Joe Ward on Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873—1943): Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

“Rachmaninov was made of steel and gold; steel in his arms, gold in his heart.”

Rachmaninov is seen as the last great figure of the tradition of Russian Romanticism and was a leading piano virtuoso during his lifetime. In his youth he was a student of piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatory, studying piano under Nikolai Zverev, graduating aged 19 in 1892. His fame and popularity, both as composer and concert pianist, were launched by two compositions: the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, played for the first time in public on September 26, 1892, and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, which had its first performance in Moscow on October 27, 1901.

Rachmaninov’s second symphony was composed during 1906 and 1907, and first performed in Saint Petersburg on January 26, 1908. This came over a decade after the disastrous 1897 premiere of his first symphony, which sent Rachmaninov into a depression that took four years to break out of. The scars created by this ordeal drove him away from the idea of a second symphony. However, by the autumn of 1906 enough confidence had returned for him to begin, in secret, to compose a second symphony and Rachmaninov conducted the work at the Saint Petersburg premiere in January 1908, with great success. The symphony won the Glinka Prize of 1,000 roubles that year and quickly made the rounds of the major orchestras of the world.

Despite its success whenever it was performed it was extensively cut, usually reducing it in length from an hour to between thirty-five and forty-five minutes. Before 1970 virtually only the cut version was performed; since then orchestras have used the full version almost exclusively.

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov and his family left Russia and settled in the United States. With his primary source of income now being from piano and conducting he devoted most of his time to performance, only completing six works between 1918 and 1943. These included Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances. He died in the spring of 1943, four days before his seventieth birthday.

During his lifetime Rachmaninov’s work was often seen as unfashionable and dated, and he was often regarded as a much greater pianist than composer. Rachmaninov’s great Russian contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, for example, never could stomach the music or the man, even when they were neighbours in Los Angeles. However, now, as Rachmaninov always hoped, it is his music and not his piano playing that keeps his name alive. The Second Symphony has become one of Rachmaninov’s best loved works and has far surpassed his other two symphonies in popularity.

The Symphony

Duration: approx. 60 minutes

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 3 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, strings

1. Largo – Allegro moderato

The first movement begins with a seven-note motif, played by the lower strings, which then frequently reoccurs thought the entire symphony. The long introduction reaches its climax, and a cor anglais solo, which leads the movement into the first subject of its sonata form. The first subject is based on the original motif. A relaxed and expressive secondary theme on G major provides some contrast before violin and clarinet solos mark the start of the development, where the movement modulates through multiple keys. The recapitulation begins unusually, the first subject returns over a dominant pedal. The pedal only resolves at the second subject which returns in the key of E major. Rachmaninov adds much greater expansion to the second subject, in comparison to when it was first heard in the exposition.

2. Allegro molto 

Rachmaninov reverses the Classical order of a symphony’s interior movements by putting the scherzo (Allegro molto) before the slow movement. The movement follows an ABACABA form and begins with a lively ostinato played by the upper strings that unexpectedly makes way for a broad, lyrical melody.

The Dies Irae motif is referenced by the horns from the third bar into the movement, with that theme returning throughout. Rachmaninov’s interest in the Dies Irae motif suggests symbolic interest in the Day of Judgement and subsequently religion.

The central trio begins with a fugue launched by the second violins. After the return of the scherzo, Rachmaninov introduces the same Dies irae chant melody that he also cites in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

3. Adagio

The third movement begins with a short violin gesture, which soon passes over the melody to a clarinet solo. The clarinet solo is long, but seems never to repeat itself. Once the solo is over, the clarinet hands back over to the violins, who grow the melody even further in dynamics and range.

The second part of the movement is based on the initial motto theme of the symphony. After a transition back to the opening theme, the central melody of the movement is restated, this time played by the first violins, while fragments of the opening theme are heard in the accompaniment. The movement concludes in a tranquil fashion, dying away slowly in the strings.

4. Allegro vivace

The final movement is also written in sonata form. It begins with the whole orchestra playing a fanfare- like melody, that soon dies away into a march-like melody.  The development section builds with an astonishing passage of descending scales, falling at different speeds and from differing heights. The recapitulation begins to set the stage for the triumphant final section of the movement. Melodies from all movements can be heard throughout the recap, with woodwind lines singing above the unrelenting strings. A brief but excited coda ends the work, leading to an exciting and emphatic conclusion.

Joe Ward, Divisions