Rachmaninoff: An American Without Assimilation : Deceptive Cadence Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop muses on both the Russian and American sides of Sergei Rachmaninoff and his Third Symphony.
NPR logo

Rachmaninoff: An American Without Assimilation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/461281186/461754152" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Rachmaninoff: An American Without Assimilation

Rachmaninoff: An American Without Assimilation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/461281186/461754152" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The start of the 20th century was a dark time for Sergei Rachmaninoff. His first symphony had been panned in 1897. The composer sank into a depression that lasted for years. He couldn't write. With the help of a psychologist and amateur musician named Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninoff climbed out of despair and he completed his "Piano Concerto No. 2" in 1901 and dedicated the work to Dahl.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2")

SIMON: Rachmaninoff's struggles will be the subject Maestro Marin Alsop's Off the Cuff presentation next week. And the BSO will perform Rachmaninoff's "Symphony No. 3." The maestro joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Marin, thanks so much for being with us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: So I've read Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff as a six and a half foot scowl.

ALSOP: (Laughter) Of course, that's the outward perception I think. But Rachmaninoff, indeed, I mean, he had a very tough childhood. He was born into a rather well-off family. But then his father squandered all of their money. They had to downsize. Eventually, he moved with his mother into an apartment and his sister - he had five siblings - and the sister whom he adored then got ill and died. So I think it was, you know, it was fraught with challenges. But I think he was predisposed toward depression from a very young age. And I guess he didn't conceal that very well.

SIMON: Yeah, and his first symphony got panned, I guess, right?

ALSOP: Unfortunately, the conductor was a well-known composer as well - Glasunov - but he had quite a bit to drink and he was essentially drunk for the rehearsals and the performance. And it was an absolute disaster. It was panned by the critics, and it was devastating for Rachmaninoff.

SIMON: Does that often happen, Marin, that a conductor will get drunk and ruin a great composer's work (laughter)?

ALSOP: Listen, that's why don't. No (laughter) I think that it really does speak to - you know, joking aside it speaks to the importance of the interpreter for the creator.

SIMON: Let's listen to a bit, if we can, of the first movement of Rachmaninoff's third symphony, and this is a recording with the Russian National Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

SIMON: This has a Russian sound, but...

ALSOP: It does, yeah.

SIMON: ...I gather he wasn't in Russia.

ALSOP: Well, by this time he was a U.S. resident and he often would go to a summer home in Switzerland. That's where he actually composed this symphony. But he made his home at the end of his life in Beverly Hills. I think, though, for him, you know, he never spiritually or musically left Russia. I mean, he was extremely attached and I think it was a devastating moment in history for him when he had to flee the country in 1917 of course because of the revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

ALSOP: There's a reference constantly to Russian folk music, to the scales, the modes that are used in Russian folk music. There's a plaintive quality. It feels that it has a longing that can't be fulfilled and yet at the same time you hear the colors of, you know, you can just see Russia in the summertime and the drama of the countryside.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

SIMON: Marin, what do you think we might be able to hear of Rachmaninoff's troubles in his compositions?

ALSOP: An interesting theme and motto that runs through his work is an obsession with death. And it manifests often throughout his music with a referencing of the famous sort of death theme, the dies irae. This is a theme - we don't know its actual origin, but it was written sometime probably in the 12th century. The theme bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. So the dies irae theme is used by many, many composers throughout history. Probably the most famous example is Berlioz's use of it in the "Symphonie Fantastique."

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

ALSOP: Now, of course, that couldn't be more obvious, but Rachmaninoff by this time in his career even though it's - he's used it in many other pieces, it becomes sort of a signature and almost a code that he hides within this third Symphony as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

ALSOP: So you hear it - it's every other note in that descending string line.

SIMON: Marin, you mentioned that Rachmaninoff wound up in Beverly Hills in the company, as it turns out, with a fair number of international composers.

ALSOP: Yeah, and particularly Russian composers. It's interesting that they ended up settling in that area and of course with the birth of the film industry - and just the explosion really of the film industry - many of these composers ended up becoming well-known film composers, like Bernard Herrmann or Korngold or Rozsa (ph). And it's my feeling that many of these composers took a lot of their cues from Rachmaninoff.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

SIMON: That's the sum coming up over the prairie.

ALSOP: Yeah, isn't it - I mean, it's - the imagery it evokes is just amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

SIMON: There've been so many artists through the centuries who have struggled with darkness, depression, mental challenge and they've often been considered geniuses who sometimes say now not despite their problems but almost because of them.

ALSOP: I'm always fascinated by this question of, you know, mental illness and this kind of emotional struggle and the creative process. When I read the statistics, you know, that say that 1 in 4 of us will suffer at some point from mental illness, I guess it's not that unusual and particularly creative people, though, I think because there is an outlet in music that organizes one's thoughts that gives an emotional release. So, you know, the question really becomes whether they would be better off with the treatments we have today in terms of their creative output or whether we are the benefactors, really, of their tremendous emotional struggles.

SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and she will present an Off the Cuff discussion about Rachmaninoff and conduct the BSO in his "Symphony No. 3" next week. Marin, pleasure to be back with you. Thanks so much.

ALSOP: Great to talk to, you Scott. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHMANINOFF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

SIMON: And you can read the maestro's essay about Rachmaninoff on our website, nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.