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Composed: 1940

Length: c. 30 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, and xylophone), piano, harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 18, 1943, William Steinberg conducting

About this Piece

We now recognize and admire Rachmaninoff as a creator of moodily memorable melodies, without feeling the need, as we once did, to apologize for the beauty of those melodies—or blame him for being widely emulated by composers of film scores (who, likewise, are now regarded with a degree of respect formerly denied them) or the creators of the popular love songs his melodies inspired.

Rachmaninoff summed up his life as a composer shortly before his death, in Beverly Hills, his final home: “In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, or Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music.... I have been strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov: but I have never, to the best of my knowledge, imitated anyone. What I try to do when writing down my music is to make it say simply and directly that which is in my heart when I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”

For most of his career Rachmaninoff, also one of the great pianists of his time, was the object of critics’ scorn for remaining stylistically rooted in the 19th century while living in the 20th. At the end of his life, however, with the present Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff combined a modernist rhythmic element—inspired by Stravinsky and Prokofiev—with his own unquenchable penchant for the big, big tune.

The Symphonic Dances had its beginnings as far back as 1915, in sketches for a ballet score called The Scythians (not to be confused with a similarly titled work by Prokofiev) that he submitted to dancer-choreographer Mikhail Fokine, who rejected them as “unballetic.” A quarter-century later, while living on New York’s Long Island, Rachmaninoff resurrected ideas from The Scythians to form the first movement of the Symphonic Dances, premiered in 1941 by its dedicatees, Eugene Ormandy and his Philadelphia Orchestra. The initial reception for what is now widely regarded as Rachmaninoff’s most important symphonic work was lukewarm. The audience wanted more lushness, the critics less. It has since become the darling of critics among the composer’s scores and, increasingly, an audience favorite.

Interestingly, Rachmaninoff, his performers’ capabilities ever in mind, was in the habit of having an accomplished violinist check the practicability of the bowings for all his works involving strings. For the Symphonic Dances, this function was fulfilled by no less than Fritz Kreisler, Rachmaninoff’s frequent recital partner. Since Kreisler considered no violin part too difficult, the score emerged as music for a virtuoso orchestra.

The terse, march-like opening thematic figure dominates the entire first movement. It features prominently even in the gorgeously mournful, quintessentially Russian episode for the alto saxophone, whose part was submitted to another expert, the composer and Broadway arranger Robert Russell Bennett, for his approval. The final theme of the movement, announced staccato in the strings, is an exotic, richly chromatic affair that Rachmaninoff seems to have lifted from his de facto orchestration textbook, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel. In the coda, Rachmaninoff quotes the opening theme of his First Symphony.

The second dance opens with menacing chords (stopped horns and muted trumpets), followed by an eerie waltz that moves from near-lethargy to extreme agitation. The movement concludes with soft, scampering woodwind-and-string figures that suggest the participants not so much ending their dance as being blown away, still whirling, out of their dark, ghostly ballroom into an even darker night. The third and final section mixes Russian Orthodox chant and the medieval chant for the dead, “Dies irae.” The church is further represented by the “Alleluia” theme from the composer’s own choral Vespers (1915), which eventually muscles out the “Dies irae”: a symbolic triumph of life over death? Withal, this was the last music Rachmaninoff ever wrote. Two years later, and a month after becoming an American citizen, he died (of cancer), a few days short of his 70th birthday. —Herbert Glass