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Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Quick Look Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
© Paul Laki

It is an intriguing thought that Leó Weiner's Serenade and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony are exact contemporaries. They represent two very different sides of late Romanticism: the light and elegant touch of the Hungarian composer is light-years removed from the Russian's dramatic progress from turmoil to triumph.

Twelve years older than Weiner, Rachmaninoff was already well established as a composer in his native Russia in 1906. But he was going through a deep personal crisis during the first decade of the century, following the fiasco of his First Symphony in 1895. Even after the resounding success of the Second Piano Concerto in 1901, Rachmaninoff did not feel entirely secure as a composer. Finally, in October 1906 he took the radical step of taking a leave of absence from the Imperial Theater where he had been serving as an opera conductor, and moved to Germany with his wife and baby daughter, to devote himself to composition full time. The Second Symphony was written in Dresden, as well as at the Rachmaninoff family estate in Russia where the composer returned during the summer. Premiered in St. Petersburg on February 8, 1908 under the direction of the composer, the symphony was well received, confirming Rachmaninoff's position as Russia's leading young composer.

Rachmaninoff was careful to follow the textbook rules of symphonic composition while placing the unmistakable imprint of his unique personality on every movement, every theme of the work. The symphony opens with a Largo introduction whose main motif, first presented by the cellos and basses, will recur in varied form throughout the four movements. The main features of the motif are a stepwise motion (first ascending, then descending), and a rhythmic pattern with ties across the barline. This material dominates both the lengthy introduction and the subsequent main section of the movement. First soft and subdued, the main theme is gradually transformed, through variation and development, and reappears forte played by the full orchestra. A second melodic idea is based on an alternation between woodwind and strings, and brought to a climax, only to fade back to pianissimo at the end of the exposition. The beginning of the development section is marked by the return of the main theme as a violin solo. The theme is soon taken over by the clarinet, and turned into fast-moving figurations in both winds and strings. After a new emotional high point, the recapitulation begins, concentrating on the second theme, which appears in E major. The coda, however, reverts to E minor, the main tonality, and brings the movement to a ringing close.

The second movement is a scherzo that also has a contrasting second theme as sonata movements do. Its main melody is played first by the horns and then by the violins against a lively rhythmic background. The second theme, without being a direct quote of the first movement's main idea, shares with it a stepwise motion and its characteristic rhythm. It is followed by a return of the first theme. The Trio also contains two distinct materials: the first is played staccato (short, separated notes) by the violins, while the second, with brass and percussion as the protagonists, is a special mixture of a march and a church hymn, with unexpected off-beat accents. A return to the first tempo brings back both themes of the main section, but the movement closes with some reminiscences of the march from the Trio.

The third-movement Adagio begins with an expressive violin melody followed by a clarinet solo in the mold of the symphony's earlier themes in stepwise motion. A third idea, played by the first violins, receives a counterpoint from the other strings and the woodwinds, and leads back to the first theme, now heard in a full orchestral fortissimo. The middle section starts very softly with english horn and oboe solos. A new climax is reached, soon to recede into a decrescendo and, finally, a long silence. In the recapitulation the first theme is re-introduced by the horn. The other two ideas also return, in richer orchestration than before, and contrapuntally combined with parts of the first theme. Like the second movement, the third also ends with an allusion to material heard in its middle section.

The Finale (in E major) starts with a fanfare-like theme played fortissimo by the entire orchestra. It is followed by a transition section for horns, timpani and double bass, which leads into a march for winds (not unlike the one heard in the second movement). The main theme returns, then gives way to a broad melody, eventually winding down to pianissimo chords over a long-held pedal. After a short recall of the third movement's main theme, a development section begins, with mostly new melodic ideas, amogn which a descending scale gains increasing prominence. The recapitulation brings back the fanfare, the march, the broad melody, and the descending scale, combining them all in the symphony's triumphant ending.