Symphonic Dances, op. 45

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            Those who create art, whether in the performing arts or in the visual arts, inevitably find their personal “niche” in matters of style.  And it is of little consequence whether or not their artistic orientation is a conscious personal choice, or one seemingly imposed by their audiences and by professional critics.   Simply put, there are artists whose voice naturally is to work within tradition and commonly-understood artistic language; they strive to develop that tradition to new levels of meaning through their own talent and personal vision.   Others make a total commitment to artistic truth arrived at through new voices, new styles, new languages.   Every museum and gallery of art, and every concert hall is testimony to this essential dichotomy.   And it must be admitted, that there is a universal prejudice among intellectuals—especially those who subconsciously view the arts as they do technology—that the new is necessarily the good.   The latest styles are more sophisticated, the thinking goes, hence more relevant, and old styles should be left with the dead artists that created them.  This popular view was dominant among the cognoscenti during most of the twentieth century, but is beginning to moderate, as a more liberal acceptance of diverse artistic styles now is more common than previously—in all the arts.

            Like J. S. Bach, who upon his death was looked upon as a more or less old fuddy-duddy (now we know better, of course), Rachmaninoff has borne his share of criticism for having composed in a hopelessly old-fashioned style, long after its relevance.  His compositions are the last major representatives of vivid Russian Romanticism—long after that style was presumed dead and buried.  Yet, like Bach, his musical genius, his talent, and his strong belief in the validity of his art all led him to create a legacy that took “old-fashioned-style” to a natural and valid high point of achievement.  While a child of the nineteenth century, he died almost at the midpoint of the twentieth, secure in his success, and secure in the world’s enduring appreciation of his “dated” style.  Although Rachmaninoff left Russia after the Revolution, never to return, and lived in a variety of places—at his death in 1943, he was living in Beverly Hills—he lived as a Russian all of his life.  That is, he and his wife maintained a home with Russian servants, spoke Russian there, and lived with Russian customs. 

            His Symphonic Dances was his last composition, completed in 1940, and was composed while summering in Centerport, NY, a hamlet on the famed “Gold Coast” of Long Island.   He spent time there to be near his brother, who was working at a well-known cancer research center nearby. Symphonic Dances was given its première by the Philadelphia Orchestra early in 1941.  While true to his orientation to the late romantic idiom outlined above, his last work, nevertheless, shows evidence of an evolving sensitivity to progressive twentieth-century musical styles.  While the three movements evince a clear and coherent musical style, they contain a wealth of references to a variety of musical and extra-musical elements.  Moreover, while much of the traditional Rachmaninoff “sound” is prevalent, we hear new textures and harmonies not characteristic of the arch-romantic.  Quotations from works that he had composed many decades before are interspersed with melodic elements from Russian ecclesiastical chant, modern, jagged rhythms, and even a solo for saxophone, of all things.

            The first movement begins deceptively and coyly with a few quiet woodwind motifs over light tripping strings—and then hammer strokes from the full band sets the real mood.   Memorable melodies one will not hear yet, for here, as in most of the movement, short little aphoristic motifs are the building blocks.   From time to time the composer skillfully augments the percussion section with the piano.  After establishing a steady rhythmic dance tempo, the middle section is introduced by a variety of delicate woodwind solos, working over an important, short motif.  This prefaces the impressive, long lyrical solo for the alto saxophone, often in dialogue with its friends in the woodwind section—the first characteristic Rachmaninoff tune of the movement.  The string section then picks up the soulful saxophone tune and spins it out in the composer’s familiar style.  A soft, ominous transition in the low instruments takes us back to the opening tempo, motifs, and mood.   Before this return finishes the movement, there’s an odd moment where an apparently new “big lyrical Rachmaninoff tune” seemingly appears out of nowhere.  This beautiful tune is actually a brief   quotation from his disastrous first symphony from 1895.  The condemnation of it was so severe (“. . . from the conservatory of Hell.”) that Rachmaninoff suffered a psychological breakdown.  So, forty-five years later, in old age, he is apparently thumbing his nose at long dead critics.  The movement goes from this to end quietly.

            The middle movement is a dark, introspective waltz in the tradition of Sibelius’ famed Valse triste.   Rarely loud, always gently swaying, it's a dark affair with frequent ruminative suspensions of the tempo.  The spectral mood is established by muted brass, soft cascades of woodwind scales against the sotto voce strings, and even a “Devil’s fiddle” evocation.  Rachmaninoff originally entitled this movement “Dusk,” and the crepuscular atmosphere of the music perfectly captures the moment.

            The last movement is much more than just the third dance; it's a full-blown symphonic movement in the form of a dynamic scherzo.   After a brief, slow introduction with mysterious chords in the winds, the driving scherzo bursts forth, with a dash of “ecclesiastical” chimes foretelling something of the nature of the coming contest.  Fundamentally, the movement is built around a contrast between death and immortal life, but it’s not always a dark affair.  The musical material of death is the familiar Dies iræ from the Requiem Mass, and Rachmaninoff uses the chant from the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter from his beloved Vespers as the affirmation of life.  Of course, the movement builds on all this, but these are the basic materials from which the composer weaves a stunning, expansive movement.  The tempos, the moods, modes—major and minor, and orchestration:  all is a kaleidoscope of symphonic proportions.   The slow middle contrasting section usual to scherzos begins with dark presentiments, but soon grows into an affirmative, soaring affair so familiar in Rachmaninoff’s music.  A little fanfare in the oboes heralds the return of the driving scherzo as the motifs of death and life continue their struggle.  A smashing conclusion carried by the composer’s mastery of huge sonic canvases of orchestral color and driving rhythms is inevitable.   When one considers the life’s work of Rachmaninoff, a more fitting last composition cannot be imagined.

--Wm. E. Runyan

2015 William E. Runyan