Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Program Notes
The Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninoff’s last work, and there’s an autumnal quality to the piece. It quotes his first symphony (from 46 years earlier), and revisits the Dies irae chant he favored in works including the Paganini Variations. Near the very end of the finale he looks back to a time much earlier in his life. Under the word “Alliluya” in the score, Rachmaninoff quotes Blessed art thou, Lord, an Orthodox hymn he’d drawn from in his 1915 choral work All Night Vigil (Vespers), which the Soviets banned in 1917. The Rachmaninoffs, who were landed gentry from Novgorod Oblast (between Moscow and St. Petersburg), then left Russia permanently.
In the United States, Rachmaninoff was mainly known as a piano soloist, though several of his compositions found favor, especially in Philadelphia, where Eugene Ormandy was a supporter. Rachmaninoff wrote Symphonic Dances for the Philadelphia Orchestra in the summer of 1940, on Long Island’s North Shore. He probably had ballet in mind: one of his neighbors in New York’s East Village was Michael Fokine, choreographer of Firebird, Petrushka, Daphnis et Chloé, and Les Sylphides. Although the ballet collaboration was not to be, along the way Rachmaninoff suggested the three Symphonic Dances as Noon, Twilight, and Midnight, though he discarded these programmatic references before the piece’s first performance.
The first movement re-composes some of Rachmaninoff’s first symphony, a work whose 1897 failure had shattered his confidence as a composer until the success of the second piano concerto. To this thematic material, he builds on a short arpeggio motif, the English horn’s first three notes. The movement’s introspective center features a striking saxophone solo and, although he probably didn’t need to, Rachmaninoff consulted with Broadway composer Robert Russell Bennett on using saxophone. LSO audience members may remember Bennett, who, aside from being a collaborator with Cole Porter, Lerner & Lowe, and others, was a Kansas City student of Carl Busch, composer of Minnehaha’s Vision and The Song of Hiawatha, which the LSO performed last season as part of our American Romantics project.
The second movement, Tempo di valse, shifts between vague menace and decadent sensuality. The finale’s mysterious opening is followed by rhythmic motifs reminiscent, perhaps, of castanets from Rimsky-Korsakoff or Bizet’s Spain. This energy pushes the movement toward the dramatic ending, but the movement pauses along the way, as if looking back. This moment of reflection recalls the sensuality of the second movement, and then, over a soft tremolo, the bass clarinet solo may evoke Wagner’s Liebestodt (Love-death) of Tristan und Isolde. After this, and more sensual late-Romantic writing, the energetic previous material returns, with its powerful hymn from Rachmaninoff’s earlier life.
In addition to this brilliantly orchestrated version, Rachmaninoff prepared a two-piano version of the Symphonic Dances, which he played with Vladimir Horowitz, a friend and fellow emigre. Frequently ill while living in the northeastern United States, Rachmaninoff was advised by his doctors to move to a warmer climate. In 1942 he moved with his family to Beverly Hills, California. His last piano recital was in Knoxville, TN, as part of a larger tour. Ill, he canceled further dates, returning to California. Rachmaninoff had asked to be buried at his family’s estate, between Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Moscow, but because of the war, he was buried in New York’s Westchester County.