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Symphony Listening Diary—Rachmaninoff 2

You’ll see from my Haydn entry that I’d meaning to get around to Rachmaninoff 2 for some time. As luck would have it, I booked on to go to an LSO rehearsal at the Barbican last Tuesday (as I am able to do as a Soundhub member) and it turned out to be for this very symphony. Sometimes things to do happen at the right time.


What deterred me before was the scale of this piece. Rachmaninoff is of course not necessarily known for an abundance of gentle and easily digestible material, so at around an hour long I expected a demanding listen. That turned out to be true, but there were unique advantages to hearing it for the first time in live rehearsal form with a score to hand.


Not least was a clear understanding of the form of each movement before I heard them played in full. A lot of work went into the first movement, which I suppose is commensurate with the composition process (it was conducted by one Sir Antonio Pappano, by the way, who I see has already recorded the piece for Warner Classics which explains why he seemed to know it inside out).


One quick note on another thing that I should have known already but which only just occurred to me: I’d never really considered the ‘surround-sound’ effect of alternating the first and second violins before. Again, I guess that’s the entire point of them but it’s something you only really appreciate when an orchestra is right in front of you. Furthermore I needed to hear Rachmaninoff use it in the intro here for me to see how it can be used compositionally.



The weighting of the first movement is simply extraordinary. Among the few symphonies I do know already is Schubert’s Ninth, and I am a very very big fan of that extended introduction that is in reality its own self-contained piece. The introduction here is similar in its grandiosity, so I will need to go and look into whether Rachmaninoff was nodding directly to Schubert there, or whether the weighted and deceptive introduction was an established trend, or whether there is no connection at all (as I write this it has occurred to me that the length doesn’t necessarily mean there is a connection, maybe if I look into the structure of each more closely I’ll see that there that the latter is the case).


Again what I obsessed the most over here was the thing I've obsessed over a lot in this blog—the complete harmony of planning on the macro, micro, and all levels in between. ‘It’s in sonata form’ ceases to be a satisfactory explanation of macro-level design if you’ve studied music for purposes other than passing exams even a little bit, and here I couldn’t ignore the fact that an entire canyon-sized part of this movement served as a near linear increase in tension and density until the release and resolution at the end. That is a long, single passage that is simultaneously a series of distinct individual passages. It starts with what I’ll call the tremolo agitato passage (hopefully you’ll know what I mean), evolves through various new motivic ideas that are (deliberately or otherwise) arranged in order of their capacity for drama, and resolves with the big melodic passages at the end. Do you realise how good you have to be at music to do that? Above all else, what you're writing has to be musical—your cool ideas count for nothing if, ultimately, there is nothing in it for listener. To write music, and to write such good music, and to do it as such a level of technical skill, and to have it packed with so many ideas, and to have these ideas united in a purpose, and for this purpose to be an organic formal structure, and moreover for the ideas to be united so seamlessly and logically for that purpose that you don’t even really need to notice or think about the purpose, is a lot to do at once, and it’s part of what makes music a worthwhile subject of a lifetime of study. I either invented or encountered the term ‘the sonification of form’ somewhere during my time studying Xenakis at Goldsmiths, and while I think Xenakis’ music is the closest thing to the literal example of that, that is to some extent what I, at least, am listening to     It’s not just what you’re hearing, but what’s behind what you are hearing, these invisible structures that sound can allude to and point at and occasionally capture in full. I love form.


Back to Rachmaninoff—the thing I wrote down that I decided was the thing I’ll get most from this piece was contrast through the accumulation of motivic ideas. There are many parameters at your disposal if you're looking to create variation and contrast in your writing, and I've noticed recently that using motif is missing from my skillset (I suppose it’s one of the less obvious ones—first instinct might be contrasting melody or key). Again Bach should be my go-to here because the inventions and stuff are really an encyclopaedia of ideas on how to develop ideas. You see sometimes that he starts with a weird or awkward little thing just for the fun of it then demonstrates that awkwardness is no barrier to invention. I find myself stuck for ideas a lot when I have little fragments of ideas so it is about time for me to back to the learning and research stage.


I undignified Rachmaninoff slightly by referring to this as ‘mashup’ in my notes but in a way it’s not entirely wrong. Mr Pappano stopped the brass players at some point to tell them that a part they were playing was supposed to sound like a Puccini line, so that maybe gives a bit of a clue. The parameters of motif, style, and genre are all deployed for variation here. In the first movement there was what I called the waltz-like part for lack of a better term even though it absolutely wasn’t in triple time, and I actually gasped a little bit when it returned in a new context towards the end.


The second and third movements were rehearsed out of order so I was perhaps lacking Rachmaninoff’s intended effect, proportion, and context. Unfortunately I have to risk heresy and speak slightly ill of the third movement but I found that the long-range planning I lauded in the first movement broke down at the movement-to-movement level. With the arsenal or parameters to which variation was applied on the lower level, I found that yet more melody didn’t quite satisfy my taste for structural harmony (my capacity to appreciate melody was exhausted by that point), and if I were shaping the symphony to my own tastes in an alternate universe I would make the contrast here with the very use of melody as an organising structure. Something textural and even more slowly moving before the intensity of the fourth movement would have meant balance par excellence for Luke. But I didn’t write the symphony, and I'm not considering Rachmaninoff’s aims and the sway of the audiences of the time on the symphony’s composition. Considered in isolation this slow movement is probably simply intensely lyrical and an overall emotional steam roller of an experience (and if I’d heard it in its proper place without massive sections of the preceding movements repeated a la rehearsal perhaps the experience would have been different).



Hey, Rachmaninoff stole that part from my Prelude.


 During the fourth movement I again wrote down that this piece is a good go-to if you're looking for answers to the question ‘what could I do with that?’. The theme is very awkward. They rehearsed this movement third so I perhaps heard it a bit out of context. Motivic development motivic development motivic development.


Another experience I'm glad to have had at last. Given my own taste for drama I’d have thought Rachmaninoff would be my guy, but I have to say that I'm not quite there with him as a composer yet. I admire him as a composer but don’t have that connection with him as I generally find his music a bit opaque due to its technical demands, but I have the rest of my life to come around. There is no need to rush these things. You’ll come around at the right time if you need to.



Some final assorted thoughts:

  • You’ll get enjoyment from paying attention to the sequence of big chords in the introduction. Consider their quality.

  • Bit with brass and tremolo in the first movement was almost too much tension. Damn.

  • That smooth morph of staccato march-like material into something else at the conclusion of the opening. Damn.

  • Phrase length is another parameter you can use to vary and build tension. See third movement.

  • As is the ‘busy-ness’ of the texture. Density, I suppose? Hi, Varese.

  • Chord that sounds like it’s from the future in the third movement before the rest.

  • Punishing rhythm for players in the fourth movement—thing with triplets but rest on the first note of each triplet.

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