RACHMANINOFF Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 28
BACH/ RACHMANINOFF Suite from the Partita in E Major, BWV 1007
MENDELSSOHN/ RACHMANINOFF Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream


Program notes by Eric Bromberger

Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 28

Born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills

In February 1906 Rachmaninoff resigned his position as conductor at the Bolshoi and moved his family to Dresden. He had won critical praise as a conductor, but the demands of that position prevented him from composing, which was what he really wanted to do. He loved the quiet house he rented in Dresden–it was surrounded by a garden–and he set to work immediately. The next few years were some of his most productive, for they included the composition of his Second Symphony, Isle of the Dead, and Third Piano Concerto. Also from these years came a work that has proven much less familiar, the First Piano Sonata. Rachmaninoff sketched the sonata in January and February 1907 and had it complete on May 14 of that year.

But he was by no means comfortable with his latest creation. To a friend he described his problems with it: “The sonata is certainly wild and interminable. I think it takes about 45 minutes. I was lured into this length by its guiding idea. This is–three contrasting types from a literary work. Of course no program will be indicated, though I begin to think that the sonata would be clearer if the program were revealed. Nobody will ever play this composition, it’s too difficult and long . . . At one time I wanted to make a symphony of this sonata, but this seemed impossible because of the purely pianistic style in which it is written.” The première, given in Moscow on October 17, 1908, by Konstantin Igumnov, got a respectful but mystified reaction, and the composer had scarcely any more success when he played the sonata on his recitals during the next several seasons.

Perhaps it may help audiences to know that the “literary work” that inspired this sonata was Goethe’s Faust and that its three movements were apparently inspired in turn by Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. Small wonder that the work struck Rachmaninoff as symphonic in character: these are the titles and sequence of the three movements of Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, composed in 1857. Rachmaninoff chose not to reveal the inspiration, and this sonata is in no sense programmatic: its three movements should be understood more as character pieces than as pieces that depict specific events.

This is an extremely difficult sonata for the performer, and it generates textures so full and dramatic that Rachmaninoff was right to wonder if it might really be symphonic music. The Allegro moderato alternates tentative figures with fierce outbursts before rushing ahead at the Allegro; its second subject, marked Moderato, is built on repeated notes that emerge from murmuring figurations. This movement, long and technically demanding, drives to a sonorous climax that rides along great waves of sound before the music subsides to recall the second subject and to close quietly, even peacefully. The main idea of the Lento is introduced above rocking triplet accompaniment, and that rhythm will eventually drive this movement to an agitated climax; a striking sequence of descending trills brings the movement to its restrained close. The finale has seemed to some who know of the sonata’s original inspiration to have been inspired by the Flight to Brocken in Goethe’s Faust. It opens with hammered octaves that are marked both fortissimo and marcato and then races ahead; the second subject is a quiet, march-like idea that Rachmaninoff marks “very resolute.” These two ideas alternate throughout the movement, which also features some lyric and haunting melodies. The music accelerates to the close, where Rachmaninoff rounds matters off with a great chordal climax full of the sound of pealing bells and a suitably furious cadence.


The second half of this program consists of a number of piano transcriptions by Rachmaninoff of other composers’ music. During the crest of his performing career (the 1920s and 1930s, an era less consumed than our own with purity and authenticity–and probably better for it), these transcriptions of songs and instrumental works appeared frequently on Rachmaninoff’s recitals and were sometimes used as encores. And during the Second World War, Rachmaninoff’s stirring transcription of The Star-Spangled Banner opened a number of his concerts.

Suite from the Partita in E Major, BWV 1007


Bach wrote his works for unaccompanied violin about 1720, when he was kapellmeister at the court of Leopold in Anhalt-Cöthen, and the Partita in E Major has always been one of the most popular of those six pieces. In September 1933 Rachmaninoff made piano transcriptions of three of its movements: the famous Prelude (which has been arranged for a variety of instruments by a number of composers), the graceful Gavotte, and the lively concluding Gigue.



One of Schubert’s best-loved songs, Wohin? (“Where To?”) is the second of the twenty songs that make up his cycle Die schöne Müllerin (“The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter”), composed in 1823. This is a “stream-song”–the young man sets out to seek his future, pulled along by the seductive sound of murmuring water, here in the quiet sextuplets of the pianist’s left hand. His journey will have a dark ending, but now at the beginning it is bright and hopeful. Rachmaninoff made this transcription for solo piano in October 1925 and also recorded it.

Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Mendelssohn wrote his incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream–considered by many to be the composer’s finest work–in 1843. The Scherzo is an interlude between the first two acts of the play. To Puck’s question “whither wander you?” the fairy replies:

Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, Over park, over pale, Thorough flood, thorough fire

This quick silvery music captures perfectly the flitting of that fairy, as chattering woodwinds and bustling strings mark his speedy trip; the music winks out on quiet pizzicato strokes. The manuscript of Rachmaninoff’s piano transcription of the Scherzo is dated March 6, 1933.

Lullaby, Opus 16, No. 1


Lullaby (sometimes called Cradle Song) was originally the first of a set of Six Songs that Tchaikovsky composed in 1872. Rachmaninoff made his piano transcription during the grim summer of 1941, which he spent listening to radio reports about the German invasion of Russia. Perhaps this transcription of a gentle piece by Tchaikovsky, who had been a mentor to the young Rachmaninoff, was his way of re-connecting to Russia at this difficult moment. Early in 1942, just as he was moving into his newly-purchased home in Beverly Hills, Rachmaninoff recorded the Lullaby at the Victor Studios in Hollywood.

Polka de V.R.


Rachmaninoff’s father was named Vassily Rachmaninoff, and one of his favorite pieces was a little polka-tune. In March 1911, his son Serge made a piano transcription of that tune, thinking that it was original with his father. In fact, the tune was by an obscure German composer named Franz Behr (1837-1898), who was quite prolific–his list of opus numbers runs to 582. Behr had originally titled that piece Lachtäubchen, and Rachmaninoff may never have known that it was by Behr. He titled the piece Polka de V.R., incorporating his father’s initials into the title. It is a pleasing piece, and Rachmaninoff must have felt a continuing affection for it: he recorded it four times. Numerous other pianists, including Vladimir Horowitz, have made it part of their repertory.



This program concludes with Rachmaninoff’s transcriptions of two famous violin pieces by Fritz Kreisler. Kreisler and Rachmaninoff were great friends: they often performed together and made some memorable recordings together (and Rachmaninoff dedicated his Corelli Variations of 1931 to Kreisler). These two transcriptions were apparently among the earliest that Rachmaninoff made: he first performed Liebeslied on November 20, 1921, in Chicago; the première of Liebesfreud took place in Stamford, Connecticut, on October 29, 1925. These are not exact transcriptions of the familiar Kreisler pieces. It would have been a fairly simple matter to adapt the violin line to the pianist’s right hand and so to produce an almost literal version of the originals, but Rachmaninoff does not faintly do this: his versions–spicy, lilting, pungent, virtuosic–are affectionate recompositions of the originals. Rachmaninoff takes the themes and the general shape of the original pieces and then rewrites them as piano music–and these are brilliant piano pieces indeed. Doubtless Kreisler loved them.

NOTE: Rachmaninoff recorded both these transcriptions–and a number of other pieces–on piano rolls during the 1920s, and recently these rolls have been carefully remastered and recorded in digital sound. Those interested in Rachmaninoff as a pianist should search out this recording: on it one can hear–in the best possible recorded sound–Rachmaninoff as he sounded live. They are sizzling performances.