With only slight hyperbole, we might have dubbed this evening’s concert “Famous Last Words.” True, only in the Symphonic Dances by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) do we have a composer’s last significant composition (it was followed only by a brief piano transcription). But both of our other works—the Overture to Don Giovanni (1787) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and the Cello Concerto (1894) by Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)—also represent their composers towards the ends of their lives. And while there are many composers whose creativity faded in their final years (Sibelius and Elgar, for instance), all three of tonight’s composers reached their peaks late in life.
Mozart, of course, died so young that his final years coincided with his very early maturity. And what a blazing early maturity it was! Don Giovanni was the second of the three operas he wrote with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte in a brief span of just over three years (the others were Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte)—and each of them stands among the greatest operas ever composed. Of the three, though, Don Giovanni is certainly the one with the widest emotional range. Mozart called it a “dramma giocoso” (a jocular drama) and the opera reflects that contradictory term in its dizzying mixture of slapstick, supernatural drama, and psychological realism. Combining ominous darkness with the headlong but foolhardy self-confidence characteristic of the opera’s protagonist Don Juan, the overture, which gets tonight off to a rousing start, prepares us for all of the opera’s twists and turns.
In contrast, when Dvořák composed his Cello Concerto in 1894, he was in his late maturity. He’d tried his hand at a cello concerto earlier, but never finished it—for reasons that may have something to do with the difficulty of the medium. Tonight’s soloist, Julie Albers, points out that because of the cello’s wide range and because it doesn’t have the brilliance of the violin, there are serious difficulties when you try to balance it against an orchestra. As a consequence, many of the greatest works that pit cello against orchestra—including the Elgar Concerto, the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto, and the Brahms Double Concerto—come toward the end of their composers’ creative lives, when they have the deepest understanding of orchestration.
There’s no doubt about Dvořák’s artistry here—and from the very beginning, there’s been uniform agreement about the concerto’s excellence. There’s been less agreement, though, about its character. Dvořák wrote it during his American stay—and he was not only homesick, but also worried about the illness of his sister-in-law Josefina. He was very close to her: he’d been in love with her before his marriage to her younger sister and he may well have still been in love with her when he wrote the piece. In the slow movement, he included allusions to his song “Leave Me Alone,” which she had greatly admired; and when she died in 1895, after Dvořák returned to Europe, he rewrote the ending of the third movement to reflect his sense of loss. No wonder, then, that many people see a mournful nostalgia as the work’s dominant sentiment. At the same time, the Cello Concerto, grander in scope than any other in the standard repertoire, is so full of majestic passages that it can easily be viewed as a heroic work, triumphant rather than melancholy.
Which vision of the concerto will we get tonight? If you remember Julie’s last Syracuse appearance, in an almost unbearably tender performance of Elgar’s elegiac Cello Concerto, you might expect her to play up the melancholy side of this work. And there’s no doubt that she appreciates that strand in the score. In fact, when she was in shock just after her father passed away when she was 19, the only thing she could think of to do was to play music; and she chose the second movement of the Dvořák. “The second movement is something very special to me because of that memory.” She recognizes, as well, “the loss and the love” in the revised ending. Even so, “that’s not the overriding feeling” of the concerto for her. Rather, she sees it as “a fairly heroic piece, a celebration of what his life as a composer had been. Even when it’s sad, there is some optimism.” It’s also a gorgeous piece: “Every melody is the most beautiful you’ve ever heard.”
Dvořák’s reputation was riding high when he composed the Cello Concerto. Rachmaninoff’s was more precarious in 1940 when he wrote the three Symphonic Dances. Although he was widely regarded as a pianist, and although his early works were still popular, his later compositions (except for the perennially popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) had not caught on with the public—and the Symphonic Dances didn’t win the recognition he had hoped for. Even today, it doesn’t have the wide audience appeal of the Second Symphony or the Second and Third Piano Concertos. For Larry, though, it’s “by far the most satisfying of his orchestral works.” No surprise, then, that it’s also, aside from Beethoven symphonies, one of the pieces he’s conducted most often. In Larry’s view, it’s in Rachmaninoff’s late works—not only the Symphonic Dances but the Third Symphony as well—that we see Rachmaninoff finally writing “what he wants to write.”
What had kept him from that kind of self-assertion before then? As is well known, his First Symphony, on which he based his hopes as a young composer, had been a complete failure (in part because Glazunov—who may have been drunk at the time—conducted it entirely without understanding). Only after Rachmaninoff’s death was the work revived—now to widespread acclaim. In the aftermath of that disastrous premiere, Rachmaninoff stopped composing for a while; and even after psychotherapy got him over the worst of his anxieties, he still had doubts. As a consequence, says Larry, he changed his musical language to “become more conservative, more obvious.” But by the time he got to the Third Symphony in 1935, Larry feels, “it’s as if he didn’t care” any more about public reception. Instead, “We’re really getting to the heart of him.”
Technically, the Symphonic Dances is thrilling. It’s surely Rachmaninoff’s most concentrated major work—and despite the complex metrical shifts in the finale, it’s the one with the greatest rhythmic drive. And although the composer simultaneously wrote a version for two pianos—one of the great works for that medium—the orchestral version is arguably the most effectively orchestrated work in his total output.
Emotionally, it’s no less impressive, as we find Rachmaninoff confronting his demons. There are reminiscences of the failed First Symphony—there is also considerable use of the Dies Irae theme. This theme (which also figured prominently in the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, which we heard on the season’s opener) is the plain-chant setting of the “day of wrath” from the Latin Requiem Mass—and it haunted Rachmaninoff throughout his life, appearing as a musical element, often as a threat, in many of his compositions. In the last movement here, though, it is eventually transformed to take on a more jovial, even jazzy, demeanor. Since it appears in the company of references to Rachmaninoff’s setting of the Russian Orthodox Church chant Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi (Blessed be the Lord) from his All-Night Vigil, you sense that Rachmaninoff has not only confronted his demons, but has also overcome them. Yes, the Symphonic Dances has its dark moments, what Larry calls its “nostalgic and sad” melodies, especially in the middle movement; but it ends in blazing affirmation.
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org