Concert Notes

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances

Notes by TŌN trumpet player Giulia Rath

When I think of Sergei Rachmaninoff, an image that immediately pops into my head is a lush forest meadow brimming with color from countless different flowers. His rich harmonies, expressiveness, and vibrant orchestral colors make his music a joy to listen to. Symphonic Dances is no different. Written in 1940 as one of his last compositions, the piece almost feels like a reflection of Rachmaninoff’s life as a composer. Throughout the work he quotes some of his earlier compositions, including his Third Symphony and, very prominently, All-Night Vigil.

Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 in Russia and left the country after the October Revolution in 1917. After his departure, he appeared mostly as a performer with extensive tours throughout Europe and the U.S. During this time his compositional output slowed down significantly. In fact, Symphonic Dances was the only piece he composed in its entirety in the U.S. While you can most definitely still hear Rachmaninoff’s Russian roots, I feel the work has a lot of American influence. The music overall is optimistic and has less of the nostalgia that I would otherwise associate with Rachmaninoff, as it alternates between energetic rhythmic sections and lush, expressive harmonies.

The piece is divided into three movements. The first starts with a three-note motive set over a strong rhythmic pulse first introduced by the violins. A clarinet-oboe duet brings us to the second theme, performed by the alto saxophone. Rachmaninoff’s use of the instrument is extremely unique and at the time had only been used in a few other compositions. The orchestration remains very light and reminds me of chamber music. After the strings also get a turn at this beautiful melody, the opening theme returns.  The second movement is a waltz that almost sounds like movie music and less like something I would want to dance to. The meter changes frequently and Rachmaninoff marks rubatos at different points, making it slightly off balance. The last movement juxtaposes the Dies Irae and fragments from the All-Night Vigil. The whole movement feels like a back-and-forth between light and dark, life and death. At the end, life conquers death as the Vigil reappears to close out the piece.