Symphonic Dances

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Rachmaninov's trio of Symphonic Dances (1940) represents the composer's last completed work, and the only one he wrote wholly in the United States. The first of the three dances, marked Non allegro - Lento - Tempo I, begins with a vibrant three-note motif that makes its way through the orchestra, from woodwinds to strings to brass, repeating, descending, ascending, climaxing in a proclamation of the theme in the strings, accompanied by tambourine. The slow middle section unfolds with an expansive melody on alto saxophone, soon taken up with warmth and passion by the strings. After a return to the main material, the central theme is recalled briefly as the movement draws to a quiet close.

The Andante con moto recalls characteristics of both the second movement of the composer's Piano Concerto No. 3 (1935) and Ravel's La Valse (1919-1920). Commencing in a slow waltz rhythm, the music momentarily hesitates before resuming the initial mood with a subdued, suave, nocturnal theme. Toward the center of the movement the music again becomes hesitant, its direction seemingly uncertain. The waltz theme returns, now becoming anxious and restive as the tempo increases. The climax is follwed by a subdued ending.

The Lento assai finale begins hesitantly, unhurriedly, lurching ahead and then slowing. With the entrance of "Dies irae" -- the plainchant requiem theme that Rachmaninov used so effectively in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) -- the tempo picks up and the music takes on a brilliance that is anything but gloomy or funereal. After a climactic episode the music slows, seemingly suspended in an ethereal state. Gradually, the mood becomes reflective, and the textures darken. "Dies Irae" returns amid even greater color and majesty, as if the composer were willingly and happily embracing a fate he knew was near. The music builds to a powerful and brilliant climax as the "Dies irae" theme is proudly stated again and again. In what seems to suggest an ominous close, the orchestra delivers crushing chords, punctuated by a thundering gong stroke whose fading strains appear to bring the work to an end. From this gesture, however, emerges a quotation from Rachmaninov's own Vespers (1915) that corresponds to the Resurrection of Christ.

While the composer worked on the orchestration of the Symphonic Dances, he also sketched out a version for two pianos that is generally a literal and faithful transcription. The work in its full orchestral clothing was premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on January 4, 1941.