Friday, December 8, 2023

Rachmaninoff - Symphonic Dances, Opus 45

 Sergei Rachmaninoff completed his last major work, the Symphonic Dances, in 1940. It had a good reception at the time of its premiere in 1941 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. But subsequent performances were received lukewarmly, and Ormandy showed no interest in recording the work. 

It was the time of the modernists like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who each in their own style changed the world of classical music for composers and audiences. Rachmaninoff's music looked backwards instead of forwards. Indeed, his previous composition, the Third Symphony,  was akin to the Symphonic Dances as it reflected his past. Rachmaninoff himself knew this better than anyone else. Interviewed in 1939, he admitted:

I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.

After leaving Russia at a time of great political and cultural upheaval in 1917, Rachmaninoff eventually made his way to the United States and relied on his incredible piano technique and conducting skills to make a living for himself and family. He grew to become financially well-off, so much so that he could afford another home in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he would spend time during the concert off season. It was there that he composed most of his later works. Symphonic Dances was the only major work that was composed in The United States.  

I. Non allegro - The music begins quietly with the ticking of strings and the commentary of solo woodwinds in turn. The music turns loud with drums punctuating a rhythmic drive that continues throughout the first section. A piano joins in as the rhythmic dance continues. instruments in turn enter and make their comments, almost like the music is a concerto for orchestra. The first section winds down as the oboe and clarinet herald the beginning of the middle section which is carried by a solo saxophone. The saxophone makes few appearances in the symphony orchestra, but Rachmaninoff's use of it makes a listener wonder why. The tone of the instrument blends nicely with the rest of the woodwinds. Rachmaninoff may have written in a less than modern style for the time, but there is no doubting his skill and talent for orchestration and melody. 

The first section returns with brilliance as Rachmaninoff continues to showcase the differing timbres of the orchestral instruments. As the movement begins to wind down, a new theme is played by the strings and accompanied by piano, glockenspiel, and harp. This theme is a reworking of a theme from his 1st Symphony, which was heard only once in 1897 in Russia. The work had a disastrous premiere, and Rachmaninoff abandoned it. After the reminiscence of the theme, the movement quietly ends with short snippets of the beginning. 

II. Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) - It is indeed a waltz as Rachmaninoff designates, but it begins in 6/8 time rather than the usual 3/4 time of a waltz. Rachmaninoff visits the waltz form with ingenuity, a continuation of instrument spotlighting and nostalgia, with some eerie sounds thrown in, like the sounds of muted horns and trumpets. There is a solo for violin that leads the proceedings. There is an atmosphere of haunted dreaminess in the music. The pace quickens near the end, as the instruments (or dancers) scurry off the dance floor. 

III. Lento assai - Allegro vivace -  After the poor reception of his Third Symphony in 1936,  Rachmaninoff vowed to cease composing. His career of concert pianist and conductor were taking up most of his time, and felt underappreciated as a composer. But it wasn't the first time that he had tried to give up composing. After the disaster of his First Symphony, he stopped composing for three years. And like so many years ago, the inner drive for creative work returned to him in 1940 when he wrote the Symphonic Dances. The final movement has the same basic A-B-A form as the other two, and it shares the brilliance in orchestration as well. A section from his setting of the Russian Orthodox All Night Vigil is used, along with what was a somewhat ubiquitous theme for Rachmaninoff, the Latin hymn Dies irae. The Dies irae theme was referenced in many of his compositions. 

The movement begins with a reworking of snippets of the Dies irae, punctuated by bells and other percussion. The Dies irae continues with syncopations until a climax is reached. A different, more laid-back version of the theme is heard in low strings with the glissandos of harps. parts of the Russian Orthodox litany is also heard. The middle section is in contrast to the two turbulent outer sections, with parts of it vaguely similar to the Dies irae theme that are more tranquil. The final section brings back the Dies irae theme, but this time it is in competition with a Russian chant Blessed Is The Lord. The Russian chant wins out, and a new theme, Allilyua, taken from his 1915 work for chorus All-Night Vigil. The work ends in a blaze of rhythmic percussion and full orchestra.

Rachmaninoff was 67 years old when he wrote Symphonic Dances, and his many years of extensive traveling, piano playing (piano players are prone to bad backs and arthritis), and cigarette smoking took a toll on his health. The concert season of 1939 was especially tiring for him, and he himself said after writing the work, "It must have been my final spark". He was a deeply religious man, and at the end of the manuscript he wrote, "I thank thee, Lord."