Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3

Notes by TŌN violist Batmyagmar Erdenebat

A Gifted Student
Well before becoming one of the most admired pianists of the early 20th century, Rachmaninoff emerged as a gifted composition student who impressed his teachers. He had an extraordinary gift for memorization and completed his opera Aleko in just 4 weeks. So why did it take him almost three decades after finishing his Second Symphony to compose his Third?

A Lost Confidence
In 1897, Rachmaninoff lost his confidence in composing after the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in St. Petersburg under the baton of Alexander Glazunov, who was said to be drunk on the stage. Yet Rachmaninoff recovered after three months of hypnotherapy with Nikolay Dahl, and in 1901 began composing his Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Dahl. Following its success, he was able to balance performance and composition so well that he completed his Symphony No. 2, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, and his Third Piano Concerto all during the first decade of the 20th Century, while living in Dresden. During the catastrophic Russian Revolution and First World War, he managed to survive and finally emigrated to the U.S., where Rachmaninoff had an intense performance schedule and little time for composition. From the end of WWI until 1931 he had not composed much, except to complete his Piano Concerto No. 4. Indeed, he felt out of touch with the modern techniques of composition, and wrote in the late 1930s, “The new kind of music seems to come not from the heart but from the head. It may be that they compose in the spirit of the times; but it may be, too, that the spirit of the times does not inspire expression in music.”

The Music
Back in Europe in 1936, Rachmaninoff completed his Third Symphony, which was inspired by one of his most celebrated piano works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The symphony premiered with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in November of the same year, but never achieved the fame of his previous work. The Philadelphia Orchestra recorded it in 1939 under Rachmaninoff’s baton. Rachmaninoff regarded his final symphony fondly. We hear the motif enter at the start of the first of three movements. It later dominates the second half of the finale. The first movement has two contrasting themes: sorrow and nostalgia expressed by the woodwinds; and a gracious, romantic melody presented by the cellos. Within the second movement, a combination of adagio and scherzo creates two inner movements. The calming theme is introduced by solo horn and followed by solo violin. The scherzo then takes its turn with the strings to create a theatrical atmosphere. The lively finale radiates the energy of Russian dance music. Finally, a lush melodic theme brings us back to high romanticism with a grand conclusion.