Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born at Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California on March 28, 1943. He composed the Symphony No. 2 between October 1906 and April 1907 and conducted the first performance in Saint Petersburg on January 26, 1908. He also conducted the first North American performance, which was with the Philadelphia Orchestra, on November 26, 1909. Henry Hadley conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performance in November 1912; the most recent subscription performances were given in November 2009 with Semyon Bychkov conducting. The symphony uses three flutes and piccolo, three oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, and strings. The dedication is to Rachmaninoff’s teacher, Sergei Taneyev. Performance time: about fifty-five minutes.
After finishing this symphony, Rachmaninoff swore he would never write another. It was almost thirty years before he changed his mind and began work on his third and last essay in the form. Meanwhile, the wonder was that he had written No. 2. The premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897, horribly conducted by Alexander Glazunov, was such a disaster that it took three years of psychotherapy and hypnosis before Rachmaninoff could again face writing a large-scale composition. It was the instantly popular Piano Concerto No. 2 that freed him then, but even so, it was a long time before the notion of “symphony” ceased to make him shudder.
When he wrote the Symphony No. 2 he was living in Dresden, where he had gone to escape the constant clamor for his services as a conductor. There he also composed his Piano Sonata No. 1, the tone poem The Isle of the Dead, and for his first American tour in 1909, the Piano Concerto No. 3. Thirty-three years old, he was in his fifth year of contented marriage, a father (his second daughter, Tatiana, was born about the time the symphony was completed), an experienced composer in many genres, an unsurpassed and scarcely equaled pianist, and a highly esteemed conductor. As a composer he was original as well as experienced, with a tone of voice and melodic style all his own and, as many attempts have proved, particularly in film studios, inimitable. In his Preludes and Études-Tableaux for piano he developed an impressive skill at composing a highly economical sort of music, but in his symphonies and concertos he preferred, at least at this point in his development, a more expansive manner. That manner was expansive enough in this instance to have disturbed conductors into making many cuts, some minor and some brutal, although performances today usually are complete.
Rachmaninoff begins in mystery, with pianissimo low strings. What the cellos and basses play here is a motto that turns out to have a large role in the symphony, sometimes on the surface, sometimes beneath it. Immediately, sonorous wind chords vary its first three notes and the violins make lachrymose response. The texture becomes more tightly woven, with imitative entrances following fast upon one another; at the same time, the melodic flow is gorgeous. The penetrating high writing for violas is especially effective. Rachmaninoff slowly works this up to an intense climax from which he then descends rapidly.
Alone, the English horn muses on these events for a moment. Strings, in softly shuddering trremolando, play a fragment of a rising scale, and the main part of the first movement has begun. The first theme, which the violins introduce, is yet another variant of the introduction’s motto, now urgent and forward-thrusting. It is presented in a broad paragraph, and Rachmaninoff’s command of such spans is very impressive indeed. Accelerating, the music moves toward a new key, G. The theme is new, yet both the design―wind chords leading to a melancholy violin response―and the actual shapes of the phrases are familiar from the introduction. Violins and cellos carry the music forward and, though the key is now officially G major, the yearning for the darker E minor is strong. One of Rachmaninoff’s beautiful ever-descending melodies brings the exposition to its quiet close.
A violin solo reminds us of the introduction. After the brief moment of quiet, the music pushes forward. Slowly the bass descends. The cellos recall the motto, the violas interject violent shudders. The bass skips over E―Rachmaninoff is not yet ready to re-establish the tonic and begin the recapitulation—but sits for a long time on E-flat. As the bass begins to rise again, a great crescendo begins. We hear some triumphant fanfares, but this is just a way-station. The agitated journey resumes: Rachmaninoff has learned well from Tchaikovsky how to build suspense. Through the storm we can make out fragments of the opening theme. At last the long dominant pedal on B is resolved to E, the keynote. We are home, and the recapitulation has begun. And once home, Rachmaninoff moves swiftly into a powerful coda.
The second movement, the scherzo, is wildly energetic, particularly brilliant orchestral writing. The key is A minor, and the reason the opening rings the way it does is that the violins playing their rapid anapests get to use their open A and E strings so much. A little later the glockenspiel adds a nice edge. Midway, Rachmaninoff also gives us one of his broadly Romantic tunes. That provides its own pleasure, but even greater is the delight of the quietly stalking retransition to the driving main theme. The close is humorous disintegration. Then the central section: As Haydn is supposed to have said of the big bang in his Surprise Symphony, “this will make the ladies jump.” The second violins start a brilliant fugue. A swift transition leads us into the return of the scherzo, in whose coda Rachmaninoff, as he was so fond of doing, cites the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead. This phrase is suggested by the horns at the opening of the movement; toward the end it becomes explicit.
In the beautiful Adagio we find Rachmaninoff’s melodic genius working at full power. He starts as though in mid-phrase with violas winding long garlands of triplets, over which the violins play a phrase that begins with an unforgettable upward thrust. That one is the phrase people usually come out singing after this symphony. But all this is just introduction. The main matter is a lovely clarinet solo, a wonderful instance of Rachmaninoff’s way of expanding an idea on and on. The melody takes twenty-three measures to say its say, never repeating itself literally, though circling about a few notes within a limited compass. It is, among other things, a reminder that Rachmaninoff was also a marvelous songwriter. But even when the clarinet stops, the melody is not over, and the violins carry it still further.
When this long and arresting paragraph ends, which it does with the great yearning phrase that began the movement, the violins bring back their lamenting phrase from the symphony’s introduction, though it is now more than twice as fast. In fact, the introduction now yields material for the violins, for English horn and oboe, and eventually for the full orchestra to explore. Again Rachmaninoff brings in one of his gradually descending bass lines. This leads to a grand arrival in C major. There is a swift drop to pianissimo, a long silence, and then a lovely passage, full of mystery, in which solo instruments, beginning with the horn, briefly caress the yearning phrase. When the flute takes its turn, the violins softly interject their phrase from the introduction. This intimate passage proves to be the transition to the return of the great melody that the clarinet played at the beginning of the movement, now given to the violins. Woodwinds decorate the melody with the yearning phrase. From here, the movement sinks to a spacious and quiet close.
The finale, back in E but now E major, begins headlong. The first contrasting theme is a quietly conspiratorial march; the transition to this, with timpani, plucked low strings, and muted horns is particularly fine. The march is just an interlude. The forceful and speedy opening music returns, to lead to one of Rachmaninoff’s “big tunes.” If we know the Second and Third piano concertos, we can safely guess that this, grandly presented, will be the material for the final cresting.
But there is much adventure before we get to that point. First comes the surprise of a return for just six measures to the tempo of the slow movement and to its beautiful introductory phrase. Then the high-speed movement resumes, and in this development section Rachmaninoff gives us one of his most amazing passages, a network of descending scales, slow and fast, high and low, syncopated and straight, that generate such a swirl of sound that all the bells in Russia seem to be ringing. From here on, matters develop much as we would expect, with a recapitulation in whose first pages the carillon scales are not altogether forgotten, with a grand peroration based on the big lyric tune, and a blood-stirring rush to the close, which is sealed with Rachmaninoff’s familiar “signature” cadence―YUM-pa-ta-TUM (this time slightly zipped up to YUM-pa-ta-ta-TUM).
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live) | Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (RCA Red Seal) | Mariss Jansons conducting the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (EMI Classics Encore) | Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca)
Reading: Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda (Indiana University Press) | Rakhmaninov, by Geoffrey Norris (Oxford Master Musicians series) | Rachmaninov, by Patrick Piggott (Faber)