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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: Kristjan Järvi, conductor / Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Barber Oct. 31 - Nov. 2, 2013
© Robert Markow

Rachmaninoff wrote his last composition in a surge of creative inspiration while recuperating from an illness at his summer home in Huntington, Long Island. On August 21, 1940, he wrote to Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra: "Last week I finished a new symphonic piece, which I naturally want to give first to you and your orchestra. It is called Fantastic Dances. I shall now begin the orchestration." Rachmaninoff had enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra, so it was only natural that he offer this superb ensemble the honor of the world premiere, which took place on January 3, 1941. The original title was probably given in memory of Shostakovich's work of the same title. The composer also had thoughts of balletic possibilities, since his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini had already been successfully choreographed by Michel Fokine, but Fokine died before the plans could come to fruition. Rachmaninoff also considered calling his work just Dances, and assigning titles "Noon," "Twilight" and "Midnight" to the three movements, but later rejected the. At any rate, the music leaves a stronger impression as symphonic rather than as dance music.

     Exceptionally brilliant orchestration contributes significantly to making the Symphonic Dances one of the finest scores in Rachmaninoff's catalogue. Nevertheless, it should be noted that he also prepared a two-piano version of the score that, in its own medium, is as masterly as the full orchestral work. The composer enjoyed playing this privately with his friend and neighbor in New York, Vladimir Horowitz. The care Rachmaninoff lavished on the orchestration can be seen in his taking the trouble to consult Robert Russell Bennett about the use of the saxophone, which Rachmaninoff used for the first and only time in this work. To an otherwise normal-sized orchestra, the composer also added a large number of percussion instruments that shine, glisten and tinkle: glockenspiel, xylophone, piano, chimes, triangle, tambourine, cymbals and two harps.

     The first movement is characterized by vigorous rhythmic drive and a theme built from a tiny, three-note motif announced first by the English horn and followed immediately by clarinet, then bassoon. The pervasive use of this three-note motif, which is found in nearly every measure of the opening and closing sections of the movement, calls to mind Beethoven's use of a four-note motif in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony. The central lyrical section features the solo saxophone in an expressive melody reminiscent of a Russian folk song. Here Rachmaninoff scales down the orchestra to chamber music proportions, using just a woodwind quintet for much of the time. Near the end of the movement we hear another new theme, this one warmly consoling and played by violins. The theme actually evokes a poignant autobiographical memory, as it is derived from a theme in the composer's First Symphony, written nearly half a century earlier, a work that was deemed at the time so poor that Rachmaninoff nearly abandoned his career as a composer.

     Sinister harmonies from the brass introduce the second movement, an uneasy, mysterious waltz tinged with nostalgia and melancholy. On and on the music swirls, becoming increasingly energetic and eventually gyrating nearly out of control.

     The final movement too opens with mysterious, ominous mutterings and rumblings, but soon launches into a rousing, brilliantly scored movement full of fantastic images, rhythmic excitement and tintinnabulation from the percussion department. The music winds down for a somber central section full of haunting, spectral sounds and evocations of lost worlds. Here Rachmaninoff introduces the Dies irae motif of which he was so fond. (It is found also in his First Symphony, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Isle of the Dead, among many other works). But shortly before the end of the movement, the word "Alliluya" appears in the score. This provided a clue that led to Geoffrey Norris' discovery that the coda is derived from the Russian chant Blagosloven esi Gospedi, which Rachmaninoff had used in his All-Night Vigil, Op. 37. Michael Steinberg sums up the importance of this fact by stating: "Given what we know of Rachmaninoff's state of mind in 1940, it is likely that he thought of this as his last composition even as he was getting it onto paper with such intensity and speed. We see him then taking leave of his craft with a hymn of thanks and praise. Perhaps it is not too much to imagine that the symbolic victory of the Blagosloven theme over the Dies irae is Rachmaninoff's own affirmation of the faith that ‘Death shall be swallowed up in Victory.' The Symphonic Dances end in a blaze of spectacular colors that bring to mind some of the most memorable pages of Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov.