Three of the works performed on this Sunday’s NOVA concert were written by Russian composers during the first two decades of the 20th century. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s reputation in the United States rests largely on the career he built for himself as a touring pianist in this country from 1918 until his death in 1943. Although he composed very little during this twenty-five year period, his major works of this time, like the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini and the Symphonic Dances, were composed for and premiered by the Philadelphia orchestra. His status among audiences rested upon compositions and performances that embodied an unabashed nostalgia for a lost era. These late works sound like they were composed in a cultural vacuum as they bear no relation to the developments in music seen throughout western music during the early 20th century.
The music Rachmaninoff composed before he left Russia also rested upon the achievements of an earlier time. To be fair, there was no musical upheaval occurring in Russian music until late in the first decade of the 20th century. Rachmaninoff’s music from this period is no more indulgent in late-Romantic excesses than late Rimsky-Korsakov and early Scriabin. He was surrounded by a musical culture that was not yet ready to leave the 19th century.
Rachmaninoff’s early career as a composer was rocky. Several scathing reviews deeply affected him to the point where he suffered from writer’s block. The magnificent breakthrough works he composed after overcoming his insecurities, through the help of a therapist, were the Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Sonata for Cello and Piano, both of 1901. Like Chopin’s works for cello and piano, the Rachmaninoff Sonata assigns very different roles to the two instruments. The piano part provides a virtuosic, almost orchestral backdrop against which the cellist pours out an abundance of tuneful themes. The composer premiered the work with the cellist Anatoly Brandukov, the dedicatee of the sonata and soon-to-be best man at his wedding.
Nikolai Tcherepnin, a Russian composer with a musical pedigree similar to Rachmaninoff, was a pianist and composer whose talents attracted the notice of Sergei Diaghilev. Tcherepnin became the house composer and conductor for the Ballets Russes and was slated to compose a ballet for the company based on the Russian fairy tale about a magical Firebird. Negotiations between Diaghilev and Tcherepnin fell through, and Diaghilev hired the young Igor Stravinsky to compose the score instead. (Incidentally, Tcherepnin was also slated to conduct the premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. Stravinsky was so impressed with Pierre Monteux, who was only scheduled to prepare the orchestra prior to Tcherepnin’s arrival, that he asked the French conductor to see the production through and conduct the premiere.) Tcherepnin’s music is similar to Rachmaninoff’s in that it celebrates the sonorities of the previous century’s Russian giants, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. His gorgeous Six Pieces for Horn Quartet, composed in 1910, are evocative miniatures that conjure a variety of classic horn tropes, from hunting calls to the religious solemnity of the final chorale.
Stravinsky composed his Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet in 1919, following the premiere of his theatrical work A Soldier’s Tale (recently performed on NOVA in the fall of 2013). These short pieces were intended as a thank-you present to Werner Reinhart, the wealthy amateur clarinetist who funded the first production of A Soldier’s Tale. The first movement evolved from earlier sketches Stravinsky had made of a song, while the third movement harkens back to the rollicking dance numbers of A Soldier’s Tale. The second movement provides a glimpse into Stravinsky’s creative process. The music contains instructions to play the rhythms strictly in a certain tempo, but the music has no barlines or meter. Early drafts of other pieces from this period show that Stravinsky often composed long melodies without meter, almost resembling plainchant in their melismatic contour. In large works like Symphonies of Wind Instruments, he would later add meters and barlines so that a group of musicians could coordinate the rhythmic structure with the help of a conductor. In the case of the solo clarinet pieces, there is no need to add metrical indications in order to facilitate rhythmic ensemble between players. Stravinsky left the unbarred second movement as a visual example of how he often conceived of melodies.