Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, opus 27

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born in Oneg, Russia, April 1, 1873; died in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943

One of the most lavishly gifted of musicians, Sergei Rachmaninoff was not only a composer but one of this century's greatest pianists and during his Russian years a celebrated operatic and symphonic conductor as well. But he often found his multiple talents more curse than blessing. As he explained, "When I am concertizing, I cannot compose. When I feel like writing music, I have to concentrate on that — I cannot touch the piano. When I am conducting, I can neither compose nor play concerts. … I have to concentrate on any one thing I am doing to such a degree that it does not seem to allow me to take up anything else."

In 1906, the urge to compose predominated. But first Rachmaninoff had to extricate himself from his post as conductor at Moscow's Imperial Grand Theater and the hectic social life that came with it. To secure the serenity he needed for creation, he moved his family to Dresden, Germany, where he lived virtually incognito for the next three years. The fruits of this self-imposed exile included his First Piano Sonata, the brooding tone poem The Isle of the Dead, and his Second Symphony.

Composing this work required laying some demons to rest. In 1897, Rachmaninoff's First Symphony had had a disastrous premiere in St. Petersburg; the brutal reviews it received almost scuttled his composing career for good. Thus, he was very secretive with friends and the press about what he was up to in Dresden, even flatly denying he was working on a symphony. "I give my solemn word — no more symphonies. Curse them! I don't know how to write them, but mainly I don't want to." But in fact the Second Symphony was drafted at high speed in the final months of 1906, then painstakingly revised and orchestrated throughout 1907. Rachmaninoff returned to Russia to conduct its premiere in St. Petersburg on January 26, 1908; its unqualified success finally vindicated his powers as a symphonist.

Soviet music critic Konstantin Kuznetsov has called this work the "Russian Lyric Symphony" — "so direct and sincere are its themes, and so naturally and spontaneously do they develop." Indeed, the Second draws its power and popularity from Rachmaninoff's talent for creating ardent, emotionally compelling melodies. "Music must first and foremost be loved," he once said. "It must come from the heart and it must be directed to the heart. Otherwise it cannot hope to be lasting, indestructible art."

The first movement grows from its opening phrase, played quietly by cellos and basses. This motto idea — an upward sigh of a half step, sinking back into a curling four-note tail — spawns all this movement's themes and also underpins the entire symphony. The violins immediately spin it into a swirling melody. The music of this slow introduction reaches a peak of emotional ardor before the English horn leads smoothly into the main Allegro section. Above rocking clarinets, the violins introduce the principal theme, itself more lyrical and expansive than most symphonic first themes. A dramatic transitional passage provides necessary contrast before Rachmaninoff presents his even more lyrical second theme, with melancholy woodwind sighs and a soaring violin melody. Solo violin launches the development section, which explores the dramatic potential of the opening motto idea. We only realize we are safely home from this turbulence when the woodwind-violin second theme reprises its tender melancholy.

The second-movement scherzo is as vigorous as the first movement was languorous. Throughout his career, Rachmaninoff used the stark, down-and-up "Dies irae" chant theme from the Catholic rite for the dead as a leitmotive; here, it is hidden in the horns' boisterous opening theme. Yet in the midst of this movement's manic energy, there is time for another luxuriant Rachmaninoff tune for the violins. The middle trio section features a ferocious string fugue, so testing it is included on orchestral auditions for aspiring violinists and violists. The remarkable ending has a demonic edge, as the brass intone a sinister chorale, derived from the "Dies irae" and the symphony’s opening motto idea.

The Adagio third movement is luscious, heartfelt melody from beginning to end. The most famous is the violins' upward sighing phrase at the beginning. But this is only introduction to the solo clarinet's long-spun-out melody. A plaintive dialogue among solo oboe, English horn, and strings fills the middle section; this music recalls nostalgically the themes of the symphony's slow introduction.

Rachmaninoff opens the finale with a wild tarantella dance. A wry march for woodwinds provides a second thematic strand. And the third theme is the last big lyrical melody for violins, the most sweeping of them all. The exposition closes with a reminiscence of the third movement’s upward-sighing music. In the development section, listen for one of the work's most extraordinary passages: a long crescendo of downward scales in different speeds for the various instruments. This is a dazzling recreation of the pealing of Russian church bells: a sound Rachmaninoff loved as a child and recalled in many of his works. The coda offers a grand reprise of the violins' big tune and finishes in a blaze of Czarist splendor.

Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014