Our music for this week is the Symphony No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Mariinsky Orchestra performs this symphony under the guidance of renowned conductor Valery Gergiev. The performance took place in Russia in 1992.
After his first symphony was met with a wave of public disapproval in 1896, Rachmaninoff decided that he would never write another symphony and focus solely on piano music. Over the course of the next few years, he composed some of his most popular and beloved works, such as the second piano concerto. However, by 1906, Rachmaninoff found himself again trying to ignore the impulse to write for a full orchestra. For two straight years, he labored day and night over his second symphony, plunging in and out of depression on a regular basis and (reportedly) even hiring a personal hypnotist to help him remain stable. At its first performance, Rachmaninoff was overcome with relief to hear the audience’s widespread approval and embarked on a spree of symphonic writing that eventually garnered him the coveted Glinka Prize for the Arts. Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff was so afraid of this symphony’s possible failure that he never published a set of program notes with it, so we have no knowledge of his thoughts while composing this symphony.
There are four movements, and I thought it might be helpful to offer you something to listen for in each of them.
(1) The first movement is a dense, dark, mysterious Largo. You can listen for two themes – a magical, ethereal melody at the very opening and an agitated, stormy melody soon afterwards.
(2) The second movement, a Scherzo, is an exercise in contradictions. The form and melodic material for the movement are upbeat and active, but the thematic material ironically comes from the traditional Roman Catholic mass for the dead, Dies Irae. (This theme, by the way, must have had some sort of extraordinary significance for Rachmaninoff, for scholars have identified elements of it in every single one of his compositions).
(3) The third movement is an Adagio, and here you should listen for the very opening theme, a slowly descending and marvelously delicate melody in the violins and cellos. If you listen carefully, you will hear the strings pass this melody off to the clarinet. The clarinet then passes it to the oboe, who, by the end of the piece, then passes it back to the strings.
(4) The fourth movement, an Allegro, is where Rachmaninoff finally seems to come out of his melancholy mood. I would encourage you to listen particularly well at the end, which is where Rachmaninoff brings back the themes that he laid out at the beginning of the first movement. However, he incorporates them into the jubilant atmosphere of the fourth movement and masterfully weaves them into a furious coda (or finale).