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Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Quick Look Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor/Julian Rachlin, violin, perform Shostakovich Apr. 10 - 12, 2008
© Richard Freed
Rachmaninoff shuttled between his house in Switzerland and his flat in New York throughout the 1920s and well into the subsequent decade, eventually setting permanently in the United States at about the time he completed his Third Symphony, in 1936. He then busied himself performing and recording some of his works, but a hiatus in his creative activity was broken only by the composition of the Symphonic Dances. This was the only major work Rachmaninoff composed fully in America; after preparing a version for two pianos, he completed the orchestral score in the fall of 1940, in time for the premiere to be given on January 4, 1941, by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to whom he dedicated the score. This proved to be Rachmaninoff’s valedictory effort, and many consider it his finest work for orchestra. "I don’t know how it happened," he remarked; "it must have been my last spark." He died two years after the work’s premiere, without attempting any further composition.

This "last spark" seems now almost a conscious valediction, or in any event a sort of retrospective. It is first of all a summing-up of Rachmaninoff’s activity as a symphonist, for only his choice of title separates the Symphonic Dances from the cycle nominally concluded by the three-movement Symphony No. 3. That it also represents a conscious review of his more than fifty years as a recognized composer is indicated by the citation of themes or fragments from certain of his earlier works (in a far more subtle way than the blatantly self-congratulatory manner in which Richard Strauss quoted himself, at a much earlier stage in his career, in the grand-scaled work he modestly titled A Hero’s Life).

The First Symphony, abandoned after its calamitous premiere under Alexander Glazunov in 1897 (it was not to surface again until two years after Rachmaninoff’s death), is cited in the coda to the first of the three dances. An Alleluia from the Vespers of 1915 makes a similar appearance in the coda to the final movement. Along the way there are references to the choral symphony The Bells, to the Third Symphony, the second of the two suites for two pianos, and a solo piece or two. There is also in the final movement, and far more conspicuously presented (one might say "insistently"), the Dies irae, the ancient liturgical chant for the dead that had so intrigued Rachmaninoff throughout his creative life. Many composers have made use of this motif in one way or another, but for Rachmaninoff it would appear to have been virtually an obsession, for it made its way into just about everything he composed.

If the foregoing suggests some sort of programmatic content, autobiographical or otherwise, for the Symphonic Dances, such an assumption is given weight in noting that Rachmaninoff at one point thought of giving the three sections of this triptych descriptive titles—originally "Morning," Noon" and "Twilight," eventually modified to "Midday," Twilight" and "Midnight" before being abandoned altogether—symbolizing three stages of life. His original title for the work as a whole was the somewhat more evocative Fantastic Dances, and each of the three panels is indeed a sort of fantasy. He might well have come up witha detailed program for the work if the famous dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine had not died in 1942.

Rachmaninoff had been quite pleased with Fokine’s choreographic treatment of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He had in fact given Fokine his own scenario for the ballet Paganini, and he played the Symphonic Dances for him on the piano before he completed the orchestration, with the thought that this score might prove to be even more danceable than the earlier one. But Fokine died without discussing such a possibility, and Rachmaninoff held to the decision he had made before the work’s premiere, to let the tempo markings suffice as movement headings—a decision that seems quite in keeping with the essentially symphonic nature of the music.

The opening movement (bearing the somewhat controversial marking Non allegro, which some authoritative commentators have insisted is a printing error) is in sonata form and contains allusions to jazz—in the use of syncopation, in a reliance more on rhythmic strength than melodic content, and in a solo passage for alto saxophone. Rachmaninoff’s original intention was to call for a contralto voice to delivery the material he ultimately assigned to the saxophone, and he is said to have had the voice of Marian Anderson specifically in mind. This was his only use of the saxophone, and before attempting to fit the instrument into his orchestral fabric he sought the advice of the famous Broadway orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett.

Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) is the heading of the second movement, whose dark coloring may evoke a setting more decidedly nocturnal than the discarded "Twilight" would suggest. This is music from a world somewhere between the Valse triste of Sibelius and the gently nostalgic concert waltzes of Glazunov; perhaps its most identifiable ancestor would be the Valse mélancolique in Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 (a work, incidentally, whose finale also quotes the Dies irae), but the sense of fantasy felt here is entirely and unmistakably Rachmaninoff’s own.

The concluding movement, initiated with a brief Lento assai introduction, is a dramatic Allegro vivace whose dark events are more than intimated by the presence of the Dies irae, on which much of the movement is based, rather in the manner of quasi-variations. A lush passage for the strings, with occasional interjections by the flute or harp, summons up the ecstatic expressiveness of the great slow movements of Rachmaninoff’s earlier symphonies and concertos, but the end bring an emphatic feeling of a "last word"—final, conclusive, irrevocable.