Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, op. 27

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            Normally, a “Symphony No. 2” implies a considered and thoughtful next step from the composition of a “Symphony No. 1.”  But in the case of Rachmaninoff, it is somewhat of a minor miracle that he was able to muster the strength, courage and interest to produce a second effort in the genre after the debilitating and embarrassing debacle of that of the first.  By the time of his graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1892—winning a rare “Great Gold Medal”—he had completed his successful first piano concerto, a symphonic poem, and a highly praised opera.  The evergreen Prelude in C# Minor soon followed, along with a spate of other works.  He composed easily and enthusiastically, and soon turned his attention to the composition of his first symphony, No. 1 in D Minor, which received its première in March of 1897.  It was a disaster of the first magnitude.  Rachmaninoff’s efforts suffered from the conjunction of sound condemnation by the critics, a rag-tag performance owing to insufficient rehearsal, and a conductor, the eminent Alexander Glazunov, who not only was incompetent, but was also rumored to have been drunk on the podium.  César Cui—not alone among the notable critics—compared the work to a symphony “based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt,” from the “conservatory of Hell.”  And that was one of the more moderate of his comments.

            Rachmaninoff’s reaction was not immediate, but he soon fell into a debilitating loss of confidence as a composer, and more or less suffered a complete artistic collapse.  He abandoned musical composition for about three years, and focused on his new responsibilities as a successful conductor of opera.  He also continued to perform as an acclaimed pianist, but composition was clearly put on the back burner.  Finally, he was convinced to consult a well-known psychotherapist who practiced therapeutic hypnosis.  It is debated exactly what course of “treatment” Rachmaninoff underwent in his frequent meetings with the physician, but the results were incontrovertible:  he roused himself from his depression, discouragement, and general pessimism, and began composing again with remarkable results.   During 1900 he began work on what is likely his most popular work, the Piano Concerto No. 2, and gave its première in the fall of 1901.

          Other works soon followed, but composing was difficult owing to his busy and demanding career as opera conductor.  In 1901 he married his first cousin, Natal’ya Satina, and became a father in 1903.  Conducting at the Bolshoi was his focus until the social, economic and political troubles in Russia that culminated in the Revolution of 1905 led Rachmaninoff to remove to Dresden, where he lived on and off for several years.  The relative peace and quiet there was propitious, for there he composed several major works, including the Symphony No. 2 in E Minor.  Composed during the years 1906-07, the symphony built upon many of the virtues of the ill-fated first symphony, and along with the Third Piano Concerto, which followed in 1909, exemplifies the mastery of the mature composer.  The familiar lyric breadth of the Second Piano Concerto, the generation of melodic ideas from small kernels of motives, and the ample expansion of form all continue to form essential elements of his personal style.

            The first movement, like the whole work, is a long one, and opens with a substantial introduction—it's quite a while before the movement, proper, begins.  As with the first symphony, the very first few notes (here in the low strings) contain a simple, but important melodic idea or “motto” that will appear in many guises throughout the work.   Three rich chords in the woodwinds immediately respond to this little back-and-forth undulation—a marker that will reappear from time to time in important moments.  The up and down undulation is gradually woven throughout the orchestra in a dark, mysterious texture that grows in intensity, but, more importantly, deliberately seems not to progress to a goal, but rather moves around meditatively—direction will come later.  As the introduction builds, Rachmaninoff soon leads us through one of his signature and favorite passages:  a strong, directed, harmonic progression along with a more defined melodic shape—it sounds complicated, but it’s easy to spot.  Finally, the intensity of the familiar melodic undulations wanes and the solo English horn—echoing the opening notes—leads to a faster tempo, the beginning of the movement proper, and to the main tune, played by the violins.  Taking his time, the composer expands the idea, and finally moves to the usual major key, introduced by clarinets.  A winsome, throbbing theme follows, the exploration of which takes us eventually to the last tune.  It’s a gently swaying affair, played in the cellos, and brings us to the end of the exposition.  The development of the ample material that Rachmaninoff has presented is introduced by the clarinet section and a short violin solo-- and we’re off.  The working out is a stormy and extensive one, with intimations of all of the ideas heard so far weaving in and out of the texture.  Some soft brass chords echoing the woodwinds from the introduction signal the drive to the end of the section.  Soon, brief “fanfare” pronouncements from the brass, which hitherto have been largely restrained, drive us forward.  Finally the tumult subsides and quiet reigns as the violas and double reeds return to the familiar idea of the very beginning in the low strings.  The composer quickly rounds out the movement by going directly to the major key and tune of the contrasting section from earlier on.  This somewhat abbreviated return is balanced by a vigorous, driving coda—now back in the minor key--that takes us to the end of this substantial movement.

            The following scherzo sparkles with the rhythmic drive and orchestration of an early influence, Rimsky-Korsakov.  As is typical of scherzo movements, it is laid out in a broad arch form, the end like the beginning, and with a contrasting middle.  But within these two large distinct sections, Rachmaninoff has subdivided each into two further contrasting parts.  It sounds a bit complicated, but in the event, is quite easy to follow.  It all starts with a driving theme announced by the horn section—related in a way to the very opening motto of the symphony.   After most, but not all, of the orchestra gets a chance with the lively material, the composer, as he is wont to do so often, slows it all down, and regales us with one of his signature lush, broadly romantic themes.  It doesn’t last long, and the energetic opening motto cranks up the tempo again to end the first big section.  The middle of the movement opens with a kind of jagged fugue that starts in the second violins, and works its way around the orchestra.  Soon, in the second part of this middle section, the brass takes up a happy little processional march, with intimations of a chorale, which gradually and wryly disintegrates, leading into the return of the first main section that we heard in the horns.  Finally, the little march with the brass chorales takes us nobly and quietly out.

            The adagio is an apotheosis of Rachmaninoff’s signature ability to weave a rich and sustained movement of long, undulating melodies accompanied by brief “mottos” that tie it all together.  The weft of contrapuntal textures and dark textures glides along with almost unparalleled lyricism, with one memorable tune after another.  The main theme of the movement occurs after an opening bar or two, and most will recognize it, some will even remember the smash popular hit from the nineteen thirties based upon it.  It doesn’t last long, but it will return in a big way.  There then follows a stunning tune in the clarinet remarkable for its length, evolving constantly without repeat.  After a long exploration of this material, the English horn offers a new, short theme, which, along with our familiar motto from the very beginning, provides material for a lengthy exploration by the full orchestra, eventually ending in a brief silence.  Then the lovely familiar melody that opened the movement provides the basis of the opening of the final section, starting in the solo horn.  It all gently and meditatively draws to a tranquil end, with the long, expressive clarinet solo from the beginning now in the strings, ending suggestively with one of the mottos.

            The last movement is in—surprise!—an optimistic major key, and bursts out in an energetic Italianate tarantella.  Soon, the timpani announces the arrival of a soft little march which in no time leads right back to the busy tarantella.   The second main idea is again one Rachmaninoff’s signature expansive, lyrical tunes, ending finally in a brief, poignant allusion to the famous melody of the preceding movement.  The development—which is not long--then plunges ahead with the tarantella, but ends spectacularly with a cascade of descending, carillon-like scales all over the place, fast and slow.  The recapitulation brings back all of the previous themes—tarantella, march, lyric melody, bell scales, and elements from the previous movements.  The composer weaves it all together in a marvel of thematic integration that belies his reputation as just a “big tune” romantic.  All that remains is the inevitable quick scamper to the end.

            Rachmaninoff’s reputation suffered greatly in the last century at the hands of many intellectuals who sneered at his hopelessly passé effusive romanticism.  They foolishly ignored his brilliant thematic integration, formal innovations, and profound imagination.  The tables have thankfully turned, and we are all the better for it.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan