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Program Note: Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel), strings

Sergei Rachmaninoff

(Born in Oneg, Russia in 1873; died in Beverly Hills, California in 1943)

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, op. 27

  1. Largo – Allegro moderato
  2. Allegro molto
  3. Adagio
  4. Allegro vivace

In 1906, amidst a busy schedule of teaching, concertizing, and conducting, Sergei Rachmaninoff and his family escaped their hectic Moscow home to spend the summer in quiet Dresden, Germany, and he took the opportunity to compose his Symphony No. 2.  It was an ambitious work, considering his Symphony No. 1 (1897) had met with a dismal premiere – but when his Second premiered in 1908, it instantly became his most popular symphony, and one of the great masterpieces of his career.

The Second Symphony is a tapestry of ingenious thematic connectivity clothed in the composer’s uncanny gift for pathos and verve and jaw-droppingly beautiful themes.  It opens with a remarkable introduction – the basses begin in the low registers marked Largo (slowly and broadly), playing only seven notes, rustling and settling, almost without any sense of pulse.  This bass line is the musical motive, or motto, that nearly every other theme in the Symphony will be based upon – and though that motto is often cleverly disguised, the effect of its near constant presence makes for a magical cohesion throughout the entire work.  The first great example of this motto transformation occurs as the movement speeds up into Allegro moderato (moderately fast).  The first full theme we hear in this new tempo is that original motto, now played in the violins, slightly varied, and sped up.  It works its magic – transporting us into an epic musical adventure.  Rachmaninoff will bring us through lots of music in this first movement, from pathos-laden moments to flashes of breathtaking grandiloquence, and hushed tenderness – all of it deeply lyrical.  As the final bars come to their dramatic close, we’re left with the feeling of having already come a long way in this epic.

The second movement, Allegro molto (very fast) is a rollicking scherzo.  And indeed, the music jumps from the start like a racehorse.  The horns soon play a majestic, swashbuckling little melody, but with a twist – it’s derived from the Dies irae, an ancient plainchant that describes the Day of Judgement.  This Dies irae theme will later return, unexpectedly, in the finale.

The third movement is a quintessential “Rachmaninoff Adagio,” a gentle, lyrical, and wandering rhapsody.  Its rhapsodic main theme, first played by solo clarinet after a few bars introduced by the strings, showcases Rachmaninoff’s mastery for making modestly simple melodies sound so vast and rich.

The final movement, Allegro vivace (fast and lively), opens boisterously – horns yelping, trumpets proclaiming, strings and winds leaping.  Here, the music bursts with color and electricity, and the orchestration is thick with instruments and sound.  As the movement progresses, the Symphony begins to clamor increasingly with activity.  Just as everything begins to reach an almost hyper excitement, the Dies irae theme from the second movement makes a majestic return as a brass chorale, lifting everything into the Symphony’s hair-raising final bars.

Program note by © Max Derrickson