One of the main reasons for enjoying a piece of music is how it appeals to the ear and, perhaps, to the emotions. But for many, knowing the back story of a composition can often enhance one’s appreciation. Kind of like that somewhat apocryphal lark of how Paul McCartney’s original title of the Beatles’ classic Yesterday was “Scrambled Eggs” – how can you not listen to that song a little differently once you know that?!
Similarly, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor has some interesting stories attached to it. The piece was composed in 1907 while Rachmaninoff was in Dresden, Germany, where he moved his family after serving two years as Maestro of the Imperial Opera at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. This move allowed him to focus more time on composing (for which he felt himself more suited) rather than conducting.
During this sojourn, he had three musical compositions to work on: (1) a piano sonata; (2) an opera; and (3) his Second Symphony. Interestingly, he ultimately completed the sonata and the symphony; the opera, Monna Vanna, would go unfinished.
You may know the story of the disastrous premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in 1897 and how the negative reviews sent him into a deep depression. One can just look at photographs of the composer and get an overwhelming sense of brooding melancholy. In fact, Igor Stravinsky, another well-known Russian composer, “lovingly” described Rachmaninoff as a “six and a half foot scowl.”
By 1907 and the writing of Symphony No. 2, Rachmaninoff had recovered significantly from this early setback. The first major work upon regaining his musical bearings – his Piano Concerto No. 2 – had earned him the Glinka Award in Russia. It’s worth noting that he would also receive the same award for the Second Symphony.
In spite of this, the composition of this work was not an easy task for the composer. A quick walk through of some of Rachmaninoff’s correspondence to a trusted friend back in Russia demonstrates his angst:
February 1907 – “As you may have heard something about [me writing a symphony], I want to say a few words on the subject. I really did finish a symphony, but to this must be added the phrase ‘in draft.’ I have not announced it to ‘the world,’ because I wanted first to complete its final writing.”
April 1907 – “Then there’s the Symphony to be trimmed . . . that only its draft is complete. Not enough time, and besides, to tell you the truth, I’m tired. As for the quality of things, I must say that the worst of all [the pieces I’m working on] is the Symphony. When I get it written and then correct my first Symphony, I give my solemn word – no more symphonies. Curse them!”
May 1907 – “Two days ago I played the sonata for Riesemann, and he doesn’t seem to like it. Generally I’ve begun to notice that no matter what I write lately – nobody likes it. And I myself often wonder; maybe it is all nonsense.”
August 1907 – “For two weeks now I have been busy with the orchestration of the Symphony. The work proceeds very laboriously and sluggishly. If I don’t speed up (which I hope I can), the Symphony won’t be complete in less than six months.”
Symphony No. 2 was completed and had its premiere in St. Petersburg, Russia in late January 1908 – with Rachmaninoff conducting! On February 2, 1908 the composer conducted a performance of the Symphony in Moscow (and also performed his Second Piano Concerto!). Yuli Engel, a leading reviewer of the time, wrote:
Despite his thirty-four years [Rachmaninoff] is one the most significant figures in the contemporary music world, a worthy successor to Tchaikovsky.
This was confirmed most impressively by the new E minor Symphony by Rachmaninoff. After listening with unflagging attention to its four movements, one notes with surprise that the hands of the watch have moved sixty-five minutes forward. This may be slightly overlong for the general audience, but how fresh, how beautiful it is!
The Second Symphony underwent numerous revisions during Rachmaninoff’s lifetime – even to the point of reducing the overall length from 60-plus minutes to 35. However, since 1970, most orchestras have opted to perform the full work when it is included in their season schedules. For this – and for the fact he didn’t keep his promise to never write another symphony – we can be most thankful!
-Rodger Clark, Director of Development and resident Rachmaninoff enthusiast
Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 will be featured on Open Air Brevard on Saturday, July 11 at 3pm with a repeat Thursday, July 16 at 9pm
Love Rachmaninoff? Check out Rodger’s previous blog post about the composer’s connection to Eric Carmen – Rachmaninoff: How Russian Romanticism Inspired 1970s Hits
(source material: Sergei Rachmaninoff – A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, 1956)