Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Notes by TŌN violinist Bram Margoles

Overcoming Doubt
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s life was a journey to international stardom as a composer, pianist, and conductor. His career began in Russia, where he grew up in a somewhat wealthy family and was trained at the Moscow conservatory. He wrote the Second Symphony at a time when his success and popularity was growing. He had just moved from Russia to Dresden to escape the brewing political unrest in his home country. The symphony was not only a huge career success, but also a huge psychological success for Rachmaninoff, who suffered from crippling self-doubt about his compositional abilities. The catastrophic 1897 premier of his First Symphony left him so depressed that he could not compose for three years. He wrote the Second Symphony in secret in 1906, and it wasn’t until 1908 that it was premiered in St. Petersburg to rave reviews.

The Music
The first movement starts our journey with a slow introduction full of brooding and darkness. It then begins to dance, catching periodic waves of turbulent excitement reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, perhaps Rachmaninoff’s greatest compositional idol. The movement is full of unbridled romanticism, painful longing, and nostalgia. The second movement contains even harsher emotional extremes than the first, taking us from dance, to weeping lyricism, to the furious and difficult contrapuntal middle section, and back again to where it began. The third movement is perhaps the most iconic in the piece, a pinnacle of late romanticism. The turmoil of the first movement comes back, with the familiar themes now recast in a new context that echoes the romantic operas that were so popular at the time. The movement ends in a place of peaceful resolution for the first time in the symphony. The fourth movement is a triumphant celebration. The opening theme keeps coming back, gaining excitement and intensity each time. Little bits from the previous movements are sprinkled throughout, allowing us to look back and see how far we’ve come.

Take the Time to Feel
Relax and enjoy being washed over by every emotionally indulgent minute of this expansive symphony. Rachmaninoff often felt that he was meant to live in a past world of emotion and romanticism while those around him in the present were obsessed with reason and analysis. While listening today, I think he would want us to take a break from our information-filled modern world, and take the time to feel, not think.