Symphonic Dances

Op. 45, Sergei Rachmaninoff

Written in the summer and fall of 1940 while vacationing in Huntington on Long Island Sound, the first version of Symphonic Dances was written for two pianos, titled “Fantastic Dances.”  This was Rachmaninoff’s final orchestral score, and the only score written entirely in the US.  After this composition, he commented that he “no longer had the strength and fire to compose.  I don’t know what has happened.  That [the dances] was probably my last flicker.”  On August 21 he wrote to 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.”

The Symphonic Dances were written at a hard time for the composer: intense homesickness, worry over his daughter Tatiana who was trapped in France by the German invasion, and an operation undergone in May. In three years he would die of cancer at age 70. The vitality and high spirits of the music in no way reflected his sad personal circumstances. The premiere in Philadelphia January 3, 1941, resulted in a lukewarm reception, and only later did the Dances gain acclaim.

Regarding titles:  Midday, Twilight, and Midnight had first been attached to the movements but were later removed. Regarding the final title of Symphonic Dances: “It should have been called just Dances,” Rachmaninoff mentioned, “but I was afraid people would think I had written dance music for jazz orchestra.” He toyed with the idea of making the work a ballet for Fokine, who was enthusiastic; however, the choreographer died in 1942, and the concept died as well.

The first movement bears the strange direction: Non allegro. Allegro simply means fast and can imply as well cheerfulness or happy mood.  Obviously, the composer was sending an ambiguous message concerning more than tempo: the negative instruction/positive instruction is unique.  A small three note motif heard at the opening generates themes for Part One.  Part 2 presents a unique folk like melody sung by alto sax.  For this section, Rachmaninoff sought the advice of Broadway orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett.  Part 3 reviews opening ideas.  An expansive coda includes a melody from his First Symphony written in 1897, which had been a terrible failure. “When the indescribable torture of that performance at last came to an end, I was a different man,” the composer wrote.  An inherent disposition to melancholy/depression became full blown and enduring after the negative reviews.

The second movement is a gloomy little waltz in 6/8 meter. Rather than an ebullient Viennese style dance, this waltz has a hesitant, tentative nature and rhythms, seemingly unable to ‘get off the ground.’ Many have said this is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s gently passionate waltz style.

The finale begins with languid winds, and then, gaining energy, moves into a faster section animated by jazz like rhythmic inflections.  A full quote by trumpet of the grim Gregorian Dies Irae from the Mass for the Dead offers a moment of great solemnity, but the fun returns.  The chant is not terminated, however, and it manages to reassert itself in whole or in part.  Happiness returns to finish off the dances in brilliance and high style.

Was Opus 45 a musical farewell?

Near the conclusion the composer wrote “Aliluya” at the top of the page.  Geoffrey Norris wrote that “the coda of this last movement is in effect an orchestral transcription of the Doxology from the Blagosloven esi, Gos podi (All Night Vigil, an a cappella choral work composed in 1914-15.) Rachmaninoff wrote Aliluya in his score at the point where the choral alleluias occur in his earlier choral piece. Was it goodbye? The composer left us this message “a composer always has his own ideas of his works, but I do not believe he ever should reveal them. Each listener should find his own meaning in the music.” On the last page, he wrote “I thank thee, lord.”

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

See all Program Notes

Program Notes