Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 42, Original Version (1851)
Between 1848 and 1854 Rubinstein wrote three symphonies, but only the first and the second have survived. Of these, the second symphony is the more substantial composition. A monumental four-movement work of sweeping dramatic scope, it was premiered in St. Petersburg on March 6, 1852. Known as Rubinstein’s “Ocean” symphony, he maintained that it is a programmatic work, expressing the struggle between man and elemental forces.
The ultimate conclusion of the symphony, embodied in the finale, may be perceived — not as a glorification of man and the victory that he achieves over the sea — but rather as a laudatory prayer to God for bestowing the victory upon man. Contrary to the intentions of the composer, the conclusion of the symphony happens to be closer in its outlook to Mendelssohn rather than Beethoven. In the years to follow, Rubinstein became dissatisfied with the main idea of the work, and altered his “Ocean” symphony twice. The changes, however, did not affect the music of the finale, and consisted mostly of adding new movements to the already existing ones. In 1863, two movements were added — and, in 1880, 29 years after the symphony’s initial composition, he extended it even more by adding a seventh movement depicting a storm at sea. But, with the added movements, the work lost its compositional harmony, becoming heavier and more distorted. Tchaikovsky, writing about the six-movement version, said that “Rubinstein has added two movements to his Symphony; although very charming, they destroy the artistic balance of the classical sonata form and make this perfect work excessively long.” His appraisal of the original four-movement work had been very enthusiastic, describing it as “… a work written by a young, ebullient, but quite mature talent,” and distinguished, beyond its broad scope and youthful freshness, by “a remarkably unified conception.”
The significance of Rubinstein’s early symphonies in the history of Russian music cannot be overestimated. He created his first three symphonies at a time when the form of the classical symphony had not yet been established and adopted by other Russian composers. Even by 1850 — fifteen years before the first symphonies of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin appeared — Rubinstein’s symphonic compositions had not only been performed and acclaimed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but had also gained popularity abroad.
— excerpts from the album liner notes