The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
© Thomas May

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) made a rather more dramatic departure than his compatriot Prokofiev from the revolutionary chaos of his homeland in 1917, when he made his away across the border to Finland on an open sled, along with his wife and daughters. And he would remain an exile for the rest of his life. Yet well before this life-altering situation came to pass, before the First World War had even begun, a note of deep underlying melancholy can be heard in such works as the Second Symphony - a note which seems almost to foretell the permanent condition of homesickness that would become his fate.


We are fortunate to have this score, one of Rachmaninoff's best-loved works - along with the rest of his mature oeuvre, for that matter, since he came close to foreswearing composition as the result of the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in the spring of 1897. César Cui, influential as a member of pioneering "The Mighty Five" nationalist composers who had helped define Russian music over recent decades, wrote a vicious review: "If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a program symphony on the ‘Seven Plagues of Egypt,' and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell." (Imagine Cui having access to internet comments.)


Not surprisingly, the fiasco did some long-lasting damage to the young composer's confidence. Music history attributes much of the blame to incompetent preparation by the alcoholic conductor (and fellow composer), Alexander Glazunov. In an ironic twist, Glazunov had successfully led the premiere of Rachmaninoff's earlier symphonic poem The Crag (also known as The Rock). Tchaikovsky himself, who championed the emerging teenage composer, was so impressed by this earlier score that he asked Rachmaninoff's permission to conduct it but died before he could do so.


A dose of therapy (including, some speculate, a blossoming love for his therapist's daughter) and a breakthrough with his Second Piano Concerto, which premiered in 1901, turned things around for Rachmaninoff. Still, in the aftermath of the First Symphony's failure, he refrained from introducing any new symphonic work for years and had channeled much energy into his career as a performer (both at the keyboard and as a conductor). In 1906 Rachmaninoff decided to move the family to Dresden (with summers back at his wife's peaceful estate in western Russia) so as to focus more intensely on composing - at a safe remove from the demands of concert life back in Moscow.


This is the context out of which emerged the Second Symphony, which he composed in secret between the fall of 1906 and the spring of 1907 (a decade after the First). Rachmaninoff led the premiere in early 1908 in St. Petersburg, winning a decidedly popular and critical triumph. It further inspired Rachmaninoff to carry on with another of his most ambitious and impressive orchestral works, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, as well as the Third Piano Concerto.


An indication of at least some degree of newfound confidence Rachmaninoff felt while composing the work in secret can be found in its ambitious dimensions. The original version lasts about one hour (or ever more, depending of course on the conductor's choice of tempi). On the other hand, the composer's lingering doubts are clear from his declaration that he was finished with writing symphonies: aside from The Bells (his extraordinary choral symphony from 1913 to the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, which occupies a genre all its out), in fact he would refrain from attempting the genre again until 1935. What's more, a "tradition" of conductors making substantial cuts became part of the Second Symphony's reception history (in some cases to as much as one-third of the original), with no apparent protests from Rachmaninoff. In more recent years it has fortunately become the default choice to trust the integrity of the composer's vision and perform the work unabridged, as we hear in this performance.

Rachmaninoff's expansive conception is soon made clear by the first movement, the longest of the work. The linear, close-lying notes of the pensive motto theme in the slow introduction echo the sensibility of Orthodox chant. This music is played initially by low strings: from it emerges much of the thematic material Rachmaninoff will develop in the work. The introduction yields to an Allegro moderato as the violins spell out a lengthy theme, launching us on an epic journey.

The move to Dresden brought with it more exposure to the latest music by figures such as Richard Strauss, whose epochal Salome had premiered at the Dresden Court Opera in late 1905. Flashes of Tchaikovsky, whom the youthful Rachmaninoff had idolized, merge with hints of Strauss's brilliant orchestration.  (He had been wowed by Strauss's provocative opera Salome, which had recently premiered in Dresden.)

The ensuing Scherzo is an unusual movement in Rachmaninoff's work: "next to the Scherzo of The Bells," according to biographer Geoffrey Norris, this is "the most vigorous orchestral piece he composed." The persistent gesture of the strings accompanies a subliminal allusion to the Dies irae (invoking the Day of Judgment and most famous from its presence in the Requiem Mass). This medieval chant tune endlessly fascinated  Rachmaninoff, to the point that he made references to it a signature. The main Scherzo material is contrasted with a lyrical melody given to the strings and a thrilling passage of fugal writing filled with the sort of harsh humor that would later be perfected by Shostakovich. The Dies irae is forthrightly stated in the coda.

Rachmaninoff's gift for melody shapes the violins' rhapsodic expression at the start of the Adagio, which introduces the movement and binds it together; a solo clarinet sings out the main theme proper. That sense of longing mentioned above, tinged with homesick nostalgia, endows this music with stirring power (which the composer's critics dismissed as "outdated Romanticism").  The English composer and scholar Patrick Piggott observes that the central section introduces a "note of questioning...much as lovers might demand from one another...repeated assurances of undying affection."

Also unusual within the larger context of Rachmaninoff's oeuvre is the E major finale, a movement of  infectious exuberance and variety. Echoes of Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger - another work that had greatly affected the composer - might be discerned in its momentum. One of Rachmaninoff's best-known melodies later leaves its indelible imprint. A snatch of the Adagio is reprised in the developmental mix, which leads to a thrilling climax of falling scales, all descending at different rates. The recapitulation after this "bell music"  makes way for the famous melody to have its grand say. Rachmaninoff rounds off this vast work with all the gestures of a "victory symphony."