Program Notes: Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony

Program Notes

Program Notes: Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony

Anna Clyne’s Restless Oceans:

World Premiere January 22, 2019; Davos, Switzerland (3 minutes)

  • London-born Anna Clyne is based in New York but has an international career.
  • Her Prince of Clouds and Night Ferry were nominated for GRAMMY® Awards in 2015.
  • Clyne collaborates regularly with choreographers, filmmakers and visual artists.
  • Well-versed in technology, Clyne uses computer-controlled processes in some works.
  • Restless Oceans was premiered at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2019.

Clyne is much in demand internationally. Her works are the most performed of any female British composer, and she is the 8th most performed contemporary composer worldwide. She completed her first composition at age 11, subsequently pursuing formal music study at the University of Edinburgh. Clyne also earned a master’s in composition from the Manhattan School of Music. Her teachers included Marina Adamia, Marjan Mozetich and Julia Wolfe. During the 2023/24 Season, Clyne is Composer-in-Residence with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra as part of their Artistic Team, Composer-in-Residence at the BBC Philharmonic and Artist-in-Residence with Symphony Orchestra of Castile and León. She has previously served as Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Berkeley Symphony and Orchestre national d’Île-de-France. She is a visual artist as well as a composer, working in both acoustic and electro-acoustic music. She composed Restless Oceans for Marin Alsop and the all-female Taki Concordia Orchestra for performance at the World Economic Forum’s opening ceremony in Davos, Switzerland, in 2019. Clyne drew her inspiration from “A Woman Speaks,” a poem by the American poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde. Clyne has written, my intention was to write a defiant piece that embraces the power of women.” The musicians of the Symphony not only play but also stomp their feet and use their voices in song and strong vocalizations. At the end, they come together in unison.  

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise:

World Premiere January 25, 1916; Moscow, Russia (6 minutes) 

  • Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of history’s greatest virtuoso pianists.
  • His large-scale orchestral works feature lush harmonies.
  • He composed hundreds of songs with exquisite vocal lines.
  • In the 1930s, some of his melodies were adapted into popular songs.
  • He had a lifelong fascination with the Dies irae chant, a medieval Latin poem, using it in several compositions.

Is there any more of a romantic composer than Rachmaninoff? Despite the fact that he lived more than half his life in the 20th century, Rachmaninoff never turned his back on the harmonic vocabulary of the Post-Romantic Era or the heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism so evident in Russian music. As its title implies, Vocalise has its origins in vocal music. In the catalogue of Rachmaninoff’s works, this beloved piece originated as Opus 34, No. 14, the last in a collection of 14 songs. Although it was published as part of the Opus 34 songs, Vocalise was written in April 1912, some three years after any of the other 13 songs in that group, and fully ten years after the earliest of Opus 34. The song is dedicated to Antonina Nezhdanova, a soprano whom Rachmaninoff accompanied during the 1912/13 Season. Initially, she questioned why it had no words. “What need is there of words,” Rachmaninoff asked her, “when you will be able to convey everything better and more expressively by your voice and interpretation than anyone could with words?” Evidently, this compliment to her artistry satisfied her, for Vocalise remained textless. As symphony patrons, we associate Rachmaninoff almost exclusively with his magnificent piano concerti, symphonies and orchestral tone poems. Many music lovers, especially those who are pianists, have some acquaintance with his extensive solo piano compositions. In fact, he also composed for solo voice throughout much of his early career. Between 1890 and 1916, Rachmaninoff produced approximately 80 songs for voice and piano, many of which set texts by Russia’s great authors, including Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Lermontov. Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise has been arranged for numerous other instrumental combinations. In the composer’s orchestration, violins deliver the ravishing soprano melody.  

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27:

World Premiere January 26, 1908; Saint Petersburg, Russia (60 minutes) 

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor is expansive, leisurely and relaxed. This is a lush symphony in the late Romantic vein: heartfelt and emotional. More than one writer has compared it to Franz Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C-major. It shares with that work melodic riches, including at least one Rachmaninoff theme that has found its way into the popular canon via Eric Carmen’s 1976 hit Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.” Carmen lifted his theme from Rachmaninoff’s slow movement. Raw emotional power in this work points to mature Rachmaninoff. At the same time, it links him more strongly to his predecessor Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky than probably any other composition. The Expressionist statements of his contemporaries Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and Béla Bartók might as well have not existed. While we may associate him most closely with works for piano solo or piano and orchestra, we must not overlook his importance as a conductor and orchestrator. This symphony attests to his skill in handling a large orchestra without benefit of the contrast afforded by a solo instrument. It is a milestone in Russian symphonic literature. While each of the four movements has its share of the broad lines, arching melodies and sometimes ecstatic expressions that characterize this work, the brilliant Scherzo merits special mention. At approximately nine minutes, it is certainly the shortest of the four, but the composer has compressed a wealth of ideas in that brief span. The orchestration is impeccable (listen for the sparkle of the glockenspiel), and Rachmaninoff’s command of counterpoint in the central fugato is impressive. Also noteworthy is the exuberant opening of the finale, which matches the opening to Strauss’s Don Juan in its evocation of newly popped champagne bubbling over. 


Restless Oceans  

Anna Clyne 

Born March 9, 1980, in London | Currently residing in New York City 

Clyne’s interests are wide-ranging. She works in both acoustic and electro-acoustic music, exploring the expanded sound world of an orchestra through computer-controlled processes. She has collaborated with choreographers, filmmakers and visual artists on multi-media projects. Restless Oceans is a four-minute work for symphony orchestra. However, it calls on the orchestra players to vocalize and stomp their feet as human percussion, in addition to playing their instruments. Her composer’s note explains. 

Restless Oceans received its world premiere [at the World Economic Forum in Davos] at the opening ceremony in 2019, where Marin Alsop was presented with the Forum’s prestigious Crystal Award in recognition of her championship of diversity in music. This work draws inspiration and its title from “A Woman Speaks” – a poem by Audre Lorde – and was composed with this particular all-female orchestra in mind. In addition to playing their instruments, the musicians are also called upon to use their voices in song and strong vocalizations, and their feet to stomp and to bring them to stand united at the end. My intention was to write a defiant piece that embraces the power of women. Restless Oceans is dedicated with thanks to Marin Alsop.

The text of Audre Lorde’s poem follows. 

“A Woman Speaks” 

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound. 

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
I am woman
and not white. 

– Audre Lorde 

Instrumentation: the score calls for woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani, large kick bass drum, snare drum and strings.  



Sergei Rachmaninoff 

Born April 1, 1873, in Oneg, Novgorod District, Russia | Died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California 

Vocalise has no text. There is only one known precedent for this concept, and it came from the pen of one of Rachmaninoff’s countrymen: Igor Stravinsky’s Pastorale of 1907. Vocalise, of course, has become much more widely known than the Stravinsky work and served as a model for another Russian composer, Reinhold Glière, in his Concerto for Coloratura and Orchestra, Op. 82 (1943).  

Rachmaninoff is said to have liked the idea that the piece would be performed like a Johann Sebastian Bach aria. Nikolai Struve, a composer who was also on the editorial board of Editions Russes de Musique, recommended that he make an orchestral version. While the mournful substance of the music, including its references to the Dies irae chant, remained unchanged, the texture inevitably alters. Violins play the solo line originally assigned to soprano, and the balance of the orchestra accompanies.  

The first performance of Vocalise in this version took place on April 20, 1929, in Philadelphia. The composer led the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Instrumentation: the score calls for two flutes, three oboes (third doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and strings.  


Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 

Sergei Rachmaninoff  

Born April 1, 1873, in Oneg, Novgorod District, Russia | Died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California 

Sergei Rachmaninoff is deservedly celebrated for his splendid contribution to piano literature. His Second Piano Concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini remain perennial favorites. Somewhat lesser known are Rachmaninoff’s strictly orchestral compositions, which include two undisputed masterpieces: the late Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) and the symphony we hear at these performances.  

The Second Symphony was an easy sell for Rachmaninoff and one that he badly needed to assuage damaged self-confidence. Excepting an unfinished youthful symphony, his first effort in the genre was a Symphony in D minor from 1895. Its failure was so disastrous that Rachmaninoff hardly composed for three years following, and it was nearly 12 years before he saw fit to complete another symphony. Fortunately, the success of the Second Piano Concerto and a number of smaller works did much to restore his faith in his own talent.  

He began work on the Second Symphony in October 1906 while living in Dresden, where he and his family had moved in the aftermath of the failed Russian revolution of 1905. The piece gave him problems. He labored over the first movement alone for nearly three months. He spoke little of the work; most of his friends believed him to be immersed in a new opera. Somewhat frustrated by symphonic form, Rachmaninoff set the manuscript aside after completing the draft in April 1907.  

Back in Russia during the summer, he turned to orchestration but remained very tight-lipped about having completed the score and confiding to friends in letters that he was displeased with it. He managed to work through his dissatisfaction and returned to St. Petersburg to conduct the premiere early in 1908. A Moscow premiere followed in mid-February. The Symphony was a great success in both cities, and the Russian academy hastened to formally recognize Rachmaninoff’s achievement by awarding him the Glinka Prize for his new work in December 1908.  


Instrumentation: the score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion [bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, glockenspiel] and strings.  


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2024