Rachmaninoff + Beethoven

Program Notes

This weekend’s program features the four most famous notes in classical music – but, oh, so much more. Before Beethoven’s fateful and triumphant Fifth, we’ll enjoy Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic, über-Romantic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Shulamit Ran’s evocative Legends, premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1993, opens the concert.


Shulamit Ran
(Born 21 October 1949, Tel Aviv, Israel)

Composed: 1992-93

First performance: 7 October 1993; Chicago, Illinois

Last MSO Performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2nd doubling alto flute, 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (2 bass bow, bass drum, chimes, crotale, cymbals, glass chimes, 2 glockenspiel, maracas, marimba, mark tree, nipple gong, rute, sizzle cymbal, snare drum, 3 suspended cymblas, 2 tam tam, 3 tambourine, temple blocks, 4 tom tom, 3 triangle, vibraphone, whip, 3 wood block, xylophone), harp, celeste, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

At age seven, Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran began setting Hebrew texts to music. Two years later, she was studying composition and piano with some of Israel’s most renowned teachers and was having her early works performed by professional musicians, as well as orchestras. She moved to New York at age 14, as the recipient of scholarships from the Mannes College of Music and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. At Mannes, she continued to hone her piano skills and was a composition student of Norman Dello Joio. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for her Symphony.

Ran was on the faculty of the University of Chicago from 1973 to 2015. In 1990, Daniel Barenboim appointed her as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, a position she held for seven years. Legends was commissioned by the AT&T Foundation and the Meet the Composer Orchestra Residencies Program to honor the centennials of the CSO and the University of Chicago. Barenboim led the CSO in the work’s premiere.

“I don’t start a piece thinking about what title I’m going to give it,” Ran has stated. “But there was something about the aura of the word ‘legends’ that struck me as right. The notion of timelessness, something that transcends the boundaries of past, present, and future is another association my mind makes with the word. Mystery and wonder are, to me, part of the imaginary landscape of this world.”

Legends is cast in two ten-minute movements. On its broadest formal level, the work comes back to its opening thematic materials. The most notable of these is a four-note motif (E-G-F#-A#) that first appears about a minute into the piece, sounded initially by the cellos and a solo horn. When this theme returns, late in the second movement, we feel we’ve come full circle, that our journey will soon reach its destination. The very last phrase, though, disappears quietly into the ether, dissolving as enigmatically as it began.

Recommended Recording: Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Albany Records)


Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

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

Composed: 1934

First performance: 7 November 1934; Baltimore, Maryland

Last MSO Performance: Rachmaninoff: October 2010; Edo de Waart, conductor; Joyce Yang, piano

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle), harp, strings

Approximate Duration: 22 minutes

With his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Sergei Rachmaninoff harkened back to the Romantic-era role of pianist-composer. It was a work he wrote for himself to perform, dashing it off in only seven weeks in the summer of 1934. At this point in this life, the 61-year-old master spent much of his energy making extensive tours as a concert pianist. In the 1934-35 season alone, he played 69 dates. In a letter written not long after the completion of the Rhapsody, he worried about such a grueling schedule: “Shall I hold out? I begin to evaporate. It’s often more than I can bear just to play. In short, I’ve grown old.”

By this time in his career, Rachmaninoff had composed four piano concertos and at first was unsure of what to call his Op. 43. Though he settled on the title “rhapsody”—a term that implies a loosely organized structure—the work follows a distinctly taut form: a set of 24 variations. The theme is taken from the last of Nicolò Paganini’s (1782-1840) Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin (c1805). In his exhaustive book on Rachmaninoff, Barrie Martyn explains why this theme (also appropriated by Brahms, Liszt, Blacher, Lutoslawski, Lloyd Webber, et al.) works so well for variations: “It enshrines that most basic of musical ideas, the perfect cadence, literally in its first half and in a harmonic progression in the second, which itself expresses a musical aphorism; and the melodic line is made distinctive by a repetition of a simply but immediately memorable four- note semi-quaver [16th note] figure.” Indeed, it is a theme that is easily remembered, even hummable.

As several writers have pointed out, the variations essentially fall into three groups that correspond to the fast-slow-fast layout of a traditional three-movement concerto:

  • Introduction
  • Variation 1
  • Theme (violins)
  • Variations 2-10 (fast)
  • Variation 11 (transition)
  • Variations 12-18 (slow)
  • Variations 19-24 (fast)
  • Coda (two measures)

The “Dies irae” motif, from the Gregorian chant melody in the Mass for the Dead, first appears in Variation 7, recurring in Variations 10, 22, and 24. In Variation 18, some of the most heart-on-the-sleeve music Rachmaninoff ever set down, Paganini’s theme is turned upside-down.

Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, on tour in Baltimore, joined the composer for the work’s premiere. It has since become a central repertory piece, admired by concert-goers and professional musicians alike. It presents Rachmaninoff’s late style at its radiant and quick-witted best, and affords the audience the pleasure of watching a pianist put through their paces—with distinctly satisfying returns.

Recommended Recording: Zoltan Kocsis; Edo de Waart, San Francisco Symphony (Philips)


Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770, Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827, Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1804-08

First performance: 22 December 1808; Vienna, Austria

Last MSO Performance: Beethoven: May 2015; Edwin Outwater, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 31 minutes

Nowadays we expect classical concerts to be of reasonable length. We assume the performers will be well-rehearsed, the seating comfortable, and the room temperature pleasant. Such was not the case at the premiere of what has become one of the most popular pieces in all of classical—or any—music. The Fifth Symphony was first heard immediately after intermission on a four-hour all-Beethoven marathon concert that also included the first public performances of the Piano Concerto No. 4, the Symphony No. 6, the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80, the soprano concert aria Ah, perfido!, and portions of the Mass in C, Op. 86.

At Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, seated in the aristocrat’s box next to Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz, listening to the under-rehearsed concert, the composer Johann Friedrich Reichard later reported: “There we held out in the bitterest cold from half-past six until half-past ten, and experienced the fact that one can easily have too much of a good—and even more of a strong—thing.” We can’t know just what the shivering patrons in an unheated concert hall in December thought of this now-iconic work. It did not immediately become the world’s—or even Beethoven’s—most famous symphony. During the master’s lifetime, his Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) was presented more often, and the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony was dubbed “the crown of instrumental music.” Op. 67 became better known after it was published in 1809.

The work opens with what is surely the most famous motif in music history. The composer once pointed to the opening bars in his score and announced, “Thus Fate knocks at the door.” Or so Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s amanuensis, whose recollections are sometimes highly embroidered, would have us believe. Nevertheless, the aphorism has stuck and most choose to listen that way; indeed, we hear Fate knocking at the door of nearly every measure of the Allegro con brio.

The A-flat major Andante con moto, “consolation after tragedy” (Lewis Lockwood), presents variations on two alternating themes, a compositional technique Beethoven may have copied from Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 (“Drumroll”). Interludes with trumpets, horns, and drums separate the variants and a prolonged coda ends the movement. A scherzo and trio makes up the third movement. For the trio. Beethoven shifts from C minor to C major and employs a contrapuntal texture. Rather than a literal repeat of the scherzo portion, the composer re-orchestrates the material, performed quietly by solo winds and pizzicato strings.

Soft taps from the timpani signal us that something important is about to happen. What then follows is a miraculous transition from darkness to light as we rush headlong into C major. Beethoven’s choice of a major-mode finale in a minor-mode work is unusual. And for the first time in symphonic music, trombones (3) are added to the texture, as are piccolo and contrabassoon. Triumphant and exhilarating, the finale includes a reprise of the “horn theme” of the third movement. As Beethoven presses toward the end, he increases the tempo to presto and ends this much-loved opus with 29 bars of C major, played fortissimo—music that must have warmed the hearts of the shivering patrons on that cold night, three days before Christmas 1809.

Recommended Recording: Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.