1907: Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E minor

THURSDAY, November 5, 2020 – 8:39 AM

(This is another update, the 2nd or 3rd. I did not add much, and I actually cut out a lot of info about the 1st symphony, which I will add later in its own post. But I have to always give the same advice: do NOT try to listen to the whole thing the first time unless you are very experienced at listening to long symphonies. Treat each movement as it’s own thing, it’s own adventure. For most people starting with the 3rd movement is the way to start. If you like it, come back to it, then try another movement, maybe the last, because it’s up and exciting. Maybe eventually you will be like me, feeling cheated if you don’t hear the “whole story”.)

The Symphony No. 2 in E minor, age 34

The premiere was conducted by the composer himself in Saint Petersburg on 8 February 1908. The score is dedicated to Sergei Taneyev, a Russian composer, teacher, theorist, author, and pupil of Tchaikovsky.

Instrumentation:

  • piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 clarinets, 3 oboes, cor anglais,  bass clarinet , 2 bassoons
  • 3 trumpets, 4 horns, , 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel
  • strings

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky

1st movement

The first movement is quite long, and when the exposition is repeated – as the composer intended – it is even longer. Here it is around 23 and 1/2 minutes long. While listening to this you may feel as though you are hearing film music. It is dramatic, lush and extremely romantic. A lot of the time here is the repeat of the exposition, and if you don’t like this music, it’s too long. But if you do, you will want to hear it again, as I do.

2nd movement

This is an ABA‑C‑ABA structure. I read that almost a third of it was conventionally hacked away until the 1970s, but I’ve never heard it butchered that way. Why anyone would mess with this makes my brain explode. Interesting to me is that such movements are called “scherzos”, most likely linking the idea all the way to Beethoven, but this is in two, not in three, and the B theme is much slower. The C section, sometimes called the trio, only has that name because of the form and has nothing to do with the music, and the C section is itself pretty complicated. Since it is only a bit longer than 11 minutes even in this performance, which is a bit slower than some others, I see no earthly reason why anyone would ever cut it.

3rd movement

This movement inspired a pop song in 1976 by American pop rock artist Eric Carmen.“Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” peaked at number 11 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart in June 1976, remaining in the Top 40 for ten weeks. The song reached number one on the Billboard Easy Listening chart. In Canada, it was a number-one hit on both charts. Rachmaninov’s music starts as simply as the pop song, but with the lush orchestration and the passionate building of tension in the middle there is much more to this than “a pretty melody”. For me the similarity to some of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov is very strong, and the whole tradition of Russian music is incredibly powerful.

4th movement

This has a lot of the swashbuckling sound of film music from around the 1930’s and perhaps a bit later, but it was all written much earlier, in the beginning of the 1900s. Again and again you will hear a tradition of highly emotional, descriptive music that sounds timeless. You hear the same sounds in modern film scores, and of course this is another composer John Williams channels in his own music, along with so many others. People who have watched a lot of movies will also hear things that sound a lot like Korngold, who was famous for the music to Robin Hood. One of the chief characteristics of Romantic music is to start with dark, brooding sounds in the first movement. Then what follows in the slow movement is more hopeful, usually very thoughtful, often almost like a dream. Then the final movement moves into something extremely optimistic and vibrant. This tradition for the most part started with Beethoven.

A very long symphony…

His 2nd symphony is over an hour long, performed as Rachmaninov intended it to be heard. It has the kind of length we associate with Mahler, and that means it takes some patience and the right mood to absorb it.

Recording problems on records…

It was also a huge problem to record back in the days when most people listened to records. Generally vinyl was limited to around 45 of play on both sides, and this was one of many reasons most conductors cut the symphony in recordings.

The cuts ruined the music…

The problem is that such changes in a masterwork ruins it. It changes the balance, changes the form and in general gives us no idea of what we should be experiencing while listening to it.

The composer was forced into agreeing to having his music mutilated…

Rachmaninov more and more began to doubt himself and the worth of his music, and so he reluctantly and submissively agreed to having his symphony sliced and diced. People incorrectly assumed he was fine with this, and he was not. But the realities of the time more or less forced him to agree.

Rachmaninov was pushed into cutting much more…

He was convinced in the early ’30s to make cuts in this symphony and agreed to 20 in all. This went on for decades and is a prime example of what happens when an artist is convinced to make changes that are just plain bad. It is only fairly recently that we get to hear the music the way it is supposed to sound.

Many recordings up to the 1970s, and even a few years beyond, included cuts of more than 20 minutes from the score. In fact, even today there is one cut in the 1st movement that is so common, I had never heard that part recorded until today. It is the repeat of the exposition, which is supposed to have a 1st ending that takes us back to that spot for a second time. Cutting the repeat of the exposition eliminates around six minutes of music. Granted, deleting that repeat only truly cuts the first ending, but it changes the balance when we don’t hear it all again. The most famous and most recommended recordings of this symphony are by Andre Previn, and he deleted that part. Now that I’ve heard another version without this cut, I never want to hear that cut again.

The worst cuts of all…

The earliest recording, made by Nikolai Sokoloff in 1928 (digitally transferred for the Cleveland Orchestra’s 75th-anniversary limited edition), lasts 46 minutes. That means most of the world only heard around 70% of the music at the time it was recorded.

Only in recent years, when conductors have begun to perform this symphony in its entirety, has Rachmaninov’s true achievement as a composer been revealed.

Always popular in Russia…

Rachmaninov’s music – other than Symphony No. 1 – was extremely popular in Russia, so his music was always fully respected there.

But he was out of step in the West…

The moment he left Russia in 1917, he was attacked for being out of touch with modern music, a relic, someone only connected to the past. Again and again in progressive music circles it was fashionable to trash his music. Other musicians predicted that soon his music would fall out of favor, that his popularity with the public was a passing phase.

He was dismissed as a failure…

By the time of his death in 1943, he had been written off as an old-fashioned composer – hopelessly sentimental, out-of-touch, and irrelevant. As Virgil Thomson told the young playwright Edward Albee in 1948:

 “It is really extraordinary, after all, that a composer so famous should have enjoyed so little the esteem of his fellow composers.”

Formal sources agreed that his music had no lasting worth…

The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, in its fifth edition, published in 1954 finished with this damning appraisal of his art:

“The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last and musicians never regarded it with much favor.”

Today the world has reversed all those negative opinions.

In 2020 his music continues to grow in popularity, showing how wrong these short-sighted people were. But of course the majority of critics and reviewers are usually wrong about everything, so none of this should come as a surprise.

What should come as a surprise is such stupidity was written and that people paid attention to this nonsense.

 

5 thoughts on “1907: Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E minor

  1. It is astonishing to read the twists and turns of Rachmaninof’s journey, above all how it was made needlessly difficult in so many ways. The idea that we can have listened to a piece of music, thinking that was the complete work, but it was actually truncated and altered by folks who decide for us that it’s “too long”. The strength of character to keep going, so that we are fortunate to have this music to listen to. Or perhaps, one is driven to create music, as one is driven to breathe air.

  2. The changes between the movements were gradual, not sudden. Nothing really is wrong with this piece, it’s amazing. But, just some people can bring a reputation down, and it takes only a medium size to bring it back up

  3. After listening to the first movement several times, I find that I enjoyed it more and more. I like the change in moods and tempo and the way he builds tension then returns to calm and quiet music.

  4. I just realized I had heard this one many times, in the edited, cut-up format.

    This is a travesty. This was like Warner Bros. demanding the director take out a whole reel (that’s 20 minutes) out of Amadeus.

    It’s a *completely* different symphony.

    And the restored Amadeus is a *completely* different film.

    That’s it, I’m getting this recording.

  5. “Jealous people often fall upon geniuses like a pack of hyenas…”

    Gary, it’s much worse that.

    The mediocre will eat the mildly talented for lunch, if they strike in sufficient numbers. Anyone who eneded up stuffed in a locker, in a trash can, bullied, harrassed in school knows this is true.

    And if you dare defend yourself, they brand you a psycho, a nutjob. It’s not improved in my 50 years of life, it’s only gotten worse.

    THis is wondrous, glorious music. I still need to have a sit-down and listen to it properly – screen off, lights dim, just the music. Only the music.

    But for now, half-way through the first movement, I find it very engaging. Not music to work or study by.

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