- Thick textures – Rachmaninov often doubles the wind parts and divides the strings to give richer, thicker textures
- Long, lyrical, flowing melodies
- Step-wise melodies - usually his melodies are conjunct – moving from one note, to another note on one side or the other of it, without big leaps.
First movement – Largo, Allegro moderato
The First movement has two clear sections – a slow Largo introduction and the main section which is a faster Allegro.
The first thing you will hear (extract 1) – the dark, chant-like phrase in the cellos and basses – is a version of the motto theme, which will link together not only the first movement but the whole symphony. Notice that the theme is step-wise, something very typical of Rachmaninov’s music. The motto theme is also similar to Russian church music or chanting – another big musical influence of Rachmaninov.
The lengthy introduction has a simple shape; growing from the motto in the lower strings, with layer upon layer of sound, to a loud climax, reinforced and made stronger by the brass section and then dying away again. Listen out for the cor anglais, which signals the end of the introduction and the coming Allegro – faster section. This small solo is also based on the motto theme, and also sounds like a chant or hymn tune.
The Allegro (the rest of the first movement) has a very clear structure – we hear the two themes, then the music is developed before returning to the original ideas and finishing with a short coda.
The main theme, (extract 2) which is very long and song like, heard in the strings, is clearly related to the motto theme. The melody itself is very simple, but listen out for the chromatic accompaniment, especially from the woodwind section and the rich string accompaniment – often with each string group being divided into 2 or 3 different parts (extract 3).
The second theme, (extract 4) introduced by the clarinet, is also very typical of Rachmaninov’s style – it is very long and simple, in a question and answer style between the wind and strings, before blossoming and then dying away with descending scalic passages. Listen out for a beautiful solo by the cello section before both the first and second themes from the start of the Allegro is repeated – a chance to listen out for them again!
A duet between the solo violin and cor anglais signifies the beginning of the development section where the musical ideas of the two themes are developed. Keep listening out for parts of the music that remind you of the main theme – you can hear them in all the instruments!
Gradually the music becomes more chromatic and stormy, building up with lots scales, gradually getting higher and higher and reinforced by long notes from the brass. Listen for lots of passages where the strings play wild and windy tremolandos before calming down again to very clear and still reminder of the motto, in the violins.
Finally, at the beginning of the coda, we look back to the second theme, with the question and answer phrases in the wind and strings which grows and then dies away again. The tension starts building as the tempo quickens at the Più mosso (which directs the orchestra to move a little more quickly and give a little more). The scurrying violins again recall the motto theme, mimicked by the timpani. Very quickly the tension builds up and the strings get higher and higher, until suddenly, Rachmaninov brings the movement to a very final and abrupt ending.
Second Movement – Allegro molto
This scherzo opens with an exciting melody in the horns (extract 5), while the violins push the music forward with their very rhythmic and metrical repeated quavers.
Also, listen out for the violins answer to the horns opening phrase – this motif returns as the opening of the final movement.
After the brilliant first theme, the second, in contrast is slow.
The clarinet signals the beginning of this second theme (extract 6), with a short solo. This is another luxurious rich melody for the strings, supported by counter melodies in the brass. Soon, the extremely metrical rhythmic quaver feature from the beginning of the movement comes back and the music bursts back into life with the horn melody.
Listen out for a huge crash of the cymbals and the beginning of a discussion between the instruments, forever being driven forward by the repetitive quavers. Also listen for the first outing of a hymn-like brass section which comes back at the end of the piece.
The rest of the movement is generally the same material again, heard in slightly different ways and eventually the quaver rhythms stutter and bring the movement to a close.
Third Movement – Adagio
The adagio begins with a ritornello theme in the violins (extract 7) – based on rising thirds, in a sequence. A ritornello means ‘little return’ in Italian – so a ritornello theme will be repeated throughout the movement.
The clarinet has a large solo in this movement which is very typical of a Rachmaninov melody (extract 8).
It is very long and lyrical and like most of Rachmaninov’s melodies, it is step-wise. The melody itself is very simple but when put together with the complex chromatic harmonies in the accompaniment, becomes very beautiful.
After the clarinet solo, we hear a reminder of the luxurious ritornello theme– but only very shortly.Next is the central part of the adagio; there is a feeling of uncertainty and discomfort at the strings pass sequences of descending scales between them. Next the oboe and cor anglais start to have a very sad conversation and actually sound like they’re weeping (extract 9), before the melody is picked up by the strings and miraculously turned from this very sad phrase into another reminder of the clarinet solo, before bursting into one phrase of the ritornello theme again, then dying away.
After the pause, a solo violin, and other solo woodwind instruments take it in turns to give us reminders of the ritornello, before the clarinet itself takes over and plays the rest of the phrase.
From here to the end of the movement, the musical material is just the ritornello theme, played luxuriously by the whole orchestra – especially listen out for the thick sound made by dividing all the strings instruments - instead of five lines (two violins, one viola, one cello, one bass), at some points there are up to sixteen independent string parts! After the largest and most exciting repeat of the ritornello theme, slowly, the movement comes to a sombre end.
Fourth movement – Allegro vivace
In this last triumphant movement, you can listen out for motifs that you have heard throughout the symphony. The first few bars of the movement are derived from the Scherzo and later you can hear the motto theme – listen carefully!
The first theme is unusual for Rachmaninov as it is exceptionally cheery; you can easily be transported to a circus or carnival (extract 10). The theme is played by the whole orchestra, which again is unusual. Listen for the triplet rhythms at the beginning of the movement, which are based on the scherzo.
After the first exposition of the cheerful first subject, the movement generally calms down but the crotchet rhythms in the timpani, woodwind and strings generally drive the music forward through a quiet marching band-like section. Soon, the energy and volume build up again and the first theme returns again. Listen out for the direct quote from the Scherzo in the trumpet, heralding this return to the first theme (extract 11).
Next listen out for the UM-CHA! of the cymbals and bass drum, along with a swift brass fanfare which announces the arrival of the second subject. This, in contract to the first subject is a gentle flowing melody, played by the strings. In true Rachmaninov style, this is an incredibly long and winding melody which seems to just go on and on (extract 12). However this melody is unusual in another way; it is not step-wise; in fact it has some large intervals jumps in it.
The melody gradually flows away, leaving a brief repeat of the theme from the Adagio third movement (extract 13) before the beginning of the development, which very quickly becomes very agitated. Listen out for many snippets of themes from throughout the symphony, intermingled with descending scales from all parts of the orchestra, even the glockenspiel, which sound like triumphant tolling bells, ringing out with good news (extract 14) . The joyous first subject returns again, this time with counter melodies in the strings and brass, sailing over the top.
The same symphonic material is discussed again, the marching band and the joyous first subject before a massive rising sequence, throughout the whole orchestra creates loads of tension and brings us back to a brief coda (all extract 15)- the sweeping second subject, which finally brings the symphony on a positive and resolute conclusion.
- Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini
- Bartók Concerto For Orchestra
- Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin
- Beethoven Egmont
- Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5
- Beethoven Symphony No. 9
- Berg 3 Pieces, Op. 6
- Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique
- Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2
- Britten In Memoriam Dennis Brain
- Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1
- Bruckner Symphony No. 4
- Debussy Images
- Debussy Jeux
- Debussy La Mer
- Mahler Symphony No. 6
- Mahler Symphony No. 7
- Mahler Symphony No. 9
- Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
- Messiaen Turangalîla-symphonie
- Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4
- Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27
- Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2
- Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 3
- Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 4
- Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2
- Ravel La Valse
- Ravel Piano Concerto in D
- Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major
- Schumann Symphony No. 1
- Schoenberg 5 Pieces
- Schoenberg Gurrelieder
- Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht
- Sibelius Karelia Suite
- Sibelius Symphony No. 2
- Strauss Don Juan
- Strauss Horn Concerto No.1
- Stravinsky The Firebird Suite
- Stravinsky Rite of Spring
- Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
- Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6
- Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D
- Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony
- Vaughan Williams London Symphony
- Vaughan Williams The Pilgrim's Progress