In November of 1906, Rachmaninoff and his family moved from Moscow to Dresden to escape the growing political strife in Russia. It was in Dresden that he began work on his second symphony. His first symphony had premiered twelve years earlier to a disastrous reception, sending its composer into a bout of depression and self-doubt. He still felt unsure of his abilities as a symphonic composer as he wrote his second and spent months revising the initial draft. Finally satisfied with the symphony, he conducted it himself early in 1908. It was warmly received and won its composer the Glinka Award (the second such award he won, having previously received one for his second piano concerto). It has remained one of his most popular and celebrated works.
The work is in four movements following the standard format for Romantic symphonies. It opens with an ominous introductory Largo that establishes the primary motif of the first movement. This motif is taken up and explored in the ensuing allegro moderato in sonata form. In the development, a solo violin plays plaintively over a murmuring orchestral accompaniment. The second movement resembles a scherzo in form, but its duple meter is at odds with the triple meter of a scherzo. It features in the horn part an altered version of the Dies Irae chant that Rachmaninoff utilized in numerous works. The following Adagio showcases Rachmaninoff’s signature melodic warmth, with its sweeping opening in the strings and the long singing melody for clarinet that follows. The Dies Irae returns as the basis for this movement’s development. The final movement rejects the tragic implications of the symphony’s minor key, instead closing the work in triumphant E major.