In flight

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony

Sergei Rachmaninov at his summer residence in Ivanovka, 1910
(Photo: Staatlicher Musikverlag, Moskau)

Moscow was not a good place to work as a composer. In 1904 Sergei Rachmaninoff had joined the music staff of the Bolshoi Theatre and soon gained an enviable reputation for conducting not only operas but also the symphonic repertory. He could in fact have enjoyed a major career as a conductor, and yet he saw himself first and foremost not as an interpreter but as a creative artist. On the other hand, his commitments as a conductor were such that he could rarely find the time for any creative work. He was also concerned about the political situation in Russia at this period: peasants and workers, members of the middle class and even liberal aristocrats all resented the authoritarian rule of Nicholas II, famine was rife, and unemployment was rising in the country’s industrial centres. Although the Russian Revolution of 1905 made it possible to implement a number of tentative reforms, there was no real improvement to the underlying situation, with the result that in June 1906 Rachmaninoff decided to abandon his post at the Bolshoi and move to Dresden.

Retreat in Dresden

The house that he rented for himself and his family in the Sidonienstraße comprised six rooms and a garden full of ancient trees, providing him with the best possible conditions to work in peace and quiet. “We live here like real hermits,” he reported to a friend back home. “We see no one, we know no one, and we go nowhere.” But even in Dresden Rachmaninoff was initially unable to find inspiration, not least because he was planning to write a symphony. He first had to deal with the trauma caused by the failure of his first contribution to the medium, the first performance of which had proved to be an unprecedented fiasco when it was unveiled in St Petersburg in March 1897. For years afterwards Rachmaninoff had been unable to write another note, and it was only when he underwent hypnosis as part of a course of treatment by a psycho-therapist that his condition improved.

Fighting the fears

All of this must have been in Rachmaninoff’s mind when, pencil in hand, he sat down to work on his Second Symphony in E minor, op. 27. By April 1907 he had finished the piece in short score. Much of the instrumentation was completed that summer on his family’s Russian estates at Ivanovka. The work received its first performance in St Petersburg on 8 February (26 January) 1908, and on this occasion the reviews were entirely positive, the work’s wealth of melodic invention receiving particular praise. The opening movement strikes an elegiac note, its arching cantilenas building to monumental climaxes. And the same note is struck by the Adagio, with its wistful clarinet solo. Whereas the final movement betrays a certain theatrical pomp reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, the quintessentially Russian Scherzo is genuinely inspired, deriving its strength from its kinetic energy and revealing a tendency towards the grotesque that was to leave its mark on the composer’s later works, too. Rachmaninoff had finally lifted the curse that had lain upon him as a symphonist.

Susanne Stähr

Translation: Stewart Spencer


1909: The first page of the programme booklet for the concert in which the Berliner Philharmoniker performed Rachmaninov's Second Symphony for the first time under the baton of Arthur Nikisch. The Royal Palace in Dresden at the time of the composition of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Brück&Sohn Kunstverlag)