Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 Program Notes
Like many of the major Russian composers, Rachmaninoff was to the manor born.dzIn his case, it was a quiet area of the Novgorod Oblast (where the main industry remains timber), close to the midway point of the 450-mile journey between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Family life was complicated - under his father’s management, the estate was severely diminished. After studying music from age 10 in St. Petersburg, he seems to have had some academic problems as a teenager. A move to Moscow proved beneficial, and he excelled as both pianist and composer. His teachers included Anton Arensky, Sergei Taniev, and the incredibly strict Nikolai Zverev. In 1892, Rachmaninoff’s Moscow Conservatory graduation-piece, the opera Aleko, received praise by many, including Tchaikovsky. It was soon produced at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The unfortunate premiere of his First Symphony 1897, (the program may have been too long, or the conductor was not up to the piece) leda traumatized Rachmaninoff to cease composition. Meetings with hypnotherapist Dr. Nikolai Dahl in 1900 were more than encouraging: his wildly popular Second Piano Concerto was soon completed. In the meantime, he’d developed an additional career as a conductor, which led to two years conducting at Moscow’s Bolshoi (1904-06). In 1905, seeking refuge from the augurs of what would be the bloody 1917 revolution, Rachmaninoff moved his young family to Dresden, where he composed his Second Symphony. It’s a sweeping work - without Ormandy and Rachmaninoff’s collaboration in what are called the Philadelphia Orchestra cuts, which reduce the work to 47 minutes, it is an hour long. It has beautiful and tuneful melodies, which and music that is dramatic and also the height of Russian romanticism. While it is certainly not programmatic, it contains musical touchstones Rachmaninoff must have found important - some of them occur in other works. it evokes Russian Orthodox chants, while containing echoes of the Latin Requiem Dies Irae chant (familiar also in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique). In rehearsal, we’ve observed possible references to Wagner’s opera Tristan & Isolde through melodic fragments from the Prelude, and an English horn solo that transitions to the melancholic Allegro. The second movement is a scherzo on a grand scale, and its sweeping second theme was used with great effect in the 2014 Academy Awards Best Picture winner, Birdman. The scherzo form is interrupted, though, by a tremendously energetic fugue, a skill he would have studied in Moscow with Taniev, the symphony’s dedicatee. The symphony’s third movement is an intimate and romantic slow movement, sometimes supporting beautiful solos in the clarinet, violin and horn. In 1976, pop artist Eric Carmen borrowed its simple yet memorable melody for his song Never Gonna Fall in Love Again. Alternating between rambunctious and swooning, the 15-minute finale is a rousing end to this amazing piece of music. After emigrating to the United States in 1918, Rachmaninoff spent most of the rest of his life in his adopted homeland, where he was acclaimed as a piano soloist and conductor (and often too busy to compose). He toured the USA widely, although summered in Switzerland, and composed at his estate in Long Island on occasion. He frequently visited Philadelphia as a guest of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to whom he dedicated his last work, the Symphonic Dances (premiered at the Academy of Music in 1941).