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'.
Translation: Peter Lockwood