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By Francis Crociata

In the course of a professional career that spanned fifty years, Sergei Rachmaninoff collaborated with more than ninety conductors in performances of his own music, but the longest associations, by far, were with Frederick Stock, Leopold Stokowski, and Serge Koussevitzky (over 33, 32, and 31 years respectively). 

Rachmaninoff visited Chicago on each of his American tours, and often worked with Frederick Stock, the Chicago Orchestra’s permanent conductor, for Dr. Stock always satisfied the composer with his dependability and thorough preparation. Rachmaninoff literally launched Koussevitzky’s conducting career in Russia where he had played double bass in Rachmaninoff’s orchestras. Practical considerations made Rachmaninoff’s associations with both of these conductors inevitable. But it was with Leopold Stokowski that Rachmaninoff was most comfortable and in whom he found his most sympathetic collaborator. They performed together more than twenty-five times in concerts and on recordings, and the composer entrusted Stokowski with the premieres of four major works, as well as the first American performance of “The Bells.” 

Rachmaninoff and Stokowski began their association on March 28, 1910 with two concerts in Cincinnati’s Music Hall during Rachmaninoff’s first American tour. The performances included the composer’s Second Piano Concerto and his Second Symphony. Rachmaninoff left no recollection of his first encounter with the charismatic young conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra, but his correspondence from that time leaves little doubt that his first encounter with America was unpleasant and not an experience he was eager to repeat. Although the tour had afforded him critical and financial success, he subsequently refused the offer of another, and would not return to America until he left Russia permanently. 

Rachmaninoff’s exile began in December, 1917. For a few months he performed in Scandinavia, but returned to the United States in late 1918 to rebuild his fortune and reorganize his life. Since he knew he could not support his family from commissions as a composer, his options were limited either to a career as an orchestral conductor or to that of a touring pianist. He was offered the conductor’s desks of both the Boston Symphony and Cincinnati Orchestra (a post which Stokowski had vacated six years earlier), but chose instead to become a touring pianist. 

Doors were quickly opened to the composer-pianist. Rachmaninoff selected Charles Ellis as his manager, who had just lost Paderewski from his roster to the government of Poland. Ellis arranged for the first of twenty-five recital tours, a recording contract with Edison, and soon after an even more lucrative arrangement with the Victor Talking Machine Company. Invitations followed from many of the same orchestras with which Rachmaninoff had performed ten years earlier. 

When the Etude magazine solicited tributes for a special Rachmaninoff issue in October, 1919, Stokowski wrote: “What I admire so much in the works of Rachmaninoff is, that having all the resources of modern music at his disposal, he still writes with upmost simplicity. I have the impression of greatest sincerity always in his works, and although they are often complex, it is an organized complexity, and it is this which produces the effect of simplicity. Or to express it in other words, the suppression of all non-essentials: every note counts. Every note is inspired by feeling.” 

Stokowski was at the forefront of those welcoming Rachmaninoff on his return to America. He engaged the composer to play the revised version of his First Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He also arranged for his performance at a benefit concert at the Metropolitan Opera House with its own orchestra and soprano Geraldine Farrar. 

In the same Etude article Stokowski continued, “Next season I am going to produce for the first time in America, Rachmaninoff’s new symphony, “The Bells,” which is for large orchestra, chorus, soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists. The poem is by Edgar Allan Poe. I am studying the work now and think it is the greatest of Rachmaninoff’s compositions.” 

The composer agreed with Stokowski’s assessment of “The Bells,” which at the time was called his “Third Symphony,” and the performances took place on February 6 and 7, 1920 in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. Thereafter, every new Rachmaninoff composition would be premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Stokowski (except his very last, “Symphonic Dances,” which was composed after Eugene Ormandy had become the orchestra’s musical director). 

The rigorous and distracting life of a touring pianist made musical composition an impossibility for Rachmaninoff. In 1926, after five years of constant travel, the composer took a sabbatical to finish his Fourth Piano Concerto (begun in Russia in 1917), and to arrange three Russian folk songs for chorus and orchestra. Both compositions were premiered by Stokowski on the same program in 1927. The concerto was poorly received by press and public; eventually the composer withdrew it. But the Three Folk Songs, Op. 41 (dedicated to Stokowski) were a huge success, and at least one critic could not resist pointing out that the songs had rescued the evening from a sure “defeat” for the composer. 

By this time Rachmaninoff had come to consider the Philadelphia “his own orchestra,” and often went out of his way to extol the ensemble’s excellence. He recorded with them exclusively, beginning in 1924 with the acoustical recording of his Second Concerto under Stokowski’s direction. Although the concerto was recorded in its entirety, only the second and third movements were released before the recording was made obsolete by the introduction of the new electrical process. Rachmaninoff was not satisfied with the sonic or artistic qualities of the performance, so we are fortunate that these two artists recorded the Second Concerto again in 1929, leaving for posterity a recording that has been called the most powerful and integrated concerto interpretation ever made.

Although the results of the 1929 recording collaboration were pleasing to all concerned, the sessions occasioned the single disagreement to disrupt the relationship between Rachmaninoff and Stokowski. When Stokowski announced to the orchestra where “cuts” should be made in the score, Rachmaninoff, asserting his prerogative as composer, insisted that no cuts were necessary. Understandably, Rachmaninoff was sensitive about this work, one of his few to enjoy unquestioned and uninterrupted popular success. The recording of the concerto proceeded with no cuts, but it was not until 1934 that Stokowski and Rachmaninoff would collaborate again. 

Rachmaninoff did continue to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the interim. In 1931 he played in Philadelphia under guest conductor Eugene Ormandy. The performances went well enough, but his 1932 appearances under Issay Dobrowen were a nightmare. The normally reticent composer complained about the quality of the orchestra’s playing. The time had obviously come to reconcile with Stokowski, and Rachmaninoff’s peace offering turned out to be the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Composed in the summer of 1934, it is one of the most enduringly successful compositions of the twentieth century. 

In the course of his 1935 appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra (again performing the Rhapsody under Stokowski’s direction), Rachmaninoff let it be known that he had completed two movements of a new symphony which he designated as a Third. (He now called “The Bells” a cantata.) The following summer Ormandy, who by this time had become co-music director with Stokowski, wrote to Rachmaninoff in Europe asking about the progress of the symphony and requested its premiere. Rachmaninoff replied that, while he never dreamed any orchestra but the Philadelphia would premiere the symphony, the matter of just who would conduct was in the hands of his manager and friend, Charles Foley. Foley had already promised the premiere to Stokowski and personally carried the completed score from abroad to Stokowski in New York. 

Rachmaninoff’s A Minor Symphony was composed over two summers at Senar, the estate he had built on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. The manuscript is dated in the following way: first movement, June 18—August 22, 1935; second movement, August 26—September 18, 1935; third movement, June 6—30, 1936. He also dated the corrections: May 18—June 1, 1936. The score is one of his few that bears no dedication. 

In 1907, while completing his Second Symphony, Rachmaninoff vowed, in a letter to Nikita Morozov, that he would never again tackle the composition of a symphony. Nevertheless, in 1934, during his first uninterrupted summer at Senar, he composed his enormously successful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Encouraged by the success of the Rhapsody, and the fact that his Second Symphony had turned up as one of the five most popular symphonies in a major orchestra’s subscription series poll, in 1935 he began a new symphony. 

Even Rachmaninoff’s most adamant detractors admit the scoring of the Third Symphony is brilliant and advanced. It is no wonder, for he wrote the work for the special talents of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The composition is a tour de force for virtuoso orchestra. The composer seems to have written especially grateful parts for his old friends among the players, particularly flutist William Kincaid, clarinetist Robert McGinnis, oboist Marcel Tabuteau, and timpanist Oscar Schwar. Not only are these parts brilliant and incisive, they also have organic significance in the structure of the symphony. 

Rachmaninoff admitted that when he composed he often had a particular visual or literary inspiration in mind. These were not programs, but rather a kind of artistic and intellectual stimulus. He left no clues about the inspirations for this symphony, except for the ever present Dies Irae theme which is tentatively stated in the third movement. 

Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony is a model of the composer’s ability to ingeniously develop a small amount of the thematic material. Like his Second Symphony, it opens with a motto theme, an unusual motto consisting of fifteen notes never venturing beyond a whole tone above and below “A”, and played softly by a muted cello, two clarinets, and a solo horn. 

The first real theme seems to be a lyrical derivative of a Russian Orthodox chant. Music of the Russian church had always been one of the major influences on Rachmaninoff’s music, and we can read in a series of letters with the imminent Russian musicologist, Joseph Yasser, that the composer showed a renewed interest in this music prior to the composition of the symphony. 

The second movement contains one of the loveliest adagios Rachmaninoff ever wrote, the theme of which he derived from both first movement themes. The movement also contains Rachmaninoff’s most pungent scherzo. Together, the two elements form Rachmaninoff’s finest single symphonic movement, with virtuoso writing for horns, percussion and timpani in the scherzo, before the lyrical motif returns to a final statement of the original theme. 

The last movement is the most problematic of the symphony, and has been considered the work’s major weakness. But as the composition has been re-examined, Rachmaninoff’s special genius for shaping a cyclic whole is most apparent in this movement. The opening, often mistakenly described as an accompaniment without a theme, is really a martial transformation of the first movement’s melancholic ascending theme. Reversing the dramatic plan of the first movement, the composer derives an ascending lyrical statement for strings from the first theme, and combines the motto and the two themes, with the Dies Irae, to produce the subject of a fugato.

The coda is especially troublesome for conductors. Even the composer, in his own recording of the work, seems to disregard his own tempo marking, although vivace remains in the published score. 

A fair amount of publicity and anticipation preceded the Philadelphia world premiere on November 6, 1936. Rachmaninoff arrived several days in advance to correct parts and discuss interpretation with Stokowski. The New York Times sent a reviewer, and a Times reporter watched the composer during the performance: “During the playing of the symphony, Rachmaninoff sat in a box seat near the back of the auditorium, following the music intently and several times smiled at companions when the orchestra seemingly reproduced passages just as he intended them to be interpreted. At other times he clenched a fist and half rose in his seat, while still again he sat immobile with his chin resting on his cupped hand.” 

Rachmaninoff was certain of the worth of his symphony when he sent it to Stokowski. In fact, he had already arranged for additional performances in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago, and Cleveland. Critical reception of the symphony ranged from outright hostility and dismissal to Olin Downes’ suggestion: “Would not a pair of shears benefit the proportions of this work?” Mr. Downes, like many of the composer’s public following, clearly missed the point; Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony—unlike his second—leaves no room for cuts, and is probably his most integrated composition. 

For the last seven years of his life, Rachmaninoff was intent on establishing a place for his Third Symphony, at least in those locations where his earlier compositions had been welcomed. In the face of a hostile press, and the indifference from his normally adoring public, the composer was uncharacteristically defensive about the symphony, as if a favorite child had suffered a rebuke. Describing the premiere, he wrote to one of his correspondents in Moscow, Vladimir Wilshaw: “I was present at the first two performances. It was played wonderfully. (The Philadelphia Orchestra, about which I’ve written you—Stokowski conducting.) Both audience and critics responded sourly. Personally, I’m firmly convinced that this is a good work. But, sometimes the author is wrong, too! However, I maintain my opinion.” 

Though he had steadfastly refused to conduct even his own works (maintaining that he could not pursue careers as a pianist and a conductor simultaneously), he jumped at the chance to publicly conduct and record the Third Symphony. He described his method of persuasion to Wilshaw: “Because the sale of such long works goes poorly, the orchestra costs much and the company loses on it, they have accepted as a bribe from me that I would make a recording of my First Piano Concerto.” 

The composer conducted the symphony fairly often in his last years, simply because he enjoyed it. And he enthusiastically aided other conductors in preparing the composition, including Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Sir Henry Wood. He hoped that Sir Henry’s performance would help change the prevailing opinion in London, which had formed after an unsympathetic reading by Sir Thomas Beecham during the previous season. The composer was still concerned about his new symphony in 1938, when he wrote to Yvegeny Somov: “It will be performed again in London, by Henry Wood … he is fascinated by the symphony. Since I began a record of those who love this work, I have turned down three fingers. Its second lover is the violinist (Adolf) Busch, and the third—excuse me—is I! When I run out of fingers on both hands I’ll give up counting! Only—when will this be?” 

The problem that the symphony faced could well have been diagnosed at its first performance by Stokowski (which, by most accounts, was as splendid a reading as Rachmaninoff had ever heard in his lifetime). The critics and contemporary composers who should have recognized the subtle, but ongoing evolution of Rachmaninoff’s music, had long before formed their opinions. They heard only the lush, melancholic melodic lines that harkened back to the years of his Second and Third Concertos, never realizing that Rachmaninoff had put all that behind him. 

Rachmaninoff’s popular following had also come only to hear the uncomplicated romanticism characteristic of the music he had written thirty years earlier. They had, in a sense, been fooled by the Paganini Rhapsody, particularly by the beguiling eighteenth variation. Without this variation, the Rhapsody would have been far less accessible and consequently less popular, for it is rhythmically and harmonically sophisticated and forward-looking. (Bela Bartok was particularly impressed by the Rhapsody, and requested a copy of the score while working on his own Third Piano Concerto.) It was clear that this balance would not work again in the Third Symphony, and even his friend and admirer, composer Nicholas Medtner, was greatly disturbed by Rachmaninoff’s apparent concession to “modernism.” It has, in fact, taken almost forty years for the work to find a place as one of Rachmaninoff’s finest compositions. 

Leopold Stokowski did not perform the Third Symphony again until the occasion of this recording, thirty-nine years after he conducted the world premiere. Stokowski and Rachmaninoff appeared together one last time with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on January 25 and 26, 1940. They played the Second Concerto, the work that had begun their association thirty-two years earlier in Cincinnati. 

Rachmaninoff died on March 28, 1943 in Los Angeles, and one of the most eloquent and touching eulogies was by his friend and collaborator, Leopold Stokowski: “The musical personality of Rachmaninoff is unique. His music expresses the intensity and nostalgia, the vitality and the vivid coloring, the dramatic rhythm of Slavic art. The emotional and imaginative side of his music is rich in the mysterious and the intangible—those remote moods of the spirit which carry us far from everyday life and open for us visions of heart which completely transform our existence.” 

Rachmaninoff composed his Vocalise in April of 1912 as part of a set of fourteen songs for various solo voices and piano. The work was originally written for soprano or tenor and piano, and was dedicated to Antonina Nezhdanova. It was revised in September of 1915, and premiered in 1915, and premiered in Moscow by Nezhdanova on January 24,,1916 with the composer at the piano. 

This premiere performance took place during an orchestral concert conducted by Serge Koussevitzky who had recently become Rachmaninoff’s publisher through his purchase of the Gutheil publishing firm. Vocalise was received so enthusiastically by the audience, and by Koussevitzky, that Rachmaninoff’s close friend Nikolai Struve suggested that an orchestral arrangement be made. Rachmaninoff orchestrated Vocalise in the summer of 1916, and produced arrangements for violin, cello and piano. 

Rachmaninoff conducted a recording of Vocalise in 1929 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Leopold Stokowski has conducted several recordings of the work in a string orchestra arrangement, and has also recorded a vocal version with soprano Anna Moffo. This is Stokowski’s first recording of the complete and original orchestration.

[Reprinted with the gracious permission of Francis Crociata, one of the world’s leading authorities on Sergei Rachmaninoff.] 


I wrote the notes above 48 years ago. Since then I have continued to research details of Rachmaninoff’s life. Several errors and some additional information about the Rachmaninoff-Stokowski relationship have come to light. Willem Mengelberg should have been included as a conductor with whom Rachmaninoff had his longest associations. Rachmaninoff’s work “The Bells” was dedicated to Mengelberg. It had its first American performance by Stokowski in Philadelphia in 1920, which was actually the first performance anywhere of its extensively revised edition. 

The original notes ascribe a five-year break in the Rachmaninoff-Stokowski collaborations, between 1929-1934, to disagreements during their recording of the Second Piano Concerto. The paragraph discussing that issue contains some errors, leading to what I now believe was possibly an incorrect conclusion. Rachmaninoff did not perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1931 with any conductor. His 1932 performance of his Third Concerto, led by Issay Dobrowen, about which he expressed dissatisfaction with the orchestra’s playing, was not with the Philadelphia Orchestra but rather with the New York Philharmonic, which took place at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Rachmaninoff did not express dissatisfaction with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s musicians then or at any other time. It is possible that Rachmaninoff did not work with Stokowski for those five years because they had quarreled over cuts in Second Concerto at the 1929 recording session, as suggested by several orchestra members as well as by Victor’s Charles O’Connell in his book The Other Side of the Record. O’Connell wrote that Rachmaninoff was the only musician Stokowski was afraid of, and Rachmaninoff’s position on the cuts - “nyet!” - prevailed. But to the end of his life, Rachmaninoff regarded the Second Concerto recording as the finest of his concerto recordings, so it is just as likely that the five-year hiatus was a simple matter of scheduling.

Then, it was an overstatement for me to suggest that Rachmaninoff never heard his Third Symphony played more persuasively than by Stokowski and the Philadelphia in 1936. The composer expressed similar sentiments about performances by the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1941, and indeed, I now believe a strong case can be made that the Greek maestro had replaced Stokowski as Rachmaninoff’s interpreter-of-choice in the last years of his life. 

Last, several reliable sources describe the final collaboration of Rachmaninoff and Stokowski with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in January 1940 in the Second Piano Concerto, as being a far from happy occasion. The details are unclear, but the pair of concerts were, literally, a Stokowski Hollywood extravaganza. They inaugurated a new concert series moved from the traditional Philharmonic Auditorium to the Pantages Theatre, an art deco movie palace, with klieg lights out front, the piano dramatically rising from the pit, flowers and palm trees bedecking the stage and a celebrity audience befitting a movie premiere. The orchestra was expanded to 120 (the extra strings engaged at Stokowski’s personal expense), with the result of complaints that Rachmaninoff’s piano sound was swamped by the orchestra. It is the only instance I have ever encountered of even a suggestion of such occurring in a Rachmaninoff concerto performance. It may have been then, or at an encounter two years later at Hollywood Bowl, that Rachmaninoff, in the presence of his aghast wife, accosted his longtime friend with the words “Stokowski, you are a terrible man!” and turned away without another word. Decades later, the conductor himself confirmed this had happened and could only wonder at what might have prompted it. Perhaps this is the reason that Rachmaninoff’s works do not appear in Stokowski’s repertory for the three seasons during which he had assumed directorship of NBC Symphony. Fortunately, after the composer’s death in 1943, Rachmaninoff’s works again appear often in the Stokowski repertory. The final result is this magisterial document of the Third Symphony and, had the maestro lived but a few months more, he would also have given the world a Stokowski recording of the Rachmaninoff Symphony No 2. 

–Francis Crociata, June 18, 2023

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Tom Rudd