Program Notes

35th Anniversary Finale / Cliburn Gold

An American Composer’s Perspective on Rachmaninoff & Mahler

For 35th Anniversary Finale: Cliburn Gold, April 28, 2018

© Robert Xavier Rodríguez [read bio]

The Plano Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-2018 season finale presents music by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Gustav Mahler, two composers whose careers overlapped from the end of the 19th century to the early years of the 20th.  Written just a few years apart, the two works heard tonight represent fascinatingly divergent uses of the musical language of the time.


In his 1917 silent film The Adventurer, Charlie Chaplin plays an escaped prisoner.  In one scene, while Chaplin sits resting on the ground, the foot of a policeman appears beside him.  Instead of running away, Chaplin starts to cover the foot with dirt so that he can’t see it.  The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) reacted similarly when confronting the giant steps of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), the musical modernists who forever changed the language of music after the turn of the 20th century.  Most composers chose in one way or another to embrace the exciting new forms, harmonies and rhythms, but Rachmaninoff refused.  Like Norman Rockwell, who cheerfully painted folksy family scenes in the age of Picasso and Kandinsky, Rachmaninoff turned away from the New and continued to model his work on traditional 19th-Century Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. 

Critics have long differed in their assessments of Rachmaninoff’s music.  In 1919, Paul Rosenfeld described Rachmaninoff’s music as “a little too much like a mournful banqueting on jam and honey…Rachmaninoff comes amongst us like a very charming and amiable ghost.”  On the other hand, the 1980 New Grove Dictionary praises Rachmaninoff’s music as ''highly individual… characterized by sincere expression and skillful technique.” The 2001 edition goes further to say, “At its most inspired, Rachmaninoff's lyrical inspiration is matchless.''

 In spite of critical controversy, Rachmaninoff had a spectacularly successful career, primarily as a pianist and composer, but also as a conductor.  He attained wealth and fame in his own time, and today his music remains highly popular with audiences, conductors and, particularly, pianists.

 One little-known fact about Rachmaninoff is that he made an important contribution to the history of aviation.  In 1923, he heard that a fellow Russian, Igor Sikorsky, was experimenting with a new type of airplane, so he visited Sikorsky’s little shop in Long Island.  The composer emerged from his chauffeur-driven limousine, tall (Stravinsky called him “a six-foot scowl”), elegant and impressive in his long black coat, and asked to see Sikorsky’s drawings.  After studying them, Rachmaninoff handed Sikorsky a check for $10,000 (worth $146,000 in today’s currency) and said, “Pay me back when you can.”  Rachmaninoff’s investment paid off when Sikorsky went on to invent the helicopter.

Calling Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor “Opus 1” is misleading.  The composer did produce a preliminary version in 1891 at the age of 18, but 26 years later, at the age of 43, he made the revised version which is heard today.  Between the two versions, Rachmaninoff had composed his more famous Second and Third Piano Concertos.  The music we hear tonight, therefore, presents the interaction between the brash effusiveness of the composer’s youth and the assured restraint of his maturity. 

Following the model set by Grieg and Schumann in their concertos, the work opens with a brief orchestral passage, here a stern horn fanfare, suddenly interrupted by volleys of octaves from the solo pianist, leading to a lyrical and melancholy first theme worthy of any of Rachmaninoff’s other concertos.  A light and athletic second theme follows, leading to a dialogue between the piano and the orchestra.  The heart of the first movement is a formidable cadenza, beginning with the piano’s restatement of the opening horn fanfare and continuing with virtuoso treatment of the two principal themes before the orchestra joins for the coda.    

Like the first movement, the second movement begins with the French horn, this time in a lyrical Andante.  The piano and orchestra exchange tenderly nuzzling filigree in which the solo writing sometimes slips into the cocktail piano textures and jazzy, Debussy-inspired harmonies of Rachmaninoff’s American contemporary George Gershwin (1898-1937). 

The finale, in sonata-rondo form, evokes memories of Liszt’s demonic Mephisto Waltz.  There are, again, two contrasting main themes: one spiky, with clever time changes between 9/8 and 12/8, and the other equally energetic but with an even rhythmic flow in tarantella-like triplets.  The middle section melts into a slow, sweet nocturne, with the piano always in the lead.  The music then lunges back to the opening material for a brilliant finish. 

This concerto is, perhaps, most interesting for what it does not do.  The music has all of the lyrical sweep and pianistic dazzle we expect from Rachmaninoff, but missing is the grand recapitulation technique he learned from Tchaikovsky and employed in his better-known Second and Third Concertos.  In those works, the composer introduced the “big tune” simply and quietly, early in the last movement; then, he brought it back at the end, fortissimo grandioso, with flags waving and all guns firing.  Here, Rachmaninoff decided not to go for the blow-out.  Instead, the piano solo keeps most of the fireworks to itself, and there is more emphasis on intricate and sophisticated counterpoint between the piano and the orchestra, with the orchestra only offering collegial commentary.   Still, along with Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto, the work is gaining traction in the repertory and is gradually catching up to the composer’s more celebrated creations.


Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was one of the greatest composers of his day or any day.  During his lifetime, he was much better known as a conductor than as a composer, and he was the only musician ever to be awarded the prestigious directorships of both the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Opera.  Mahler’s massive symphonies were, like Beethoven’s, received with puzzlement at first, but now, they are central to the orchestral repertoire.  The composer presciently said, “My time will come,” and, indeed, it has.

The generations of composers between Beethoven (1770-1827) and Mahler had divided themselves into two camps, each claiming to be the true bearers of Beethoven’s mantle.  “Classical Romantics” such as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms followed the symphonic Beethoven, using traditional forms such as sonata, rondo and variations.  “Romantic Romantics,” on the other hand, such as Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, emulated the revolutionary Beethoven, who broke formal barriers and explored the idea of “program music” that told a story beyond the patterns of the notes themselves.  Born while both Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) were still composing, Mahler had the musical stature both to continue Beethoven’s Germanic symphonic tradition and to break more stylistic ground, thus finally bringing the two camps back together. 

In veneration of Beethoven, Mahler wrote nine symphonies and was superstitious about writing a tenth for fear that -- like Beethoven -- he would not live to finish it.  As it turned out, Mahler did try for a Tenth Symphony and, sadly, did not live to see its completion. With today’s medical techniques, his heart condition could have been cured in a week.  Mahler did not compose chamber music, nor did he follow Wagner’s lead in writing operas, but, along with his contemporary Richard Strauss (1864-1949), who wrote both symphonies and operas, Mahler continued Wagner’s signature achievements of stretching the limits of tonality and of developing extended musical forms and massive orchestral resources.  Like Wagner and Strauss, Mahler also made the setting of text a prominent feature of his work. 

Mahler’s effect on succeeding generations has been enormous.  The great Viennese modernists Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern as well as composers today acknowledge their debt to Mahler as one who brought the treasures of the past into the present in order to create the music of the future.  A particularly moving example is Mahler’s monumental, unfinished Tenth Symphony, written on his deathbed, in which the composer bravely faced the abyss of the unknown by creating breathtaking new sounds far beyond the musical world he was about to leave.  As Mahler wisely put it, “Tradition is the conservation of the fire, not the adoration of the ashes.” 

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1888) is the work of a young man of 28 out to make his name.  The size of the orchestra shows the composer’s grand intentions: woodwinds by fours instead of threes; eight horns instead of four; five trumpets instead of three; four trombones instead of three; eight timpani instead of four; plus bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam,  harp and strings.  With these huge forces, the composer often uses only a few instruments at a time and in unusual, imaginative combinations, with the winds playing a more prominent role than usual.  There are the traditional four movements (Mahler eventually discarded a fifth movement), but the music is cast in larger forms on a time scale far beyond the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms. 

The first movement has a mysterious, slow introduction which creates a tingling of anticipation similar to the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.  Gradually, the composer introduces motivic fragments, and a mighty sonata-allegro follows, rich with an ingratiating succession of changing moods and textures.  Like Schubert before him, Mahler creates song-like themes that cry out for a voice and German words.  In this case, the material includes a charming melody from the composer’s earlier song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer. 

For the second movement, in homage to the traditional minuet of a Classical symphony, Mahler presents a lusty Ländler, a popular Viennese country dance in three-quarter time that led from the aristocratic minuet of the 18th century to the socially egalitarian 19th-century waltz.  After an equally rustic but lyrically gentle trio, the Ländler returns, this time in a more majestic orchestration.

Mahler’s music is full of striking juxtapositions.  The third movement moves from tears to laughter.  Growing up in the anxiety-ridden Vienna of Sigmund Freud, Mahler, as a young man, went through a period of severe depression and, at one point, contemplated suicide.  Mahler rushed out into the street, intending to throw himself under a carriage.  At that moment, an ice-cream wagon came by, with tinkling bells playing a ridiculous little song.  Seeing the irony of the situation, Mahler laughed and decided to face life.  The emotions of that episode are depicted with a funereal double bass solo in minor key playing a folk tune heard in many cultures:  Mahler called it “Bruder Martin,” but Americans know it by its French title, “Frère Jacques” or, in English, “Brother John.”  A bassoon joins the bass in canon, then, smoothly, Mahler slips in an oboe counter melody.  Gradually, however, the dark mood lifts as a funky little band with a distinctly Jewish klezmer flavor enters the scene and breaks into increasingly merry dance music written almost a century before Fiddler on the Roof.  At the end, the somber tune returns with its countermelody. Another friendly theme from “Songs of a Wayfarer” appears, and all of the melodies are artfully combined, trailing off to a brief, quietly marching coda.

The fourth movement shows Mahler, as his wife, Alma Mahler, put it, “reaching up to the heavens.”  He created an extended and involved cyclical structure that emulates Beethoven’s technique in the Ninth Symphony finale of combining new themes with motives and melodies heard earlier in the symphony.  A shattering cymbal crash breaks the quiet mood of the third movement, and a drum roll introduces two new themes: one driving, the other soaring.  Mahler builds inexorably to a climax midway in the movement then subsides to explore more musical territory, confidently interweaving previously-heard material, including bits from the discarded fifth movement.  There is a dramatic moment of silence before he gathers his forces for the finish.  The work’s final pages build quickly and triumphantly as the five trumpets magically transform the eerie whispers of the opening motifs of the symphony, and the orchestra ends the hour’s journey in a blaze of glory.

Robert Xavier Rodríguez has served as Composer-in-Residence for the Dallas Symphony and the San Antonio Symphony.  He holds an Endowed Chair in Art and Aesthetic Studies and is University Professor and Director of the Musica Nova ensemble at the University of Texas at Dallas. His 131 compositions are published by G. Schirmer.