Rachmaninov and the “Philadelphia Sound”

Rachmaninov and conductor Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938. (from the Philadelphia Orchestra's website).
Rachmaninov and conductor Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938. (from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s website).

 

Great orchestras develop an institutional collective memory. As conductors and players come and go, they often leave a subtle mark on the sound, style, and soul of the ensemble. New players are assimilated into a dynamic, ever-evolving team. The esteemed history of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a case in point.

For years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive, darkly opulent sound, especially evident in the lush, velvety warmth of its string section. The “Philadelphia Sound” likely emerged under the leadership of Leopold Stokowski (music director from 1912 to 1938), who discarded a baton and conducted with his enormous, expressive hands. The sound continued to develop under Eugene Ormandy (music director from 1936 to 1980). Balance favoring the bottom voices (bass and cello) seems to have contributed to tonal richness and depth. Also, the dry acoustics of the Academy of Music may have played a role in shaping the “Philadelphia Sound,” as conductors attempted to compensate for the cavernous concert hall’s weaknesses.

The old Philadelphia Orchestra never sounded more vibrant than when it was performing the music of Sergei Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov’s long association with the orchestra is one of music history’s most fascinating examples of mutual influence between a composer and orchestra. Both Stokowski and Ormandy championed Rachmaninov’s music, beginning with Stokowski’s January 3, 1913 performance of the tone poem, Isle of the Dead. Rachmaninov’s final work, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, first performed on January 3, 1941, was dedicated to Ormandy and the orchestra. Rachmaninov is said to have composed with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s sound in his mind. The sensuous beauty of Rachmaninov’s music surely left its imprint on the orchestra, as well.

Many excellent recordings have been made of Rachmaninov’s orchestral music in the intervening years, but there’s something uniquely soulful about the old Philadelphia recordings. Here is a sample:

Symphony No. 2

Eugene Ormandy recorded Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony four times: Once in 1934 with the Minneapolis Symphony, and again in Philadelphia in 1951, 1959, and 1973. The final recording restores the work to its original form, without Rachmaninov’s approved cuts. The performance below was a June, 1979 PBS broadcast, celebrating Eugene Ormandy’s 80th birthday. It’s amazing to watch Ormandy’s seemingly effortless sense of control. There’s nothing flamboyant or flashy in his conducting, yet he draws incredible power and warmth from the orchestra.

For Rachmaninov, the Second Symphony, written between 1906 and 1907, emerged out of uncertainty and self-doubt. Following the disastrous premiere of the First Symphony and the ensuing harsh criticism, Rachmaninov fell into debilitating long-term depression. The music transcends all of this. The Second Symphony’s melodies blossom and soar with gratitude, passion for life, and sensuality. Similar to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the first movement’s opening motive runs like a thread through the entire work.

The opening of the second movement hints at the Dies Irae (from the Roman Catholic mass for the Dead), which shows up throughout Rachmaninov’s music. Brief, passing motives throughout the movement return in later pieces, such as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances (listen to the flute and clarinet lines at 18:06 and the four note motive at the end of the fugue section at 20:30).

The opening of the third movement shows us all of its cards up front, embracing us with an expansive statement of the movement’s main theme before moving away. This theme returns in the final movement at a moment when we least expect it. One of my favorite passages begins at 29:36, as the music reaches increasingly higher toward its climax. Listen to the way the horn line soars above the strings.

The final movement explodes with joyful exuberance, at moments paying homage to Tchaikovsky. We hear hints of the adventures of the previous movements, and then have a sense of spirited transcendence.

  1. Largo — Allegro moderato 0:00
  2. Allegro molto 16:00
  3. Adagio 24:26
  4. Allegro vivace 35:29

  • Ormandy’s 1974 recording: iTunes, Amazon
  • Ormandy’s 1959 recording: ArkivMusic
  • Ormandy’s 1951 recording: iTunes
  • Charles Dutoit’s 1995 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra (excerpt)

Piano Concerto No. 3

This 1939 recording features Rachmaninov performing the Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 30, No. 3 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto 0:00
  2. Intermezzo: Adagio 13:50
  3. Finale: Alla breve 22:26

Vocalise

Rachmaninov conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for this 1929 recording. Here is Rachmaninov’s orchestral arrangement of Vocalise, Op.34 No.14:

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Here is a December 24, 1934 recording featuring Rachmaninov performing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with Leopold Stokowski conducting:

Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha

George and Ira Gershwin
George and Ira Gershwin

 

A pop song about the prominent violinists of the day? It seems hard to imagine now. But around 1921 George and Ira Gershwin wrote Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha, a lighthearted ditty about four great Jewish Russian violinists who were well known at the time: Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel, and Sascha Jacobsen. The lyric also refers to “Fritz” (Kreisler) and the legendary teacher Leopold Auer. According to biographer Charles Schwartz, George Gershwin enjoyed playing the song at parties whenever one of the violinists who inspired the title was present.

Heifetz needs no introduction, but who are the others? Born in 1891, Mischa Elman is remembered for his rich, golden tone, expressive portamento, and tendency towards Romantic phrasing which occasionally bent the rhythm. Here is his recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. Here is a 1954 recording of Elman performing Dvořák’s Humoresque. 

Toscha Seidel’s solo career was, perhaps unfairly, overshadowed by Heifetz. But we can hear the passionate intensity of his playing on recordings like this 1945 live performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Seidel eventually settled in California and became a studio soloist for Hollywood films. Listen to this music from the 1939 film Intermezzo which starred Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman.

Sascha Jacobsen is another violinist whose career was overshadowed by Heifetz. In his book Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz claims that Jacobsen was born in New York in 1897 and that his manager tried to turn him into a “Russian fiddler” for publicity purposes. In the 1940s he served as concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was the teacher of Zvi Zeitlin. Here is a 1913 recording of Jacobsen performing Handel.

And now here is the Gershwins’ humorous snapshot of early twentieth century violin history:

Two Nights on Bald Mountain

From Disney's Fantasia
A scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which popularized Night on Bald Mountain with a version by conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Modest Mussorgsky’s 1867 tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain was inspired by an old Russian legend which was turned into a ghoulish short story by Nikolai Gogol. The story centers around witches, black magic, and events which you might expect in the most grisly horror movie.

Here is Mussorgsky’s description of the musical program for Night on Bald Mountain:

Subterranean din of supernatural voices. Appearance of Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the god Chernobog. Glorification of the Black God, The Black Mass. Witches’ Sabbath, interrupted at its height by the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village. It disperses the Spirits of Darkness. Daybreak.

The popular version of Night on Bald Mountain we hear performed most often was as much the work of fellow Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as Mussorgsky. Following Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov reworked the score, which he found promising but unwieldily in its original form. He made a similar revision of Mussorgsky’s sprawling opera, Boris Godunov.

Listen to Mussorgsky’s original score, and you’ll hear the extent to which the two “versions” are actually completely different pieces. Mussorgsky’s score may lack the structural refinement and polished orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but it rumbles with a uniquely terrifying, hellish energy.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most influential orchestrators of the nineteenth century. As you listen to the clip below, notice the ways instrumental voices are combined and the resulting sense of color. For example, listen to the unique texture created by the combination of string tremolos and pizzicatos around the 0:35 mark, and the following splashes of color in the cymbals. Notice the personas which emerge from the clarinet and flute solos in the “daybreak” music at the end. Throughout this passage (beginning at 7:40), the repeated, almost hypnotic bass pizzicatos suggest a distant, ominous funeral procession, subtly reminding us of the terror of the night. Listen to the shimmering purity of the final chord, as it alternates between strings and woodwinds, evoking a colorful sonic kaleidoscope.

Russian nationalism is central to both versions. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were both part of a circle of five composers (“The Russian Five”) who were dedicated to the promotion of a distinctly Russian style of music. Regarding the composition of Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky wrote in a letter,

The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St. John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me … I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like Savishna, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.

What qualities make this music, or any music, sound uniquely Russian? Folk music is a starting point. While there may be few overt folk references in Night on Bald Mountain, there are occasional ornamental grace notes which suggest eastern folk influence (for example, 1:56 in the woodwinds). This type of ornament pops up throughout Russian music, even in the flute line at the end of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. 

Another detail which feels distinctly “Russian” is the repetition of a small melodic fragment while the music around it changes (Listen at 2:47 and notice the ascending brass scale which follows, something we hear in Tchaikovsky).

Here is the Rimsky-Korsakov version, performed by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein:

Now it’s your turn…

Now that you’ve heard both versions, which one do you prefer and why? If you can’t decide between the two, what aspects of the music do you find most interesting? Share your thoughts in the comment thread below.

Borodin’s Nocturne

Philadelphia stringsThe music of Russian romantic composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) is filled with stunningly beautiful melodies. One example can be heard in the third movement (Nocturne) of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2. Let’s listen to a recording by the Emerson String Quartet. Consider the unique personality of each voice of the string quartet and notice the way the voices interact, creating a musical conversation. Pay attention to harmony and inner voices. Each time the melody returns, Borodin puts it in a slightly different harmonic package:

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Did you hear the canon between the violin and cello, and later the two violins, in the passage starting at 4:54?

Repeating a melody (often a folk song) in slightly different harmonic and contrapuntal “packages” was a common technique for Russian composers. You can hear this in Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, written in 1881, the same year as the Second String Quartet, and in the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony. 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Ormandy and the Philadelphia Sound[/typography]

Now, let’s hear Borodin’s Nocturne played by the full string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. For many years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive string sound…unusually dark, rich and lush. Some have attributed the origin of the sound to Ormandy’s predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, who conducted without a baton. This 2000 New York Times piece by James Oestreich offers more on the history of the “Philadelphia sound,” and raises questions about the extent to which an orchestra should hold onto a unique style versus adapting to the style of the composer. Listening to the lush, shimmering perfection of this classic recording, it’s easy to forget that debate entirely:

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