Rachmaninoff filled his three Symphonic Dances, op. 45, (1940) with modern-Romantic harmony, including echoes of Tchaikovsky’s Russia and a spicy original tinge not like anyone else’s, not like Rimsky-Korsakov or Scriabin (second prize in composition at the Moscow Conservatory when Rachmaninoff got the first), and very unlike the surging swells of the ever-popular Second Concerto, composed four decades earlier. The first dance demonstrates the bittersweet energy as well as any. It begins in C minor, first tentatively and then confidently as a march, builds to a climax, subsides to a calm and completely different section in C-sharp minor, and eventually returns to a varied da capo of the march, followed by a short Coda-apotheosis in bell-like C major. At this point a new theme appears, a broadly expressive melody that has always struck me with an ineffable sadness, because it is stated only once, never to be heard again, and dies away into gradual pianissimo silence. Years later I learned from several different sources that Rachmaninoff retrieved this lovely melody from the wreckage of his First Symphony, which had suffered a catastrophic premiere performance in 1897, and which the stunned composer then shelved after the critics savaged it. Rachmaninoff subsequently remembered his first symphony as a failed effort, “childish, strained, and bombastic.”
Since Rachmaninoff’s death, the First Symphony has entered the concert canon, rescued, published, and recorded several times, overruling the public judgment at its birth. But its cyclic construction on a basic theme, with an initial motive of four notes matching the intervals of the famous Dies irae, reveals Rachmaninoff’s imaginative sense of symphonic form. In the noisy (and undeniably bombastic) finale, the cyclic theme is expanded to twice its original length, and it is in this displayed form that Rachmaninoff salvaged the melody that appears at the end of Symphonic Dance no. 1. It is as though the melody serves as a gentle marker for five decades of a composer’s fully lived life. In 1940, he probably knew that the Symphonic Dances would be his final composition. There’s something deeply revealing about the unusual tempo marking at the beginning: Non allegro, literally “not happy.”
Another marker of Rachmaninoff’s nostalgia in Symphonic Dance no. 1 is less obvious. The middle section in C-sharp minor, Lento, with its warbling woodwind (including a superb melody for alto saxophone), rises to a warm climax, and then dies down to a middle-register cadence, as the primo tempo starts to reappear. This moment, with creepy bass clarinet, is marked misterioso:
This short passage is very clearly derived from Rachmaninoff’s once world-famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor, which he published in 1892 at the beginning of his career, that still survives in everyone’s piano bench today, and is sometimes still played:
According to the New Grove, Rachmaninoff later regretted that his publisher, Gutheil, neglected to secure international copyright on this Prelude. Rachmaninoff himself wearied of playing it as an encore; but in the Symphonic Dances he was content to salute it, along with the Dies irae and much else, as a memento of his career.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.