Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27 (1907) 60 minutes
Piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drums, cymbals, snare drum, glockenspiel, and strings.
Following the disastrous March 27, 1897 St. Petersburg world premiere of his First Symphony, Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff plunged into a profound depression. The crisis that threatened to destroy Rachmaninoff’s musical career lasted for three years. A breakthrough for Rachmaninoff finally occurred in 1900. On the advice of relatives, Rachmaninoff consulted Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a psychiatrist who used hypnosis in the treatment of his patients. The consultations with Dr. Dahl were an extraordinary success. Rachmaninoff experienced a tremendous resurgence of confidence and immediately began to compose his Second Piano Concerto (1901), a work he dedicated to Dr. Dahl.
Rachmaninoff even summoned the courage to attempt another Symphony. In the fall of 1906, Rachmaninoff and his family moved from their native Russia to Dresden. The relocation offered Rachmaninoff the solitude he needed to devote himself entirely to composition. In October, Rachmaninoff began his Second Symphony, and finished the first draft of the score on New Year’s Day, 1907.
Rachmaninoff later refined the score of his Second Symphony and conducted its premiere in St. Petersburg on February 8, 1908. The work’s favorable reception by the audience and critics did much to vindicate Rachmaninoff after the humiliating premiere of his First Symphony. The Second Symphony proved to be immensely popular throughout Rachmaninoff’s life, and remains one of his most beloved orchestral works. The rich orchestration and passionate melodies assure its status among the finest Russian symphonies of the late Romantic era.
The Second Symphony is in four movements. The first begins with an extended slow-tempo introduction (Largo), opening with a motif that will appear in various guises throughout the work. The principal quick-tempo section (Allegro moderato) follows. The second movement is a vibrant scherzo (Allegro molto), culminating in the brass’s chorale transformation of the Symphony’s opening measures. The beautiful third movement (Adagio) is based upon two melodies, presented at the outset. The finale (Allegro vivace), recalling music from previous movements, propels to an exuberant close.
© Ken Meltzer, 2020