Ned Rorem: Symphony No.2


American composer Ned Rorem composed his Second Symphony in 1956. So far, Rorem has composed just three symphonies, with the Second being the least performed of the trio. Rorem approaches the structure with an unbalanced edge, with the opening movement being over triple the duration of the second and third movements. The symphony has only received a handful of performances and has remained seldom performed or recorded since 1959. Uruguayan conductor, José Serebrier made new recordings of all three of Rorem’s symphonies with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2003, and these remain the main recordings of Rorem’s symphonies.


The Music
Movement I – Broad, Moderato

The disproportionately long opening movement begins with a cry from within the orchestra. This mysterious opening is led chiefly by the woodwind and percussion, who are then answered by the brass and strings in a new version of the theme. Rorem writes lyrical interludes for sections of the orchestra, the first being the celli, whose deep and fruitful timbre fills the space significantly. The second, a barrage of violins take a Romantic-inspired theme that is sensitive in nature and full of rich harmonies. 

Texture sits at the heart of this movement, with Rorem experimenting with both thick and thin textures to create waves of music. The use of percussion is also effective throughout, with the tam-tam and timpani playing some integral parts. A more peppy theme rears its head near the end of the movement, and is led by a solo cello. This changes the atmosphere of the music for a short while, before a sudden change in character signals the next transition. Huge orchestral swells fill the score as Rorem begins to wrap this movement up. A short reprise of the main theme from the movement sees the ensemble move together, even with many different voices. This culminates in a flourish to finish this movement off in style. 


Movement II – Tranquillo

The soft middle movement opens with rich strings and decorative woodwind. The main melody kernel is always played by a woodwind instrument, most likely a clarinet or flute. The strings create a foundation in the background as this theme is explored more. The feeling of tranquility is felt throughout, with the slow pace adding to this effect. Rorem’s stylings in this movement is very pleasing, making this movement the most popular with listeners. 


Movement III – Allegro

The finale movement, marked ‘Allegro’, opens with a percussion scene-setter. The jaunty theme played in the strings and woodwind creates a joyful and playful atmosphere that uses the drive of the tempo to push forwards. The piano plays an integral role in this movement, with the support of the bass end creating quite the mix of voices. Certainly the most fun of the three movements, Rorem leaves us wanting more as the symphony concludes suddenly with a bang. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… John Harbison: Symphony No.4


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