Sergei Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2


Composed between 1906-1907, and premiered in 1908, the symphony was the Russian composer’s second attempt at writing for a full orchestra.

Although now Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is popular in concert halls, it was rather surprising that it was even composed. With how poorly the First Symphony was received by audiences in 1897, Rachmaninov was shattered by the criticism, and gave up composing for some time due to chronic depression. Research has been carried out to pinpoint what it was in particular about the First Symphony that gave it such terrible reviews. Some have concluded that it was actually the rivalry between the Saint Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories that led to the major failure of this work.

After some time away and therapy, Rachmaninov returned to composing, and his Second Piano Concerto was published, and became one of his most successful works ever. After the popularity of the Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov began composing a new symphony, which ended up becoming his mighty Second Symphony. This symphony, unlike the First, was a roaring success, and it won the Glinka Prize in 1908, where it took off and was performed all around the world by prestigious orchestras.

For some time the Second Symphony was cut up to make it shorter. The full score lasts for about an hour, but some performances cut so much that the score only lasted around 35 minutes. The true stature of this symphony often went unrecognised because ensembles took it upon themselves to cut large chunks of the music out to save time and aid programming. It is only in more recent years that Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony has been naturally played in its entirety. The four-movement work is laid out as follows:


I. Largo – Allegro moderator (E minor)

II. Allegro molto (A minor)

III. Adagio (A major)

IV. Allegro vivace (E major)


The Music
Movement I

The first movement opens with a slow introduction, with an initial theme embedded by the cellos and basses. The pensive, yet haunting opening to this movement taps into Rachmaninov’s luscious Romantic style of writing . This opening theme also echoes Rachmaninov’s interest and love for Russian Orthodox music. The first melodic kernel heard from the lower strings in this movement starts our epic journey with Rachmaninov through this symphony, as we see the themes developed, redeveloped and creatively re -imagined.

A rich textural balance is made with full orchestra instrumentation and the balance between the higher octaves in the upper woodwind and the upper strings. There are many points within this movement where brass are showcased, which adds a rich timbre to the movement. The ending to the movement is interesting due to the full orchestra ending on a strong fortissimo E minor chord, but on the third beat of the last bar the double basses and cellos play a low E marked sff. This creates an unfinished feeling within the movement, and certainly leaves us wanting more. Rachmaninov ends this movement as he started – with the lower strings.


Movement II

Starting in A minor, but quickly moving around different keys, the second movement is exciting and begins with a persistent motif from the upper strings. The Dies Irae motif is referenced by the horns from the third bar into the movement, with that theme returning throughout. Rachmaninov’s interest in the Dies Irae motif offers symbolism regarding the Day of Judgement and subsequently religion. The transition into in the more lyrical section is heard by the solo clarinet, which plays a nearly free-time quaver motif, which lands us into the next section of the movement.

A mighty crash leads us into the rumbling trio section, where we see Rachmaninov’s impressive fugal writing. This movement is essentially a Scherzo which follows an ABACABA form, with the central C section resting at the core of this movement both literally and musically. The dramatic changes from lively angular melodies, to long and luscious ones makes this movement all the more thrilling.

In the last section we hear a brass chorale, which plays in with Rachmaninov’s love of Russian Orthodox music and the Dies Irae themes. The recap to these themes leaves a lasting impression for the rest of the symphony. Similarly to the first movement, the second ends quietly and with the violins on a repeated motif, which becomes fewer and farther between. This, again, leaves us hanging on until the next movement.


Movement III

The third movement offers a sigh of relief from two very intense movements. Opening with a delicate violin gesture which soon climbs to a small climax, the melodic kernel is handed over to the clarinet, which grows and develops this material throughout the whole movement. The clarinet solo is long, but never once repeats itself. Once the solo is over, the clarinet hands back over to the violins, who grow the melody even further with the use of dynamics and range. This melody is cleverly based around one note, which acts as the ‘home note’ for the orchestra. This idea gives an impression of nostalgia from Rachmaninoff, and allows the listener to create their own narrative for the movement (or indeed the symphony).

Rachmaninov’s flare for rhapsodic expression is heightened throughout this movement, which can broadly be described in three sections. The first encapsulates the string introduction and clarinet solo. The second is after the solo, where the rest of the orchestra take on the chief themes and create an absolutely jaw-dropping climax in C major. The third section is obvious as it begins after a brief silent pause, like a sigh of relief after the climax.

This movement is incredibly powerful, both emotionally and musically. The rich harmony used throughout offers support throughout solos and tutti sections, with each transition becoming seamless. The central theme returns in the final section, and fragments of the melody are stitched together with the developments and variations from the second section. The movement concludes quietly and the atmosphere is tranquil. The lack of tension here is perhaps what makes it so emotional for many, as Rachmaninov really does take you for one hell of a ride throughout. The strings slowly die away in the last few bars, leaving the sound to drift off into the atmosphere.


Movement IV

The exuberant Finale of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is intriguing due to its shift to E major (after the first movement was in E minor). Beginning with the full orchestra playing a powerful and loud fanfare, this soon dies away somewhat into a march-like section. Rhythmic variations of past themes are brought out to emphasise the coming together of the symphony. Similarly to the first and second movements, the Finale often moves between fast and lyrical sections, bringing together some of the many melodic variations.

The recapitulation section begins laying the the building blocks for the triumphant final section of the movement. Melodies from all movements can be heard throughout the recap, with woodwind lines singing above the unrelenting strings. The emphatic coda is largely influenced by the third movement, with luscious strings climaxing towards the end. The trumpets and percussion enter on stabs which indicates the storm to come at the end. Which soon explodes into a mixture of scalic and stab movements by the whole orchestra. The movement ends like any victorious symphony would: with a strong crochet, triplet, crochet ending. The end of the symphony exudes power and dominance, which sums this whole work up in a nutshell.


Final Thoughts

From Rachmaninov’s intense writing, to his emotionally-driven melodies, his Second Symphony remains a popular choice for programmers.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.1


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