SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27 (1906-07)
I. Largo - Allegro moderato
II. Allegro molto
IV. Allegro vivace
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born on April 1, 1873, in Semyonovo, Russia and died on March 28, 1943 in Beverly Hills, California. Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27 was first performed on January 26, 1908 conducted by the composer in Saint Petersburg. The work is scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and english horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, and strings.
Understanding the immense meaning behind Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, is to study the effects of a demoralizing depression stemming from the critical public failure of his First Symphony (1895), premiered in 1897. That failure was not due to Rachmaninoff himself, but to fellow conductor and composer Alexander Glazunov, who allegedly under alcoholic influence, he was a known imbiber, failed to properly rehearse the work, leading to a disastrous premiere. The young 24-year old Rachmaninoff would suffer a three-year nervous breakdown and undergo psychological therapy. The trauma would scar the composer’s self-confidence for the remainder of his life.
It would take over a decade for Rachmaninoff to once again broach the symphonic form. Success of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) and his marriage to pianist Natalia Satina in 1902 would offer much needed courage. He composed three symphonies in his life time, and the Second Symphony was the last symphony to be composed in Russia before immigrating to the United States of America in 1818 following the Russian Revolution. Work would begin in Dresden, Germany in 1906 and he would complete the work upon returning to Russia the following summer. Learning from past experience, the composer himself took up duties to conduct the premiere in February of 1908.
The symphony in someways, can be framed as an autobiographical essay, from the composer’s battle with depression in the first two movements, a love story in the third, and a celebratory triumph over adversity, a wedding with a looming revolutionary uncertainty in the fourth.
The large 60-minute symphony begins with an extended 5 minute introduction (Lento), setting a barren and icy cold E-minor soundscape. The bass and cellos are the first steps in the journey, introducing a stepwise motive that will weave itself through the movement, and cycle through the entire work. The ghostly and wispy strands of 8th note gestures, first in the violins, cascade though the orchestra into a tapestry that exemplifies the sweeping orchestration of the composer’s rich style. After an english horn solo, a gust of string tremolo leads to the exposition proper of the Allegro moderato. A pair of clarinets and a bassoon provide gentle pushes and sighs, accompanying the primary theme in the violins. A solo ascent in a clarinet ushers in a tender secondary G-major theme, starting with chordal cloud-like woodwinds. The strings re-enter, swaying with triplet rhythms, a series of orchestral breaths, swells and sighs, ever building towards lusher and longer thematic lines.
The development begins much like the exposition, but with a focus on the intimate sounds of solo duets. Solo violin and english horn begin, then clarinet and horn follow. The moment is short lived as intermittent wind gusts and chromatic strings sweep the music into a thunderous storm. The delicate wind clouds are now brazen with brass turmoil. Dizzying sequences elevate the music into an antiphonal blizzard and the recapitulation returns the primary theme in a state of harmonic upheaval. Resolving with sparsely scored strings, the secondary theme emerges in a much deeper and richer E-major. The music seems to slumber to a sleep-like end with a few thinning instruments, but a jolting Coda marches back to the turbulence of the E-minor music to close.
The scherzo of the second movement shares a common musical fascination in Rachmaninoff’s output, the “Dies Irae” from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. A fury of galloping open E-strings on violins ring the Allegro molto movement into a folk-like rustic existence. The horns herald the suspected Gregorian chant, with sprightly dancing wind triplets above. With a solo clarinet outlining major triad figurations, the signature lush, soaring and unwinding romantic vocal-like melody that has come to define the composer style, makes its debut. The winds offer rhythmic activation with pianistic arpeggiating eighth notes and this texture and sound, will return almost verbatim in Rachmaninoff’s last major work, Symphonic Dances (1940). The militaristic tones of the A-section will be balanced by the highly chromatic and frenetic B-section of the movement. The dotted rhythms and the articulation of short running eighths scattering in panic, elevates the level of anxiety. If there is autobiographical hints in this music, the first section, once lively, returns peppered with a tinge of the consternation picked up on the journey.
The impassioned essay for romantic yearning of the Adagio, is a worthy successor of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Rachmaninoff recalls, “When I was young I was completely under the spell of Tchaikovsky.” The elder composer would take the teenage Rachmaninoff under his wing, and so the lineage of the rich melodies and expressive dark colors of his mentor, is a legacy that he makes his own. The opening heaven-reaching and leaning violin melody, floating above a stream of triplet rhythms in the violas, is longing incarnate. The solo clarinet, featured prominently, weaves an expansive love letter, a vocalise, before the strings and oboe sweep the music upwards, ever building with increasing fervor and passion. A sudden character change brings rich brass chords and the cascading string lines that intwine as characters lost and reveling in love’s deep blossoming garden of embrace. A return to the intimate texture of solo instruments echo the opening melody as songbirds encouraging deep affection. The violins pen with warmth, tenderness and devotion, the answer to that impassioned vocalise of the clarinet, concluding with rushes and swells of orchestral endearment, and a long final sustained A-major embrace.
If the impassioned Adagio movement was a marriage proposal, the final movement of the Allegro vivace, answers with a resounding and triumphant affirmative, complete with the bustling business of wedding planning, emotional uncertainties and jitters, political upheaval, and a resplendent walk down the aisle. In cut-time, the music and particularly the heralding french horn bell-like melody, is saturated with triplets which give the work a tarantella feel. The Second Symphony is a cyclical work, tied thematically like a spider’s web across all movements. In this finale, themes and harmonies will reprise, guest appearances, and memories in this rousing and glorious orchestral nuptial. © MTF
*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on August 13-15, 2021.