Fall color is coming on in the hills, and the concert season has begun. I have a long list of potential concerts about which I’ve done almost nothing but order a small subscription to the New York Philharmonic. In the end—and it’s not unusual—my concert season started with something I hadn’t planned: a friend had an extra ticket to Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky’s complete Firebird at Carnegie Hall. It’s not only something I didn’t have on my list, but also something I’d not have chosen on my own.
I remember reading, sometime back, that listening to Rachmaninoff is like receiving a postcard fifty years too late. At the time, I was on a Rachmaninoff binge of sorts. I don’t remember what all I listened to, but some pieces stood out, and the Symphonic Dances was one. As I am wont to do, I set it all aside at some point and went on to something else . . . until now.
The Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) is the last piece Rachmaninoff wrote before he died in 1943. It’s the only piece he composed in the United States, where he lived for the last years of his life. Its premiere in Philadelphia went well, but in New York, the work “was panned . . . . Rachmaninoff died believing that it would never find the kind of popularity his earlier music had so easily won.”
I already knew I liked the Symphonic Dances, and I already knew I’d listen to this work from time to time even if it wasn’t “au courant.” But what I didn’t recognize, until I heard and watched the live performance, was what an exquisitely imagined work it is, down to the smallest detail.
It wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t understand the difference between instrumentation and orchestration (the former is the list of instruments employed in a piece, the latter is how they’re used). For those of us who aren’t technically trained, don’t have ready access to scores, or wouldn’t know how to read them if we did, a live performance (or, failing that, a video of a live performance) often tells us more than ears alone can take in. In the case of the Symphonic Dances, we can see, as well as hear, the entrance of the alto saxophone in the first dance on a wistful melody that Rachmaninoff is said to have at first intended for Marian Anderson to sing. And we can see, as well as hear, the final sounding of the tam-tam as the last dance comes to a close . . . and so much else.
With some poking around, it was possible to discover that the last dance might well depict a struggle between death and resurrection in which resurrection wins. In that dance, Rachmaninoff drew on the Roman Catholic Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) and the Russian chant, Blagosloven esi Gospodi (Blessed Art Thou, O Lord)*, for themes. As Michael Steinberg wrote,
Perhaps it is not too much to imagine that the symbolic victory of the Blagosloven theme over the Dies irae is Rachmaninoff’s own affirmation of the faith that ‘Death shall be swallowed up in Victory.’
Rachmaninoff said of the Symphonic Dances, “I don’t know how that happened. That was probably my last flicker.” I beg to differ: it was his last blaze of radiant light. After listening to and watching the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance, I’d say that, unlike that postcard, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances arrived just in time.
*See David Nice’s clarification on the Blagosloven chant here.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940)
Instrumentation (Orchestra): Piccolo, 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, English Horn, 2 Clarinets (B♭), Bass Clarinet (B♭), Alto Saxophone, 2 Bassoons, Contrabassoon, 4 Horns (F), 3 Trumpets (C), 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Triangle, Tambourine, Side Drum, Cymbals, Bass Drum, Tam-Tam,
3 Tubular Bells (D, E♭, F♯), Xylophone, Glockenspiel, Harp, Piano, Strings (from IMSLP)
On Spotify (Neeme Järvi/Philharmonia Orchestra)
Also on Spotify: An example of the Dies Irae may be found here, and examples of the Blagosloven esi Gospodi chant and Rachmaninoff’s Vespers IX (The Story of the Resurrection), which uses the chant, here. Transliterations and a translation into English of the chant and Vespers IX text may be found here and here.
On YouTube (Edward Garner/Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra) (time stamps are: first dance, 0:00; second dance, 12:10; third dance, 23:15)
It’s also possible, at least for a time, to hear Simon Rattle conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in the Symphonic Dances at Carnegie Hall here. (time stamps are: first dance, 11:00; second dance, 22:58; third dance, 32:55)
Credits: Quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.