ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV, S.: Symphony No. 2 (Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, Bernard)
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
Symphony No. 2, in E minor, Op. 27.
Composed: 1906–7. Première: Moscow 1907.
I. Largo, Allegro moderato,
II. Allegro molto,
IV. Allegro vivace.
Russia has long appeared enigmatic in many respects to westerners. For Americans, the great windows on Russian culture have been literary—Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov—and musical—Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich (Kurt Weill’s song “Tchaikovsky and Other Russians” immortalized by Danny Kaye, lists scores of Russian composers). And it is the Russian Symphony, like the Russian novel, that has become a possession of world culture while still being emblematic of Russian culture. Taking the iconic Russian symphonies chronologically, Rachmaninoff’s second occupies an intermediate place between the earlier symphonies of Tchaikovsky and the later symphonies of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. So while one can grab almost any music history book off the shelf and read that “Rachmaninoff was the last” of the Romantic composers, pianists or conductors, he was not the last of the Russian symphonists, and later Russian symphonies would not pack the same punch without Rachmaninoff’s symphonies not only to sustain, but to epitomize the tradition.
The success of the Second Symphony as Russian symphonic music par excellence cannot be doubted; expect a visceral sense of recognition from the openings of the second and third movements. Yet the symphony was not composed on Russian soil. Rachmaninoff spent two and half years, from 1906 to 1908 in Dresden with his family, and dedicated himself to composition. There he completed the Second Symphony, First Piano Sonata and symphonic poem, Isle of the Dead. He also heard recent German works such as the opera Salome by Richard Strauss and performances by leading conductors and musicians. The sojourn in Dresden did not seem to dampen Rachmaninoff’s performing career. An American tour for which he would compose his Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor was in the planning stages. Nor did it detract from his growing success as a composer: the second symphony received the Glinka Award—1000 rubles—which he won for a third time.
Two works have tended to cast a shadow over the second symphony in different ways. One is the first symphony composed in 1897. Rachmaninoff listened to the première while standing on the fire escape, he would not enter the hall: “the audience reaction was hostile; it was the most agonizing hour of my life!” While all agreed the performance was subpar, in 1933 Rachmaninoff did acknowledge that: “its deficiencies were revealed…with a dreadful distinctness even during the first rehearsal.” In 1902, the popular success of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor would prove to be the great antidote. After the catastrophe of the first symphony, the second symphony appears to be an anomaly: a great symphony by a composer who was not a natural symphonist. The other work is the third piano concerto, which often appeared on the same program as the second symphony, and garnered all the attention. One critic wrote: “The new concerto mirrored the best sides of his creative power.” The second symphony did as well!
While consciously adhering to the conventions of symphonic procedure—four movements with a slow introduction to the first sonata allegro movement, then a Scherzo, Adagio and Finale that summarizes all the movements—the aesthetic is not symphonically abstract, but evocative and vocal in conception. Many orchestral solos are featured in this symphony, each providing its unique coloration and mood. Notable precursors exist in which symphonic pieces express a national character or mood, but few do so with such exuberance, exultation and authenticity as Rachmaninoff.
Rachmaninoff was a musician both in and out of sync with his times. As a multi-dimensional artist who was a conductor of symphony and opera at the Bolshoi, a piano soloist, a composer, a concert artist who toured, collaborated, recorded and broadcast, he was very much a figure of his times. But artistically, in an essay published shortly after his death of melanoma in Los Angeles he wrote:
I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me. I cannot cast out my musical gods in a moment and bend the knee to new ones.
Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky as composers were indeed worlds apart aesthetically, but the source and lineage in Russian tradition is the same tree with many branches.
Instrumentation: three flutes (one doubling on piccolo), three oboes (one doubling on English horn), two clarinets, one bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, glockenspiel and strings.
© Steven J. Cahn, 2011
Steven J. Cahn is Program Annotator of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. He is Associate Professor of Music Theory, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati.