A Guide to Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances
Find out more about Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances before watching the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s moving performance.
Symphonic Dances is a deeply mysterious and ultimately epic symphonic piece written by the 19th-century composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Why is it so epic? Well, the piece is full of easter eggs, or hidden moments, that the composer left throughout the score, very Taylor Swift of him, we know. This was Rachmaninoff’s last composition and in it, he looks back at his career. He quotes excerpts from his past compositions including his first ever symphony, which would have been a true easter egg at the time because few people had ever heard it. He also wrote the piece in the hopes that it would eventually become a ballet. The soundscapes he creates throughout the piece are extremely vivid and evocative. It’s easy to get lost in an imaginative story of forgotten memories, homesickness, and rose-colored nostalgia.
Now, down to the nitty-gritty details. Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff, sometimes spelled Rachmaninov, (April 1, 1873- March 28, 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. His compositions are associated with the Romantic movement of the late 19th century, and he is most known for his moody piano concertos and bold symphonies.
After the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff and his family moved to the United States, settling in New York City in 1918. In a new country, Rachmaninoff found himself focusing primarily on conducting and piano performances rather than composing. He said in moving to the U.S., “I left behind my desire to compose: losing my country, I lost myself also”. In the 24 years he lived in the U.S., he composed only 6 works. The last of which was his deeply nostalgic Symphonic Dances.
Want to learn more about the life of Rachmaninoff? Tony Palmer’s documentary Harvest of Sorrow is a fascinating look at the life and legacy of Rachmaninoff.
Rachmaninoff completed Symphonic Dances in October of 1940. The piece was written for the Philidelphia Orchestra who premiered the piece 1941. At the time, the Philidelphia Orchestra was considered to be THE premier orchestra in the United States and the company had an impressive reputation for leading the way when it came to sound and performances. A bold sound that Rachmaninoff was eager to write for and exploit.
Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninoff’s final composition and the only work he had written entirely while living in the United States. The piece is a fantastic depiction of the composer’s later style, which featured experimental harmonies and the use of unusual solo instruments like the alto saxophone.
Alto Saxophonist Martin Roberston performs the solo from the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
This piece is deeply sentimental, in every movement one can hear Rachmaninoff’s complicated longing for his homeland. The piece overall is a nostalgic reflection of the composer’s life and career, painting a rose-tinted image of the home and music he left behind.
One of the most interesting aspects of this work is the way that Rachmaninoff quotes many of his earlier works. The first dance ends with a musical quote from his very first symphony. Listeners at the time would not have known this but Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.1 was considered a catastrophic failure at the time of its premiere thanks to a drunk conductor. Following the first performance, the composer tore up the score and entered into a deep depression which took him years to emerge from. It wasn’t until after the composer’s death that the work was rediscovered and given a proper performance. Now his first symphony is frequently played by orchestras around the world including in a recent concert from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Rachmaninoff’s First. In referencing this piece Rachmaninoff was privately acknowledging his first orchestral venture.
He also quotes his Symphony No.3 which was written just four years before Symphonic Dances. His third symphony is said to be his ‘’most expressively Russian symphony’’ which is likely the reason he chose to use it in his final work. He quotes other pieces too like his dark and moody Dies Irae theme, and his work All-night Vigil. It’s also possible that there are other undiscovered private references throughout the piece, similar to the Symphony No.1 reference.
The orchestral instrumentation of Symphonic dances was written for Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, an English horn, 2 clarinets, a bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, a contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, alto saxophone, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, drum, orchestra bells, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings.
Timpani Moments – Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 – I. Non allegro
Rachmaninoff also created a concert version for two pianos, a version for solo piano, a version for 2 organs, and of course, a version intended for ballet performances. Symphonic Dances eventually became a ballet as Rachmaninoff had intended, but this wasn’t until some 40 years after his death.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is made up of three movements;
I. (Non) allegro (C minor – C major)
II. Andante con moto, Tempo di valse, (G minor)
III. Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – Allegro vivace (D minor – D major)
All three movements follow the same A-B-A form where the middle second contrasts from the first and final sections. It’s said that Rachmaninoff initially intended to title the sections, ‘Noon’, ‘Twilight’, and ‘Midnight’. This initial intention can be heard in the finished symphony, which seems to get progressively darker in mood.
The first movement
Rachmaninoff marked his first movement Non-Allegro, which is an unusual marking. Allegro indicates a fast and spritely tempo, but in this instance, it seems like Rachmaninoff was referring to the literal translation of the word meaning ‘’cheerful.’’ So, Non-Allegro becomes ‘’Not too Cheerful’’ and this movement is exactly that.
This movement follows an A-B-A format and begins with a percussive jolt reminiscent of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, followed by a slower middle section that features an unusual solo instrument, the alto saxophone. The first movement ends with a rather expansive final section where he introduces a motif from his Symphony No.1, first heard in the strings. The first movement ends with a playful reference to his Second Suite for Two Pianos
The Second Movement
This clip from the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Symphonic Dances showcases a haunting waltz from the second movement.
The second movement is marked ‘Andante con moto, Tempo di valse,’ which means ‘Slowly but with movement, in a waltz tempo’. This movement is notoriously mysterious and as the marking suggests, it’s a haunting waltz that moves eerily along. The orchestration creates an image of ghostly memories, slipping from, one could imagine, grand ballrooms and snow-covered landscapes. This movement changes meters often, adding to the sense of uneasiness and mystery, and again follows the A-B-A form.
The Third Movement
This clip from the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Symphonic Dances showcases the intensity of the final movement.
The final movement is marked ‘Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – Allegro vivace’ which means, ‘very slowly- Fast and lively – Very Slowly’. As indicated, the final movement is a bit all over the place. Throughout this section, Rachmaninoff includes allusions to a Dies Irae melody that he used throughout his career, thought to indicate a death dance. He also quotes a Russian Orthodox chant that he used in an earlier work, folding in his lifelong obsession with ecclesiastical chants. The final seconds of the piece are impressively dramatic, ending Rachmaninoff’s final composition with a bang.
Where to hear it
There are hundreds of incredible recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances out there. If you fancy watching a stellar orchestra concert, recorded live, you can watch the London Philharmonic Orchestra perform Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, conducted by Edward Gardner, in their concert Gardner Conducts Rachmaninoff.
A Note: Given the significance of the current events that are currently taking place in Ukraine, we are due to recognize that the article is written on a Russian composer, even one who defected to the United States for a significant portion of his life, and is approached with caution. It is worth noting that Rachmaninoff and his music are far removed from the hostile and horrendous events taking place today, and the discussion of his music should in no way signify the support or address the violence and injustice currently being enacted by Russia.