Rachmaninoff Symphony 2 Analysis Essay


Rachmaninov (1873-1943) - Symphony No. 2

The Russian Revolution in 1917, with its abortive antecedent of 1905, has apparently bestowed a double bequest, musically speaking, on civilisation. Some composers, like Shostakovich, sat tight, flowering on the stony ground of oppression. Others, like Rachmaninov, fled to richer pastures. Gardeners know that it is risky, transplanting flowers while in bloom. To be forcibly uprooted, and to flee in fear from your homeland must be terrible; how many talents withered as a result? 

The First Symphony's failure at its 1897 premiere so devastated Rachmaninov that he became incapable of composing. Fortunately, the ministrations of a hypnotist, Nikolai Dahl, somehow (though don't ask me how) restored his dented ego sufficiently for him to resume. The resulting Second Piano Concerto (1900-1) was an unqualified success. However, all too soon came that other wrench. In 1906, Rachmaninov fled from Russia. He spent the next three and a half years in Dresden (reputedly the loveliest of cities), where he enjoyed the opera, was within easy reach of Leipzig, and continued composing. 

The first product of this period was the Second Symphony (1906-7). Although he was clearly more susceptible to criticism than exile, the latter's impact does seem to permeate the music. In fact, it's tempting (though not compulsory) to infer an autobiographical slant, briefly italicised in the synopsis below. This symphony's sound-world is remarkable: sombre harmonies complement orchestration like deeply burnished mahogany, a sound so similar to that of Franck's Symphonie that I wonder it's not similarly slated. No matter, it's a gloriously rich sound, an ideal medium for those gorgeously contoured melodies. Imagine the embers of a huge log fire, beating back an icy black Russian winter's night. Rachmaninov's music similarly smoulders redly for ages, and occasionally, with or without warning, flares briefly and spectacularly. 

For many years, this symphony was performed with many cuts, apparently just to appease the forerunner of today's “sound-bite” culture. Yet, with the disfiguring cuts and expansive continuity restored, it seems not a moment too long. The first movement, certainly, is the sort of music you should absorb through your pores! 

First Movement - Largo; Allegro moderato:Of gloom and uncertainty in the homeland. “Gloom” is right: the movement oozes Russian melancholy (Russians are world beaters when it comes to gloom!). Rachmaninov lays out a huge sonata form, complete with exposition repeat (sometimes omitted, even in performances of the uncut version). The long introduction, emerging from subterranean depths, languorously stews materials which feed the entire work (though, without study, this is not obvious!).  Rachmaninov, perhaps compensating for the music's homogeneity, telegraphed key structural points using solo instruments: an oboe introduces the first subject, surging over sonorous chords, a clarinet heralds the second, its short phrases sighing memorably. Necessarily the most distinctive, a violin prefaces a development section culminating in a big climax replete with heavy percussion. Only the second subject is reprised, running into the coda, a quick march ending on a curiously abrupt grunt. 

Second Movement - Allegro molto:Of flight, and optimism for the future. Based on a scherzo form, ABA-C-ABA, this generally avoids wholesale repeats. By contrast with the first movement, the Russian fire now spits colourful sparks, although rich chords still abound. Listen out for a little “tiddly-pom” phrase, which was recalled in the late Symphonic Dances. [A] is a vaulting horn theme over a scintillating string rhythm, while [B], on violins, is Rachmaninov at his most drop-dead gorgeous. A loud bang triggers the chattering trio section [C], which develops a marching character (snare drum). Near the end, a “Russian Orthodox” style chorale appears briefly, and enigmatically. 

Third Movement - Adagio:Of regret at what has been left behind. To describe this movement as a variations on three themes cast broadly into a ternary structure maybe wouldn't be wide of the mark, but it would completely miss the point! This breathtaking and unparalleled lyrical outpouring requires of its listener nothing less than utter submission to its sheer emotiveness. A verbal prop, should any be needed, is offered by this poetic quotation: 

O you who hear, reflect on all you’ve lost - 
And at what cost - while you live on, in fear 
That in your sleep fond memory may fade! 
Now, wakeful made, attend my song - and weep

Finale - Allegro vivace:Of resolution and new confidence. This is another telescoped sonata form. Adopting a phrase from the lead-in to the first movement's big climax, the first subject erupts, sizzling, flaring, bristling with vitality, moderated at its core by a march (woodwind answered by bass strings). A strong modulation releases the second subject, sung by strings in short, swooning phrases, momentarily reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. There is here a secret formula, which Rachmaninov (even more than Tchaikovsky) had off pat and Hollywood tried to copy, though without success. The development, following a hesitant hiatus, kicks the first subject around busily, but in relatively subdued mood. The tension is cranked up to reprise only the first subject. This twists into the coda. Protracted, powerful crescendi launch the second subject, soaring into a triumphant “Russian Orthodox” chorale (yes, the very same!). But even this blazing paean is not the clincher: that belongs to the first subject's whirling spirit. 

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By 1906, the time when Rachmaninov began work of the Second Symphony, he had become not only a well-known pianist and conductor, but a composer of considerable renown. Ten years before, however, the abject failure of his First Symphony had robbed him of his confidence and plunged him into a dark depression. Unable to compose for the next three years, he finally sought the help of Dr. Nicolai Dahl at the behest of relatives. Dahl used the then-new technique of hypnotism, which rapidly restored the composer's confidence. Shortly after his therapeutic sessions with Dahl, Rachmaninov produced his popular Second Piano Concerto. It must have been with some trepidation, though, that he started work on the Second Symphony, memories of the fate of the First undoubtedly still lingering in his mind.

Indeed, after composing the first draft of this symphony in 1906-1907, Rachmaninov declared his dissatisfaction with it; he would remark that it was not in his nature to compose symphonies. Nevertheless, he forced himself to rework the piece, and on February 8, 1908, he led the first performance in St. Petersburg. It was enthusiastically received, and by the end of the year, Rachmaninov was awarded the Glinka prize for his new work.

The Symphony opens with a brooding Largo introduction, drenched in mystery and ethereality; it features a motto theme that returns in various guises throughout the symphony. The agitated main theme (Allegro moderato) is followed by an alternate, more ecstatic melody, and then a rather stormy development section. The movement is quite long, especially when -- as is now the practice -- the exposition repeat is taken.

The second movement Scherzo offers a vigorous theme of seemingly brighter mood than that of most of the music in the opening panel. Yet, it is derived from the Dies irae theme, used in the Roman Catholic mass for the dead -- a theme which Rachmaninov used in almost every major composition he wrote. There is a lovely alternate melody, which is related to the motto appearing in the symphony's introduction.

The third movement (Adagio) opens a with a descending theme on strings, one of the composer's loveliest and most memorable creations. There follows an equally attractive melody on clarinet and another for violins and oboe. While to many this movement represents impassioned love music, to others it is profoundly meditative in its warm religiosity. No program was ever attached to the movement or to the Symphony by the composer.

The Allegro vivace finale is happy and triumphant in its luminous main theme, and features a lushly orchestrated, beautiful alternate melody, similar in its ecstatic demeanor to several from the preceding movements. The coda brings on an all-conquering triumphant ending, resolving any lingering doubts spawned by the work's earlier darker elements.

A typical performance of the complete version of the Second Symphony, first movement repeat included, lasts about an hour. Many recordings up to the 1970s, and even a few years beyond, included cuts, eliminating as much as 20 minutes from the score. Rachmaninov himself had been convinced in the early '30s to make cuts in the work, and in the end sanctioned nearly 20 in all. Most performances and recordings of the work today are faithful to Rachmaninov's original score.

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