'I wrote it for elephants,' Sergei Rachmaninoff told Vladimir Horowitz, according to Horowitz, after hearing the younger pianist storm through his Third Piano Concerto, to his utter amazement ('He swallowed it whole!'). This occurred in the famous basement warehouse of the Steinway piano firm in 1928, right before Horowitz's American debut (playing the First Concerto of Tchaikovsky, who was to Rachmaninoff what Rachmaninoff was to Horowitz: model, god, and patron).
In English, Rachmaninoff's comment sounds as though he were genially mocking his masterpiece, the way composers will. Stravinsky once told Vladimir Ussachevsky, a younger Russian composer in America, that he wrote The Rite of Spring 'with an axe.' Yes, we know 'Rach 3' is heavy; yes, we know The Rite is crude - and in both cases, if that's all you hear you are hearing nothing. But of course, Rachmaninoff was speaking Russian, and in Russian the word for elephant (slon) has a different set of resonances. It conveys not ungainly heaviness but weightiness, which is a sort of grandeur. To say 'I wrote it for elephants,' in Russian, is to say 'I wrote it for heavyweights'; or better, 'I wrote it for champs.'
The first champ for whom Rachmaninoff intended the concerto was himself. He wrote it at the very height of his powers and (for him a crucial matter) self-confidence as pianist and composer - and conductor, too, although that is not one of the talents posterity remembers. In his day, the young Rachmaninoff was a major orchestra director. He was a staff conductor at the Moscow Bolshoi Theater from 1904 to 1906; among the operas he led there were a pair of his own, Francesca da Rimini (after Dante) and The Miserly Knight (after Pushkin), in a double bill. And he was offered the directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during his first American tour in 1909-10.
It was for that American tour that Rachmaninoff composed the Third Concerto, starting work on it almost immediately after the première of his symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead in May 1909, and finishing it by early fall. It had its first performance in New York, on 28 November 1909 (repeated 30 November) with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch; on 16 January 1910 Rachmaninoff was back in New York to play the concerto again, this time in Carnegie Hall with New York's other orchestra, that of the Philharmonic Society, under its then permanent conductor Gustav Mahler. An anonymous reviewer reported in the next day's New York Times that
'… on this occasion the favorable impression it had made when it was played before was deepened. It is more mature, more finished, more interesting in its structure, and more effective than Rachmaninoff's other compositions in this form. The first theme of the first movement, very Russian in its spirit, is extremely beautiful, and the finale is inspiring, with its succession of nervous rhythms and its noble coda.'
The Times's description of the concerto jibes well with its subsequent reputation. It has never been Rachmaninoff's most popular concerto. That was always, and remains, the Second, with its hit-tune finale. The Third is not for everybody. Certainly not for every pianist - just ask David Helfgott, the protagonist of the movie Shine, whose famous filmed and fictionalized encounter with the fearsome piece brought it briefly into the maelstrom of popular culture, which gave critics a new reason to despise 'Rach 3' on top of all the old ones that had, almost from the beginning, beset its reception.
The Times' reviewer put his finger on the problem when he called attention to the concerto's 'interesting structure.' Its departures from the conventions of sonata form, as commonly found in the standard concertos, have often been held against it. The reviewer had it right, though. The formal eccentricities are what give the concerto its wonderfully special character. They reflect the ebullient high spirits Rachmaninoff must have felt when composing it, despite having to work 'like a convict' (as he put it in a letter to a friend) in order to finish it in time for his tour—an ebullience one feels despite the outwardly melancholy character that Rachmaninoff so avidly cultivated as a trade-mark, especially in fashioning his long, drooping melodies, so instantly recognizable as his.
The first movement deploys the famous, very quiet opening theme with superb originality. It both begins the movement and ends it, and comes in the middle to mark what the textbook would call the beginning of the development section. But what the theme's recurrences really mark are the onset and completion of two enormous waves that reach ecstatic peaks that mirror on the compositional level what Rachmaninoff always averred as a performer: that there is one place toward which everything in a composition converges, and it is the performer's job to find it and bring it to fruition.
It is not difficult to find the climaxes in Rach 3, but only a champ can put them in the proper perspective. The first climax is accompanied by the full orchestra and is followed by a miraculously sustained and graded subsidence (over more than sixty measures) that only a composer schooled to past-mastery in counterpoint could have devised. The second climax manages to surpass it, however—and does so without the help of the orchestra, in the course of the most heroic cadenza Rachmaninoff (or anybody?) ever composed, clearly setting out from, but just as clearly outstripping, the one in the first movement of Tchaikovsky's great concerto. It brings the quiet first theme to a delirious acme in the major key before the wind instruments enter one by one to waft the piano down from cloud nine. It is a shape unique among concertos, and it owes its shape to its reliance on champs. That, of course, has always been bait for critics, the paid puritans of the press, who have always been virtuosophobic even as they make a fetish of difficulty, because true virtuosity - the virtuosity of champs - makes light of difficulty and in doing so commits the deadly sin of arrogance.
But as the Times reviewer astutely reported, the first movement's grandeur is surpassed by the 'noble coda' in the finale, in which a theme first heard as a heavy rhythmic pounding that merely seems to mark time between more salient themes is brought to what seems an endlessly mounting zenith through an exciting harmonic progression (derived, it would seem, from the one in Wagner's 'Liebestod,' which shared the program with it in 1909) that continually announces, and continually defers, the final cadence. Owing to the history of the concerto form, the first movement is almost always the weightiest one, with the finale, if successful at all, succeeding through such contrasting virtues as lightness or wit. Rachmaninoff's are among the few concertos that are truly end-weighted. That, of course, is why they elicit such rapture from audiences and such censure from the paid puritans.
The weight of the finale in the Third Concerto is enhanced by recycling the first movement's themes, the way composers often did in serious late-nineteenth-century symphonies like Franck's D minor or Dvořák's New World, or, a little in advance of them, the Fifth by the worshipped Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff had done it himself in his Second Symphony. But neither Tchaikovsky nor Rachmaninoff had previously applied the device to a concerto, thought to be a lighter, shallower genre. Recycling themes was one of the ways in which Rachmaninoff reserved his Third for champs.
Alongside the interesting structure, the Times reviewer singled out the 'extremely beautiful' opening theme, which is made to bear so much of the concerto's structural weight despite its calculated quietness. Many have noticed what the reviewer called the theme's 'very Russian' spirit; and thereby hangs one last tale worth telling about 'Rach 3.' An organist and musicologist named Joseph Yasser, who had studied at the Moscow Conservatory a couple of decades after Rachmaninoff's time there, and who after the revolution joined Rachmaninoff in emigration (working many years as the organist of New York's Temple Emanuel), thought he detected a resemblance between the famous opening theme and a particular liturgical chant sung at the Cave Monastery in Kiev. He wrote to Rachmaninoff in 1935 asking him whether he had (1) quoted the medieval tune outright, (2) deliberately modeled a theme of his own on the style of Orthodox chants, or (3) was unconsciously influenced by such chants when writing his theme. Yasser, you will notice, left no room for Rachmaninoff to disavow the influence; and this, no doubt, is why Rachmaninoff so categorically did disavow it, writing to Yasser from his villa on Lake Lucerne:
'You are right to say that Russian folk song and Orthodox church chants have had an influence on the work of Russian composers. I would only add, 'on some Russian composers'! As far as whether the influence is 'conscious' or 'unconscious' (the latter being in your view the 'more substantial' possibility)—that's a hard one to answer. This is a dark matter! . . . The first theme of my Third Concerto is borrowed neither from folksong nor from ecclesiastical sources. It just 'got written'! You will probably ascribe this to 'unconscious' influence! If I had any intention at all when writing this theme, it was simply a matter of its sound. I wanted to 'sing' a melody on the piano the way singers sing, and to find an appropriate orchestral accompaniment for it, or more precisely, one that would not drown this 'singing' out. That's all!'
Yasser, needless to say, would not take no for an answer. He published his side of the story, long after Rachmaninoff was safely dead, in a rather preposterous article wherein he insisted that, even though he himself had found the chant in question in a published book, Rachmaninoff must have heard it in Kiev, in 1893, only sixteen years before writing the concerto.
It is unlikely that anyone will find Yasser's argument plausible by now (especially anyone who has actually read his 'proof,' which atomizes the two melodies into fragments so small that they could demonstrate the relationship of any theme to any chant). But scarcely more plausible is Rachmaninoff's point-blank denial of his theme's 'very Russian spirit,' especially when you compare it with the themes of his other concertos, or the other themes in the Third, which would never have prompted Yasser to pose his questions.
There is, of course, another point to consider: the fact that Rachmaninoff wrote his concerto for performance in America. It was always when writing for foreign consumption that Russian composers of Rachmaninoff's or younger generations were at their most Russian-sounding. Was this a 'conscious' or 'unconscious' calculation? In the case of Stravinsky's ballets we have ample documentation of how conscious a decision it was. It was a business decision, and it was made by Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes.
Without wishing to incite the paid puritans to renew their attacks, I would suggest that Rachmaninoff's decision to make his Third Concerto more Russian-sounding than his Second was likewise a business decision—not that this need in any way detract from the famous theme's undeniable and, in the trustworthy words of the New York Times, extreme beauty.