Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony: From Disaster to Pretty Good
The First Symphony of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was a complete disaster at its premier in St. Petersburg in 1897. Many years later it was found to be a pretty good Late Romantic symphony. You can judge for yourself this evening on Symphony at 7.
Rachmaninoff was just a few days shy of his 24th birthday when the symphony had its first performance under the direction of Alexander Glazunov, who was an esteemed composer but apparently not considered a particularly inspired conductor. The symphony was inadequately rehearsed and the conductor was even rumored to have been drunk during the performance.
Rachmaninoff had already written his First Piano Concerto and the popular Prelude in C sharp minor. The poor reception and bad reviews of the symphony drove him to a near breakdown and loss of confidence as a composer for several years. It was only after the intervention of psychological counseling that Rachmaninoff regained his confidence, and the immediate result was his very popular Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1901.
He never did get back to revising the symphony. He abandoned the score when he left Russia and went into exile in 1917. After Rachmaninoff died, the instrumental parts were discovered, and the entire symphony was reconstructed in 1944. It had a better reception when its second performance took place in Moscow the following year. In 1948 it was first performed in the United States by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy conducting as part of the first televised concert in this country. The symphony was also part of a radio broadcast the next day.
Aside from being under rehearsed and poorly performed at its premiere, maybe it seemed a bit too progressive for the conservative tastes of the critics who savaged it. It turns out to be a fine symphony when it’s properly performed, as you’ll be able to hear on Symphony at 7. British composer and writer Robert Simpson noted that it achieves “a genuinely tragic and heroic expression that stands far above the pathos of his later music.”
If you find some of Rachmaninoff’s music to be too lush and some of the big melodies too sweet, try this more austere sounding early symphony from one of the last of the great Romantic composers. Here’s a sample: