If I ever get asked what my top 3 favourite symphonies are, Rachmaninoff’s second symphony is certainly in there. A colourful display of symphonic mastery, this symphony goes into incredible depths to showcase the skill and the array of different instruments within a romantic orchestra. The piece is written for a full orchestra with a full woodwind and brass section to compliment the incredibly rich string sections. Composed between 1906-1907 and premiéred in 1908, the symphony was the Russian composer’s second attempt at writing for a full orchestra. Some background before we go on though – Rachmaninoff was born in Russia in 1873 and he is best known for his talent as a pianist, conductor and composer. Rachmaninoff was one of the leading figures in Romantic Russian classical music in his time, after Tchaikovsky. As he was born into Russian aristocracy, he of course received top class musical and military teachings, which no doubt helped him to shape the composer he became.
Due to Rachmaninoff’s affiliation with the piano, a lot of his work is based around the instrument, or is scored for small chamber groups. He only wrote 3 symphonies in his lifetime (a complete tragedy in my opinion) but nevertheless the ones he did compose bring so much serenity, passion and richness to the classical music world. However, of course, before the second symphony came the first. It was previewed in 1897 at St.Petersburg conservatory (although Rachmaninoff himself studied at Moscow conservatory). The symphony was shunned and the reviews were awful, with some saying the work represented hell and the ten plagues of Egypt. However, after some socio-cultural analysis of the time it has been said that it wasn’t anything to do with the music that made the preview so unsuccessful, it was in fact the rivalry between both St.Petersburg and Moscow conservatories that led to the failure of the work (as well as the conductor supposedly being intoxicated with alcohol at the time of the performance!). Due to this, Rachmaninoff naturally blamed himself for the downfall of his first ambitious large-scale work, and this sadly plunged him into a four-year depression where his productivity levels were near non-existent. Eventually after lots of therapy sessions he was able to start composing again, and this was when he composed his second piano concerto (which I will write a blog on soon!). To prove he could write for a large-scale orchestra, Rachmaninoff composed his second symphony, which in fact won him the coveted Glinka Prize, a very prestigious award.
The second symphony is a four-movement work and is about an hour long (without cuts). The work is a phenomenal display of beautiful romantic writing, which is why I love it so much. The first movement, a Largo-Allegro moderato in E minor, opens with a slow introduction with a motto theme by the cellos and basses. The movement is in sonata form when it reaches the allegro section, with all of the instruments being utilised to the maximum throughout the work. The mesmerizing and haunting opening to this movement is pretty awe-inspiring writing and creates a really spooky atmosphere. 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 is just incredible. There are so many points within this movement where brass, especially lower brass, are really utilised and showcased, which really adds a special sound and timbre to the piece. I always find the ending to the first movement an interesting one due to the full orchestra ending on a strong ff E minor chord, but on the third beat of the last bar the double basses and cellos play a low E marked sff. I feel it provides a slightly different alternative for the end and it represents a strong force returning, as those were the instruments that the started the movement.
The second movement is marked Allegro Molto and is primarily in A minor. However, whenever you listen to Rachmaninoff you’ll realise that he doesn’t stay in keys very long, he is very adventurous with keys and this symphony is no exception. The start of this movement is incredibly exciting and played with the upmost intensity. The Dies Irae plainchaint is referenced by the horns firstly 3 bars into the movement, with that theme returning throughout. The clarinet is a prominent instrument in movements two and three of this work, with it having some very important solo work. The clarinet offers the musical pathway into the meno mosso section with a solo with no accompaniment, which is a beautiful quaver motif. This comes around once more further on in the movement. One of my favourite things about Rachmaninoff is his use of texture colouring and the tones he creates with the instruments he has. The lush strings and the delicate woodwind and the strong brass create a sound so large that you can’t help but smile and think ‘wow.’ The second movement is incredibly exciting throughout and it leaves for the listener to interpret where the story goes next. For me I always find this movement like running a marathon, starting with all the energy in the world and then slowing down at times and appreciating the view around you, and then speeding up again at the end.
The third movement is genuinely one of my all-time favourite movements I have ever heard. I don’t even need to analyse this, I just need to advise you to listen to it. Marked Adagio, the movement encompasses a rich sound and timbre and the themes from the upper strings really pull on your heartstrings. An incredible contrast to the fiery movement before, this melancholy movement sets up a completely new tone for the work. Divine beauty is not a strong enough description of this movement. It pushes emotional boundaries and if you were not connecting very well with the rest of the music that well (which I’ll struggle to believe!) I’ll bet that you’ll connect with this movement. The clarinet has a beautiful long solo which takes you to another world. Sit back, close your eyes, relax and let this movement take you somewhere special, because my goodness it will. There are two sections for me in this movement, both with these intense and frankly jaw-dropping emotional climaxes which give me chills every time I hear them. I remember the first time I listened to this movement and my chest hurt from how good it made me feel. I’m a self-proclaimed crier when it comes to symphonies and this one gets me every time. I’m listening to it right now as I write this blog and my tummy feels all fuzzy from the rich and colourful sounds I can hear. It reminds me of one of those melt in the middle chocolate puddings, once you’ve opened the outer layer, the insides ooze out and is rich in texture and flavour, just like this movement! If you take anything from this blog it is to listen to this movement (please).
The fourth movement is a beautiful movement marked Allegro Vivace and it pushes the boundaries even more so than the faster-paced movements before. With extremities in instrument ranges being played with and the technical proficiency of the parts becoming a lot more prominent, there really is no doubt that Rachmaninoff is an incredibly skilled symphonist. The movement is exciting and has many twists and turns within in which to really feel them you must listen to! Rhythmic variations of past themes are brought out to emphasise the coming together of the symphony. The movement is foundationally in E major, but of course this being Rachmaninoff and it being written where boundaries with harmony and tonality were being stretched, modulations are key (awful pun!). The movement ends with a brilliant crotchet, triplet, crotchet ending which oozes power and dominance of the music which can be seen as a metaphor for Rachmaninoff overcoming his depression.
This symphony is one of the most complex, but pleasing pieces of work I have ever had the pleasure to hear. I also had the delight of playing this symphony with my university symphony orchestra recently and that was a fulfilling experience in itself. I find it such a tragedy that Rachmaninoff did not write more symphonic works because I find his writing lush, rich and full of excitement. I cannot advise enough to listen to the work, you won’t regret it!
This is a fantastic interpretation of this symphony by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Elvind Gullberg Jensen