Program Notes

Symphonic Dances, Opus 45

BORN: April 1, 1873. Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia
DIED: March 28, 1943. Beverly Hills, CA

COMPOSED: Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninoff’s last score. He finished the composition in mid-August 1940 and completed the scoring in late October that year

WORLD PREMIERE: January 3, 1941. Eugene Ormandy conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—Spring Music Festival, May 1949. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted. MOST RECENT—October 2014. Stéphane Denève conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, snare drum, chimes, 2 harps, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 35 mins

THE BACKSTORY  As far back as 1914, when he had just completed his Second Piano Sonata and his Edgar Allan Poe cantata The Bells, Sergei Rachmaninoff was eager to compose a ballet, and he made inquiries about possible avenues of approach to Michel Fokine, principal choreographer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and creator of The Dying Swan, Les Sylphides, The Firebird, Petrushka, and Le Spectre de la rose. Nothing came of these hopes, and Rachmaninoff turned instead to a very non-balletic project, the great All-night Vigil, or Vespers, for a cappella chorus. Almost a quarter of a century would pass before the world got a Rachmaninoff and Fokine ballet. That was Paganini, set to the 1934 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, presented in June 1939 at Covent Garden and endorsed by the composer with such enthusiasm that he even permitted changes in his music.

By the middle 1930s, Rachmaninoff had nearly stopped composing. He had always sensed discomfort in balancing his three careers as composer, conductor, and pianist, and in the twenties and thirties he was chiefly a pianist, a very great one, and immensely successful, though anything other than happy with his life in hotel rooms and Pullman cars. Moreover, his most recent compositions, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Variations on a Theme by Corelli, were failures with the public. The Paganini Rhapsody was received with delight, but the Third Symphony, which came along two years later, met with indifference. From 1937 to 1939, Rachmaninoff composed nothing. To his growing fatigue and discouragement was added the anxiety about his daughter Tatiana, who lived in France. (In December 1939, Rachmaninoff reported to a friend that Tatiana had recently “managed to obtain a French passport and a driver’s license. This last fact,” he proclaimed, “worries me no less than the war. I never felt she had any talent for driving.”)

In spite of these conditions and problems, he suddenly turned again to composing during the summer of 1940. The Rachmaninoffs had rented Orchard Point, an estate near Huntington, Long Island. It provided an ideal situation—good friends were nearby, among them the Fokines, Vladimir and Wanda Horowitz, his former secretary Evgeny Somov, and Alexander Greiner of the Steinway company, and there was enough space to allow Rachmaninoff a room where he could not be heard composing, that being a condition sine qua non. For once, Rachmaninoff was indeed able to attend to two of his professions at the same time, composing and practicing for his winter concerts each day from nine in the morning until eleven at night. On August 21, Rachmaninoff wrote Eugene Ormandy: “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. Unfortunately my concert tour begins on October 14. I have a great deal of practice to do and I don’t know whether I shall be able to finish the orchestration before November. I should be very glad if, upon your return, you would drop over to our place. I should like to play the piece for you.”

Rachmaninoff’s association with the Philadelphia Orchestra went back to 1909 and his American debut as conductor, and he had returned often. It was the orchestra with which he had recorded his first three piano concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody (with the Fourth Concerto to follow in December 1941), and it was the only orchestra he ever conducted on recordings. The Philadelphians had given three of his premieres, and it was natural that Rachmaninoff wanted to offer his newest score to his favorite orchestra and its then relatively new music director. But in composing these dances, which by the end of August had become “Symphonic” rather than “Fantastic,” Rachmaninoff had in mind another artist along with Ormandy, and that was Michel Fokine. Excited by the European success of Paganini, Rachmaninoff was eager to interest Fokine in a second collaboration, and Fokine in fact heard the score even before Ormandy. When Fokine died in August 1942, Rachmaninoff mourned an unrealized work as well as a friend, compatriot, and fellow artist.

In spite of the pressures of practicing and touring, work on the Symphonic Dances went forward. Much of the third movement was scored on the road, and wherever Rachmaninoff checked into a hotel he was handed a package of proofsheets to correct. With some trepidation, Ormandy remarked at the first rehearsal on the extreme difficulty of some of the bowings indicated for the string players. “Ah yes,” said Rachmaninoff, “Fritz did those for me”—the great violinist Fritz Kreisler and Rachmaninoff had been friends since 1918.

Rehearsals in Philadelphia made a welcome break in Rachmaninoff’s winter tour. He told the players: “Years ago I composed for the great Chaliapin. Now he is dead and so I compose for a new kind of artist, the Philadelphia Orchestra.” The performances were superlative, the public paid affectionate tribute to the master, the critics were for the most part uninterested. The next year, Rachmaninoff made a final revision of the troublesome Fourth Concerto but composed no more new music. A rapidly progressing melanoma forced him to break off his 1942 concert tour after a recital in Knoxville, Tennessee. He had whipped himself through that evening only because he remembered that it was a rain date replacing a recital canceled in the fall. A little over five weeks later, he died in the house he had bought the year before on Elm Drive in Beverly Hills.

Rachmaninoff’s last score is conservative—of course. The Symphonic Dances were slow to gain recognition, but today their sure, non-aggressive mastery is perceived, as well as their originality and force of expression. Not only did Rachmaninoff compose the score with singular eagerness and urgency; he also made in his music psychological and autobiographical statements whose specific meaning is enigmatic but which were of intense consequence to him.

THE MUSIC  The first movement bears the unusual marking of “Non allegro.” Rachmaninoff was thinking of character as much as of tempo, of the literal meaning of allegro—cheerful, good-humored. In any event, this sinister march, with its quietly threatening start, is no ordinary quick movement. The return of the march music after a slower middle section is followed by an expansive coda. This is a surprising moment because it introduces a new melody of great poignancy, beautifully scored, and accompanied by the tintinnabulation of piano, harp, glockenspiel, flute, and piccolo. With this melody Rachmaninoff reaches back to one of the most painful moments in his life, the crashing failure in 1897 of his First Symphony. It was three years before he could face composing again. The First Symphony disappeared from circulation, and Rachmaninoff did nothing to discourage stories that he had destroyed it. But the melody he suddenly introduces at the end of the first of the Symphonic Dances is the principal theme of that old symphony, translated from stormy to serene. He must have imagined this as a private reference, likely to remain forever undecoded, but a copy of a two-piano transcription and then a set of orchestral materials turned up in Leningrad, and in 1945 the symphony had its second premiere.

The second movement is in waltz tempo. Waltz allusions are used with psychological and compositional mastery as Rachmaninoff shifts between the real and the ghostly, and the play of orchestral color contributes to the source of mystery.

In the finale, another quick movement with a slower middle section, Rachmaninoff alludes to and finally quotes explicitly a theme that ghosts so often through his music, the Gregorian Dies irae melody from the Mass for the Dead. Its first quotation here by the trumpet is preceded by diabolic danse macabre fiddle-tunings. Shortly before the end of the movement, Rachmaninoff writes “Alliluya” at the top of the page. Here, too, he is reaching back across the years to the All-Night Vigil he had composed in 1915, when his first hopes for a balletic collaboration with Fokine had fallen through. Rachmaninoff did not intend this to be a secret quotation like the one from the First Symphony, though it seems to have remained so for many years. Commentators made respectful, puzzled, or speculative note of the Alliluya. Geoffrey Norris in his 1976 study of the composer was the first to point out the derivation of much of this movement from music Rachmaninoff had used in the Vigil, and Norris observes that the composer “wrote ‘Alliluya’ in his score at the point where the choral alleluias occur in his earlier choral piece.”

Given what we know of Rachmaninoff’s state of mind in 1940, it is likely that he thought of this as his last composition. 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 exultant theme over the Dies irae is Rachmaninoff’s own affirmation of the faith that “Death shall be swallowed up in Victory.”

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

 Mariss Jansons and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (EMI Great Artists of the Century)  |  Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (London/Decca Jubilee) 

ReadingSergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda (Indiana University Press)  |  Rakhmaninov, by Geoffrey Norris (Oxford Master Musicians series) 

(March 2018)

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