Rachmaninoff composed his first symphony in 1895, when he was just twenty two years old although the premier took place on March the 28th, 1897. By this time, Rachmaninoff had already established himself as a virtuoso pianist and a promising composer. He had won the highest ever rating awarded by the Moscow Conservatory to one of its graduates and several of his compositions were being played regularly by leading pianists and orchestras alike.
It took Rachmaninoff well over half a year to compose the symphony. He began in January 1895, where the young composer had been inspired by religious chants at a Russian Orthodox church service.
Despite his arduous toiling on the work, the initial feedback about the score by his then composition teacher Sergei Taneyev was critical; Taneyev suggested that it needed some substantial revision to improve it. However, Rachmaninoff was unable to make any major changes before its first public performance at a concert in St. Petersburg.
The circumstances in the lead-up to the concert was a foreboding prelude to what would be an absolutely catastrophic premier. The renowned composer Rimsky-Korsakov had remarked at one of the rehearsals that he did not find the piece “at all agreeable”, a comment that must have deeply affected Rachmaninoff. However, the main issue would be due to the conductor, Alexander Glazunov; he suffered from severe alcoholism, had questionable conducting skills and had admitted that he was unimpressed by Rachmaninoff’s published works. Before the performance Glazunov had made significant changes to the orchestration of the piece without consulting Rachmaninoff. Additionally, his rehearsals were far too rushed for a concert which would include the premier of two other new works.
Glazunov was said to have been drunk for the infamous premier, where the young Rachaninoff sat in complete despair on the auditorium’s fire-escape listening to an inebriated Glazunov conduct an under-rehearsed and dreadfully interpreted performance of his symphony. The critical reaction to the piece was excruciatingly harsh; it was completely panned by the critics who had attended the concert. Perhaps the worst piece of criticism levelled at the piece was that “If there is a conservatory competition in Hell, this Symphony would gain first prize“. The symphony was not ever publically performed again in Rachmaninoff’s lifetime.
The apocalyptically negative reaction to the symphony sent Rachmaninoff into a long period of depression. He composed barely anything for three years and his mental and physical health plummeted. It was only in 1900 that Rachmaninoff started to recover. An intensive course of hypnotherapy somehow managed to help him recover from his despondency. The first major work after his convalescence was his Piano Concerto No. 2, which received critical acclaim and is now considered one of the greatest pieces of classical music ever.
With hindsight, the consensus today is that the symphony is actually rather good- just that its disastrous premier burdened it with an unjustified reputation. The symphony has a conventional structure as it consists of four movements. The short motif that is heard at the very beginning is a unifying feature throughout the symphony and a variation of it opens each movement. The first movement is fierce and assured. The second movement is a light-footed scherzo with wonderfully colourful lyricism. Following this is the brooding larghetto which has a recogniseable, late-romantic feel to it. The finale brings together thematic elements heard in previous movements in a dramatic and powerful manner. Throughout the symphony one can hear elements of the distinctive style that Rachmaninoff was developing; powerful Russian romanticism, rich harmonies and haunting melodies.