Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28
- Allegro moderato
- Allegro molto
by Sergei Rachmaninoff
- Buy "Bach and Rachmaninoff," Greg's solo CD featuring this work.
“Nobody will ever play this composition. It’s too difficult and long..."
- Sergei Rachmaninoff
Such are the words of a deeply sensitive, depressed, and self-critical composer in 1906. In a letter to a friend, Rachmaninoff elaborated, “Two days ago I played the sonata for [Oskar von] Riesemann, and he doesn't seem to like it. I've begun to notice no matter what I write lately—nobody likes it. And I myself often wonder; maybe it is all nonsense." While his desolation may have colored his music (nearly everything he wrote during these years was in the minor mode), we, the listeners, are the beneficiaries. The so-called "nonsense" composed during this period includes his Second Symphony, The Isle of the Dead (a symphonic poem), and his Third Piano Concerto, all in addition to the First Piano Sonata.
Rachmaninoff's inspiration for the sonata was Liszt's Faust Symphony. While the programmatic elements are more overt in Liszt's composition, the three movements in both works are musical portraits of prominent characters from Goethe's Faust: Faust himself, his lover Gretchen, and the devil Mephistopheles, respectively. Rachmaninoff remained hesitant to reveal the programmatic nature of the work, even after its Moscow premiere in October 1908. The pianist, Konstantin Igumnov, was informed only after he played the sonata two more times that it was inspired by the famed legend.
The audience at the premiere was reportedly interested but confused. After examining the score, Russian critic Yuli Engel declared that “unraveling this tangle of passages, rhythms, harmonies, polyphonic twistings, is no easy matter, even for an accomplished pianist." Engel's assessment is spot on: the piece is akin to a freakish hybrid of the 2nd and 3rd piano concertos in which the pianist plays both the solo and orchestra parts simultaneously. Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff's prophecy was ultimately proved false; the work has been a staple in the repertory of several great pianists and was performed repeatedly by Rachmaninoff himself.
Despite the well-known technical difficulty of the piece, its three essential motives are deceptively, almost unreasonably simple: fifths, scales, and repeating notes. Rachmaninoff manages to depict something as complex as the human soul using the most limited of building blocks, and it is in this that his genius is truly revealed.
Greg's brief (and freewheeling!) guide to Rachmaninoff's First Piano Sonata
0.00 | Motive #1: rising and falling fifths, presented (with little adornment) as a series of questions and answers. The theme of "questioning" remains omnipresent throughout; after all, the movement is a character study of Faust, a dissatisfied intellectual yearning for "more than earthly meat and drink."
0:32 (veiled), 1:18 - 2:27 | Motive #2: scales, both ascending and descending. Throughout the work, scales take on new contexts and new meanings. At times they swirl beneath the surface, fabricating dizzying textures. Elsewhere, and often simultaneously, they guide the melodic material, insufficiently striving toward goals that are rarely reached, pushing and pulling, upwards and downwards, a struggle between heaven and hell.
2:28 | The third and final motive: a single note, repeating. As presented here, it's the closest thing we have to a melody in the movement. One note, over and over... and over again, with the occasional detour up or down. It's no coincidence that this "melody" sounds something like a Russian Orthodox chant; it's as if Faust is intoning a prayer, pleading to see beyond the curtain that separates God from man.
3:15 | A blending of motives: the repeating note begins a scalar ascent, the chant-like melody increasing in desire... or desperation.
4:05 | A scale presented in its most straightforward and unavoidable state, heralding a return to the first motive and the sonata form's "development" section.
4:31 - 8:00 | Cascading scales of varying speed and direction whirl upon one another (supplemented by abundant fifths and repeating tones), creating a musical vortex, like a disoriented Faust hopelessly searching for the zenith of human happiness, until…
8:00 | …the first significant climax of the piece is reached. The conclusion to the development is an epic and overwhelming statement of the chant-like theme heard at 2:28. The music then slowly elides into the "recapitulation" of the sonata form.
9:27 | The restatement of previous ideas proceeds at a condensed, more urgent pace, including Faust's prayer. Heard here, the theme begins in an already heightened state and only aims higher and higher and higher until...
10:16 | …a fierce crash of chords. Every motive (fifths, scales, and above all, repeating tones) comes together in an intense shockwave of sound. The simplest of elements collide against one another violently, much like the simple ingredients of an earthquake bear their destructive consequence. It is the desperation of a man willing to sell his soul to the devil.
10:54 | The bleakness of D minor yields dramatically to D major. The remainder of the movement basks in a wearied radiance, scales and then repeating tones, all over undulating fifths.
12:34 | The final chant and scales give way to the ultimate resolution: the questioning fifth has become an answer.
0:03-0:08, 0:09-0:17, 0:21-0:25 | Three sets of falling fifths. The motives here are the same, but the persona has changed.
0:25 | Gretchen, Faust's love interest, is the epitome of beauty and innocence, and Rachmaninoff paints her divine soul through an accompaniment of rolling fifths and a layered melody. Her prayers are conveyed by pleading pairs of repeating tones and upward leaps (by fifths, of course) that reach idealistically toward the heavens. Is this an objective portrait of Gretchen, or is it Gretchen as seen through Faust's eyes?
1:28 | Outlined in the upper voice, a slow and otherworldly scalar ascent appears as only Rachmaninoff could compose. Finally the scale peaks at 1:47, after which it falls back and rises again, and again, in all its resplendent bliss.
2:20 - 4:38 | Faust... Rachmaninoff... we all become lost in Gretchen's intoxicating perfume, perhaps to our demise, as the music ultimately implodes in a cloud of notes, scales, and fifths.
4:38 | Where are we? Was it a dream? Rachmaninoff leads the listener back to the recapitulation via quasi-minimalist wanderings and multiple, overlapping sets of falling fifths.
5:32 | A near repeat of the music heard earlier, ascending scales and all, but one that takes Gretchen (and the listener) to transcendent heights, climaxing when...
7:18 | ...the music erupts in rapturous bliss, Gretchen in her most hallowed state. (Incidentally, Gretchen's life is all but destroyed at the hands of Faust and Mephistopheles, and she and Faust ultimately consummate their "love." Accordingly, this passage could be interpreted very differently.)
7:18 - 8:25 | An incredible descending scale, over a minute in duration, takes everyone back to earth in a poignant denouement.
0.00 | Falling fifths pronounce the ride to hell has begun. It is unclear whether Rachmaninoff sought to faithfully chronicle the conclusion to Goethe's tale (in which Faust is saved) or adhere to the original legend (in which Faust lands squarely in hell). My own instincts, swayed by the overt references to horses and the terrifying finale, lean toward the latter. Hector Berlioz’s music drama, The Damnation of Faust, was also inspired by Goethe’s tale, though he too chose the more conventional ending.
In any case, the third movement is Rachmaninoff's personification of Mephistopheles in all his bravura, galloping headlong into the wind with Faust at his side. Slow rising and falling modal scales orient the fiery pianistic effects, comprised of fifths undulating wildly.
1:31 | A tolling bell announces a new theme: wavering scalar descents constructed of repeated notes in a lilting rhythm. This fusion of motives calls to mind the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) Gregorian chant, a theme Rachmaninoff utilized in all three of his symphonies.
2:31 | Here we see Mephistopheles' swagger on full parade in a passage that sounds as if it were lifted directly from Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto.
3:13 | Finally, the first (and only) soaring, singable, and entirely Rachmanoniffian melody of the piece (based on the scalar motive, no less). Has Mephistopheles helped Faust discover the zenith of human happiness? The climax at 4:01 (scales!) is as glorious as any Rachmaninoff composed.
4:36 | The point of view shifts unmistakably to that of Faust in all his uncertainty as the music returns to a theme heard at the onset of the first movement.
5:00 | My favorite passage of the piece: the music becomes suspended as Faust's life flashes before his eyes. The melody is vaguely reminiscent of the central theme heard throughout Gretchen's movement.
6:12 | Mephistopheles pulls Faust back in line. At 6:46, the Dies Irae chant tyrannizes the bass, impelling the music to the recapitulation.
9:15 | If 3:13 wasn't the zenith of human happiness, surely this is. Its consequence is great: at 10:58, Faust's life flashes before his eyes for the last time, and at 11:28 we hear Faust slowly come to accept his fate. The music sinks... scales, fifths, and repeating tones expressing the unfathomable: the deal is up. Faust's soul is handed over to the devil.
11:48 | The furies take him as the Dies Irae theme spirals downward into hell.
12:54 | A contender for the most horrifying passage in all of music: repeating tones gone utterly unhinged. The chant heard in the first movement has become a futile shriek for mercy; Faust's prayer goes unanswered, and at last he is consumed by flames (of undulating fifths!).
— Greg Anderson