Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances

Musical Works in Context: Retrospective in Composition

A fine and often underrated recording of the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the NDR Sinfonieorchester

A Brief Note from the Editor [28/3/22]:

Given the significance of current events in Eastern Europe, I approach the subject of Russian music, even that written by a composer living in America in the 20th century, with a degree of caution. The abhorrence that is the invasion of Ukraine shares so little in common with the vast history of Russian culture and music, and discussions of music should not be stifled for the sake of the avoidance of topics that are only circumstantially related. Rachmaninov’s music is incredibly far removed from the concepts of Soviet Expansionism, and any tenuous relation posits the two in opposition in any case.

The last of Rachmaninov’s great works, his Symphonic Dances, represents in many ways a composer looking back upon his life and coming to terms with his musical output from a perspective of hindsight. It is filled with remembrances and reminiscences of his earlier life and music, and in its final movement, creates a gripping conflict between the motivic iconography of life and death. While it is too large a leap to assert that Rachmaninov was foreshadowing his death in this work, the impression that the composer was looking back upon his life in the Symphonic Dances cannot be avoided, reminiscences to his earlier music too strong and whole-hearted to be dismissed as stylistic and not artistically intentional. The music is deeply lyrical and emotive, appealing not only to those who are intimately acquainted with his work, but also filling its score with lush textures and melodies that could only have come from Rachmaninov’s pen. Premiered in 1940, three years before the composer’s death, the Symphonic Dances represent Rachmaninov perhaps ruminating on his life’s work as a composer, not precluding his own death, but contemplating the work of a lifetime.

Reminiscences of Home

For a Russian composer living in America, Rachmaninov’s source of artistic inspiration for the Symphonic Dances seems to have had an incredibly strong Russian cultural base. The initial subject matter of the work, “Fantastic Dances”, with movements titled “Noon”, “Twilight” and “Midnight”, appeals most deeply to Russian musical aesthetic, symphonic dance music themed alongside fantasy most reminiscent of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, or even Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The “Midnight Garden” section of the last movement appeals most clearly to this, traces of Stravinsky’s Firebird and the Garden of Golden Apples felt in the musical material and inherent mystique in Rachmaniniov’s writing of the subject. The ideation of the dances lies therein as a truly Russian expression, with its unique combination of programmatic intent, dance, and fantasy that was so dear to the late Russian Romanticists.

More subtly, the work draws on the influence of Russian composers that were his contemporaries, the slippery tonalities and harmonies reminiscent of Prokofiev’s distinctive modulations, and the rhythmic energy of the first movement of the Symphonic Dances drawing on a similar zeal for energy as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In those works Rachmaninov seems to have found a core of Russian artistic identity closer to his heart, the stylistic elements of his writing in the Symphonic Dances drawing heavily on his contemporaries, many of whom had found new lives, much like himself, in the west.

Reflections on Life

Within the core of Russian artistic expression in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances lies a deep sense of reminiscence beyond that of style and subject, a more personal manner of remembrance that seems to be the composer ruminating on his life’s work. Hints of his earlier music are found throughout the Symphonic Dances, as well as a continuing fascination with the Dies Irae, a theme the composer returned to throughout his life.

The first apparent quotation is subtle, but clearly foreshadows the returning material that is to come. The transition into the more gentle Lento section of the first movement, in its orchestration and atmosphere, seems to draw on a similar transition in the composer’s 3rd symphony, completed some four years earlier. Both works manifest a decided nostalgia for the Russia he had left behind, and the use of similar musical manipulation speaks, to a certain extent, towards his reminiscences of Russia, but also to his own work, a meditative Rachmaninov reusing a transition he had found especially effective.

The other clear quotation in the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances comes after the climax, as the music suddenly pivots into a magical, ethereal major key following the energy of the recapitulation and the melancholy of the Lento. The melodies in the strings, supported by the tinkling of the piano, harp and glockenspiel, are a modulated version of the 1st subject from the composer’s first symphony. An incredibly poorly received work from a young composer, Rachmaninov’s first symphony and its failure marked the beginning of the composer’s dealings with depression and artistic drought, and its revival in a far more wistful yet content form in the Symphonic Dances represents in some sense Rachmaninov coming to terms with a piece of music that had caused him so much turmoil. The return of the mature composer to a young and fledgling work, with the transformation of the quite strong and blunt melodies of the 1st symphony into the cascading beauty of the Symphonic Dances, marks Rachmaninov coming full circle in his compositional life, the composer himself noting the reminiscence as a key part of his work.

The second movement of the Symphonic Dances bears a more stylistic quotation, mixing the idiom of Prokofiev with one of his favourite works, the Serenade in B-flat major. The waltz of the Dances takes on a more eerie spectacle, initially titled “Twilight” in his sketches, engaging a deep body of lyricism alongside some moments of levity, mostly those resembling his earlier work. Like the quotation of the 1st symphony, Rachmaninov’s use of material from earlier in his life represents to some extent the mature composer reviving ideas from his artistic ‘childhood’.

The third movement in its entirety then constitutes a conflict of quotations, between the traditional Gregorian Chant Dies Irae, and a melodic motif from his “Vespers”, the All-Night Vigil (Lower voices subject in “Blessed art thou, o Lord”). To Rachmaninov, these expressed a battle between life and death, the resurrection motif from his Vespers in diametric opposition to the overbearing Dies Irae, which had seen extensive use as a metric of death throughout western music, as well as in Rachmaninov’s own music. Fragments of both ideas emerge throughout the music, before an eventful climax, denoted with “Hallelujah” in Rachmaninov’s autograph score, in which the motif of life from the Vespers takes its victory against the motif of death through the ages. The vigour of the life theme, held primarily in the violas, is given a distinctly Orthodox Russian character, the Vespers themselves regarded as a final statement of Russian Christianity before the revolutions of 1917. The entrenchment of Rachmaninov’s conception of life in musical material that was associated with the Russia that the composer left behind before its transformation into the Soviet Union represents then Rachmaninov’s ideation of living within a truly Russian idiom (that much is clear to those acquainted with the All-Night Vigil), but also his desire to call upon music from crucial points in his life, the Vespers often considered the last great achievement of the Orthodox Church.

Rachmaninov, in his desire to represent his life in his Symphonic Dances, crafted not only a powerful reminiscence of his musical style, but an exalting tribute to the victory of life over death, not in a strictly religious sense, but in a spiritualistic manner. The Symphonic Dances depicts the composer’s coming-to-terms with the motif of death that had plagued his earlier works, as well as an acceptance and transformation of his youthful music in a more developed form.

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