In 1906, shortly after the Revolution of 1905, Rachmaninov and his family went to Dresden, where he was to devote himself to composing, particularly to the Second Symphony. By January 1907 he had completed the sketches and subsequently orchestrated it. This is one of Rachmaninov’s longest and most lyrical works. The scale of the Symphony is not unreasonable, for part of the inventive expansion that characterizes this phase of his music is his interest in working with long-breathed themes. These need the full length of the work to find their complete symphonic realization. In turn Rachmaninov was well aware that a sound structure was necessary in order to support the music, so he makes use of a motto theme to provide a unifying framework and to guide the listener’s ear. Ten years later, Revolution again drove Rachmaninov from his homeland, but this time permanently.
Cut off from the well-springs of his native tongue, he abandoned opera and song, but the Three Russian Songs were a rare exception. The first, a short tale of a drake whose beloved grey duck flies off, is a choral setting for basses in unison. Rachmaninov draws upon his orchestral resources to give a picture of the drake’s dismay and his sorrowful calls in a long
orchestral sigh. The second song is for altos alone, and is a gentle lament for the loss of a lover, again with a heartfelt sigh at the end. The third uses a three-part choir and is, unusually, a wry comedy. A wife who has been unfaithful at a party acts in pretended bemusement and terror as her husband approaches her with a ’present’ of a silken whip!