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Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Oneg, Russia on March 20, 1873 and died in Beverly Hills, California on March 28, 1943. He composed the Symphonic Dances in 1940. The composition runs approximately 35 minutes in performance and is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, and orchestral strings.
Rachmaninoff composed the Symphonic Dances shortly after fleeing war-torn Europe for the United States. The work is rhythmically animated (he originally wanted it choreographed as a ballet) and truly symphonic in style, proportions, and sonority, with melodies that could only be Rachmaninoff’s, yet is less opulently Romantic than his earlier music: it has the leanness, discrimination, and occasional weirdness typical of his late orchestral style.
The driving first movement unfolds with grim determination. It begins with a grotesque, sarcastic march, which is subjected to intense development before dissolving into a more tranquil middle section, with a long, elegiac melody introduced by an alto saxophone—new to Rachmaninoff’s orchestra. (Some hear Russian folk music here.) The march returns, but the movement ends peacefully, with a quotation from Rachmaninoff’s own First Symphony (a theme derived from Russian church music). That symphony—disastrously premièred in 1897—was almost unknown in 1940, so the quotation obviously had some purely personal meaning.
The second movement is a heavily stylized parody of the Viennese waltz, at once nostalgic and sarcastic, sensual and sinister. Traditional waltz lilt is compromised by complex, unsettling rhythms; strange harmonies create an atmosphere of unease and anxiety; there are touches of the grotesque, like the sneering brass fanfare at the start. The movement builds to an almost hysterical climax only to vanish as if into shadows.
The finale is the shortest but most fantastical movement—dark, morbid, sardonic, full of demonic energy, with pounding strings, ominous brass, and squealing woodwinds. Rachmaninoff draws on two favourite sources of inspiration: chants of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Dies irae, the Gregorian chant for the dead. The middle section is more soulful and lyrical, though melancholy. The opening “dance of death” returns and reaches a furious climax, but just before the end Rachmaninoff introduces the Orthodox chant “Blessed be the Lord.” Again, his meaning seems to have been private. “I thank thee, Lord,” he wrote at the end of his score, and the words were sadly apt, for this would be his last original composition. Three years later, he was dead.
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