Rachmaninoff at 150: The First Symphony

Rachmaninoff did not have a huge symphonic output, in terms of quantity: just three symphonies, written over the course of his lifetime. But in those three symphonies there are entire universes. Rachmaninoff’s ability to get so much varied musical life into a relatively small symphonic output is rivaled probably only by Berlioz, whose idiosyncratic strangeness informed every bar he ever wrote.

Rachmaninoff’s symphonies (and we’re going to be taking these slightly out of order) are purely orchestral, and none of them boast any programmatic content; none of them are nicknamed in any way. They exist in their own musical world, not unlike Brahms’s symphonies, or Schumann’s, or, hewing more closely to Rachmaninoff’s own world, Borodin’s and Tchaikovsky’s.

The Symphony No. 1 in D minor is, like the First Piano Concerto, a youthful work that shows Rachmaninoff’s influences more strongly than his later works, as his voice was still developing. The overt lyricism of Rachmaninoff’s mature era is less in evidence, and there are places where the work’s youthful awkwardness is clear–I note in particular the way the symphony’s ending does seem to go on longer than it should, as if Rachmaninoff isn’t quite sure when to stick that landing–but on the whole the degree to which this symphony is far less well-known than the two that came after it is disappointing.

There are extra-musical reasons for the First Symphony’s obscurity, relative to the rest of Rachmaninoff’s output. Rachmaninoff himself disowned the work not long after he wrote it, and he refused to acknowledge it, perform it, or revise it. He didn’t destroy it or suppress it, he simply ignored it, and when he left Russia in 1917, he made no effort to secure a copy with the rest of his manuscripts, choosing instead to leave the manuscript score in a desk which he bequeathed to a relative who stayed in Russia. That manuscript score was lost, and the entire symphony was thought lost until the complete orchestral parts were rediscovered in the Leningrad Conservatory’s library. Thus the score was able to be reconstructed, and Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony returned to orchestral performance.

But why did Rachmaninoff react so strongly to one of his first major works? Well, that stems from the symphony’s first performance and a subsequent reaction to the work penned by Cesar Cui (I alluded to this incident last month). In short, the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s symphony may well rank as one of the most disastrous premiere performances of a new work by a major composer in history. By all accounts, the orchestra wasn’t the best, and to make matters worse, the work was under-rehearsed, so the faults in the orchestration (Rachmaninoff at this point hasn’t really developed a keen sense of orchestral balance, so in spots the work has a “muddy” sound) were all the more obvious. Worse was that the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was…well, Glazunov is remembered as a fine composer now, and no history of conducting mentions him much at all, because he wasn’t very good at it. And what’s worse than a lackluster orchestra playing an under-rehearsed new work under the baton of a mediocre conductor? Well, what if that conductor is drunk at the time of the performance?

Basically, every single thing that could make for a bad orchestral performance happened at the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony, and it was apparently so bad that the composer himself, horrified by what he was hearing, actually left the performance before it ended. Disaster, indeed.

But the worst was still to come, when Cesar Cui wrote his review. This particular review stands tall in the history of bad reviews; seriously, this is right up there with Roger Ebert’s famous “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated this movie.” Here is the money quote from Cui’s missive:

If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.


This review didn’t just his Rachmaninoff hard; it helped send him into a depressive episode, a mental health crisis, that would endure for several years, and from which he needed psychiatric treatment including hypnosis to emerge. Luckily, when he did emerge, he proceeded to set about writing a second piano concerto…but we’ll be discussing that work soon enough.

Meanwhile, the First Symphony does live on, not quite in infamy, but not in the full embrace of the musical world, either. It’s not a bad listen, by any means! Heard in full with a good (and sober!) conductor at the helm, one is amazed to think that this piece’s initial reception was so poor as to almost scuttle a promising career before it started. It’s not as accessible a listen as Rachmaninoff’s later works; it relies more on motifs than pure melodies. (The motif that opens the work and is heard throughout will appeal to fans of composer James Horner, because it’s identical to the motif that Horner fans would later dub his “Danger Motif”.) The emotional tone is cooler than later works, but it’s still a fine Russian symphony in the tradition already explored by the likes of Borodin and Tchaikovsky. It certainly didn’t deserve the poor serving it received from its first performers, nor did it deserve the virulent reception it got from the critics. The world of Russian music at that time was deeply political, and Rachmaninoff in presenting this symphony ran afoul of clashing schools of musical thought, which is never a good position for a young artist to be in.

So the damage was done…and yet from that damage Rachmaninoff would emerge to write his strongest work. It’s easy to romanticize strife and hard times based on whatever good comes after, but I always have a problem with that, as at times it can seem like an almost fetishization of suffering, or at least a post hoc justification for it.

Anyway, Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony endures.

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One Response to Rachmaninoff at 150: The First Symphony

  1. David Rupp says:

    Thanks, Kelly. I think I enjoyed Rachmaninov’s First more than Mr. Cui did 🙂

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