Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

The drunk conductor who ruined Rachmaninov’s career

The disastrous first performance of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony has cast a long shadow over the work

Would musical history have turned out differently if Alexander Glazunov hadn’t been smashed out of his wits when he conducted the first performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor? The best of Glazunov’s own neatly carpentered symphonies hover on the verge of greatness. Perhaps if he hadn’t been such a toper — swigging from bottles of spirits during lectures at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he was director — they would do more than hover. Unfortunately, his drinking didn’t just screw up his own career.

The 23-year-old Sergei Rachmaninov had spent two years working on his first symphony, whose climaxes erupt from melodic cells borrowed from Orthodox chant. Not that Glazunov would have noticed. He barely glanced at the score before the premiere. On that fateful evening in 1897 he conducted ‘like a zombie’, according to one account. The orchestra was all over the place. Poor Rachmaninov hid on a spiral staircase while it was going on and then ran into the street to escape the catcalls.

Russian Composers
Composer, conductor and drunk Alexander Glazunov. Photo: Getty

Posterity doesn’t lay all the blame at Glazunov’s door. The conventional wisdom is that, even in a fine performance such as Ashkenazy’s with the Concertgebouw, the work is a sprawling mess, exciting in places but basically one of music’s shipwrecks.

Nonsense. Yet again I find myself turning to Mark Morris, whose Methuen Guide to 20th-Century Composers (350 of them, expertly dissected) is one of four indispensable surveys of the music of the last century, the others being Norman Lebrecht’s enchantingly bitchy Complete Companion to 20th Century Music, Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise and Ivan Hewett’s Music: Healing the Rift. Don’t get me started on what a scandal it is that Morris is out of print, though if you hurry you can find it second-hand on Amazon.

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