Rachmaninov (1873-1943), Symphonic Dances op.45 (1940)

The Symphonic Danses op.45 (1940) are Rachmaninov's last composition. They were written in America, 45 years after his first Symphony in d (1895).

The Symphonic Dances are no program music. Rachmaninov does not claim to tell a literary story or to depict psychological states of mind. It is absolute music - the notes tell the story and the musical story is about dance music. But when saying that I have to add that Rachmaninov in the first and the third movement gave the music a strong personal signature.

The beautiful melody that all of a sudden appears at the end of the first movement turns out to be an autobiographical voice from the past. These are the facts that you need to know for a better understanding. Rachmaninov quotes the main theme of his 1th symphony. The premiere (1897) of the First Symphony (1895) was disastrous for several reasons:  "The Symphony was insufficiently rehearsed, the orchestra was ragged, basic stability in tempos was lacking, many errors in the orchestral parts were uncorrected; but the chief thing that ruined the work was the lifeless, superficial, bland performance, with no flashes of animation, enthusiasm or brilliance of orchestral sound." Well informed tongues claim that conductor Glasunov had been drunk which he often was. The hostile reception of the symphony had a disastrous impact on Rachmaninov. He suffered a psychological collapse and was unable to compose until 1899, when family members and friends convinced him to seek hypnotic therapy with Dr. Nikolai Dahl. The product of these meetings was the Second Piano Concerto, premiered in 1900. The Symphony was never played again during Rachmaninov's lifetime.                                                                                                                                                          The recollection of this premiere must have been very painful for the composer. Maybe the sul ponticello of the strings that announces the quote from the Symphony at the end of the first movement must be understood as a recollection of that pain. But the way Rachmaninov incorporates the theme in the Symphonic Dances is characterized by a sublime detachement.

The last movement also bears a highly personal stamp when Rachmaninov quotes Blagosloven yeci, Gospodi (nr.9) from his great religious a capella work, the All-Night Vigil (also entitled Vespers) op.37 (1915). This All-Night Vigil has been praised as the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church. The text of this vesper refers to Christ's victory over human sin (dead) and his redeeming us from hell:
The Angel host was astonished, when they saw you among the dead, yet you destroyed its power, Savior; and you yourself delivered Adam and brought us freedom from hell.                                                                                                         When the Blagosloven yeci, Gospodi-episode is played for the second time the composer wrote "Alliluya" in the score. This simply indicates the 'doxology', a short hymn of praises added to the end of canticles, psalms, and hymns. A Christian tradition tjat goes back to a similar practice in the Jewish synagogue. Maybe Rachmaninov's intention was to express his gratitude to the Lord for his beautiful life. Like Beethoven wrote in his String Quartet Opus 132 'A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity'.

At the first rehearsal for the premiere (1941) Eugene Ormandy, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, remarked on the extreme difficulty of some of the bowings indicated for the string players. “Ah yes,” said Rachmaninov, “Fritz did those for me”— the great violinist Fritz Kreisler and Rachmaninov had been friends since 1918.

1th movement: Non allegro                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The first movement has a strong thematic unity which makes understanding the musical discourse very easy from the first hearing. There is one main idea, a small rhythmic motive (a) of three notes (a minor triad), that is introduced in the woodwinds in the first couple of bars. What they play sounds as a rhetorical argument: shall we make music with this idea? There is a short deliberation , an agitated passage in the stringband (you can see it, the strings play downstrokes only) with woodwinds/horns and an impressive forceful contribution of the timpani player. And there is the answer: yes, this is the theme! (celli/bassi, bassoons)

 

Long stretches of motivic development follow in an attractive improvisational style. The same rhetorical argument appears in the woodwinds. An elegant interplay of oboe solo and clarinet solo (major and minor triads) becomes the background of  the b-theme, played by the alto saxophone (his only action in the S.D.) and later restated by first violins and celli in octaves. It is a romantic melody, with a great nostalgic longing and a strong Russian feel:

A middle-section with development character follows, until the same downstroke passage in the strings mentioned above forms the bridge to the short recapitulation of the a-theme. Instead of the b-theme: all of a sudden an unexpected painful sound is heard in the strings playing sul ponticello (near the bridge). :

Piano, harp and campanelli (glockenspiel) play a background that suggests the sound of small bells. 

2. Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)

The ternary A-B-A form is underlined by a threefold introduction to each section in the brass. The movement is a seductive sequence of romantic walz melodies. The orchestral texture has many ornamental garlands (always in the accompanying voices) that suggest that we are listening to a composer who was a brilliant pianist. His remaining unemployed fingers want to join playing and got some work to do in a virtuoso style.

3. Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – Allegro vivace.

The movement starts with an introduction in slow tempo. The oboe and the clarinet express a romantic longing for the unattainable. Than all of a sudden the decision is taken: let us dance!                                                                                                          The first dance theme by its rhythmic structure and Phrygian scale has a strong Spanish flavour:

Many other themes and motives follow. I want to mention one important theme (violas) that is introduced by two bars of descending scales:

The viola melody is the quote from Rachmaninov's Night Vigil op.37. But it is not a direct quote. In fact Rachmaninov paraphrases the theme from his Vespers by constructing a new theme based on its melodic contours. Much more important is the attractive dance character that Rachmaninov achieves by changing the legato style of the choral singing in staccato playing. The music sounds as a bright renaissance dance, a Russian saltarello. After this last the Symphonic Dances in more brisk tempo come to a triumphant ending.

Footnotes.

Beethoven,15e strijkkwartet Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit