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Narrativity in Rakhmaninov – An interpretation of the second movement of Symphony No. 3

Sergei Rakhmaninov’s three symphonies occupy a central place in the composer’s output, and are frequently performed. Yet there exist only a few extensive musicological works on them, which focus mainly on form, thematic development and tonality. This article considers one of Rakhmaninov’s symphonic movements from another viewpoint: Many listeners have been moved by the nostalgic wistfulness of the second movement of the third symphony (1935–36). How can this feature be traced in its layout? Influenced by Caroline Abbate’s views on narrativity in instrumental music, the author demonstrates that the movement develops through alternations between a narrator situated on the outside of the course of events, remote ”memory pictures”, and sections with an elegiac character. Thus the movement is structured in such a way that one gets the impression of changing points of view as well as alternation between different temporal planes as in literary narration.

Keywords:Rakhmaninov, narrativity in music, symphony

Sergei Rakhmaninov (1873–1943) is currently one of the Russian composers that are most frequently performed in the West. This has not always been the case. When I first became acquainted with his music about forty years ago, even his main works were not all available on record. Today, more or less every note he ever wrote has been recorded, including the music he wrote as a young student at the Moscow Conservatory, early versions of revised works (such as the first and second versions of the fourth piano concerto) and unfinished compositions, such as the opera Monna Vanna. Rakhmaninov research has also increased significantly in the last couple of decades: Robert Palmieri refers to 375 works related to Rakhmaninov and his music (Palmieri 1985); in Robert E. Cunningham, sixteen years later, this number had increased to 1,207 (Cunningham 2001). While Rakhmaninov’s music was formerly regarded with scepticism or directly underrated in certain musical circles (for complex reasons that it would take too long to discuss here), it now appears to have become an acceptable object of research.

Nevertheless, there are still many areas that have not been addressed. In particular, several of his larger works deserve close study from perspectives other than the ones that have been used so far. They include the three symphonies (D minor op. 13, 1895, E minor op. 27, 1906–07 and A minor op. 44, 1935–36).1 There are only three extensive western studies of these works (Collins 1988, Janse van Rensburg 1988, Cannata 1999).2 I have not come across a major Russian work devoted solely to Rakhmaninov’s symphonies, although Irina Bobykina (1979) deals fairly thoroughly with the third symphony. Apart

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from these studies, there are many shorter discussions of the symphonies in musicological articles and biographies aimed at a broader readership. The extensive studies mentioned above concentrate on the structural (“intra-musical”) elements – form, harmony, tonality and thematic development. But there are other aspects of these works that deserve more in-depth study. For instance, it would be interesting to study Rakhmaninov’s orchestration in the light of more recent methods of analysing texture and timbre, particularly the highly sophisticated third symphony. As far as I know, no one has attempted to do this. It would also be useful to see more detailed studies of the composer’s models and sources of musical influence in the symphonies, both to put them into a historical perspective and to reveal possible intentional inter-textual references. Apart from Valeriya Bryantseva (1976, p. 214–241), who considers possible sources for the themes in the first symphony, the musical influences in the symphonies are discussed only sporadically in Rakhmaninov literature. While other factors in addition to tonal and thematic unity constitute each of these works in their entirety, they have not been much discussed. Gregory Karl (1993) maintains that studies of cyclical instrumental works have suffered under “an almost obsessive and myopic preoccupation with the tonal-harmonic aspects of musical structure”.3 Starting from structura-list theory, Karl develops an analytical model based on conflicts between the main themes of the work. He applies this approach to five non-programmatic, multi-movement 19th and 20th century instrumental works where the motifs and themes are transformed from one movement to the next. One of them is Rakhmaninov’s second symphony.4 As far as I know, Karl is the only researcher so far to have closely analysed a Rakhmaninov work as a kind of plot.

I am unlikely to be the only person to have been enchanted by the nostalgic, wistful atmosphere of the second movement of Rakhmaninov’s third symphony. This movement contains many fascinating details that can be identified in the score, but when we attempt to describe the movement as a whole using traditional structural analysis, it is as if the expressive aspect of the music evaporates. In this article, I intend to try to describe the movement from a narrative perspective, since I believe that this approach is more likely to shed light on what makes the movement as a whole so enthralling. This article is divided into three parts, where I will first, briefly explain what I mean by the ambiguous term musical narrativity, second, consider the movement from the point of view of structure, and thirdly, employ a structural description for the basis of a narrative interpretation.

Musical narrativity – an attempt at definition

I should emphasise that in this article the term “narrativity” is discussed in relation to instrumental music, and preferably to “absolute” music that has no indicative title or extra-musical programme – such as Rakhmaninov’s symphonies.

Under the influence of fairly recent literary theory (e.g. Gerard Genette’s influential Discours de Récit, 1972), many efforts have been made to interpret musical works as narratives. The authors have afforded the term “musical narrativity” very varying con

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tent, and some have even doubted whether musical narrativity exists at all. I do not intend to repeat this extensive debate here; the various positions are discussed in works such as Vera Micznik 2001. If we apply the criteria used to define a narrative in literary theory to music, it becomes clear where the problems lie.5 Firstly, a narrative is characterised by at least two events taking place along a time axis. This also happens in music, but music is too semantically ambiguous for it to be possible to specify these events in further detail. Secondly, a narrative is a “recounting” of certain events, although it is doubtful whether music can represent anything other than a resounding present. Thirdly, a literary narrative has a genuine or fictitious narrator’s voice. In instrumental music it is not so easy to locate such a voice. And, fourthly, literary narrative theory operates with two different structures; the “narrative” /“discourse” (the actual text) and the “story” (the content of the narrative). In a piece of music it is difficult to identify – or rather construct – a story level. In her widely discussed book Unsung Voices. Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (1991), Carolyn Abbate initially points out that almost all music can be described as narrative if the definition is so broad that it covers any sequence of musical events. In her discussion of musical narrativity, she strongly emphasises the second and third of the above-mentioned criteria. She believes that music cannot have narrativity unless the discursive formulation creates distance. Such distance does not exist if you assume that the work is isomorphous with certain extra-musical phenomena.6 Abbate only speaks of musical narrativity if it is possible to give a positive response to the question “Does music have a way of speaking that enables us to hear it constituting or projecting events as past?”7

If we apply Abbate’s criteria, musical narrativity is a rare phenomenon that is found in very few works. But without such criteria, it may seem as though much of what has been described as narrative music has more in common with another literary genre, namely drama. In the same way as a play, music is performed for the audience in the present, so the difficult question about the location of the narrative voice and whether music can narrate in the past becomes less relevant. Furthermore, dramatic metaphors are very often used in connection with music, both in academic circles and in less formal contexts. But they can also be meaningless if they are applied to all kinds of music. I agree with Russian musicologist Tatyana Chernova (1979), who believes that the main characteristics of musical dramaturgy8 are that they imbue the work as a whole, that the work displays consistent thematic development, and that the musical ideas enter into some kind of conflict with each other. This type of musical dramaturgy flourished in the 19th century, with Beethoven leading the way, and continued into the 20th century.

During the Soviet period, Russian musicologists invented a special term for Russian symphonic music with an ostensibly narrative quality, calling it epic symphonism (as opposed to “dramatic symphonism”). The term was probably first used by Mikhail Gnesin in three articles in Sovietskaya muzyka in the years 1948–1950, and is also used by Yury Keldysh and Aleksei Kandinsky. Borodin’s second symphony is regarded as a typi

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cal example of this trend (while Chaikovsky’s last three symphonies, on the other hand, represent “dramatic symphonism”). The Russians use the term epic symphonism to describe symphonic music which, for example, has a calm, gradual development, gives rise to many pictorial associations, and contains archaisms that may conjure up a distant past. However, Russian musicologists do not discuss music’s ability to narrate something in the past, where the music’s narrator may be located, or whether musical narrative also depends on the existence of a story level. It seems as if Russian musicologists have not concerned themselves with such narrative issues, or rather, that Russian musicology has been little influenced by recent western literary theory.9

In this article, I distinguish between musical narrative and musical drama by using Abbate’s and Chernova’s interpretations of these terms. In other words, I believe that consistent development and some kind of conflict in the material are prerequisites for being able to call an instrumental piece a musical drama. A musical narrative may also contain dramatic elements, but the conditions for musical narrativity are different. As with narrative literature, music must be structured in such a way that it is possible to distinguish a narrative voice or point of view, to discern movement between several temporal planes, and perhaps also to experience distance between the discourse and the story. Another prerequisite is that our perception of a piece of music as a narrative must not only be the result of the listener’s attitude and way of hearing it. It must also be possible to define the narrative element in the musical structure itself. I therefore consider the narrativity of a piece to be an immanent characteristic that it is possible for any attentive listener to discover.

Structural description

Rakhmaninov’s third symphony has three movements (1. Lento-Allegro moderato. 2. Adagio ma non troppo. 3. Allegro). In terms of structure, the second movement is not a traditional Adagio, since it has a quick, contrasting middle section. This section can be said to compensate for the absence of a separate, scherzo-like movement in the work (cf. the scherzo-like section in the Adagio movement of the composer’s third piano concerto). The overall progression of the movement can be illustrated as follows: A (Adagio ma non troppo) – B (Allegro vivace) – A’ (Tempo come prima). The B section introduces new thematic ideas, but fragments from the thematic material in the A section turn up sporadically (see below). A’ contains all the most important elements from the initial A section, but in concentrated form and in a different order (A lasts for about six minutes, while A’ lasts for about half this time).

A. Adagio ma non troppo (bar 1–89, up to rehearsal no. 47)10

In contrast with Rakhmaninov’s other slow movements, such as the Adagio movement in the second symphony, there is no long-drawn-out theme here. Instead, this section is built up of many fairly short segments, which on first acquaintance with the movement

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may seem to have very little in common with each other. This somewhat fragmented impression is intensified by the fact that the various segments are very different in timbre and texture.

The movement begins with the symphony’s “motto theme”, played on a solo French horn, accompanied by a distinctive series of chords on the harp.11 (See example 1.) The first ten bars can therefore be said to have an introductory function. The “motto” has C sharp as its pitch centre and contains only notes from a Phrygian trichord (B, C sharp and D). Against the “motto”, the composer sets a number of ninth and eleventh chords on the harp (C sharp Phrygian: iv9 –III11–VI9 etc., later with alterations). The upper voice in the harp chords forms a stepwise rising and falling line, which proves to be a connecting element later on in the movement.

From bar 10, the solo violin presents a new theme (bar 10–14), hereafter called theme 1, which comprises a falling sequence of broken chords (not identical segments). (See example 2).

Example 1. “Motto theme”

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Example 2. Theme 1

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The main key of the movement (the key in which it begins and ends) is ambiguous. David B. Cannata insists the key is F sharp minor, while Dana Livingston Collins, for example, believes the tonic is C sharp.12 This divergence is due to the fact that Cannata views the key in the light of the tonal plane of the work as a whole (he regards the beginning and end of the movement as a dominant region of F sharp minor), while Collins’ perception of the key is more “localised.” The advantage of the latter interpretation is that the tonality can be linked more closely to the character and style of the movement. More precisely, the key in about the first thirty bars is C sharp minor with Phrygian colour (with the second step lowered) and often Picardy thirds at I. The Phrygian element in the work was pointed out as early as in 1947, in an article by Vladimir Protopopov, who incidentally regarded it as a typically Russian characteristic. 13 Theme 1 is completed in only five bars. The harp then plays exactly the same series of chords as in bar 2–10, this time as an accompaniment to new “motto” fragments in the violins. In bar 26–29, we hear a series of arpeggiated triads in the violins, which recur later on in the movement. These figures seem to make the previous atmosphere fade away, and prepare the ground for a new segment.

The next subsection, bar 29–49, is introduced by theme 2 on the solo flute (example 3), in which the first eight notes are a “rhythmatised” version of the harp’s upper voice in the introduction (ex. 1).

Example 3. Theme 2

The theme emerges against an unusually beautiful backdrop of harp, celesta and four solo violas. In bar 35–39 we find the same thematic and textural disposition, but with a totally different timbre: theme 2 is now played on the bass clarinet, while the violas are replaced by relatively high-pitched, muted trumpets. Bar 30–39 consists only of (diatonic) parallel seventh chords, which gives rise to some doubt about the basic key. In bar 39–40, the tritone relationship between the dominant seventh chords on E and B flat suddenly moves the key in a clearer direction – towards E flat minor. There is now a short, rising sequence based on the first six notes of theme 2 followed by a rapid diminuendo (bar 40–49). This is one of the few examples of traditional thematic development in the movement. In these bars, the music for the first time comes close to being really forceful due to the rising sequence, intensified sound and clear key-tonal harmony, with many leading tones. In bar 48–49 the music calms down with an authentic cadence in E flat minor. The Phrygian element is still present as a diminished fifth in the dominant chord (F flat in the violins in bar 48).

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Theme I returns in bar 49. Bar 49–54 corresponds to bar 10–15, but is transposed up a major second (to E flat minor), with new orchestration and a few minor melodic and harmonic changes.

The next subsection bar 55–82, seems to be an intensified version of bar 29–49, where theme 2 is introduced and developed. The rising intensity in bar 67–75 is analogous to bar 40–45, but more expansive and polyphonic. For example, the beginning of theme 2 in “normal” note values in the first violins (bar 68ff) is combined with a diminished version in the woodwind and trumpets. Instead of ending on the F minor chord on the first beat of bar 79 – which is equivalent to the final E flat minor chord in bar 49 – Rakhmaninov now expands this subsection with a three-bar stepwise falling sequence and ends up in C major as the “local” key in bar 82.

Theme 1 is heard again in bar 82–85, but only in the form of a brief reminiscence of the first bar, played twice on the cor anglais over a dissonant background of seventh and ninth chords in parallel chromatic movement, plus a concluding bar. Here, the key can be defined as either C major or C minor with a Picardy third on I. Thereafter (bar 85ff), we hear similar triad figures to those in bar 26ff, but this time they are intensified by rising sequences, which lead straight into the B section.

Finally, to summarise the A section of the movement: this section alternates between two different melodic ideas, which I have called theme 1 and theme 2. If we call the theme 1 subsections a and the theme 2 subsections (and the development of motifs from this theme) b, we can schematically describe the form as Introduction-a1b1a2b2a3, i.e. the theme 1 subsections function as a ritornel in a rondo-like form. The key progression moves upward in major seconds, from C sharp minor/Phrygian via E flat minor to F minor, and finally its dominant, C major. The key in the final a3 segment therefore becomes the dominant of the main key in the following B section, which is also F minor.

B. Allegro vivace (bar 89–253, rehearsal no. 47 – up to rehearsal no. 68)

On the basis of its musical character and themes, this section can be divided into three parts: firstly, a short scherzo-like part and then a longer march-like part, which is thereafter repeated with slight variations. In other words, the form can be illustrated schematically as cd1d2 (in order to avoid confusion with previously-used letters). The march parts in d1 and d2 are the longest ones, and they can in turn be divided into two halves.

c, bar 89–118: this delicately instrumented subsection is of an athematic nature and may be regarded as an introduction to the powerful theme of the subsequent march. The various triplet figures help to drive the movement forward. The tonal direction in the first few bars is unclear, but Rakhmaninov fairly quickly (from bar 97) anchors the movement in a pedal point on C – the dominant of the F minor in the following march.

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d1, bar 119–174: the subsection starts with a new thematic idea, theme 3 (bar 119, rehearsal no. 51). See example 4.

Example 4. Theme 3

This theme is march-like, with subtle, ambivalent, rhythmic organisation (which overrides the 3/4 time signature). The third and fourth bars of the theme contain the same alternating seconds as the “motto” (see example 1), whether intentionally or not. As mentioned before, the key is a fairly clear Aeolian-coloured F minor. After the theme follows a build-up subsection (bar 135 ff), where the metre for a while changes to a less ambiguous C. Four-bar segments with a characteristic oblique motion are repeated in different keys and with increasingly active counter-voices. In bar 163–167 there is a dynamic increase in intensity and sound (in a way, the triplets in the various voices seem to enter in stretto). After the percussive climax in bar 167–170 everything suddenly calms down before theme 3 is played again, introducing d2.

d2, bar 175–253: as mentioned before, this subsection is a varied repetition of d1. The first eight bars of the march theme are now played in E minor by flutes, oboes and celesta, but the key is jerked back to F minor in the second half of the theme (bar 183–191), which is played by the strings. In the second half of bar 206 we have reached the point in the discourse that corresponds to bar 155. Thereafter, the piece develops differently than in d1. A short, rising sequence in bar 207–212 leads to a formidable cluster of fanfare-like fourths and fifths in full tutti in bar 215–217, a dominant seventh chord on G with a fourth suspension (G7sus4) being the harmonic foundation. This chord functions as a dominant to the equally violent C major complex in bar 218–222. After a rapid diminuendo there follows a series of short, rising chromatic figures on various instruments. When this figure is augmented and “diatonised” on the celesta in bars 231–232 and 235–237, it gives rise to associations with the harp’s upper voice in the introduction to the movement. This becomes even more apparent in bar 237–241, when there is a rising and falling melodic movement along the octatonic scale, with parallel diminished seventh chords (similar to Rimsky-Korsakov), which gives the music an ambiguous tonal direction. We then hear the actual series of chords on the harp (bar 245–253), identical to bar 2–10. At the same time, we hear the ostinato C sharp-D-C sharp-B in the woodwind – the same notes as in the “motto” at the beginning of the movement. These bars form a tonal link to the third part of the movement.14

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A’. Tempo come prima (bar 253–281, rehearsal no. 68–70, bar 7)

It is, perhaps, not quite correct to describe this section as a “concentrated” version of the A section; it is rather a matter of reminiscences of central ideas. As a whole, this section can be perceived as a dominant region belonging to F sharp minor, or as C sharp minor/Phrygian with Picardy thirds on I in the last seven bars.

In the first four bars, the transitional bars 85 to 88 are “clipped” in, but now transposed up a minor second. Bar 257–265 contains bits of b1, but now without the purposeful intensification. Incidentally, the reminiscence technique used here gives rise to certain associations with the last part of Debussy’s orchestral work Nuages. From bar 265, we hear the beginning of a1 – or more precisely theme 1 – played with a fuller sound in the strings than in bar 10ff. In bar 269–275, theme 1 is played again on the solo violin, but now the composer has changed the segments in the sequence so that he can combine the theme with the series of harp chords from the introductory section of the movement. And finally, in bar 275–277, he quotes bar 82–84 (transposed up a minor second and with new orchestration). The clarinet solo is extended by one bar (bar 278), which leads into the three concluding Adagio bars. Here the symphony’s “motto” is played once again, incidentally with the same form and orchestration as in the last five bars of the first movement.

As a whole, this movement is based more on contrasts than on traditional thematic development: the B section contrasts in character with the first and last sections of the movement and introduces new thematic ideas, and in the A section there is a contrast between subsections a and b. Moreover, it is possible to identify a typical Rakhmaninovian fingerprint; avoidance of identical repetitions of longer sections: as mentioned above, the A’ section appears to be a summary of the A section; in the A section, b2 appears as an intensified and expanded version of b1 – and the same applies to the relationship between d2 and d1 in the B section.

A narrative interpretation

Both Russian and western commentators have maintained that the third symphony is one of the composer’s most Russian-sounding works. They have pointed to influences such as old Russian melos, the Balakirev circle, and Chaikovsky. Some believe that the symphony also “has to do with” Russia. Bryantseva writes: “A generalised, but deeply distinctive melody introduces the work. Its meaning comes from the subject “Russia’s fate,” and the composer tries to reveal various aspects of it in each movement of the cycle.”15 As far as I know, no author has carried out a detailed analysis of the symphony in the light of the “Russian theme” or other extra-musical associations. In terms of the article’s aims, a couple of authors have believed they have discovered a narrative element in the second movement. Bryantseva writes that the leitmotif in the first ten bars of the movement is heard “under muffled gusli beats like a calm, wise narrative voice.”16 Bar

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rie Martyn says of the violin solo (bar 10ff) that “as with the violin solos in [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] Scheherazade, it is as though we are prepared for a story,” and from bar 16 “all the violins together begin the narrative over the same harp arpeggios.”17 However, the authors did not pursue these thoughts any further.

I will now provide a few thoughts on the character of the movement. In the first and last sections (A and A’) the dominant mood is elegiac. It occurs in different nuances, from quiet contemplation (e.g. bar 1–9) to more strongly articulated sadness (e.g. bar 46–49). My description of these parts of the movement as elegiac is largely based on musical conventions, such as the slow tempo (Adagio) and the minor keys. Especially noticeable are the many instances of Phrygian seconds in the melody, which are often continued in a cadence towards the first scale degree so that they also create a sospiro effect. (With respect to the semantics of the musical sigh, there is also an isomorphic element, since a falling minor second is the closest it is possible to get to an auditive imitation of a sigh or gasp in the traditional western pitch system, where the octave is divided into twelve equally large semitones). In general, a semantic convention appears to have been developed in the 19th century where the Phrygian scale (the diatonic scale that, apart from the Locrian scale, has the most lowered scale degrees) is used to represent sorrow, while the Lydian scale (the diatonic scale that has the most raised scale degrees) is used to represent excited joy (cf. the Lydian element at the conclusion of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse or Skryabin’s fifth piano sonata). These scales have probably been allotted such meanings because they can be linked to a more general use of metaphor which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980: 14f) call orientational metaphors. In this spatial category of metaphors we find precisely the up-down polarisation. They point out that it is usually the case that “happy is up” while “sad is down” (“My spirits rose” but “I fell into a depression”). Metaphors such as these are rooted in both physical and cultural experience.

The middle section of the movement (B) is a marked contrast in terms of character. As I pointed out in the structural analysis, this section may be said to have a scherzo-like function in the work as a whole. In the introductory subsection c we find several generic conventions for the scherzo – a rapid tempo (Allegro vivace), a triple metre and light, colouristic orchestration. The capricious mood – the surprise element – is dominant throughout subsection c, which is obviously scherzando in nature. The capriciousness is maintained in the following subsections d1 and d2, although these are heavier. The mood of the movement therefore moves from the elegiac (the A section) to scherzando (the B section) and back to the elegiac (A’). This observation is not necessarily interesting in itself, but this progression of musical moods is significant for the interpretation of the movement’s narrative element.

In most of his other symphonic movements, Rakhmaninov conforms and remains loyal to formal paradigms and standards for tonal progression. In this movement, the form is freer in terms of both thematic and tonal development, which paves the way for

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narrativity. My basis for describing the movement as a narrative is that it is structured in such a way that the listener gains an impression of both different points of view and alternation between several temporal planes. I have identified five elements in the movement that play a special role in creating this impression. All five occur in the A section of the movement, or more precisely in the first 49 bars (up to rehearsal no. 41). I will therefore consider this section in more detail than the rest of the movement.

The first element comprises the introduction to the movement (bar 1–10), example 1. In terms of style, this segment may conjure up associations with the distant past due to the horn’s oscillations within a Phrygian trichord – a typical stylistic archaism. This segment bears a striking resemblance to the beginning of the Andante movement of Alex-ander Borodin’s second symphony (1869–76), where we also hear a horn solo accompanied by chords on the harp, and where the horn theme is characterised by pentatonic melodic movement and the avoidance of leading tone functions. In Borodin, the atmosphere of “the olden days” is clearly intended (he is reported to have said that the movement depicts the skald Bayan playing on his gusli). For listeners who are familiar with Borodin’s Andante, this may therefore reinforce the impression of temporal distance in the introduction to the Rakhmaninov movement. In my view, the function of this section is to give the movement a setting, a dominant atmosphere. I will therefore describe this section as the nostalgic framework.

The “nostalgic framework” leads into theme 1 in the violin solo (bar 10–15), the next central element (example 2). Variants of theme 1 occur a total of five times in the movement (see the structural description). I regard theme 1 as the movement’s narrator, who is operating on a different plane. The reason for this interpretation is that the theme has the same role throughout the movement; it is neither developed, nor does it “interact” with the rest of the material (the only exception might be in bar 269–275, where the theme is extended and accompanied by the now familiar series of chords on the harp). It might be argued that the same occurs in many rondos, where material from the ritornel does not occur elsewhere in the movement. But the A section is far from a traditional rondo (I have previously called the form “rondo-like”), and anyway conventional semantic factors also play a role here: in every instance except the penultimate one, the theme is allotted to solo instruments, which, according to long tradition, are often associated with a single individual. Stylistically, this section may also lead us to think of the “recitatives” on the solo violin that occur in each of the four movements of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1888) and which, according to the programme are obviously intended to represent the narrator herself. With the identical repetition of the harp sequence (bar 16ff), we return to the setting of the movement before a new element is introduced in bar 26.

The third element consists of ostinato-like broken triads in the strings, which are heard for the first time in bar 26–30. See example 5, the first four bars in the violins.

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Example 5

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Example 5

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In a structural analysis, these bars could be called “transitional.” In this case, however, the structuring is strange, because there is no obvious purpose in repeating the same C sharp major figure as many as nine times. But it is meaningful if you regard the movement as a narrative: the repetition can arouse associations with a magic formula, a means of bringing the music into a different sphere. In this case, the diminuendo from f to pp also creates the impression of increasing distance in space or time (cf. metaphor theorist George Lakoff, who points out that we have a tendency to perceive non-visual perceptual space as physical space).18 Similar static figures are twice repeated later on in the movement, and have a similar function (bars 85–88 and 253–256). I define these three short segments as a change of scene. This is an example of segments that have been given a subordinate role in the structural description, but now become important because of their semantic implications.

The “change of scene” glides directly into the next element, which I have called memory picture I, bar 29–39. The first six bars of this part are shown in example 5, from the fourth bar. The reason for calling it a memory picture is for the sense of distance that is created here. Firstly, the dynamic is subdued. Secondly, instruments that are associated with great expressiveness, such as violins, are avoided; instead, the unusual combination of solo flute (later bass clarinet), four violas (later muted trumpets), harp and celesta produces a glass-like sound, as if outside human emotions. This part arouses pictorial associations precisely because of the absence of emotional “cues,” and because the impressionistically-coloured parallel harmony provides little progression. It is difficult to say what this static “picture” actually represents. The point is that the composer succeeds in giving the impression of a distant memory.

In bar 40 the music once again becomes extremely present and forward-looking, which is already indicated by the drawn-out dominant chord with a minor ninth that begins in this bar. The section bar 40–49 comprises the fifth element. As mentioned above, it has an emotionally charged, forceful nature, in stark contrast to the previous “memory picture.” It is like being woken up from an enchanting dream. I call this element sad reality. Example 6 shows the last two bars of memory picture I and the first four bars of sad reality (bar 38–43 in the score).

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Example 6

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Example 6

The entire movement is developed by alternating between the three elements; narrator, memory picture and sad reality. The change of scene segments help to give an illusion of temporal change and lead into the two memory pictures. The nostalgic framework provides the setting for the movement. Below is a schematic presentation of the movement from this point of view. Elements from the structural description are in brackets.

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A (Adagio ma non troppo)

b. 1–10. Nostalgic framework (motto theme)

b. 10–15. Narrator (theme 1)

b. 16–25. Nostalgic framework (motto theme)

b. 26–30. Change of scene

b. 29–39. Memory picture I (theme 2)

b. 40–49. Sad reality 1 (intensification, based on motifs from theme 2)

b. 49–55. Narrator (theme 1)

b. 55–67. Memory picture I, varied repeat (theme 2)

b. 67–82. Sad reality 1, varied repeat (intensification, based on motifs from theme 2)

b. 82–85. Narrator (theme 1)

b. 85–88. Change of scene

B (Allegro vivace)

b. 89–253. Memory picture II

A’ (Tempo come prima)

b. 253–257. Change of scene

b. 257–265. Sad reality II (fragments of the b1 segment in section A)

bb. 265–275, 275–279. Narrator (theme I)

b. 279–281. Nostalgic framework (motto)

I regard the entire middle section of the movement (part B) as memory picture II. This is supported by several other authors, who also consider this section to be an imaginary picture: Patrick Piggott imagines “the feverish gaiety of a carnival picture,”19 while Bryantseva believes that “the part turns up and disappears like an evil, fantastic illusion.”20 For Martyn it is as if “in a fantastic dream a brilliantly caparisoned troop of cavalry comes into view and passes by.”21 The change of scene after this eventful and sometimes noisy B section represents waking up to wistful loneliness – sad reality II. When the narrator’s voice comes in for the fourth time in the movement in bar 265, it is played by the entire violin and viola group. In these four bars, the narrator’s voice is given an expressly appassionato character, the only time it seems to be affected by the other “events” in the movement. The last time the narrator’s voice is heard (bar 275–279), it seems more observing again, analogous to bar 82–85.

Rakhmaninov cunningly manages to give the impression of a time span between a present “narrator’s voice” (theme I) and distant “memory pictures” in this movement. In terms of time, the parts I have called “sad reality” must be between the present and the “memory pictures,” although the time cannot be identified more precisely. It is more doubtful whether it is also possible to discern a story level on the basis of this musical narrative, analogous to that found in narrative literature. There are nevertheless certain

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characteristics in this temporal organisation of the movement that indicate an underlying story. The organisation of time in cyclical instrumental works from the 19th and 20th centuries is addressed by Karl (1993). Although he believes that works of this type are closer to drama than to narrative, several of his views are also relevant to a discussion of the Rakhmaninov movement. Karl uses a term from Edward B. Cone – musical persona: in every piece of music “there is a musical persona that is the experiencing subject of the entire composition, in whose thought the play, narrative, or reverie, takes place.”22 Karl believes that personal time (time as perceived by the persona of the piece) and real time (the time it takes to play the piece) are not identical. In his argument, he refers to Brahms’ third symphony, where the beginning of the main theme from the first movement reappears in a transformed version in the final bars of the symphony. This gives a feeling of temporal distance:

The final measures of the symphony are a wistful remembrance or nostalgic contemplation of the first movement’s principal theme as it is transformed in the coda of the opening movement. 23 [...] A nostalgic reminiscence of this sort would be absurd if the moment or period the persona is contemplating is a mere thirty-five minutes in the past. We must therefore postulate a longer span in the experience of the persona, and herein lies the essential argument for expanded personal time.24

If we apply Karl’s views to the Rakhmaninov movement, we can assume that the persona’s subjective time is longer than the time it takes to play the movement, which is only about 12 minutes. With respect to the relationship between narrative time and story time, literary narrative theory has defined four “rhythmic” categories – ellipse, summary, scene and pause.25 The part that I have called “memory picture I” (bar 29–39) can be regarded as a condensed summary of a longer time span in the persona’s consciousness, in other words here the narrative time is shorter than the story time. On the other hand, the second “memory picture” (the B section), with its march idiom, conjures up lively images of a fantastic procession (see above). It can therefore be compared more to a scene, i.e. here story time comes closer to narrative time. I do not intend to pursue these thoughts about the relationship between the narrative time and story time in this movement any further here.26

On the basis of the criteria for musical narrativity and musical drama that I have used in this article, this movement is the only one in Rakhmaninov’s three symphonies that can be called narrative; the other ten movements are, in my view, closer to drama. Abbate may therefore be right in saying that narrative music is “not common coin, but a rare and potentially disruptive mode.”27

In the introduction, I pointed out that one of the things that most impresses the listener about this movement is its atmosphere of wistful nostalgia. The narrative inter

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pretation attempts to grasp this characteristic. Rakhmaninov himself has not said anything about the structure, style or meaning of the symphony in the broad sense. (According to Barrie Martyn, he only smiled without saying a word when Sofia Satina pointed to its Russian character.28) As is known, Rakhmaninov emigrated to the West in 1917 and never saw his motherland again. In his new life in the USA, he sought to maintain a Russian lifestyle, and it has been documented that he often longed to go back to Russia. “Perhaps no others can understand the hopeless homesickness of us older Russians,” he said in an interview in 1933.29 However, it is unlikely to be life in Stalin’s Soviet Union he longed for but life in an old, pre-revolutionary Russia, which was lost forever. In the light of Rakhmaninov’s situation as a Russian exile, it is therefore tempting to regard his third symphony as an autobiographical document. But that’s another story for another time!

Translated by Virginia Siger


Abbate, Carolyn. 1991: Unsung Voices. Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century. New Jersey.

Bobykina, Irina. 1979: Pozdnee simfonicheskoe tvorchestvo S. V. Rakhmaninova. [The Late Symphonic Works of S. V. Rakhmaninov]. Ph.D. dissertation, Moscow Conservatory.

Bryantseva, Valeriya. 1976: S. V. Rakhmaninov. Moscow.

Cannata, David B. 1999: Rachmaninoff and the Symphony. Innsbruck.

Chernova, Tatyana. 1979: Teoreticheskie problemy muzykalnoi dramaturgii. Summary of Ph.D. dissertation, Moscow Conservatory.

Collins, Dana Livingston. 1988: Form, Harmony, and Tonality in S. Rakhmaninov’s Three Symphonies. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Arizona.

Cone, Edward T. 1974: The Composer’s Voice. Berkeley.

Cunningham, Robert E., Jr. 2001: Sergei Rachmaninoff. A Bio-Bibliography. London.

Genette, Gérard. 1980: Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method (transl. Jane E. Lewin). New York.

Guldbrandsen, Erling. 2000: “Musikk og fortellertid. En narrativ analyse av Ole Olsens Asgaards-reien (1878)” [Music and narrative time. A narrative analysis of Ole Olsen’s Asgaardsreien (1878)]. Studia Musicologica Norvegica Vol. 26, 39–74.

Janse van Rensburg, Rensche Jacoba. 1988: Die drie simfoniee van Sergei Rachmaninoff: ’n Analise van strukturele aspekte. Thesis (Magister Musikae), University of Stellenbosch.

Karl, Gregory. 1993: Music as Plot: A Study in Cyclic Forms. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Cincinnati.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. 1980: Metaphors We Live By. Chicago.

Lakoff, George. 1987: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago.

Martyn, Barrie. 1990: Rachmaninoff. Composer, Pianist, Conductor. Aldershot.

Micznik, Vera. 2001: “Music and Narrative Revisited: Degrees of Narrativity in Beethoven and Mahler”. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 126:2, 193–249.

Palmieri, Robert. 1985: Sergei Vasil’evich Rachmaninoff: A Guide to Research. New York.

Piggott, Patrick. 1974: Rachmaninov Orchestral Music. London.

Protopopov, Vladimir. 1947: “Pozdnee simfonicheskoe tvorchestvo S. V. Rakhmaninova” [The Late Symphonic Works of S. V. Rakhmaninov]. In: T. Tsytovich (red): S. V. Rakhmaninov. Sbornik statey i materialov [S. V. Rakhmaninov. Collection of writings], 130–154. Moscow.

1During his student days at the Moscow Conservatory, Rakhmaninov also composed an orchestral movement in D minor (dated 28 September 1891), which was obviously intended to be the first movement of a symphony. Russian musicologists have described this piece as the “Youth Symphony” to distinguish it from Symphony No. 1 in the same key.
2Cannata 1999 appears to be a concentrated version of the author’s Ph.D. thesis at New York University 1992, Rachmaninoff’s Changing View of Symphonic Structure.
3Karl 1993: i.
4The other works are Chaikovsky’s fourth symphony, Franck’s violin sonata, Prokofiev’s first violin sonata and Shostakovich’s tenth symphony.
5See Micznik 2001: 194, 197.
6Abbate 1991: 21ff.
7Ibid: 53.
8Chernova defines musical dramaturgy as “the concrete realisation of the drama” (1979: 10, my transation from Russian).
9During the Soviet period, information about research into the arts flowed slowly between East and West. For example, the West first became acquainted with Vladimir Propp’s important work Morfologiya skazki [Morphology of the Folktale] in an English translation published in 1958 – thirty years after the work was published in the Soviet Union. In the 1960s the book became extremely important to many western anthropologists and structuralists (Lévi-Strauss, Greimas, etc.). Musicologist Anthony Newcomb refers to this book in some of the works he wrote in the 1980s, and it provides a basis for the structuralist-oriented analyses in Gregory Karl’s Music as Plot, published in 1993.
10Score used: Rachmaninoff. Third Symphony A minor Op. 44. Centennial Edition. Study Score. Belwin-Mills Publishing Corporation 1972. The score lacks numbered bars. For the sake of clarity, I have nevertheless referred to bar numbers rather than rehearsal numbers. In addition, I have used rehearsal numbers to locate the three main sections of the movement (A, B, A’) and some of the themes the first time they appear.
11The term “motto” is the composer’s own, written in the draft of the work (but not in the finished manuscript). See Cannata 1999: 125.
12See Cannata 1999: 127f and Collins 1988: 153ff.
13Protopopov 1947: 145.
14I have determined the segmentation between the B section and the A’ section at b. 253 (rehearsal no. 68), where the composer returns to the opening tempo (Tempo come prima). In b. 253–256 come the “evaporating” triads we recognise from the A section, which there mark the transition to new sections. However, the segmentation could also have been set at b. 245 (rehearsal no. 67), among other things because the harp’s chord sequence from b. 2-10 is introduced here. The fact that the segmentation appears to be ambiguous is in itself an indication that the transition to A’ is flexible and gradual.
15Bryantseva 1976: 560, my translation from Russian.
16Ibid: 564.
17Martyn 1990: 338.
18Lakoff 1987: 513.
19Pigott 1974: 39.
20Bryantseva 1976: 566.
21Martyn 1990: 340.
22Cone 1974: 94.
23Karl 1993: 71.
24Ibid: 76.
25Cf. Genette 1980: 93ff.
26In programme music, it is possible to draw more specific conclusions about this issue: in his analysis of Norwegian composer Ole Olsen’s orchestral piece Asgaardsreien (1878), Erling Guldbrandsen (2000) allows the music to be the narrative and Welhaven’s poem to be the story. In this way, he arrives at many interesting conclusions about the relationship between the organisation of time in the music and in the poem.
27Abbate 1991: 48.
28Martyn 1990: 335.
29Quotation after Martyn 1990: 27.
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