Rachmaninoff: Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor

There is really no better demonstration of the passing on of the generational torch than between Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 with the highest honor in composition, the Great Gold Medal. Tchaikovsky had become something of an unofficial mentor to the dazzling young composer-pianist, using his influence to further performances of Rachmaninoff’s works. After a meeting in the fall of 1893 Tchaikovsky, deeply impressed with his young colleague’s productivity, lamented that “I, miserable wretch, have only written one Symphony!” (Then again, that “one Symphony” was the Pathétique, hardly a trivial accomplishment.) Sadly, the two artists were never to meet again; Tchaikovsky died from cholera several weeks later.

It would be difficult to overestimate the magnitude of Tchaikovsky’s influence on Rachmaninoff—so much so that it’s tempting to describe Rachmaninoff as “Tchaikovsky 2.0.” However, that is not to imply that Rachmaninoff was a mere copy of the celebrated Russian master; he was very much his own man, artistically, stylistically, and personally. Nevertheless, a Rachmaninoff who grew up in a Tchaikovsky-free Russia would have been a very different composer.

The single-movement Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor dates from Rachmaninoff’s graduation year of 1892, although it was not published until 1947, well after Rachmaninoff’s death. Clearly inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, itself a lament for his early mentor, pianist Nicolai Rubinstein, the work teems with that melancholic lyricism that was to become such a hallmark of Rachmaninoff’s mature style.

Consider the very opening. The string instruments play a hushed, frosty figure that seems to grow out of the darkness, then the piano enters with a broad but distinctly sorrowful theme that encapsulates the very heart of the Russian muse. The strings eventually pick up the piano’s phrases in a fine solemn procession. A major-mode secondary theme adds a surge of ardor; a grandiose closing theme is marked by massive flourishes in the piano set against unison statements in the strings. So far all seems to be proceeding according to the established principles of sonata form, but then altogether new material is introduced and worked through, almost as though we’ve entered a new movement instead of the usual development section. Normality is re-established via a formal recapitulation, in which the primary, secondary, and closing themes are restated but with appropriate adjustments of key. A coda pays further homage to Tchaikovsky’s A minor Trio by restating the original primary theme as a funeral march.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(May 2019)