at a Glance Rachmaninoff completed his Symphonic Dances on October 29, 1940. The first performance was given by the work’s dedicatees, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, on January 3, 1941. Symphonic Dances runs about 35 minutes. Rachmaninoff scored it for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contra-bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, tambourine, bass drum, side drum, cymbals, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, bells), piano, harp, and strings. The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances in January 1942 under Artur Rodzinski. The most recent performances took place in 2014 at Blossom and in 2015 at Severance Hall.
hood . melodies that move by step, or at least confined to narrow intervals, are readily related to plainchant, and such melodies abound in Rachmaninoff’s works . The great opening theme of the Second Piano Concerto is of this kind . It is significant also that a similar theme from the First Symphony is quoted at the end of the first movement of the Symphonic Dances, played in a quiet and dignified manner and standing apart from the strong pulse of the rest of the movement . The first movement is a superb example of how to build the elements of structure from simple materials, in this case a descending triad, weaving under and over firm rhythmic support and planted deeply (with endless chromatic digressions) in the key of C minor . a dialog between oboe and clarinet puts the brakes on for the second section, which is slower, cast in a remote key, and richly melodic . here an alto saxophone introduces one of Rachmaninoff’s endless melodies that grow and reshape themselves in a passionate evolution, often hinting at a Russian flavor . The middle movement is a masterpiece of elegance in a waltz rhythm full of shifts and turns, its main tune being a plaintive melody first presented by english horn and oboe in partnership . The orchestration is dazzling, and a muted brass fanfare punctuates the movement from time to time . The third movement finale combines melancholy wistfulness (in the Lento assai section) with rhythmic exhilaration and virtuosity in the fast sections . The movement is a quest for its theme, which makes the initial Allegro sound fragmentary and restless, with contributions from the piccolo and trumpet that help to form a melodic core . but this is not to be reached until after a lengthy return to the slower tempo, when the cellos press the claim of something close to the Dies irae tune . The Allegro returns for an exuberant mélange of plainchants for the full orchestra . With so much of the finale devoted to gloomy Russian introspection, not remotely suggestive of dance, the whole work comes nearer to being the Fourth Symphony he never wrote, slow movement and finale being persuasively combined . This masterly swansong was composed in quiet seclusion in the summer of 1940 when Rachmaninoff was living in Centerport, new york, in a house overlooking Long Island Sound . —Hugh Macdonald © 2019
About the Music: August 17
Blossom Festival 2019
August 17 – Symphonic Dances August 24 – South Pacific in Concert Labor Day Weekend – The Empire Strikes back