Whenever I would like to introduce someone unversed in classical music to the world of symphony, I try not to start with Mozart. Listening to Mozart tends to make you feel old; at least that’s what some of my classically-trained friends say. (I, on the other hand, do not agree.) Beethoven also does not make an ideal opening, for while his Whip of Nine Lashes contains unbelievably powerful themes, it requires intensive training to actually tap into that majestic and often deadly energy. And Mahler, definitely not Mahler! Yes, his symphonies are among the most grandiose of the literature, but they contain undeniably ugly sounds. Every dedicated musician will eventually reach a point in their musical life when they can appreciate an ugly piece of music for its inner beauty; but it usually takes years to get there.
Instead of presenting a symphonic work by any of the well-known great masters mentioned above, I like to start with one by a composer who may not possess too much fame nowadays: Sergei Rachmaninoff. His Second Symphony is an excellent “starter symphony” for the following reasons: 1.) it is hauntingly beautiful, 2.) you don’t need to think and analyze to appreciate its beauty, and 3.) it represents hope and redemption; it is proof of one’s ascent from utter failure to renewed triumph.
The third point which I made might require some background on Rachmaninoff’s life to fully comprehend. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was a Russian pianist, conductor, and composer who came after Tchaikovsky. He was trained at the Moscow Conservatory as a pianist, but from youth possessed an affinity for composition. In 1897 he presented his First Symphony, his most ambitious work at the time, at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The reception was a disaster; in fact, the work was regarded as a musical representation of Hell and the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Later historical analysis revealed that these lashing criticisms had nothing to do with the composition itself, but likely arose as a result of social (deep-seated rivalry between the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories) and performance (the conductor was drunk) factors. At the time, Rachmaninoff thought, of course, that it was entirely his incompetence to blame. The unexpected blow launched him into a four-year depression, during which he exhibited minimal productivity. Eventually, after resorting to a series of autosuggestive therapy sessions from a psychiatrist, was he finally able to restore his self-confidence.
Having survived his crisis, Rachmaninoff went on to compose what is perhaps his most renowned work: the Second Piano Concerto. But he still desired to prove that he could write a symphony, and it wasn’t until five years later that he finally found the courage to do so. Thus was born his Second Symphony, composed in 1906-1907. The work won him the coveted Glinka Prize, an extremely prestigious award at the time.
The symphony contains four movements (or sections), and usually takes one hour to perform. Here, I would like to focus on the third movement: the Adagio. This movement was so influential that many later pop singers based their songs on it (eg. Eric Carmen’s “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”). In the Adagio, the symphony reaches its emotional climax.
The Adagio is a perfect blend of passion and serenity; it takes divine beauty to its upper limits. It does not show a single morsel of the composer’s fearful and hesitant state of mind when he was writing this. But rather, all we hear is undying hope and an obsessive desire to live. Sit back, close your eyes, and let its heavenly caress wash over you, melody after melody, in a dream that does not seem to ever end. We begin with a short graceful tune in the strings, and then, as if seeing an angel, the entire orchestra hushes, yielding itself to the voice of the angel—a solo melody in the clarinet, whose gentle innocence cannot be described in words. We are then blessed with two huge climaxes, after which the angel’s song appears again (this time, in violins and violas). Then comes the most glorious climax of all (and I assure you, you wouldn’t hear anything like this in Mozart or Beethoven), at which one might tremble and die at its immense power, followed by silence. A million thoughts rush through one’s mind. What did I just experience? Was it heaven? If only I could live for another such moment, I would live!
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op. 27, III: Adagio