[In spring 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned me to write program notes for Rachmaninoff’s Three Russian Songs, which would be performed with the Minnesota Chorale (and, yours truly). Unfortunately, the concert was canceled due to the coronavirus. But the Orchestra authorized me to post them anyway, and I am happy to do so below. Enjoy!]
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The Russian Revolution profoundly disrupted Sergei Rachmaninoff’s comfortable life, in ways that would resonate for decades. As chaos spread at the end of 1917, the composer began to fear for his family’s safety. In December, Rachmaninoff gathered his wife and daughters and fled overland from St. Petersburg toward Helsinki in an open sleigh, taking only what they could fit in their suitcases. He later learned his family’s estate had been burned to the ground; the family had lost nearly everything.
In desperate straits, the family immigrated to New York City in 1918, where Rachmaninoff made a difficult choice. In order to support his family, he chose to abandon composition as an unaffordable luxury. Instead, he threw himself into the whirlwind career of a traveling concert pianist. He maintained a crippling pace that left him exhausted, but slowly revived the family’s finances.
After nine grueling seasons, Rachmaninoff finally felt financially secure enough to return to composing. In 1926, Leopold Stokowski approached Rachmaninoff to write two new works that he could premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Rachmaninoff took on the project eagerly, and in short order completed the first version of his Fourth Piano Concerto and Three Russian Songs.
The two works contrasted greatly, and revealed the complex emotions of a man straddling two worlds. In the Concerto, Rachmaninoff embraced the jazz stylings and modernist traditions of his adopted country. For Three Russian Songs, however, Rachmaninoff looked back to his homeland. The work is a poignant, jewel-like time capsule of a Russia that had vanished during the Revolution. To evoke the “true” sound of Russia, Rachmaninoff chose to arrange three traditional folk songs, each of which had been introduced to him by one of his many musical friends during the 1920s. The result was an extraordinarily evocative score. Vladimir Wilshaw, an old friend from student days, said of this work: “Only a man who loves his country could compose this way. Only a man who in his innermost soul is a Russian. Only Rachmaninoff could have composed this!”
To capture the full Russian spirit of the songs, Rachmaninoff worked diligently to insure the performances had an authentic Russian sound. Russian-American conductor Igor Buketoff, who recalled sneaking into the early rehearsals as a young boy, wrote, “The basses in the choir were all deacons of the local Russian church, because Rachmaninoff wanted a very deep, Russian bass sound.” Only real Russian performers would do.
Yet despite the work’s deep roots in Old Russia, the work expresses something much deeper. Each song evokes a sense of loss, longing or displacement, subtly reflecting Rachmaninoff’s experiences living in exile in America. Three Russian Songs is specifically the music of a Russian immigrant, looking back over space and time with nostalgia.
The premiere took place March 18, 1927, with Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. As it turned out, the Concerto was panned by both the audience and critics, while the Songs won considerable acclaim. The Songs premiered in Russia in 1934 at the Bolshoi Theatre, where the audience’s reaction was so exuberant that the performers immediately encored the work in its entirety.
Three Russian Songs represents an exquisite balance between creative originality and reverence for the past. The folksongs themselves maintain an elegant simplicity, and Rachmaninoff essentially presents them in a straightforward manner. Unusually, the voices generally sing in unison, giving the illusion of a single folk singer performing. But Rachmaninoff bathes them in lush orchestrations, using all the orchestral color he can muster to portray the characters’ inner emotions with cinematic vividness.
I. Across the River (Moderato) The first song, which tells of a drake whose beloved gray mate is startled and flies away, is set for basses alone. Rachmaninoff had probably heard for the first time by touring performers from the Moscow Art Theatre’s opera studio in 1925. There is a delicate poignancy to this song, and Rachmaninoff draws upon his orchestral resources to give a picture of the mournful calls in a long orchestral sigh.
II. Ah, Vanka! (Largo) In contrast to the first song in the cycle, the second song is for altos alone. It is a gentle lament for the loss of a lover, again with a heartfelt sigh at the end. It was introduced to Rachmaninoff by legendary opera singer Feodor Chaliapin.
III. My Cheeks, So White, So Rosy! (Allegro moderato) The final song uses a three-part choir and is, unusually, a wry comedy. A wife, who has been flirting shamelessly at a party, reacts with both mockery and mock-terror when her scandalized husband approaches her with a “present” of a silken whip. Folk singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya introduced the song to Rachmaninoff; he would later make a stand-alone arrangement for her to perform, scored for solo singer and piano.