“Rachmaninoff: King of Melody”

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For the very first time in Vietnam, beloved composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s very first symphony will be spotlighted this Saturday with the Sun Symphony Orchestra. The Symphony has in recent times become much more successful, and would probably have made its composer proud.

Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (Pianist: Nguyễn Việt Trung)

Symphony no. 1 in D minor (Vietnam Premiere)

RACHMANINOFF: King of Melody” concert

Timing: 20h00, March 30, 2024
Venue: Ho Guom Opera
Price: 500.000đ | 800.000đ | 1.000.000đ | 2.000.000đ
Ticketing: 0965 765 946 – 0913 489 858
For your booking: https://forms.gle/YVzFdYKL8iZhbKnn8

Shortly before his death, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff summed up his life by saying: “In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, or Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music…. I have been strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov; but I have never, to the best of my knowledge, imitated anyone. What I try to do when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly that which is in my heart when I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”

The King of Melody, as we like to think of him, expressed in his compositions some of the most poignant feelings ever put into music.  For this week’s concert, we feature one of his early works – the very first symphony – and one of his later works which followed some decades of fame and success – his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Having achieved great success as a pianist, it is no surprise that much of Rachmaninoff’s compositional output revolves around the piano.  With four concertos, loads of solo piano works and chamber music, one sees how deeply the piano figured in Rachmaninoff’s musical mind.  The Rhapsody does what many works have done, which is to use the last 24 caprices of Niccolò Paganini as a jumping board from which to write inventive variations.  Rachmaninoff’s own creation takes the variations and adds a clear orchestral Rachmaninoff signature, with colors we have come to expect from his characteristic compositions.

An element which ties both the Rhapsody and the Symphony No. 1 is the famous “Dies Irae”, the medieval liturgical theme that is so prominently used by composers from Berlioz to Liszt and Tchaikovsky.  Rachmaninoff includes elements in Paganini’s life such as his exploitative relationships with women, as well as the scary demonic association. “All the variations which have the Dies Irae theme represent the evil spirit…Paganini himself appears in the theme,” he claims.  During the 19th Century, the dark Dies Irae theme had become not only a “death theme” but an idea which represented the supernatural. The pairing of this element with the Paganini theme iterated at the beginning is a fascinating combination which lends itself to great possibilities of contrasting moods.

Despite the Dies Irae appearing several times in the Rhapsody, the work is, on the whole, rather upbeat, and ends in a very lighthearted (if rather soft) manner.  By contrast, the Symphony No. 1 is a more dramatic and ominous work.  The symphony is interesting in that all four of its movements are essentially built on two elements – a 4-note motif (which you can hear at the beginning of every single movement) and … you guessed it… the “Dies Irae”.  Even as a relatively work, the symphony demonstrates Rachmaninoff’s uncanny ability to tell a story with the bare essentials.

At the premiere performance of the symphony, it is generally agreed that the concert was a disastrous one; the orchestra had not been properly rehearsed (let alone the fact that the symphony is very challenging for both conductor and orchestra).  César Cui, at the time a prominent composer and powerful critic, wrote that such a dark symphony “would have delighted the inhabitants of Hell” and that the “music leaves an evil impression.” Other critics had a more positive approach to the symphony, asserting that perhaps this composer had not yet found his milieu and that it was bound to happen. Either way, the symphony failed and during Rachmaninoff’s life never quite gained traction. This affected the composer very much, and his ego suffered from this until his death.

The symphony begins immediately with the Dies Irae in the strings; if you are unable to catch this theme in the Rhapsody, there will be no mistake about it with the symphony.  Various transformations of this theme are scattered about the entire work, through the lighter second movement to the soulful third movement, and on to the jubilant opening of the fourth.  The King of Melody infuses amidst the darkness some of the most gorgeous melodic writing written for orchestra.

A motive for writing such an overall dark symphony?  Conjecture has it that Rachmaninoff referred in his dedication (written “To A.L.”) to Anna Ladyzhenskaya, a young woman married to an older man; the end of the symphony score had the inscription: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, said the Lord” (from St. Paul in the Holy Bible).  Was this a symphony about retribution?  Whatever the cause, the work has it all; anger, love, rejoicing. It is an emotionally charged work worthy of being programmed much more often than it is.  Thankfully, this work has seen a growing interest in the musical community.  We are so thrilled to present it to you alongside Rachmaninoff’s famous Rhapsody.

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