Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27

BORN: April 1, 1873. Either Oneg or Semyonovo, Russia
DIED: March 28, 1943. Beverly Hills, California

COMPOSED: Between October 1906 through April 1907. It bears a dedication to Sergei Taneyev, who had been Rachmaninoff’s counterpoint teacher

WORLD PREMIERE: Rachmaninoff conducted its premiere on February 8, 1908 in Saint Petersburg

NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: November 1909. The composer conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—November 1912. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—October 2012. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, and strings

DURATION: About 56 mins

THE BACKSTORY  As a youngster, Sergei Rachmaninoff enrolled on scholarship at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, but he proved so indifferent a student that the school threatened to curtail its support. At that point his uncle, the pianist Alexander Siloti, stepped in to provide the discipline Rachmaninoff’s parents and professors had not managed to instill. He swept his promising but unfocused nephew off to the preparatory division of the Moscow Conservatory and enrolled him in the piano studio of the famously strict Nikolai Zverev. Rachmaninoff and two other pupils moved into Zverev’s home, where a salon convened on Sunday afternoons; there Rachmaninoff met some of the leading lights of Russian musical life, including Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Sergei Taneyev, and Anton Arensky. He started making good on his talent. In the spring of 1888, he transferred to the senior division of the Conservatory, where Siloti himself accepted him into his piano studio. By the time he graduated, in 1892, he was deemed worthy of receiving the Great Gold Medal, an honor that had been bestowed on only two students previously, Taneyev and the now-forgotten Arseny Koreshchenko.

Zverev’s instruction dealt only with piano technique, but while Rachmaninoff carried out those studies he also made his first serious stabs at composing. Immediately following his graduation he was signed to a publishing contract, and one of his first published pieces—his Prelude in C-sharp minor for piano—became an instant hit. Tchaikovsky himself applauded the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s opera Aleko at the Bolshoi Theatre. Most of his earlier compositions were received warmly, though without catapulting him to stardom. In 1897, however, the premiere of the First Symphony was a disaster of Biblical proportions; in fact, a review by the elder composer César Cui had likened it to the seven plagues of Egypt all rolled into a single piece. That the performance was unquestionably sub-par—Alexander Glazunov, who conducted, was reportedly drunk on the podium—did little to dull the pain of the reviews.

Rachmaninoff’s talent was such that, in the psychological aftermath of his embarrassing public failure, he simply turned to a different musical pursuit and focused on conducting for the next few years. Before long he also sought the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a physician who was investigating psychological therapy through hypnosis. Rachmaninoff consulted him through daily visits beginning in January 1900. By the end of that summer Rachmaninoff was regaining his confidence as a composer. He started with achievable projects—an a cappella chorus, a love duet for an opera—and then two movements of a piano concerto that had been on the back burner for several years; this last would grow into his Second Piano Concerto, which most people liked a good deal when it was premiered (and still do today).

Finally he was back on track, busily working on chamber music, choral compositions, piano pieces, and three further operas. By 1906, he felt ready to confront whatever compositional demons might still be lingering, and he embarked on another symphony. He had recently moved with his wife and daughter to Dresden. The weather in that city was supposed to be better for the daughter’s problematic health, plus Rachmaninoff was hoping to escape some of the constant social and professional pressures that accompanied his mounting celebrity.

On February 11, 1907, he wrote to his friend Nikita Morozov in Russia: “A month ago, or more, I really did finish a symphony, but to this must be added the phrase ‘in draft.’ I have not announced it to ‘the world,’ because I want first to complete its final writing. While I was planning to put it in ‘clean’ form, it became terribly boring and repulsive to me. So I threw it aside and took up something else.” Nonetheless, word was out, and Rachmaninoff promptly received an invitation to conduct it during the upcoming season—before he was anywhere near finished with the piece. “I can tell you privately that I am displeased with it,” Rachmaninoff’s letter continued, “but that it really ‘will be,’ though not before autumn, as I shall not begin its orchestration until summer.”

That proved to be the case, and in August, Rachmaninoff wrote again to Morozov: “For two weeks now I have been busy with the orchestration of the Symphony. The work proceeds very laboriously and sluggishly. It’s slow not only because of the instrumentation, which ordinarily comes to me with difficulty, but also because I left it in draft, and some movements are yet to be worked out.” Fortunately for posterity Rachmaninoff toughed it out, vindicating himself as a gifted symphonist. His Second Symphony scored a popular success when he led its premiere on February 8, 1908, in Saint Petersburg, and that December it was honored with a Glinka Award for symphonic composition.

On the same program on which the symphony was premiered, Rachmaninoff appeared as the soloist in his Second Piano Concerto. He was welcomed back to his homeland with enthusiasm. Finally Rachmaninoff earned good reviews for a symphony. The critic Yuli Engel wrote:

After a year-and-a-half stay abroad Rachmaninoff again appears before the Moscow public as composer, conductor, and pianist. . . . And Rachmaninoff is worth an entire concert devoted to his works. Despite his thirty-four years he is one of the most significant figures in the contemporary music world, a worthy successor to Tchaikovsky, if not in the dimensions of his talent (of which it is too early to speak), then certainly in its concentration, sincerity, and subjective delicacy. Successor, and not imitator, for he has already his own individuality. This was confirmed most impressively by the new E minor  Symphony by Rachmaninoff. . . . After listening with unflagging attention to its four movements, one notes with surprise that the hands of the watch have moved sixty-five minutes forward. This may be slightly overlong for the general audience, but how fresh, how beautiful it is!

Length has continued to plague this work, and over the years many conductors have effected cuts both large and small in the score, some ostensibly with the composer’s explicit approval. A “typical” reading of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony may come in at around fifty minutes, but it may range more than ten minutes longer or shorter than that depending on the conductor’s preferences. The composer himself seemed somewhat ambivalent about the matter, stating that when he conducted the Second Symphony he preferred to do so without cutting anything, but that he was content if other conductors preferred to shorten it and that he approved specific curtailments that some of them had proposed. Eugene Ormandy, who was a leading conductor of Rachmaninoff’s scores, got conflicting information from the composer. At one point, Ormandy said Rachmaninoff approved an immense number of cuts. On a later occasion when they met to consider cuts in this symphony, Rachmaninoff ended up sanctioning the deletion of exactly two measures, saying, “You don’t know what cuts do to me; it is like cutting out a piece of my heart.” 

THE MUSIC  The Second Symphony is indeed imbued with Rachmaninoff’s recognizable fingerprints, right from its brooding outset. That introduction contains melodic material that reappears transformed as the surging first movement unrolls, and it comes back again at the end of the second movement, which is an often boisterous scherzo that demands athleticism from all players. But Rachmaninoff is at heart a lyrical composer, and even in the midst of this scurrying scherzo he finds an opportunity to interject one of his glowing melodies. The orchestration here is brilliant, including cage-rattling solos from the glockenspiel; and in the movement’s coda he works in a reference to the Dies irae chant from the Mass for the Dead, a Rachmaninoff thumbprint, if a macabre one.

In the third movement Adagio, Rachmaninoff spins out a rhapsody par excellence. Rachmaninoff used to be criticized for wearing his heart on his sleeve; but, really, who would be so callous as to complain that such music as this enriches our world? The movement’s introductory material for strings is lovely, but its principal theme, sung out by the clarinet, is irresistible, spun out at great length and balancing, as Rachmaninoff could do so ably, between the aesthetics of the concert hall and the most elevated sort of popular music. The finale seems part tarantella and part march, with the tarantella winning out in the end. But the spirit of the dance is melded to Rachmaninoff’s trademark lyricism, which keeps the emotional pitch high right up to the final measure. There, the concluding rhythmic motif “TUM-ta-ta-ta-TUM” serves as a slight variation on Rachmaninoff’s usual sign-off of just “TUM-ta-ta-TUM.”

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI)  |  Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca)  |  Mariss Janssons conducting the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (Warner Classics)  |  Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics)  |  Vasily Petrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics)

Reading: Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings, by Max Harrison (Continuum)  |  Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor, by Barrie Martin (Scolar Press)  |  Rachmaninoff, by Michael Scott (The History Press)  |  Rachmaninoff: Orchestral Music, by Patrick Piggott (BBC Music Guides, University of Washington Press)  | Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda (Indiana University Press) 

(April 2017)