Program Notes: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody

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Program Notes: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody

Jacksonville Symphony 2022/23 Florida Blue Classical Series

Igor Stravinsky’s A Game of Cards (Jeu de cartes):

  • Stravinsky was an international figure. He lived in France and Switzerland before settling in the United States.
  • He was arguably the most important ballet composer of the 20th century.
  • Traditional folk music remained a source of inspiration throughout his career.

Stravinsky’s early trio of ballets–The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring–catapulted him to international fame. Though the later ballets are less famous, they contain vintage music by Stravinsky, and he continued to write for ballet until the mid-1950s. A Game of Cards, from 1937, is subtitled “Ballet in 3 Deals” and was written for the American Ballet at the old Metropolitan Opera House. The choreographer was George Balanchine. A Game of Cards is a superb example of Stravinsky’s neo-classical style. It contains references to Gioachino Rossini, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and Ludwig van Beethoven, yet the music always bears Stravinsky’s personal, quirky imprint.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43:

  • Rachmaninoff rose to fame with his First Piano Concerto when he was just 18.
  • Ignoring contemporary trends in music, he wrote using a romantic, tonal vocabulary.
  • Rachmaninoff could span 12 piano keys from the tip of his little finger to the tip of his thumb. His expansive reach explains why some of his pieces on piano are fiendishly difficult.
  • A splendid pianist, he used his concert tours to promote his original music.
  • Rachmaninoff eventually settled in the United States, living in Southern California.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a 20th century work, but its theme is one of the Romantic Era’s most celebrated: Paganini’s 24th Violin Caprice. Rachmaninoff’s variations celebrate virtuoso pianism and the lush sound of full orchestra. The irresistible 18th variation alone is worth the price of admission, but the entire work is captivating in its ingenuity with Paganini’s ever-fresh theme.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique:”

  • Tchaikovsky was one of Europe’s greatest composers of the Romantic Era.
  • Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was cosmopolitan and influenced by the West, blending diverse styles into his compositions.
  • His ballets Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are extremely popular.
  • Unforgettable melodies and sparkling orchestration enrich his music.
  • All of his symphonies have biographical or other programmatic connections.

Tchaikovsky composed his Sixth Symphony, subtitled the “Pathétique,” in 1893, which was the final year of his life. He conducted the premiere of the Symphony in St. Petersburg only eight days prior to his passing, reportedly from cholera. That circumstance added greatly to the renown of the “Pathétique” Symphony. Almost everything about this work is valedictory, as if the composer knew his life was coming to a close. He opens and closes his symphony with a strong sense of emotion and passion. The first movement introduction and ensuing Allegro are versions of the same tune. The finale is an extended slow movement. Even the graceful waltz (in 5/4 time) and a valiant march draw upon the emotional resonance of this magnificent work. It is a powerful conclusion that matches Tchaikovsky’s mighty life and career as a composer.


A Game of Cards (Jeu de cartes):

Igor Stravinsky

Born June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia | Died April 6, 1971, in New York

No 20th century composer gave so much to ballet as Stravinsky. He remained entranced by the dance during his entire career: from his early triumphs−Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring−through the neoclassical masterpieces of the 1920s and 1930s−Apollon musagète, Fairy’s Kiss and A Game of Cards −and finally to the late works of Orpheus and Agon. Rhythm, the guiding musical element of all dance pieces, is a powerful component of all Stravinsky’s music. Because of that, choreographers have been drawn to many of his other compositions originally conceived for the concert hall.

            A Game of Cards, composed in 1936, was one of Stravinsky’s last theater works. He only returned to stage music a handful of times after the Second World War. The ballet also falls at the end of Stravinsky’s so-called neoclassical period. Consistent with that categorization, it incorporates references to earlier composers and forms. Curiously, the composer considered A Game of Cards to be the most “German” of his compositions. In a program note for this work written in 1964, he commented:

“Its period and setting…would have been a Baden-Baden of the Romantic Age, and it is as part of that picture that the tunes by Gioachino Rossini, André Messager, Johann Strauss and…my own Symphony in E-flat are to be imagined floating in from the Municipal Opera or from the concert by the Kursaal Band.”

The most easily recognizable quotation is from the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Listeners with keen ears may also catch fleeting references to Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, Strauss’ Fledermaus and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. In part because of this mélange (concentrated most heavily in the third “deal”), Stravinsky’s harmonic language is distilled, simplified and often downright triadic.

Stravinsky assigned this piece the subtitle “A Ballet in Three Deals.” When A Game of Cards is staged, the dancers portray playing cards. They perform against the green backdrop of a gaming table. Stravinsky was himself a lifelong card-player who later wrote that he played poker when he was taking a break from composing this work. The ballet’s three scenes are played without pause. Each “deal” is announced by a march, during which a hawker (or croupier, in a more elegant setting) entices gamblers to the tables.

The plot revolves around a Joker who tries in various ways to bollix up each deal of the card party, ultimately without success. There are certain parallels with characters in earlier Stravinsky works, such as the Conjurer in Petrushka and the Devil in L’histoire du soldat. The composer’s observations about the ballet illuminate his music as well:

“Playing cards are ideal material for a ballet if only because of the rich possibilities in combining and grouping the four suits with the solo-dancer royalty. The latter divide into sexes, too, which is important; male and female are to a ballet composer what forte and piano were to an 18th century concerto grosso composer. As a bonus, the Joker provided an element of chance and an escape from these very combinations…Each of his appearances should interrupt not only the stage situation but also the music. He should win all the battles but lose the war.”

A Game of Cards stimulates the imagination and lifts the spirit. It provides us with all the entertainment value of the casino but none of the risk of gambling.


Instrumentation: Two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum and strings


Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born April 1, 1873, in Oneg, Novgorod District, Russia | Died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills

Niccolò Paganini’s greatest musical legacy has been the unstoppable fount of works inspired by his 24th Violin Caprice, drawn from the collection that constitutes a cornerstone of the virtuoso violinist’s repertoire. Two 19th century masters, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, were caught by the spell of the finale Caprice; each composed a major piano piece based on the sprightly melody. Rachmaninoff was similarly lured in the early 1930s. With the Brahms and Liszt works looming as models, he wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini during the summer of 1934 while vacationing with his family in Lucerne, Switzerland. The piece was an immediate success at its premiere and has been an audience favorite ever since.

The Rhapsody is related conceptually to his popular piano concerti but is actually an extended set of variations on Paganini’s theme. Broadly speaking, it divides into three principal sections with the central D-flat major variation (No. XVIII in the score) functioning as the center of the “slow movement.” That famous theme, which is an inversion of Paganini’s, constitutes the emotional crux of the piece and is the melody echoing in listeners’ ears as they leave the concert hall.

Rachmaninoff also incorporated the Gregorian chant “Dies Irae” in three of the variations, including the finale. He was fascinated with the ancient melody, also using it in his symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 (1909) and choral symphony The Bells, Op. 35 (1913); he would return to the medieval theme for his final orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances (1940).


Rachmaninoff’s original title for this extraordinarily popular composition was “Symphonic Variations.” As work progressed on the piece, the title was altered to “Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra in the Form of Variations.” Rachmaninoff eventually settling on “Rhapsody” as the key word in the work’s title tells us something about the direction the music took and his perception of variation form.

Paganini’s 24th Caprice has proven to be among the most durable works in the literature. In addition to romantics like Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, many composers have been drawn to this sprightly tune. Rachmaninoff fell under its spell in the early 1930s. Also in the mid-20th century, Boris Blacher, Alfredo Casella, Luigi Dallapiccola and Witold Lutosławski composed works based on the Paganini. George Rochberg’s more recent Caprice Variations (1973) stands as another major achievement engendered by Paganini’s theme.

Rachmaninoff surely knew that his composition risked being compared unfavorably with earlier works, especially those by Brahms and Liszt. The pressure on him was heightened by the lack of critical and popular acclaim for his Third and Fourth Piano Concerti (1909 and 1926, respectively). Neither concerto had yet come near achieving the popularity of the first two piano concerti, and Rachmaninoff’s confidence in his creative ability was severely shaken.

He composed the Rhapsody during the summer of 1934 while vacationing with his family in their new villa outside Lucerne. Writing to his friend Vladimir Vilshau, he noted:

“It is a very long piece, about 20-25 minutes. That is the size of a piano concerto…I am going to try it out in New York and London, so that I can make the necessary corrections. The composition is very difficult, and I should start practicing it, but with every year I become more and more lazy about this finger work. I try to shirk practicing by playing something old, something that already sits firmly in my fingers.”

Evidently, he regained his technique satisfactorily, for the premiere in November of 1934 was a great success. It has become firmly entrenched in classical repertoire, enjoying equal popularity with his Second and Third Piano Concerti.


Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp, solo piano and strings


Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique:”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Viatka District, Russia | Died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia

Sudden Death and the Scent of Scandal

Tchaikovsky composed the “Pathétique” in 1893, the final year of his life. He conducted the premiere of the symphony in St. Petersburg only eight days prior to his sudden death, reportedly from cholera. That circumstance added greatly to the renown of the “Pathétique” Symphony. Its immediate posthumous influence was magnified by Tchaikovsky’s widespread popularity during his lifetime and by the scent of scandal surrounding rumors that his sudden death had been on purpose.

Four doctors treated Tchaikovsky: the brothers Vasily and Lev Bertenson and two of Lev Bertenson’s assistants. As court physician to the Czar, Lev Bertenson had prestige, influence and a wealthy clientele–but little experience with cholera, a disease generally associated with the lower classes. The controversy surrounding Tchaikovsky’s final illness arises in part from the contradictory reports of his brother Modest and the physician Vasily Bertenson. Some of the discrepancies pertained to symptoms, others to timing. This controversy still exists to this day with many theories surrounding the famous composer’s death.


Tchaikovsky’s letters from 1893 are filled with comments about his progress on the Sixth Symphony. He sketched the work in the spring and then orchestrated it during the summer. In February, he wrote to his brother Anatoly:

“I want to tell you about the excellent state of mind I am in so far as my works are concerned…Now on my journey, the idea of a new symphony came to me…the program of this symphony is completely saturated with myself and quite often during my journey I cried profusely. Having returned I have settled down to write the sketches and the work is going so intensely, so fast, that the first movement was ready in less than four days and the others have taken shape in my head. Half of the third movement is also done. There will still be much that is new in the form of this work…you cannot imagine my feelings of bliss now that I am convinced that the time has not gone forever, and that I can still work.”

Eventually, Tchaikovsky would feel that he had poured out his entire soul in the Sixth Symphony. In one of his last letters, right after the premiere, he declared his pride in this work, declaring it his very best. “I am prouder of this Symphony than of any other of my compositions,” he wrote to his publisher in mid-October. Within a week, he passed away.

New Concept: An Adagio Finale

Tchaikovsky’s letters reveal his awareness that the overall form of his new symphony would be unusual. He was particularly taken by the notion of an Adagio finale. It cannot be entirely accidental that Gustav Mahler, who knew and admired Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, also chose to break with tradition barely two years later and conclude his own monumental Third Symphony with an Adagio finale.

Emotionally, the Sixth Symphony is taut throughout. Some relief is provided by the second movement Valse, but its deceptive 5/4 meter disturbs the balance even here. The third movement merges scherzo with march. Tchaikovsky’s elfin opening has little chance against the forceful militance of the secondary idea.

In French, pathétique means touching the emotions, full of pathos, rather than the “pathetic” of the direct English cognate. In the final analysis, the “Pathétique” is a deeply moving piece that places it among the most profound musical utterances. Audiences and musicians have always loved this work. All the characteristics that we value most highly in his music are present in the “Pathétique:” splendid, imaginative orchestration; drama; memorable, delicious themes; superb development and sweeping emotive power.


Instrumentation: three flutes (third doubling piccolo), oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings



Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023

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