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Composed: 1909

Length: c. 40 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), strings, and solo piano

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 2, 1930, Artur Rodzinski conducting, with Vladimir Horowitz, soloist

About this Piece

Right around the time Stravinsky was emerging as Russia’s great avant-gardist, his fellow countryman Sergei Rachmaninoff was embarking on the second phase of his stellar career as a concert pianist in the Romantic tradition. Rachmaninoff had been a student of Anton Arensky, who had been a student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and of Taneyev, who had studied with Tchaikovsky. Thus, Rachmaninoff straddled two Russias—both chronologically, between the composers of “old Russia” and the Soviets, and aesthetically, between the Nationalism of Rimsky-Korsakov and the academic Romanticism of Tchaikovsky. 

The year 1909 marked the beginning of Rachmaninoff’s last years in Russia leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. He was now performing more as a pianist and conductor than composing, but he began the Third Piano Concerto in the summer of 1909 at his home at Ivanovka, in southern Russia, for a planned American concert tour that fall. 

Premiered by the composer with the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch on November 28, 1909, the piece was recognized as characteristic Rachmaninoff: excruciatingly difficult piano writing with sprawling chords and magnificent lines, lush orchestral textures, and moody, bittersweet melodies. And although today it is considered the pinnacle of Romantic concerto writing, the Third Concerto was performed by few besides Rachmaninoff himself until Horowitz introduced it to the mainstream. 

The themes of the entire work are presented in the first movement. First, a dotted rhythmic motive serves as the motor of the whole concerto. The opening Allegro begins in the orchestra, and the piano overlays the melancholic but dignified first theme. Fragments of the second theme are introduced by the horn, clarinet, trumpet, oboe, and piano, then it is fully stated in the strings, a staccato-figure variation on the rhythmic motive that evolves into a sweet, singing tune. The development is a long crescendo/accelerando in which the two themes seem to morph together, and the orchestral accompaniment is in a constant taffy-pull with the piano’s elaborate phrases. Rachmaninoff wrote two cadenzas for this movement. The longer, more chordal, and more difficult “ossia” version was written first; the shorter, more slippery version was the one Rachmaninoff played. The original, uncut version was brought into fashion by Van Cliburn at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition.  

The wintry Intermezzo is introduced by the orchestra, and after 32 measures the piano storms in and dissolves into stillness. The theme is developed in the remote key of D-flat, alternately brooding and calm. In the middle section, the mood brightens considerably with a waltz in 3/8, outlining the tune in the context of fluttering triplets. The sullen mood returns, and one last grand gesture explodes into the alla breve Finale. Here again are variations on those initial two themes; it’s the velocity, the rhythmic ferocity, and hammering staccato that create variety and interest. A middle scherzando section presents decorative piano variations on the second theme over a calm orchestra scene. The return of tempo brings the concerto to a close with furious drive, the piano playing thick chords in a percussive staccato. —Meg Ryan