Nov 282017
 

On this date in 1909 Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto number 3 in D minor (affectionately known as Rach 3) was first performed by Rachmaninoff himself with the now-defunct New York Symphony Society, Walter Damrosch conducting, at the New Theater (later rechristened the Century Theater). Rach 3 has the, well-deserved, reputation of being one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the standard classical repertoire. Here’s a recording of Vladimir Horowitz who is largely responsible for making Rach 3 as popular as it is today:

Rachmaninoff played the concerto again on January 16, 1910 under the baton of Gustav Mahler, which Rachmaninoff treasured because of Mahler’s famous attention to detail. Rachmaninoff wrote:

At that time Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with Nikisch. He devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important — an attitude too rare amongst conductors. … Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played, far beyond this hour, and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some protest or scene from the musicians, but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer appreciation than the previous time.

Rach 3 generally follows the classical, standard form for a concerto. It has three movements:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto (D minor)

The first movement involves a first theme, a diatonic melody, that resonates throughout, and a second theme in B♭ major, that drifts in and out.  The movement reaches a number of ferocious climaxes, especially in the cadenza. Rachmaninoff wrote two versions of this cadenza: the chordal original, which is commonly notated as the ossia, and a second one with a lighter, toccata-like style. Both cadenzas lead into a quiet solo section where the flute, oboe, clarinet and horn restate the first theme of the exposition, accompanied by delicate arpeggios in the piano. The cadenza then ends quietly, but the piano alone continues to play a quiet development of the exposition’s second theme in E♭ major before leading to the recapitulation, where the first theme is restated by the piano, with the orchestra accompanying, closing with a quiet, rippling coda reminiscent of the second theme.

  1. Intermezzo: Adagio (D minor → F♯ minor → D♭ major → B♭ minor → F♯ minor → D minor)

The second movement has two themes, moving from minor to major in a series of developments and recapitulations before the first theme from the first movement re-emerges. The movement is closed by the orchestra in a manner similar to the introduction, but then the piano gets the last word with a short cadenza-like passage which moves into the last movement without pause.

  1. Finale: Alla breve (D minor → D major)

The third movement is quick and vigorous, containing variations on many of the themes that are used in the first movement. However, after the first and second themes it diverges from the regular sonata-allegro form. There is no conventional development; that segment is replaced by a lengthy digression using the major key of the third movement’s first theme, which leads to the two themes from the first movement. After the digression, the movement recapitulation returns to the original themes, building up to a toccata climax somewhat similar but lighter than the first movement’s ossia cadenza and accompanied by the orchestra. The movement concludes with a triumphant and passionate second theme melody in D major. The piece ends with the same four-note as both Rachmaninoff’s second concerto and second symphony: claimed by some critics as his “musical signature.”

Rachmaninoff, under pressure, and hoping to make his work more popular, authorized several cuts in the score, to be made at the performer’s discretion. These cuts, particularly in the second and third movements, were commonly taken in performance and recordings during the initial decades following the concerto’s publication, particularly by Horowitz. More recently, it has become commonplace to perform the concerto without cuts.

Rachmaninoff composed the concerto at his wife’s family’s country estate, Ivanovka, where he often retired to have the serenity to compose in peace; completing it on September 23, 1909.

The concerto is respected, even feared, by many pianists. Josef Hofmann, the pianist to whom the work is dedicated, never publicly performed it, saying that it wasn’t for him – presumably meaning he was afraid to play it.  Gary Graffman lamented he had not learned this concerto as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.” Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff himself could not practice the piece while in Russia. Instead, he practiced it on a silent keyboard that he brought with him while en route to the United States.

I am not a pianist, so I cannot speak to the technical difficulties of the piece. It is often called the K2 of the piano repertoire, K2 being the second highest peak in the world, but the most dangerous mountain to climb: killing one in four people who attempt to reach the summit. Some players or commentators claim that the technical difficulty of the piece derives from the fact that Rachmaninoff had abnormally large hands’ with very long fingers, and may also have had Marfan syndrome, meaning that he had unusually flexible joints. From thumb to little finger he could span a major 13th (an average player can span an octave — that is, perfect 8th).

While Rachmaninoff’s physical peculiarities are a matter of record, they do not, in and of themselves, explain the technical difficulties of the piece. Django Reinhardt played amazing guitar solos using only two fingers on his left hand because the others were paralyzed. I’m not saying that Reinhardt and Rachmaninoff are comparable in any way; merely pointing out that you do not have to be a genetic freak to play difficult piano passages – but you do have to work hard at it.

The movie Shine (1996), concerning the life trials of the Australian pianist David Helfgott, features the concerto, and is responsible for giving it the nickname Rach 3. It contains this dialog between Helfgott and his teacher, Cecil Parks:

Parkes: Rachmaninov? Are you sure?
David: Kind of. I’m not really sure about anything.
Parkes: The Rach 3. It’s monumental.
David: It’s a mountain. The hardest piece you could everest play.
Parkes: No one’s ever been mad enough to attempt the Rach Three.
David: Am I mad enough, professor? Am I?

In my amateur opinion, I would venture to say that the Rach 3 is not so very different from many other technically difficult piano pieces in that it’s not just a matter of getting the notes right, but doing them justice.

Rachmaninoff often has the reputation these days for being a rather lugubrious presence because he was tall (6’ 6”/198 cm) and thin, and given to long bouts of depression, especially following poor receptions of his works. But his friends always tempered this judgment by saying that he loved good food, and was a rollicking dinner companion. He and Stravinsky were good friends, despite their radically different musical visions, and often dined together in Russia, leading to one of those tales that musicians love to tell about the famous. One night, Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, “Four Norwegian Moods,” and, as he was dozing off, he was startled by footsteps on the porch outside. A minute later, Rachmaninoff was towering over his bed carrying a huge jar of natural honey. A few nights previously, over a meal, Stravinsky had mentioned how much he loved honey, so Rachmaninoff felt compelled to bring some round, regardless of the hour.

I also have a newspaper clipping from a reporter in Texas who interviewed Rachmaninoff over dinner when he was on tour. The reporter notes that Rachmaninoff ordered lobster salad in avocado, seafood chowder, and a salad. It’s a start, and prevents me from digging into my archive of Saint Petersburg recipes. I think that pairing lobster salad with avocado is an excellent idea, but I prefer to serve the lobster and avocado separately (with some lettuce), to able to control the balance of lobster and avocado better. If you simply remove the avocado pit, the remaining hole does not have much room in it for the lobster. Furthermore, I like the lobster meat in lobster salad to contain some nice big chunks.

For four diners I’d start with 1 lb of cooked lobster meat with the claw and tail meat as whole as possible. If you want smaller pieces break it up with your hands, rather than cutting it.  Toss the lobster in freshly squeezed lemon juice and add ½ cup of thinly sliced celery. Mix everything together with about 5 tablespoons of the best mayonnaise you can find (or make it yourself). Peel and slice one whole avocado per person. Sprinkle with fresh lime juice, and serve the avocado with ¼ of the lobster salad on a bed of lettuce or mixed greens. Served this way it is a main course.

 

 

May 292015
 

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Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed on this date in 1913. It was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company; the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky, with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. When first performed, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a sensation and a near-riot in the audience. Although designed as a work for the stage, with specific passages accompanying characters and action, the music achieved equal if not greater recognition as a concert piece, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.

Stravinsky was a young, virtually unknown composer when Diaghilev recruited him to create works for the Ballets Russes. The Rite was the third such project, after the acclaimed Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The concept behind The Rite of Spring, developed by Roerich from Stravinsky’s outline idea, is suggested by its subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”; in the scenario, after various “primitive” rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. After a mixed critical reception for its original run and a short London tour, the ballet was not performed again until the 1920s, when a version choreographed by Léonide Massine replaced Nijinsky’s original. Massine’s was the forerunner of many innovative productions directed by the world’s leading ballet-masters, which gained the work worldwide acceptance. In the 1980s, Nijinsky’s original choreography, long believed lost, was reconstructed by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles.

Stravinsky’s score contains many revolutionary features for its time, including experiments in tonality, meter, rhythm, stress, and dissonance. Analysts have noted in the score a significant grounding in Russian folk music, a relationship Stravinsky tended to deny. The music has influenced many of the 20th-century’s leading composers, and is one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

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In 1909 Stravinsky’s early work, Feu d’artifice, was performed at a concert in St Petersburg. Among those in the audience was the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who at that time was planning to introduce Russian music and art to western audiences. Having heard Feu d’artifice he approached Stravinsky, initially with a request for help in orchestrating music by Chopin to create the ballet Les Sylphides. Stravinsky worked on the opening “Nocturne” and the closing “Valse Brillante”; his reward was a much bigger commission, to write the music for a new ballet, The Firebird (L’oiseau de feu) for the 1910 season. Then came Petrushka (1911) to stunning acclaim. The Rite of Spring followed.

Analyzing The Rite adequately in a short piece such as this is impossible. But I’ll try to give a glimpse. I’m going to divide my comments into three parts: (1) the intellectual conception behind the overall work and the choreography, (2) the music itself, and (3) the premiere.

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Let me start with the bad news first. Roerich’s vision of a “pagan” Russia where grave elders presided over fertility rites for the renewal of the earth in Spring which involved, among other things, the sacrifice of a virgin to the gods, is utterly without merit. It comes from a nineteenth century Romantic delusion conjured up by European folklorists and anthropologists (along with assorted mystical loonies) that has ZERO basis in historical fact. I have railed against this stupidity in my academic writing, as well as here, on numerous occasions (e.g.  http://www.bookofdaystales.com/may-daymay-morning/ . That a worthless intellectual and historical fantasy produced a masterpiece is a charming miracle.

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I can’t really say a whole lot about the choreography as such because Nijinsky’s original is lost, and, although the Joffrey made a valiant effort to reconstruct it from Nijinsky’s notes, from what little I know of the reconstruction, it seems more Joffrey than Nijinsky.

The ‘knock-kneed’ Lolitas of the original Rite of Spring  rite3

The original costumes are laughable. They appear to be stylized versions of women’s clothing of Native Americans from the Great Plains (with suitable Russian embroidery) – a misguided allusion to them as “noble savages.” Equating “pagan” Russians with Native Americans stems from a, now thoroughly discredited, idea that ALL cultures evolved along the same path (although in different time periods), and, therefore, it was legitimate to take nineteenth century Plains Indians as models for ancient Russians. It is not.

Nijinsky’s choreography was apparently rooted to the ground, stomping in a parody of actual ritual, but quite natural given that the whole piece was about the worship of the earth. It was not, however, received well by audiences used to the sylphs in tutus of the classic ballet soaring high in the air. Stravinsky later described the dancers as “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas.” Nonetheless, Stravinsky did praise Nijinsky’s work. To Maximilien Steinberg, a former fellow-pupil under Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky wrote that Nijinsky’s choreography had been “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I wanted it.”

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Addressing the technicalities of the music is a gigantic task I am not qualified to undertake (and you can skim if you wish). Just a few words. To begin, whether you know anything about how revolutionary this piece was or not, it is staggering to listen to. I first heard it (in somewhat altered form) as a teenager via Disney’s Fantasia. The Rite segment of the film depicts the Earth’s prehistory, leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Among those impressed by the film was Gunther Schuller, later a composer, conductor, and jazz scholar. The Rite of Spring sequence, he says, overwhelmed him and determined his future career in music: “I hope [Stravinsky] appreciated that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of musicians were turned on to The Rite of Spring … through Fantasia, musicians who might otherwise never have heard the work, or at least not until many years later.” Audiences were not ready for Rite in 1913; they were in 1940. An excerpt:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-tBd-Xp5tA&index=2&list=PLFA60BA1ED2A9BAA3

According to musicologist Stephen Walsh the great innovation of The Rite is not the dissonance or the immobility of the harmonic progression because both of these ideas were in practice before Stravinsky’s work. Walsh cites Debussy’s Et la Lune Descend Sur le Temple Qui Fut (1907) as being both discordant and harmonically static. The true innovation was Stravinsky’s use of musical fragments and compelling rhythms to provide a structure to drive the dramatic action.

What nobody seems to have done before the Rite of Spring was to take dissonant, irregularly formed musical ‘objects’ of very brief extent and release their latent energy by firing them off at one another  like so many particles in an atomic accelerator.

Stravinsky’s method of composition for The Rite was to arrange and layer small cells of music. These musical fragments often consist of as few as four notes, but they are repeated and reoriented to create ostinati (constant repetitions), or stacked to generate chords, or embellished to create melodic material. The Rite was originally thought to contain only one true folk tune: the high bassoon part which begins the introduction. Later investigation into more of Stravinsky’s sketches in 1969 revealed complete folk melodies copied from published collections Although, after being thoroughly worked, reorganized and chopped up by Stravinsky very little of the actual tune remains intact: just a faint whiff.

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According to Pieter Van Den Toorn another strong adhesive component in the work is the ubiquitous use of the octatonic scale and its derived chords. Stravinsky not only employed the octatonic scale as others had before, he redefined its use and context completely. By using long streams of octatonic chords and adding chunks of diatonic material, Stravinsky created a new sound. The octatonic scale is an eight note scale consisting of the pattern / H / W / H / W / H / W / H / W / [H= half step, W=whole step]. Thus,

. . . symmetrically defined units no longer succeed one another, harmlessly, as they do in the operas of Rimsky or in the early Stravinsky passages cited above. These units are now superimposed—played simultaneously. And this is an invention from which startling implications accrue not only in pitch organization but, as a consequence, in rhythm and instrumental design as well. It radically alters the conditions of octatonic confinement, opens up a new dimension in octatonic thought that Stravinsky, beginning with Petrushka and The Rite , was to render peculiarly his own.

Enough technicality. To put it in my own simplistic words, tonal music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc.) appears to be going “somewhere.” It starts off in the home key, progresses in various ways, and then returns home. Atonal music can leave you with the sense that it is going nowhere. Stravinsky magically managed to compose atonally and yet leads you “somewhere.”

The conductor Pierre Monteux had worked with Diaghilev since 1911, and had been in charge of the orchestra at the premiere of Petrushka. Monteux’s first reaction to The Rite, after hearing Stravinsky play a piano version, was to leave the room and find a quiet corner. Although he would perform his duties with conscientious professionalism, he never came to enjoy the work; nearly fifty years after the premiere he told enquirers that he detested it. On 30 March Monteux informed Stravinsky of modifications he thought were necessary to the score, all of which the composer implemented. The orchestra, drawn mainly from the Concerts Colonne in Paris, was, with 99 players, much larger than was normally employed at the theater, and had difficulty fitting into the orchestra pit.

After the first part of the ballet received two full orchestral rehearsals in March, Monteux and the company departed to perform in Monte Carlo. Rehearsals resumed when they returned; the unusually large number of rehearsals—seventeen solely orchestral and five with the dancers—were fitted into the fortnight before the opening, after Stravinsky’s arrival in Paris on 13 May. The music contained so many unusual note combinations that Monteux had to ask the musicians to stop interrupting when they thought they had found mistakes in the score, saying he would tell them if something was played incorrectly. According to Monteux, “The musicians thought it absolutely crazy”. At one point, a climactic brass fortissimo, the orchestra broke up in nervous laughter at the sound, causing Stravinsky to intervene angrily.

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The premiere of Rite was held in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a new structure which had opened on 2 April 1913 with a program celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. The theater’s manager, Gabriel Astruc, was determined to house the 1913 Ballets Russes season, and paid Diaghilev the enormous sum of 25,000 francs per performance, double what he had paid the previous year. Ticket sales for the evening, ticket prices being doubled for a premiere, amounted to 35,000 francs. The program for 29 May 1913 also included Les Sylphides, Weber’s Le Spectre de la Rose and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.

At the time, a Parisian ballet audience typically consisted of two diverse groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group who, the poet-philosopher Jean Cocteau asserted, would “acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes” (i.e. the rich). Final rehearsals were held on the day before the premiere, in the presence of members of the press and assorted invited guests. According to Stravinsky all went peacefully. However, the critic of L’Écho de Paris, Adolphe Boschot, foresaw possible trouble; he wondered how the public would receive the work, and suggested that they might react badly if they thought they were being mocked.

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What actually happened at the premiere is a matter of ongoing debate. Were things thrown at the orchestra? Were the police called? Did Diaghilev deliberately plant rowdies in the audience with the specific intent of creating a “sensation,” etc. etc. Eyewitness reports vary wildly. On the evening of the 29 May the theater was packed: Gustav Linor reported, “Never … has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear”. The evening began with Les Sylphides, in which Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the main roles. Rite of Spring followed. Some eyewitnesses and commentators said that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in “Augurs of Spring”. But music historian Richard Taruskin asserts, “it was not Stravinsky’s music that did the shocking. It was the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky.” Marie Rambert, who was working as an assistant to Nijinsky, recalled later that it was soon impossible to hear the music on the stage. In his autobiography, Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the Introduction disgusted him, and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings. The demonstrations, he says, grew into “a terrific uproar” which, along with the on-stage noises, drowned out the voice of Nijinsky who was shouting the stepping count to the dancers (which they had great difficulty with because of Stravinsky’s unusual rhythms). The journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten famously recorded that the person behind him got carried away with excitement, and “began to beat rhythmically on top of my head”, though Van Vechten failed to notice this at first, his own emotion being so great.

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Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on”. Around forty of the worst offenders were ejected—possibly with the intervention of the police, although this is uncorroborated. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening’s program continued.

Among the more hostile press reviews was that of Le Figaro‍ ’​s critic, Henri Quittard, who called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity” and added “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure”. On the other hand Gustav Linor, writing in the leading theatrical magazine Comoedia, thought the performance was superb, especially that of the lead Maria Piltz; the disturbances, while deplorable, were merely “a rowdy debate” between two ill-mannered factions. Emile Raudin, of Les Marges, who had barely heard the music, wrote: “Couldn’t we ask M. Astruc … to set aside one performance for well-intentioned spectators? The composer Alfredo Casella thought that the demonstrations were aimed at Nijinsky’s choreography rather than at the music, a view shared by the critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who wrote: “The idea was excellent, but was not successfully carried out”. Calvocoressi failed to observe any direct hostility to the composer—unlike, he said, the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. Of later reports that the veteran composer Camille Saint-Saëns had stormed out of the premiere, Stravinsky observed that this was impossible; Saint-Saëns did not attend. Stravinsky also rejected Cocteau’s story that, after the performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Cocteau himself took a cab to the Bois de Boulogne where a tearful Diaghilev recited poems by Pushkin. Stravinsky merely recalled a celebratory dinner with Diaghilev and Nijinsky, at which the impresario expressed his entire satisfaction with the outcome.

On 18 February 1914 The Rite received its first concert performance (the music without the ballet), in St Petersburg under Serge Koussevitzky. On 5 April that year, Stravinsky experienced for himself the popular success of The Rite as a concert work, at the Casino de Paris. After the performance, again under Monteux, the composer was carried in triumph from the hall on the shoulders of his admirers. The Rite had its first British concert performance on 7 June 1921, at the Queen’s Hall in London under Eugene Goossens. Its U.S. premiere occurred on 3 March 1922, when Leopold Stokowski included it in a Philadelphia Orchestra programme. Goossens was also responsible for introducing The Rite to Australia on 23 August 1946 at the Sydney Town Hall, as guest conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Here’s an acceptable rendering:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWotpIy0uTg

For a recipe today I have chosen Russian honey cake because of this story:

Stravinsky and Rachmaninov had been contemporaries in St Petersburg but they did not actually meet until they started dining together in California in the 1940s. Although in opposite camps when it came to modernism, Rachmaninov very much wanted to be friends with his fellow composer. One night Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, Four Norwegian Moods. To his surprise he heard footsteps on the porch outside. There towering over him – as he did over most people – was the lugubrious figure of Rachmaninov bearing a very large jar of natural honey. The explanation? At a recent meal Stravinsky had announced how much he loved honey and this determined Rachmaninov to bring some round, regardless of the hour.

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I can’t do better for an actual recipe than this fabulously detailed one:

http://www.melangery.com/2014/02/russian-monday-medovik-honey-cake.html

It is complete with step-by-step instructions and photographs.