Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Rachmaninoff Symfonic Dances

Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances were the last music that he composed before his death in 1943. The 1917 Revolution had driven him, a solidly bourgeois character, to flee to the West. By then he was already a legendary pianist and easily managed to continue his career, although in the rapidly changing Western musical landscape Rachmaninoff's inveterate Romanticism caused him to be regarded as old-fashioned. This disillusionment combined with the busy life of a travelling concert pianist meant that he would only finish six more works after 1917.

The Symphonic Dances were composed in 1940 as a showpiece for the Philadelphia Orchestra and their chief conductor Eugene Ormandy. Rachmaninoff pulled out all the stops to create a magnificent orchestral sound with dramatic contrasts and occasional daring combinations of timbres. Not everything in them, however, is about external display: these pieces are certainly dances, but Rachmaninoff also had an underlying theme. He had initially intended to give the three dances the titles of Noon, Twilight and Midnight as a symbol of the various periods of life - and of his own life in particular. The musical quotations embedded in the pieces seem to provide a confirmation of this autobiographical interpretation.

The propulsive force of the march in the first movement is exchanged for a nostalgic middle section in which time seems to stand still. Rachmaninoff here introduces a solo alto saxophone whose sound embodies Rachmaninoff's longing for Russia. A quotation from his Symphony No. 1 is heard toward the end of the movement; this symphony was so badly received that the composer fell into a depression and could not put pen to paper for a long period.

The second movement is a ghostly waltz: threatening brass sounds could well have been intended to describe the situation in Europe in 1940. In the third movement, a rapid saltarello, the Dies Irae motive is often heard. This theme from the Gregorian Requiem Mass has been used by many composers throughout history, but Rachmaninoff used it as a motto throughout his entire oeuvre. It would give this movement the character of a dance of death, were it not that a contrasting theme from his own Vespers is also introduced: Christ's Resurrection. A battle begins with the Dies Irae motive, but he last word we hear is of resurrection: life triumphs.

Rachmaninoff was not particularly devout, but nevertheless wrote at the bottom of the score: 'I thank you, Lord'.

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood