1895: Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1 in D minor

SUNDAY, September 20, 2020 – 8:41 AM

Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 1 in D minor, age 22

Rachmaninov’s critics did a hatchet on this symphony, and Rachmaninov was so devastated that he went into severe depression for a few years. He never returned to this symphony to revise it. When we listen to this we hear the very fresh ideas of a very young composer who was unmercifully attacked by men, mostly much older, who had reasons for the attack that had nothing to do with the music. There is a lot more to the story, but that’s the important part. And once again it’s the reason I loathe critics.

The symphony was composed between January and October 1895 at his Ivanovka estate near Tambov, Russia. It was utterly rejected in the beginning, and in an almost uniquely cruel ways.

  • Grave—Allegro non troppo, D minor: A short introduction (just seven bars) sets out a theme that is central to the whole symphony. There is something very yearning about the slow theme, and I think there is a lot to like in this long, expressive first movement.
  • 12:59 – Allegro animato, F major: In the time of Beethoven a scherzo-like movement had been established as a 3rd movement to follow the slow movement, but that idea started to be reversed many times. So in both the first two symphonies of Rachmaninov the scherzo-like movement follows the 1st movement. I need to check to see if he did that in his 3rd and final symphony. At any rate, by the time of his compositions the scherzo movement came either 2nd or 3rd, depending on the style and preference of the composer. I tend to like it in 2nd place because it gives a lot of time for a change of tempo and mood for a slow movement before being followed by something fast an furious. However, Tchaikovsky tended to place the scherzo movement or equivalent in 3rd place.
  • 20:41 – Larghetto, Bb major: Again, there is much to like here. I would judge this movement to be very good, so there are at least a couple movements that for me are very fine and are well worth listening to several times.
  • 29:31 – Allegro con fuoco, D major: Bb major to D major is a double moprh and a change I love. There is much in this last movement that is fine, however, I think the ending is weak, and this is the only time I agree with severe critics of this symphony. I once owned a recording, and I remember being shocked at how many times the ending idea repeated. I thought it would never end, and the ending sort of ruins the whole symphony for me, leaving a very bad taste in mouth, so to speak. But I’ve seen rotten endings to movies and TV series, but that would not keep me from enjoying the rest of the ride. So I make a mental note that I want to enjoy the rest and sort of pull the plug. However, I always remember what the world did to young Rachmaninov and how his career was almost ended because of depression. I’ve also read about how critics almost ended Tchaikovsky’s career a few times, and I have to think that an older and more mature Rachmaninov could have and would have rewritten the ending and sort of saved the whole thing. So I blame his heartless critics for the ending.


  • piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 oboes,  2 bassoons
  • 3 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, snare drum, tambourine, tam-tam
  • strings

It took a long time…

Rachmaninoff began planning what would become his 1st symphony in September 1894, after he had finished orchestrating his Caprice Bohémien. He composed the symphony between January and October 1895, which was an unusually long time for Rachmaninoff to spend on a composition.

Eventually accepted…

Despite its poor initial reception, the symphony is now seen as an important symphony that is both very representation of the Russian tradition and an important step in Rachmaninov’s musical development.

More about the disaster of the 1st symphony, and what it did to Rachmaninov…

No story of the the life of Rachmaninov is complete without understanding what happened at the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1897, when he was not yet 24 years old. The event was a colossal train-wreck.

Conservative bias…

Rachmaninov ran into the same kind of block-headed thinking that so often plagued Tchaikovsky. There were several political and musical factions, all warring with each other, and it was a horrible time in Russia for a young composer to develop, and the same kind of stupidity also made life difficult for young Shostakovich.

Alexander Glazunov sunk the symphony like the Titanic…

It was under-rehearsed, and the man who conducted it, Alexander Glazunov, was a horrible conductor. He made cuts to the score and changed some of the orchestration. And worse, he may have been drunk while conducting.

The premiere…

The premiere  took place in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1897, and the disaster that followed stopped the symphony from being performed again until after his death. In 1944, the year after he died, the separate instrumental parts of the symphony were discovered and were used to reconstruct the full score. The symphony’s second performance took place at the Moscow Conservatory on October 17, 1945, conducted by Aleksandr Gauk.

The critics hated his 1st symphony…

This is perhaps one of the best examples ever of poor preparation and terrible reviews from contemporaries. Rachmaninov’s symphony never had a chance. It was not until more than a decade later that finally presented his next symphony to the world, the one here.

The depression almost ended his career.

He was unable to compose at all for about three years. When he left in Russia 1917, the music was lost to the world. Only after his death In 1944 were the separate instrumental parts of the symphony discovered, and they were used to reconstruct the full score. This is the same thing that happened to both Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, among others.

Jealous people often fall upon geniuses like a pack of hyenas…

Think about all this. You would assume from the reviews of the premiere of his 1st symphony that Rachmaninov wrote something horrible, worthless. In fact, we now have recordings of this “horrible” symphony, and it is anything but horrible – quite the opposite. In fact, at another time I may present it and more of its history.

The poison is beyond belief…

There is no end to the stupidity and cruelty of ignorant people, and once again we see just how sadistic and clueless a reviewer can be. César Cui wrote referring to this first symphony:

“If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

This is, of course, not only one of the stupidest things every written about fine music but also one of the most viscous, and it was written by a man who did not have as much talent in his whole body as Rachmaninov had in his little finger.

And that’s how Rachmaninov turned the hate inward as he spiraled down into despair…

Rachmaninov later said that his first symphony was in fact a “weak, childish, strained, and bombastic” work – words as negative as those of César Cui’s devastating opening-night review. The world now has a different view.


I bought this symphony years ago and listened to it many times. I have problems with parts of it, but I consider it a very important work by a young composer, and more and more recordings are being made. So as usual average listeners, over time, make much better decisions than critics.

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