Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninoff)

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Sergei Rachmaninoff

The Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, is an orchestral suite in three movements. Completed in 1940, it is Sergei Rachmaninoff's last major composition.

The Symphonic Dances allowed him to indulge in a nostalgia for the Russia he had known, much as he had done in the Third Symphony,[1] as well as to effectively sum up his lifelong fascination with ecclesiastical chants. In the first dance, he quotes the opening theme of his First Symphony, itself derived from motifs characteristic of Russian church music. In the finale he quotes both the Dies Irae and the chant "Blessed be the Lord" (Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi) from his All-Night Vigil.[2]


Rachmaninoff composed the Symphonic Dances four years after his Third Symphony, mostly at the Honeyman estate, "Orchard Point", in Centerport, New York, overlooking Long Island Sound. Its original name was Fantastic Dances, with movement titles of "Noon", "Twilight", and "Midnight".[3] While the composer had written to conductor Eugene Ormandy in late August 1940 that the piece was finished and needed only to be orchestrated, the manuscript for the full score bears completion dates of September and October 1940.[3] It was premiered by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to whom it is dedicated, on January 3, 1941.[4]

The work is fully representative of the composer's later style with its curious, shifting harmonies, the almost Prokofiev-like grotesquerie of the outer movements and the focus on individual instrumental tone colors throughout (highlighted by his use of an alto saxophone in the opening dance).[2] The opening three-note motif, introduced quietly but soon reinforced by heavily staccato chords and responsible for much of the movement's rhythmic vitality, is reminiscent of the Queen of Shemakha's theme in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Golden Cockerel,[5] the only music by another composer that he had taken out of Russia with him in 1917.

The Symphonic Dances combine energetic rhythmic sections, reminiscent of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with some of the composer's lushest harmonies. The rhythmic vivacity, a characteristic of Rachmaninoff's late style, may have been further heightened here for two reasons. First, he had been encouraged by the success of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as a ballet in 1939 and wanted to write something with which to follow it up.[3] Second, he may have included material intended for a ballet titled The Scythians, begun in 1914–15 but abandoned before he left Russia.[5] While no manuscript for the ballet is known to have survived, this does not make his quoting the work inconceivable, given Rachmaninoff's remarkable memory. He could remember and play back accurately pieces he had heard years earlier, even those he had heard only once.[6]

The work is remarkable for its use of the alto saxophone as a solo instrument. He was apparently advised as to its use by the American orchestrator and composer Robert Russell Bennett. The composition includes several quotations from Rachmaninoff's other works, and can be regarded as a summing-up of his entire career as a composer. The first dance ends with a modified quotation from his unfortunate First Symphony (1897), here nostalgically rendered in a major key. The ghostly second dance was called "dusk" in some sketches. The final dance is a kind of struggle between the Dies Irae theme, representing Death, and a quotation from the ninth movement of his All-night Vigil (1915), representing Resurrection (the lyrics of the All-night Vigil's ninth movement in fact narrate mourners' discovery of Christ's empty grave and the Risen Lord). The Resurrection theme proves victorious in the end (he wrote the word "Hallelujah" at this place in the score).


The work is scored for an orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, harp, piano, and strings.


  1. (Non) allegro (C minor – C major)
  2. Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) (G minor)
  3. Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – Allegro vivace. (D minor – D major)



Rachmaninoff wrote an arrangement for two pianos concurrently with the orchestral version. The first performance of this arrangement was performed by the composer with Vladimir Horowitz at a private party in Beverly Hills, California in August 1942.[7]


The name Symphonic Dances suggests that the composition can be danced to. Rachmaninoff corresponded with choreographer Michel Fokine about possibly creating a ballet from the Dances. He played the composition for Fokine on the piano; the choreographer responded enthusiastically.[8] Fokine's death in August 1942 put an end to any possible collaboration in this direction.[3]

In the 1980s, Joseph Albano choreographed the dances for the Albano Ballet in Hartford, Connecticut.[9] In 1991, Salvatore Aiello choreographed the Symphonic Dances for the North Carolina Dance Theater. Peter Martins did so in 1994 for the New York City Ballet.[10] Alexei Ratmansky choreographed Symphonic Dances for Miami City Ballet in 2012. [11]Edwaard Liang did so in 2012 for the San Francisco Ballet.[12][13] Liam Scarlett, as Artist In Residence[14] choreographed the Symphonic Dances for The Royal Ballet, performed as part of a Quad billing at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London in 2017.[15]

Two organs[edit]

There exists an unpublished transcription of the entire piece by French composer/performer Jean Guillou, written for two organs.[16]

Piano solo[edit]

There exists an unpublished transcription of the entire piece by the late Israeli pianist/composer/arranger Yahli Wagman, written between 1982-1986, for piano solo.[citation needed]


  1. Eugene Ormandy, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra
  2. Dimitri Mitropoulos, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1942)
  3. Nikolai Golovanov, conducting the USSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra, (1944 – 1st and 3rd mts, 1949 – 2nd mt)
  4. Yevgeny Svetlanov, conducting the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation
  5. Kirill Kondrashin, conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
  6. Mariss Jansons, conducting the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
  7. Yuri Temirkanov, conducting the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
  8. André Previn, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
  9. Vladimir Ashkenazy, conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra
  10. Lorin Maazel, conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker
  11. Sergiu Comissiona, conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
  12. Eiji Oue, conducting the Minnesota Orchestra
  13. Predrag Gosta, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
  14. Enrique Bátiz, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
  15. Robert Spano, conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
  16. Donald Johanos, conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra
  17. Eugene Goossens, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
  18. Sir Simon Rattle, conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker
  19. Martha Argerich & Nelson Goerner, at Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (version for two pianos)
  20. Nina Schumann & Luis Magalhães, TwoPianists Records (Version for two pianos)
  21. Valery Gergiev, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
  22. Semyon Bychkov, conducting the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne
  23. Valery Polyansky, conducting the State Symphony Capella of Russia
  24. Sir Charles Mackerras, conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
  25. Erich Leinsdorf, conducting the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra
  26. Leonard Slatkin, conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
  27. Vladimir Ashkenazy & Andre Previn, Decca Records (version for two pianos)
  28. Martha Argerich & Nelson Freire, at Salzburg Festival 2009 (version for two pianos)


  1. ^ Maes, 272.
  2. ^ a b Norris, New Grove, 2nd ed., 716.
  3. ^ a b c d Harrison 2006, p. 330
  4. ^ Sullivan, Jack. Copyright 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation.
  5. ^ a b Harrison 2006, p. 331
  6. ^ Schonberg 1985, pp. 311–313
  7. ^ Plaskin, Glenn. Horowitz. William Morrow and Company. NY. 1983. page 223.
  8. ^ Fokine's letter to Rachmaninoff, dated 23 September 1940.
  9. ^ Howard, Sharma (July 31, 2014). "Albano Ballet Performing Symphonic Dances One-Night Only". The Hartford Courant. Retrieved 2016-06-06.
  10. ^ Oestreich, James R. (January 30, 1994). "Is There a Ballet In Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-05-10.
  11. ^ {{Cite web|url=
  12. ^ Ossola, Cheryl A. (May 9, 2012). "Program Notes - Program 5:The Fifth Season/Symphonic Dances (World Premiere)/Glass Pieces". San Francisco Ballet. Archived from the original on 2014-01-10. Retrieved 2016-12-16.
  13. ^ Gereben, Janos (March 22, 2012). "S.F. Ballet serves a splendid neoclassical mix". The San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved 2016-12-16.
  14. ^ "Liam Scarlett — People — Royal Opera House". Retrieved 2017-05-02.
  15. ^ "Symphonic Dances — Productions — Royal Opera House". Retrieved 2017-05-02.
  16. ^ Guillou, Jean. Guillou Joue Guillou. Universal Music France, 2010.


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