Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op.42, “Ocean” (1857)

By Carol Reynolds, Southern Methodist University

Written for the concert Berlin 1894: A Concert Recreated performed on Dec 11, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When first confronted with a work from the formative period in a composer’s life, listeners cannot help but play musical “guessing-games” as to the influences shaping the work. Anton Rubinstein gave his blessing to all who responded to his music in this way:

If the musical thoughts of different composers resemble each other, it’s not right to look on one as a plagiarist. . . You need to look on this as a coincidence, as might occur when two people look alike, but are not related to each other in any way. The public willingly identifies similar musical likenesses in order to show its musical understanding. It’s a cheap pleasure!

Anton Rubinstein composed the original version of his Symphony No. 2, The Ocean, when he was thirty-two years old. Marvelously secure in his career as a virtuoso pianist, he was still finding his way as a composer. Ahead stretched the years when he and his older brother Nicolas would become the founders of Russia’s first conservatories. Ahead too, lay the acclaimed operas, symphonies, piano pieces, and songs — many of which provided the foundation for Russia’s symphonic and virtuosic piano schools. Yet, with the exception of his charming Melody in F, Rubinstein’s once popular music is seldom played today outside of Russia. The gap between his stellar accomplishments and his dusty reputation among American audiences would not have surprised him:

To Jews, I am a Christian; to Christians, I’m a Jew. To Russians, I’m a German, but to Germans, I’m Russian. To the classicists, I’m an innovator, but to innovators, I’m a reactionary, and so on. The verdict: neither fish nor fowl, a pitiful identity.

This remark, taken from Rubinstein’s manuscript collection of observations written in German entitled Box of Thoughts, exposes the composer’s puzzlement at a dilemma he faced all his life. Distinguished by his exceptional talent, Rubinstein was both embraced and chastised by his circle of musical friends — a circle which included composers such as Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and the major Russian composers and performers of the nineteenth century. When Rubinstein wrote his second symphony, his mentor Franz Liszt nicknamed Rubinstein “Van II’ (after Ludwig van Beethoven) and generously read through his compositions — by the “luggage van,” as Liszt put it –urging him to find his own voice as a composer.

Rubinstein’s artistic roots indeed were planted in the musical culture of Western Europe. His mission as a musician, however, belonged to Russia. He heeded Liszt’s admonition in ways no one expected. Acutely aware of the disorganized and unprofitable venue for musicians in Russia, he was determined to create a Russian educational and professional music system which would approach a European standard. After the death of the iron ruler Tsar Nicholas I in 1855, a more liberal atmosphere encouraged Rubinstein to realize his goal. He organized the Russian Music Society in 1859 and in 1862 founded the first conservatory in Russia, the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His many successful tours to Europe (and even to America in 1872-1873 with the violinist Henry Wieniawski added to his authority at home. His compositions found immediate success with the Russian and European audiences: sixteen operas (including The Demon), eight concertos, six symphonies, multitudes of songs, instrumental sonatas, and character pieces. He interacted with and influenced every important Russian musical figure in the second half of the nineteenth century until his death in 1894.

Tonight’s work, Symphony No. 2, Opus 42, The Ocean (1851), represents the original version of this symphony -a large-scale work in four movements dedicated to Franz Liszt. Its sub-title The Ocean reflected the new trend of applying descriptive names to traditionally structured symphonies (for example, Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, The Rhein, 1850). When the work was first played in St. Petersburg on March 6, 1852, it won the favor of audiences with its magnificent trumpet calls, swirling melodies, and solid structure. The ocean, according to Rubinstein, is depicted in the contrasts between the agitated and peaceful passages, the deep lyricism of the second movement, and the heroic chorale at the end of the fourth movement, when man’s spirit gains domination over the power of the ocean.

Over the next three decades, Rubinstein drastically refashioned The Ocean. The ongoing process of evolution over so many years illustrated one of his beliefs about the creative process, expressed in an aphorism from Box of Thoughts:

THE GRAPE – THAT IS NATURE; BUT WINE – THAT IS ART.

Rubinstein’s expansion of the Second Symphony included adding two large movements in 1863 and a new scherzo seventeen years later. These additions documented his response to the most popular and significant genre of his era: the tone poem. Tone poems, particularly those of Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss, introduced a novel-like drama and scope into the symphonic soundscape and offered irresistible possibilities for creativity. Yet, on the night of December 19, 1894, Richard Strauss decided to forego the seven-movement version of the historic concert and instead programmed the more traditional original version of the symphony. Strauss made this decision despite the lure of the added movements; in particular, the extraordinarily descriptive Lento assai movement added after the first movement in 1863 – in effect an independent tone poemwhich strikingly foreshadows Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead.

The expanded seven-movement version of Rubinstein’s Second Symphony met with disapproval from some, including Tchaikovsky, who greatly admired the original four-movement work. (The trumpet motif of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony attests the degree to which he admired Rubinstein’s Second Symphony!) Also, there is some doubt as to whether Rubinstein wished the complete revised version to be performed at one sitting; the tradition of doing so began only after his death when all seven movements were presented at a memorial concert.

Towards the end of his life, the sage Rubinstein once observed, “Wherever you wish to be well-received, you should appear only rarely!” Certainly the rarity of tonight’s performance will test the truth of this statement, as the American Symphony Orchestra presents the original version of Rubinstein’s Symphony No 2, The Ocean.