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Know Before You Go: Rachmaninoff and Mozart

“I have been expecting to thank you in person for the kindness you have shown me.  But now I have not the heart to enter your presence as I am obliged to tell you frankly that I cannot possibly pay back so soon the sum you have lent me and must beg you to have patience with me.  I will be able to breathe easier when I have got my affairs in order.

            Ever your grateful servant, true friend, and Brother of the Order,

                                                                                                W.A. Mozart”

Letter dated June 27, 1788 to Michael Puchberg

The Hapsburg Empire was struggling. Emperor Joseph’s reforms had angered the nobility, his alliance with Catherine of Russia against the Turks was a failure, war taxes were plunging the country into a recession. Then, too, Mozart was no longer the flavor of the month at the piano, as he had been for several years. The news wasn’t all black: Upon Kapellmeister Gluck’s death, Chancellor Kaunitz persuaded Emperor Joseph to hire Mozart to replace him, so that “so rare a musical genius should not be forced to earn his reputation and salary abroad.”  However, when his wife Constanze grew ill, requiring expensive cures, Mozart’s finances collapsed, and, during some of his darkest hours, Mozart wrote three of the greatest works the world has known – his final three symphonies.

His last, the Jupiter, is a work in which all sections combine the martial with the lyrical. This was part of Mozart’s style, but in this symphony, the combination of opposites was especially apparent. We hear it at the very beginning, and even the typically beautiful second movement has a martial element. The Minuet goes from gentle to strong, as does the finale; might this have been a response to a country at war?  

Another fascinating aspect of the Jupiter symphony is that Mozart, having rediscovered the music of Bach, filled this symphony with counterpoint—multiple lines running along simultaneously. The best example comes in the last movement, in which Mozart takes a four note theme and passes different lines back and forth simultaneously.  

“I try to make my music speak simply and directly that which is in my heart at the time I am composing,” wrote Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Though Rachmaninoff’s talent was recognized early, it took a disciplinarian piano teacher to unleash his potential. Soon, Tchaikovsky singled him out as heir apparent, but when his first symphony was an utter failure, he fell into crisis, unable to write for more than three years. “A paralyzing apathy possessed me,” he said. “Half my days were spent on a couch sighing over my ruined life.” He was finally persuaded to see a psychiatrist who treated. Knowing that the composer had promised a piano concerto to people in London and then had given up in despair, the doctor began the daily repetition of the hypnotic formula: “You will start to write your concerto… You will compose with the greatest of ease… The concerto will be of excellent quality.”  It worked.  His resulting Second Piano Concerto, dedicated to his doctor, premiered in 1901 and was an instant success, becoming a turning point in Rachmaninoff’s career. 

Like Jupiter, this work is tightly unified—the same rhythmic motives dominating all three movements.  In the end, though, it is those soaring romantic melodies which have so capture the hearts of audiences.  Indeed, his melodies seem to inspire lyricists. Three popular songs have arisen from the score of the Second Piano Concerto, including “I Think of You” (best known as sung by Frank Sinatra), “All By Myself” (recorded by Eric Carmen in 1975 and Celine Dion in 1996) and the Hit Parade standard “Full Moon and Empty Arms.” The concerto itself has set the mood for at least three Hollywood movies, as well. 

This Jacobs Masterworks program opens with a ravishing work by one of the most brilliant composers writing at a time when America sought its own sounds, during the first two decades of the twentieth century: Griffes’ The White Peacock.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes died at the age of only 35, and left us far too few works. His impressionistic miniature, The White Peacock, came into his mind as he watched a sunset, riding a train from Tarrytown into New York City.  The White Peacock had become a prominent symbol of the Aesthetic Movement in England during the 1870s and ’80s, when Griffes had studied there, but the direct inspiration was a poem of the same name by William Sharp: 


“Here where the sunlight

Floodeth the garden;

Where the oleanders

 Dream through the noontides and the heat lies

 Pale blue in the hollows,

. . . in silence, dreamlike, and slowly,

. . . Moves the white peacock,” 

—Nuvi Mehta

Concert Commentator


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