Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

by Max Derrickson

Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff
(Born in Semyonovo, Russia in 1873; died in Beverly Hills, CA in 1943)

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
1. Non allegro
2. Andante com moto (Tempo di valse)
3. Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – Allegro vivace


Rachmaninoff always wanted to write a ballet, which is hardly surprising given that Tchaikovsky – the composer that reinvented the modern ballet – was his mentor.  His first sketches for one occurred in 1915, not long after his compatriot Igor Stravinsky shocked and changed the music world with his own ballet The Rite of Spring.  Rachmaninoff’s project never came to fruition, and he instead focused on another kind of work far removed from dance, his a cappella choral masterpiece, All-Night Vigil (1915).  Rachmaninoff’s dream of creating a ballet never left him, however, but it just seemed that life stepped in the way.

As a virtuoso pianist, much of Rachmaninoff’s life was spent either preparing for or being on lengthy concert tours.  Eleven hour days of practice were common for him for the many months leading up to his tours, and he inevitably composed less and less.  Still, a ballet beckoned, and in 1939 Rachmaninoff began reimagining his 1915 ballet sketches into a full-blown orchestral dance suite.  He completed his Symphonic Dances in 1940, while on yet another concert tour, and it has become one Rachmaninoff’s most beloved creations.

Although there is no dancing to accompany the music, one of the great delights of the Dances is just how inviting they are for stage dance, suggesting a grand leap here or a pirouette there.  But the title Rachmaninoff chose, Symphonic Dances, ultimately speaks to their musical construction.  The initial theme of the first movement [. . .].

The declarative opening section in the first movement is [. . .] .  The second movement is a waltz, but much like Ravel’s La Valse (1922), this one comes frantically unhinged, turning genteelness into mania.  [. . .] In the third movement finale, an amazing transformation develops [. . .].

Symphonic Dances would be Rachmaninoff’s last composition, and he likely knew it, having been diagnosed with an aggressive melanoma during its creation, and dying soon after its premiere.  This may explain its many references to older works and composers, as a sort of musical testament.  The first of these echoes [. . .] And, perhaps in homage to his roots, directly before that symphonic reference, an eerie whole tone scale introduces its musical ghost, a scale that one of his old Russian compatriots, Rimsky-Korsakov, used in his [. . .].

The last movement is especially peopled with musical memories.  Throughout his career, Rachmaninoff was fascinated with the Dies irae, the ancient chant [. . .] Once it has finally done so, Rachmaninoff writes in his score “Alliluya” and a new theme emerges, [. . .]  He inscribed the end of his score with the words “I thank thee, Lord.”  And with [. . .]