in: News & Features

March 12, 2009

Dissertations on Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Ives’s Fourth Symphony

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These two works, performed in early March 2009 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Alan Gilbert, elicited these observations by musicologist and composer Mark DeVoto.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

A rhapsody, says the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a composition of irregular form and often improvisatory character,” a convenient definition especially when the composer isn’t certain what else to call a composition. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies are mostly sectional, with the sections unrelated to each other; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has one or two themes that return repeatedly but are sparingly developed; and even the second scene of Berg’s Wozzeck, which depends on dramatic progression, was called by him a “rhapsody on three chords.”

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is more highly structured and formally economical than the title would indicate. It consists of 24 variations, some of them freely expanded into cadenzas, but with an overall layout roughly corresponding to a three-movements-in-one form, fast-slow-fast. The theme from Paganini’s 24th Caprice was the springboard for one of Liszt’s Grand Etudes (No. 5), as well as for virtuoso variation sets by Schumann and Brahms and, in our own time, by Lutoslawski; but Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody has always been the best known of all of these, and, of all of his works for piano and orchestra, the most grateful to play. It may not be as popular with the public as the immortal Second Concerto, but neither is it as grandiose and bombastic.

I’m looking at the performance history, too. Rachmaninoff played the premiere of the Rhapsody in Baltimore in 1934, and the Boston premieres in 1937 with Koussevitzky. (I remember that Rachmaninoff twice was offered, and twice refused, the directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) I grew up with a recording of the Rhapsody played by Julius Katchen and the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult, and I never heard a better one; but Tuesday’s performance at the Boston Symphony under Guest Conductor Alan Gilbert was certainly of that caliber.

It’s easy to look back over Rachmaninoff’s concertos as monuments to an era that had already passed. The Second Concerto (1901) rescued Rachmaninoff’s sanity after a period of deep depression, as all the world knows; the Third (1909), written for his American tour, is a bigger and tighter work, less pretentious than the Second but also not as charming. (Historical nexus: Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto was written in the same year as Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. And I’d like to have been present when Rachmaninoff played the Third Concerto in New York with Gustav Mahler conducting; it hardly seems historically possible.)

The Second and Third derive from the legacy of Tchaikovsky and Chopin, the two composers who most deeply influenced Rachmaninoff. But by the time of the Rhapsody, more than two decades later, Rachmaninoff had absorbed some of Debussy and Ravel as well, and invented a harmonic vocabulary building on Chopin’s that is at least partly new and definitely original.

The Rhapsody also allowed Rachmaninoff opportunity for different kinds of piano writing that didn’t tie him down into lengthy “symphonic” development, but with a maximum of wit and contrapuntal orchestral dialogue, and rather less of the booming big-chord style that he was already famous for (although he did pull out all the stops in the famous 18th variation —so popular that it is often excerpted as a separate piece). As in his Fourth Concerto, First and Third symphonies, Symphonic Dances, and symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, Rachmaninoff made the medieval chant melody of the Dies irae a significant part of the Rhapsody.

Rachmaninoff has honored the world like a beautiful anachronism, with music that is expertly crafted and full of expressive appeal. He claimed that he didn’t understand the music of his own time, but to a certain extent his own music reveals his effort to understand, and especially in the most important of his last works, the Rhapsody and the Symphonic Dances. Stravinsky, nine years younger, dismissed Rachmaninoff’s music as antiquated but deeply respected the musician himself; at least one source says that Rachmaninoff told someone, not Stravinsky, that the latter’s Firebird was the greatest piece of Russian music yet written. This may be a measure of the distance between them, 65 years after Rachmaninoff’s death and 38 years after Stravinsky’s, when we are enriched by both.

Ives ‘s Fourth Symphony

Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony is one of the 20th-century’s toughest nuts ever. Ives never completed this enormous work; he assembled it from miscellaneous sketches and fragments over a period of at least 20 years before 1916 and constantly changed his mind about its fundamental structural conceptions and how he wanted to realize ideas that he may never have fully formulated. The orchestral approach to much of it, particularly the second and fourth movements, was radical, including simultaneous sections in different tempi and meters that required coordination by a second conductor; in fact, Ives thought that two sub-conductors would be needed.

It is no wonder that the symphony as a whole did not reach a performable state until 1965, 11 years after his death, when Leopold Stokowski conducted the premiere with the American Symphony Orchestra.  The recording they made that year remains historic; the score was published as well, but many, many questions about Ives’s intentions still remain unanswered, like his famous chamber piece.

The first movement, called “Prelude,” features the “distant choir” answering loud, ponderous gestures in the main orchestra with an ethereal ostinato that remains “scarcely audible” at the end of the movement; in between the chorus goes through two verses of Lowell Mason’s beloved hymn, “Watchman, tell us of the night,” in D major, which can be regarded as the symbolic overall tonality of the symphony because the same key closes the fourth movement. This short movement achieves genuine majesty as though in a dream, with the hymn the central focus while strange and even sinister sonic shapes writhe around it. The score calls for “Voices (ad lib.)” but is marked “preferably without voices.” Why?

The “Comedy” movement is the most complicated part of the entire score. Like the second movement of Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, from which part of the “Comedy” was transplanted, this is modeled on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Celestial Railroad.” Ives intended a variety of different things in this movement, but one that has become well known is the effect of two different bands playing different marches in different keys and different tempi converging on the town square during a Fourth of July celebration. With this and so much else going on at once, the result often seemed to Elliott Carter, who as a boy visited Ives in his studio, like a dismaying proportion of “undifferentiated confusion.” (For well-differentiated confusion, think of the first tableau of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.)

It was fascinating to hear this pandemonium up close – incredibly loud and shrill, busy with noise in which almost no separate melodic or rhythmic features could be distinguished except occasionally when the ensemble slowed for an instant of breath – at a recent performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I was puzzled, however, by the theremin*. I think it was included as a substitute for the ad libitum quarter-tone piano that Ives indicated in the score while several solo strings play “Beulah Land” in a pellucid F-sharp major. This gentle passage lasted not quite all the way through one verse, and then all hell broke loose once again, everything whirling into a titanic fff climax and then abruptly fizzling out into nothingness.

The third movement is marked by a stately Mendelssohnian fugue, mostly for strings and in fact an updated version of a movement from Ives’s First String Quartet of 1896, and in a more or less conventional C major with a subject from the first phrase of another Lowell Mason hymn, “From Greenland’s icy mountains.” At one point the organ provides a pianissimo cadence following a forte climax on the strings, and that is all we hear of the organ until the D pedals in the finale. Eventually other hymn phrases are added in brass solos – from “All hail the power of Jesus’ name” (another Massachusetts tune, by Oliver Holden, early 19th century), as well as two Handel favorites, “Awake, my soul, stretch ev’ry nerve” and “Joy to the world.”

The finale is intellectually the most difficult movement of the entire symphony. It is framed by another “distant choir” of five violins and two harps that fades in and out, and a “battery unit” of drums, cymbals and gongs that plays continuously throughout, in varying ostinato patterns. The rest of the ensemble features essentially the full orchestra, including as many as 10 divisions of strings, in layers upon layers of hymn tunes and constantly changing ostinati, mostly in very soft dynamics. The solo piano weaves bursts of chords in and out of this widely-spaced texture, sometimes in quarter-tones shared with the strings (this is where the theremin came in, I think), sometimes with fast filigree that was very difficult even to hear.

The multiple metric and rhythmic relationships in this movement are furiously complex, with different barlines overlapping and tuplet brackets extending over them, at least in the upper parts; the bass line, however, was solid and relatively straightforward, and it seemed to me that the Renaissance tactus might have been the most secure way to beat time in this movement. (Alan Gilbert used a baton in the Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, but omitted it throughout the Ives.) The entire full texture has very few dynamic indications but it builds slowly to a ff climax and then gradually fades into a genuine pp coda, with D major emerging from the fog: a repeated descending whole-tone scale in the bass, with the organ providing a pedal point on D. After about eight iterations of this, the voices come in wordlessly, with another polyrhythmic ostinato. Everything fades out gradually, leaving the “battery unit” playing the final notes. In a note to himself, Ives later wrote that this movement was “the best, compared with the other movements, or for that matter with any other thing that I’ve done.”

The Fourth Symphony as a whole is, I think, a magnificent failure, possibly the most magnificent of all of Ives’s works, but a failure in the same way, and to much the same degree, as we find in much of Ives’s most original, most imaginative music, like the first two Piano Sonatas and Three Places in New England. Ives’s tragedy was his situation in time and place. In the America that brought him to birth and inspired every atom of his life and career, he could not have been, and was not, understood as a composer. Among his friends there were a few other forward-looking Americans, performers as well as composers, who did their best for him and to a great extent did understand what he was trying to do, though not what he actually succeeded in doing. Ives knew this as well as anyone, but he lacked the capacity for relentless self-criticism that might have pushed him to follow his own instincts with the technical hard work needed to perfect his vision – nor would that possibly perfected music, in his time, have been any more likely to achieve performance or recognition.

One who did possess that capacity in his own work was Schoenberg, his fellow citizen and exact contemporary, who acknowledged Ives’s greatness, saying that Ives “is not forced to accept praise or blame.”  Ives did, in his later years, obtain a measure of respect and even praise, after the premiere of his “Concord” Sonata 30 years after he wrote it, and in his award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Third Symphony, composed in 1904. Often revising his works, even years after sketching them or tentatively finishing them, he managed to bring a number of them to a state that satisfied him and that we can recognize as much the better for his continued efforts — the Third Violin Sonata, parts of the Holidays Symphony, shorter pieces like Over the Pavements and The Unanswered Question, and many of his songs. In these, and even in the larger works like the baffling, defective, undeniably wonderful Fourth Symphony, we can discern the outlines, and some of the profound achievements, of one of the most visionary and multifaceted composers of all time, whose work responded as much to the transcendental vibrations of the New England microcosm as to the hidden rhythms of the universe.

*Ed: According to Wikipedia, the theremin, named after its Russian inventor, is an electronic instrument with a controlling section of two metal antennae that sense the position of a player’s hands that control radio frequency oscillators with one and volume with the other.

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