MSO Performance: March 1981; David Zinman, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 8 minutes

Samuel Barber is best-known for his elegiac Adagio for Strings, probably the most frequently performed work by an American composer. That piece had its first performance on 5 November 1938, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, who led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in its weekly radio broadcast. On the same program was the 28-year-old composer’s Essay for Orchestra (later retitled after Barber returned to the form in 1942). The success of these premieres furthered Barber’s international reputation and early fame. 

As with its literary counterpart, a musical essay seeks to develop a single melodic “thesis sentence.” This was a musical form of Barber’s own creation, beginning as early as 1926 with three Essays for piano. The poet Robert Horan, a friend of Barber’s, has stated that Barber wanted “to avoid that overworked department of musical composition, the three-part form, by fashioning... a subtle two-part form, in the two sections of which, although completely contrasting in mood and color, there is reciprocal interplay of thematic material.”

What we have, then, is a highly original binary form: the first section is the statement of a somber theme; the second, a scherzo-like reworking of the first, which then resurfaces in counterpoint with it—somber and scherzo simultaneously. There’s a brief coda and, at work’s end, quiet violins tentatively answer a trio of questioning trumpets—set above rumbling timpani.  

Recommended recording: Marin Alsop, Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos)

Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10

Dmitri Shostakovich
(Born 25 September 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia; Died 9 August 1975 in Moscow)

Composed: 1924-25

Premiere: 12 May 1926; Moscow

Last MSO Performance: January 2006; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, triangle), piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 28 minutes

Widely regarded as the greatest symphonist of the mid-20th century, the Russian master Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 works in that genre. Additionally, his impressive compositional catalogue includes six concertos for various instruments, chamber music (including 15 string quartets), solo piano music, two operas and an operetta, several cantatas and oratorios, three ballets, 36 film scores, incidental music for 11 plays, choral music, and songs. 

The 18-year-old Shostakovich was a student at the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) Conservatory when he wrote his First Symphony, his graduation piece. Displaying “delicate transparency” and a “chiseled classicistic” quality (Boris Schwarz), the work was well-received at its Leningrad premiere, 12 May 1926. It is set in the traditional four movements.

From the opening notes of a muted-trumpet fanfare, answered by a chromatic bassoon melody, the clear texture of the first movement is readily apparent. Solo instruments are allowed their moment in the spotlight as musical ideas are introduced simply, above a sparse accompaniment. As the movement progresses, several themes are mixed together, to powerful effect. Shostakovich’s humor is on display in the scherzo (Allegro). It is vivacious and—in the spooky trio, with its insistent triangle and snare drum rolls—strangely mysterious. Again, the composer is able to combine these two elements into an energetic tutti, with three percussive A minor chords on the piano forming the unusual climax.

In the Lento, the chromatic lyricism of a plaintive oboe melody intensifies the disquieting end of the scherzo. The tune is a distant cousin of the first movement’s opening theme. The music continues in a richly lyrical manner, melding without a break into the Finale. Previous motifs are brought together and the musical language is more complex. Listen for broad mood swings, unexpected tempo changes, daring contrasts, and the overall emotional complexity of a family reunion. The rambunctious ending—and indeed, the work as a whole—announces that an exciting and enduring new compositional voice has arrived on the scene. 

Recommended Recording: Leonard Bernstein, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)


Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

Sergei Rachmaninoff
(Born 1 April 1873 in Semyonovo, Russia; Died 28 March 1943 in Beverly Hills, California)

Composed: 1909

Premiere: 28 November 1909; New York

Last MSO Performance: October 2009; Edo de Waart, conductor; Joyce Yang, piano

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbals), strings

Approximate Duration: 39 minutes

Nowadays when we hear the name Sergei Rachmaninoff, we think of soaring, expressive melodies and rich, Romantic-era harmonies. Our inner ears listen to the slow movement of the Second Symphony or Van Cliburn playing the Second Concerto. In other words, we view the Russian master as a composer, and rightly so. But it’s important to remember that he had two other careers on his résumé: conductor and world-class pianist. 

In the latter role, Rachmaninoff made his first American tour in 1909. On that trip, the sheet music in his satchel included a new work, the Third Piano Concerto, penned during the previous summer. On his voyage across the Atlantic, lacking a piano, he practiced the piece on a cardboard keyboard he’d made for himself. The premiere took place on 28 November at New York City’s New Theatre, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Society. Several weeks later, Rachmaninoff played the concerto with the New York Philharmonic and its new music director, Gustav Mahler.

Rachmaninoff’s Third—arguably the most daunting and technically challenging of all piano concertos—is set in three movements. The pianist enters almost immediately, outlining a melancholy melody—unmistakably Slavic in its cast—that will serve to unify all three movements. The second movement Adagio opens softly before broadening into a big Romantic tune for the pianist. There’s a lively section for pizzicato strings, then the lushness returns before we rocket into the Finale. It’s a tour de force of white-hot technique, but with passages of freer, more rhapsodic expression. The final Vivace moments surely dazzled the New York audience at the work’s premiere—and continue to do so today.

Recommended Recording: Martha Argerich; Riccardo Chailly, RSO Berlin (Decca)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.