Dancing with Rachmaninoff

Central Park Conservatory Garden, Dancing Maidens

Central Park Conservatory Garden, Dancing Maidens

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.

1 IMG_5137_edited-1The 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.

1 IMG_5085_edited-1It 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.

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The photographs were taken in late September, 2014, at the Central Park Conservatory Garden and at Innisfree Garden.

*See David Nice’s clarification on the Blagosloven chant here.

Listening List

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)

Program notes may be found here (Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall) and here (Kennedy Center). A podcast with musical examples may be found here (San Francisco Symphony).

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.

Innisfree Garden

Innisfree Garden


26 thoughts on “Dancing with Rachmaninoff

  1. kylegann

    Interestingly, the Symphonic Dances is the piece that a young John Cage and Morton Feldman walked out on in 1950 when they met and had their first conversation; it followed Webern’s Symphony, and they didn’t want to spoil the mood. That said, I do consider Rachmaninoff a greatly underrated composer. I especially recommend his First Piano Sonata, which I consider superior to the more popular Second. In its second movement the harmonies, as so often in R’s slow movements, just seem to melt, and, while difficult to analyze, they have their own unmistakeable logic.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Kyle: I remember reading about that encounter, but I didn’t remember that the Symphonic Dances was on the program. Webern to Rachmaninoff would have been a pretty big listening leap, that’s for sure. I don’t know Rachmaninoff’s first piano sonata and will definitely give it a listen. Thanks for noting it.

  2. David Nice

    Just to clarify in that know-all-y way of mine, the quotation towards the end of the third dance is from Rachmaninov’s own setting of the ‘Glory be to the father’ (‘Slava otsu’) at the end of ‘Blagosloven yesi’, the ninth sequence of his Vespers. There’s also a major-key, melting transformation of the ‘motto’ theme in the First Symphony, which he thought he’d destroyed, tying in with the ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord’ epigraph the symphony shares with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. A self-quotation or two in the valse triste, too, though at this late hour I forget what.

    As you know, we had this programme from Rattle and the Berlin :Phil at the Proms. Very beautiful as sound, but a bit short on the darker shades. Their fine recording wasn’t around when I did a Building a Library for Radio 3; the choice then was – maybe you guessed – Jarvi and the Philharmonia. Kondrashin and Svetlanov are idiomatic too. Svetlanov told me it was his favourite piece of music. It has an astonishing minimal quality about it: the first movement is made up nearly entirely of arpeggio themes. And now it stands outside time, an authentic chronicle of fear, depression and nightmares versus transcendence and exuberance.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I’m very glad you clarified, and please always feel free! I spent hours trying to figure out what the reference was. The liner notes I found were vague indeed, referencing “alleluia,” but not focusing on which alleluia. The language barrier created additional difficulties, too, as you can imagine. Generally, also, the notes I found tended to state that the quote was from the chant, not the vespers, and that the vespers also drew from the chant. I found that impossible to parse by ear, so I went with what the most reliable-appearing texts indicated. Now, though, with your clarification, I look forward to having another listen to see what I can hear. (I did see that there was a quote from his First Symphony, though I couldn’t hear that one.)

      As for recordings, I felt, after listening to this again, that I had to get a better recording than the one I had. I ended up opting for the Rattle, as it also has what you’d indicated was a terrific performance of The Bells. Interesting indeed that Svetlanov said it was his favorite piece of music. That’s quite a big statement!

      Your last statement is wonderful, a beautiful summing up. Yes, this piece now stands outside time. Exactly right.

      1. David N

        I should have added re the First Symphony ‘at the end of the first dance’ – it’s unmistakeable melt, at the point when the sun comes out in a warm major key, an utter transfiguration of the clenched-fist at the very start of S1 so extraordinary that one hardly believes it’s the same progression of notes. There are some links in the valse triste with the second set of Etudes-Tableaux, which I put alongside the second set of Preludes as my absolute favourite solo-piano Rachmaninov – very, very deep; like Chopin, it makes Liszt the interloper feel fake or flashy by comparison.

        Oddly, delighted as I am that Elizabeth was led to love it from Kyle’s enthusiasm helpful, I find the First Sonata very hard to grasp (and so many notes! It’s a killer. I’d like to hear someone make sense of it live as Lugansky does).

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Wow, that’s a tough one for me to catch by ear, without seeing the notes. I’ve read it’s in the coda, but I’m not sure by ear where that begins, though, from your description, what I think is I’m hearing the First Symphony quote in the final wave of orchestra (starting at about 10:52 in the video), just before the wind(s) passage at 11:16, but that’s (probably quite clearly) a guess. I love that there are links to the second set of Etudes-Tableaux in the second dance–and I’m glad to be reminded of both those and the Preludes, neither of which I’ve listened to in a very long while. I tell you, had I another life to live . . . well, I’d like at least to be able to read a score properly (and of course have access to the ones I want, so hard with US copyright provisions and without being attached to a strong university library).

          1. David N

            There’s a desert island Harmonia Mundi CD of sublime Alexander Melnikov playing the second set of Etudes-Tableaux with the astonishing last song-set Rach wrote (before leaving Russia in 1918) and the Corelli Variations. When I did a Radio 3 Building a Library, I chose Rustem Hayroudinoff, who’s recorded both sets of ETs, but really there was nothing to choose between him and Melnikov; I’d want both.

  3. newleafsite

    Well, Sue, your conversation here has drawn me in, and I don’t easily love Rachmaninoff. Your title intrigued me; I stayed for the beauty of your pictures, and liked the music better than anyone might have expected. You and David may have spotted me as a person who would be susceptible to music described as capable of melting .. so I have now done additional listening to the recommendation from Kyle. He is right, and it takes my heart. — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: So pleased to see you here. Your comment is what I always hope for–for an authentic musical connection made. That second movement of the First Piano Sonata Kyle noted is lovely, isn’t it? Delicate, meditative, one can sail off in a dream so easily, no? I suspect you may find Rachmaninoff’s music for solo piano a rich vein to mine.

      If you have time and inclination to explore further, David has offered two wonderful recommendations above (the second set of Etudes-Tableaux and the second set of Preludes), and I will add a favorite of mine, the second movement of Piano Sonata No. 2. Here is a video of Marc-Andre Hamelin playing 2 Preludes and Piano Sonata No. 2. http://youtu.be/mqiXwga2XKs (Each piece is time stamped in the video comments, and the second movement of No. 2 comes in at about 14:08-19:36.)

  4. angela

    lovely.lovely.lovely. Innisfree Garden photo at end is sublime! Never had issue with Rachmaninoff, though, I think I prefer his concertos over symphonic works…but that is me with every composer – I prefer the beauty of one instrument’s range vs the whole cast. I thought of you this weekend reading the Arts section of the Times – a major blurb about an up and comer made me think, bet Sue goes to that! lucky you, don’t you just love New York in the fall….

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: Ah, how nice! I’m so pleased you liked that last photograph. I never am sure what I’ve got until I look at the photos on the computer, and that one just seemed to glow. To your comment about “the beauty of one instrument’s range vs the whole cast,” I think I know what you mean. (I tended for a long while to choose concertos over symphonies for just that reason.)

      One of the reasons I particularly love this piece is the way he uses individual instruments, both in solo and small ensemble roles. In those passages, the music then becomes more of a conversation among individual, distinct voices. In the video I posted, you can hear this right at the beginning, as a falling three-note phrase is repeated four times, each time descending to a lower register solo wind (the last time with a perfectly placed added note). In the first dance, the most gorgeous example of all of a solo instrument taking center stage has to be the melody on solo alto sax, which comes in at 3:35 (this is the music he’d apparently originally intended as a song for Marian Anderson). To hear this passage in its context, which also has lovely phrases for solo and small ensemble winds, start at about 2:55, and listen until at least 5:15. This is apparently the only time Rachmaninoff used an alto sax in one of his works.

      I do love New York City in the fall–and up here, too. I don’t get down to the city often enough to get to many concerts–so many pass me by, but I do certainly take advantage as best I can!

      1. angela

        My apologies for a late reply – never saw your reply til now – must say that this piece you mentioned is beautiful – the phrasing (if that is what it is called) is a touch romantic with melancholy (to my ears) until about 8 min mark. Amazing to hear the alto – it was not my instrument of choice, but leftover from a brother’s choice, so I played for a couple of years – never could I have imagined it in an orchestration!

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          angela: Well, first off, I love learning that you at one time played alto sax! I’m so pleased you spotted my reply and that you were able to take the time to listen. I was a bit concerned I’d done another “overload” thing there–and please never feel obliged! I was delighted to discover that alto sax line, and so pleased to know that you’ve enjoyed it too. Yes, the sax isn’t so common in orchestration, though there’s more of it than one might think, and these days there seems to be more and more interest in taking advantage of that sound.

          1. David N

            Rach’s score reminds us of the alto sax’s singing qualities, and before that we’re reminded of its French origins in Delibes’s Sylvia (the barcarolle), Bizet’s L’Arlesienne music (L’Innocent’s music) and Massenet’s Werther (Charlotte’s ‘Pleurez, mes larmes’).

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              David: Thank you for all these references. I’ve followed the trail of them, and for anyone who’d like to take a listen, a Spotify playlist of all three may be found here: http://open.spotify.com/user/prufrocksdilemma/playlist/7cPy1OHyQ4wS5fmZPs92fi. If I am hearing accurately (and I may well not be), the alto sax comes in at about 3:20 in the Bizet, at about 1:10 in Delibes, and at the beginning in the Massenet. The three pieces may also be found on YouTube at these links: Bizet, http://youtu.be/bc59sC2IJnI; Delibes, http://youtu.be/rMzye7P4Y8U; Massenet, http://youtu.be/0FFNtET0vlo. The Massenet is particularly beautiful. (David, please don’t hesitate to correct me on all this, and thank you again, so much.)

              1. David N

                Yes, I’m sure without checking that’s right. We have a French friend, a very talented mezzo who when we last met her was in the chorus of the Paris Opera, Patricia Guigui. In freshly staged scenes from operas taken out of context in collaboration with students of Wimbledon College of Art (I was Don Alfonso in the Cosi Act One finale, Jeremy inter aia sang a duet from Rossini’s Italian Girl with Patricia on a seesaw…), she not only sang Charlotte’s aria but also played the sax in the introduction – something you’ll not see in any production, I fancy.

  5. Steve Schwartzman

    From the fall of 1974 through the spring of 1976 I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. Once I attended a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos. One of the pianists was named Gary Towlen, whom I didn’t know, but who, like me, was from Long Island and went to Columbia. I remember that in his introductory comments about the piece he said he placed Rachmaninoff at the top ten of the second tier of great classical music composers.

    Last year I got curious about what happened to Gary Towlen, whom I hadn’t heard of again, so I looked online and found he’d died of AIDS in 1988:


    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: An interesting slice of history from so many perspectives. I wonder who else appeared on those lists? I did discover these two entries in the annals of the Idle Hour Artists Colony:

      Claude Gonvierre
      Lived in the Colony from 1939 −1963
      Colony Address: Clock Tower on Tower Mews
      His protege was Gary Towlen. The Clock Tower garden is dedicated to Gonvierre’s friend and mentor: Sergei Rachmaninoff.

      Gary Towlen
      Lived in the Colony: 1963 −1970 Colony Address: Clock Tower on Tower Mews
      Inherited Clock Tower from Claude Gonvierre


  6. shoreacres

    What a beautifully written post, Susan: perfectly understandable even to someone like me, who loves to listen, but generally is just as happy with fewer rather than more technical details. My lack, no doubt: but there’s only so many hours in the day to pursue all of this. With you as a guide, I must say I’m learning more about these composers than I have before, and greatly enjoying it.

    On the other hand, it was bound to happen eventually. You’ve focused on a piece I particularly love! While I never had the opportunity to perform it, in my very abbreviated stint as a music major, I did have the chance to sit in with the college orchestra and rehearse the second dance. I still can pick out the clarinet parts a mile away. It was wonderful!

    The sculpture of the dancers is quite wonderful, too. Such movement — and such a smile on that one.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Well what a pleasure all this is! Rachmaninoff does give the wind players wonderful roles in this piece, doesn’t he? There really can’t be anything like playing a piece to get you inside of it in understanding. I know what you mean about the technical details–I lack even an abbreviated time as a music major, so have only a high school music theory course to lean on (very unstable, and very old). It takes me hours to ferret out the least detail.* So, yes, most important is to enjoy the music and the dancing maidens!

      *( As in trying to nail down that “Blagosloven” reference–even finding the name of it was hard–and as you may have seen from David’s comment, the information I found may not have been precisely right (but close–just a question, it seems, of whether Rachmaninoff was quoting directly from the chant or from his Vespers).)

  7. wanderer

    I happened to be reading this at the same time Sue (I happen to be reading too little of too much too often) and so was drawn to comparing the Dancing Maidens with Matisse’s Dance, and interestingly they come from the same time, 1910. I thought the flared (bronze) skirts unattractive until I began to imagine the effect with water though still think the fluency and liberation of the nude far the better.

    The BPO, Stravinsky anything (I’m mad about Firebird and my latest purchases include the Concertgebouw / Jansons in stunning form and brilliant live sound) and Rach anything would have had me ticketing in a heartbeat, and I wonder why this wasn’t a concert you would have chosen.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: Certainly, the Schott sculpture in Central Park is of a far more conservative bent (his works are characterized as neo-Baroque, apparently). Fascinating to think that it was completed at the same time as the Matisse. Here’s a photo of the original (the Central Park is from sculpture was made from a cast of the original, I gather), with much more dramatic water jets: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Burg_Schlitz_Nymphenbrunnen.jpg

      To your question, I have no sensible answer. I don’t have the opportunity to hear nearly as many live performances as I would like, and I tend to choose performances by orchestras/conductors I admire programming works I’ve either been focusing on and haven’t heard live (Shostakovich symphonies loom large on my docket this year, and I’m on the lookout for Sibelius’s 7th, e.g.) or that are new/not as familiar, but of strong interest to me, as I know a live performance is, for me, the best way to “get inside” the work (this year, a concert of Nielsen Symphonies 5 & 6 fell into that category). The Rachmaninoff didn’t happen to fit into either category, but the experience of hearing it live has me rethinking how to choose concerts going forward.

      Firebird (the complete; also 1910, I note) certainly had its moments, but didn’t work for me as a whole. I’m not altogether convinced the complete Firebird works as a concert piece without a good grasp of the extramusical program (which I don’t have). Also, I have to say, compared to Rachmaninoff’s orchestration, that in the Firebird paled. A friend noted to me later that, by the time Stravinsky prepared the Firebird Suite of 1919, he’d had many more years of experience with orchestration. On my long to do list is to listen to the two side-by-side and see what I hear. (I’m aware I’m probably committing several heresies here, and I’m certainly no expert; this is just my very individual response to the performance.)

  8. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    the ‘Dancing maidens’ radiate so much joy, joie de vivre!
    And your beautiful autumn pictures make me melt with adoration. Do you know that it was said one could not photograph sparrows? In Berlin, city of sparrows, I found out that one can – but your photo with the bunch of them taking a bath in a fountain basin tops mine by far!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Those Dancing Maidens do radiate joy, don’t they? I had no idea about the sparrows–in the case of this photograph, the biggest challenge was to find a clear spot among everyone with their cameras trying to take the same photo I took!

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