A Repatriated Composer and Two Expats: Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Hindemith

Apr 20, 2017

Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Paul Hindemith: two Russians and a German, one a repatriated son of Mother Russia and two permanent exiles from their homelands. These three important 20th century composers journeyed far from their countries and also lived for a time in the United States.

This weekend, the Columbus Symphony presents a program featuring music by these well-traveled composers.

Prokofiev left Russia in 1918, just as it was becoming the Soviet Union. He lived in the United States for two years before heading off to Paris, where he felt he could better make his fortunes as a pianist and composer.

Rachmaninoff left Russia after the Revolution, settling in America and even becoming a U.S. citizen shortly before his death in 1943.

German composer Hindemith was initially accepted by the Nazi regime when it came to power, but by 1938, he had to leave Germany. He first went to Switzerland, then settled in the U.S. in 1940 and became a citizen in 1946.

Giving up the life of a traveling piano virtuoso, Prokofiev concentrated on composing. He wrote the second Violin Concerto in 1935, just before he returned permanently to the Soviet Union the following year. The work is more traditionally Romantic than his first Violin Concerto from almost 20 years earlier that he composed before leaving Russia. The second concerto premiered in Madrid with a French soloist, and was a great success.

Rachmaninoff was one of the great piano virtuosos of the early 20th century. But he also composed enduring music, including vocal and choral pieces, solo piano works, four concertos, three symphonies and the ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Symphonic Dances from 1940 is the last orchestral piece he wrote and a fitting summary of his orchestral writing.

Composed mostly while living on Long Island, New York, the three-movement Symphonic Dances premiered the following year by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy conducting. It seems to look backward and forward at the same time, with hints of old Russian church music and a creative use of the alto saxophone, an instrument typically more associated with jazz than with classical music. 

Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber from 1943 is his most popular work and a virtuoso showpiece for the orchestra. As the title suggests, the source of inspiration is music by the innovative early 19th century German composer Carl Maria von Weber, but Hindemith turns that source material into something strikingly modern and dynamic in this four-movement suite.

The upcoming Columbus Symphony concert at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday at the Ohio Theatre features violinist Gil Shaham in a program of exciting music by Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Hindemith that was written within a 10-year span during a time of great change and turmoil in the world. It should strike a chord.