Close Collaborators: Sergei Rachmaninoff and The Philadelphia Orchestra

April 24, 2017

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s exceptionally close, collaborative relationship with The Philadelphia Orchestra began in earnest with his second appearance with the ensemble in March 1919. His first appearance had been in November 1909, during his initial three-month tour of America. Following this tour, Rachmaninoff went home to Russia and did not return to the United States for almost 10 years. When he did, it was as an immigrant exile; he and his family had fled the Russian Revolution in 1917 and had come to America to live a year later. The March 1919 appearance was Rachmaninoff’s first with The Philadelphia Orchestra under its brilliant young conductor, Leopold Stokowski, a champion of new music with whom the Russian pianist-composer-conductor forged a fruitful working partnership.

The two collaborated again the following season, with Stokowski and the Orchestra giving an all-Rachmaninoff program in February 1920, featuring the composer performing his Piano Concerto No. 3 and Stokowski conducting the American premiere of Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony The Bells. Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra performed and recorded with Rachmaninoff many times in the 1920s and 1930s and gave the world premieres of four his compositions: the Piano Concerto No. 4 and Three Russian Songs (the latter dedicated to Stokowski) in March 1927, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in November 1934, and the Third Symphony in 1936.

Sergei Rachmaninoff and Eugene Ormandy confer during a rehearsal, circa 1939. Photo: Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives

The collaboration often went beyond just performing and recording together. Once Rachmaninoff had completed a composition, he would send it to Stokowski and then work with the conductor on fine tuning the piece. In a 1968 interview, Stokowski recalled how this worked and how it led to an unfortunate situation: 

“Whenever Rachmaninoff had finished composing a score he would send it to me and I would study it and begin to rehearse it. When we had rehearsed it enough we would invite him to come to Philadelphia … to listen, and, if it was a piano concerto, to play it with us. But unfortunately when he finished composing he would give it to the printer and then send us the printed parts. When he came to the rehearsal he would wish to change many things because it didn’t sound the way he wanted it to sound, and we would make those changes. … Those changes were written down in my score, and penciled into the parts. But what saddens me is that anyone now who receives a printed score of Rachmaninoff’s music receives it as it was first conceived and not with all the important changes he later made.”

The collaborative relationship continued when Eugene Ormandy was appointed conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936. Rachmaninoff worked closely with both Ormandy and Stokowski during the five-year period from 1936 to 1941 when the latter two shared Philadelphia Orchestra conducting duties. (Stokowski resigned as music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936 and gradually reduced his conducting in Philadelphia over this period before departing completely in 1941.)

In July of 1936 Rachmaninoff wrote to Ormandy asking for help with the string bowings for his recently completed Third Symphony:

“Dear Mr. Ormandy: I have finished my symphony which will be copied and the score ready in early August. I would like to have some help with the bowing … and I wonder whether you would help me with it. It should not take very much of your time and … I will appreciate it very much.”

A letter dated July 11, 1936, from Rachmaninoff to Ormandy, in which the composer invites Ormandy and his wife to visit him at his villa in Lucerne, Switzerland, later that summer so that Ormandy can help him with the string bowings for his recently completed Third Symphony. Photo: Eugene Ormandy Papers, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, & Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania

While Rachmaninoff asked Ormandy for help with the Symphony before it was performed, it was Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra who gave the piece its world premiere in the fall of 1936.

In August 1940, Rachmaninoff again wrote to Ormandy about a new symphonic composition: 

“My dear Mr. Ormandy: Last week I finished a new symphonic piece, which I naturally want to give first to you and your orchestra. It is called “Fantastic Dances.” … I should be very glad if … you would drop over to our place. I should like to play the piece for you.”

The piece was later re-titled Symphonic Dances and was given its world premiere by Ormandy and the Orchestra in January 1941.

Sometimes Rachmaninoff’s rehearsals with the Orchestra resulted in changes to his compositions long after they had been written. In the Orchestra Music Library there is an original conductor’s score for Rachmaninoff’s 1909 symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, with various changes penciled into the score and the composer’s 1942 handwritten note on the first page:

“All corrections in this score and parts have been made by me! Please follow them. S. Rachmaninoff, April 2, 1942.”

Original conductor’s score for Rachmaninoff’s 1909 symphonic poem Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead), with the composer’s 1942 handwritten note that the changes written into the score were made by him and should be followed. Photo: Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives

Rachmaninoff would give his final performance with The Philadelphia Orchestra a month later in May 1942 and would pass away within a year. He died on March 28, 1943, ending one of the closest collaborative relationships between a composer and an orchestra in the history of American symphonic music.

Support for the Rachmaninoff Festival is provided by Tatiana Copeland. Mrs. Copeland’s mother was the niece of Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Tatiana Copeland was named for the composer’s daughter, Tatiana Sergeyevna Rachmaninoff.

This is the third and final in a series of special posts surrounding the Orchestra's Rachmaninoff Festival. To purchase tickets please visit philorch.org.