Last works are often romanticized in the popular imagination. Think of W.A. Mozart’s Requiem, Franz Schubert’s last piano sonatas, or the late string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven. Some are capstones to a life’s work, while others seem to look beyond this world. J.S. Bach signed off with both: the B-minor Mass as the dramatic apotheosis of his sacred music, then The Art of Fugue as a kind of cerebral coda.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances has a place alongside these pieces, and is one of the most deliberate of final works. He left Russia in 1917 following the Revolution, and spent most of his time in New York, France, and at his Swiss villa. By 1940 he had relocated permanently to the United States to escape the Second World War, and had not composed a piece in almost four years. He wrote the Symphonic Dances that summer at a rented estate on Long Island, and then hung it up as a composer, despite performing for another two years. It was the single exception to six years of compositional silence.
But what an exception. He took everything recognizably Rachmaninoff—the blankets of melody, sly harmonies, saturated colors, and Russian Orthodox chants—and packed it into three taught movements. Stylistically, Rachmaninoff was always a composer of the long 19th century, but he had become a man of the 20th, interested in cars, speedboats, and airplanes. In these dances, he allowed some of that streamlined luxury into his plush Romanticism.
The piece’s origins lie in a proposed collaboration with Michel Fokine, the Russian choreographer who had created The Firebird and Petrushka with Igor Stravinsky in 1910–11, and later immigrated to New York. He had choreographed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1937, and the composer was eager to work directly with him on something new. He envisioned a piece called Fantastic Dances with movements called Midday, Twilight, and Midnight. He began to sketch it out for two pianos, but when the project fell through, he changed course and made it a concert work for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, who premiered it in January 1941.
The first dance is high-strung, mechanized. But after several minutes it peters out, giving way to one of the most breathtaking moments in the orchestral repertoire. After a brief silence, the oboe and clarinet waver quietly, and then the alto saxophone enters with an aching solo that feels like it was discovered more than it was written. The warmth of the melody contrasts with the coldness of its scoring, with duets and trios of woodwinds ingeniously dovetailed. For nearly three whole minutes the winds play alone: it is intimate yet faraway, endless but somehow fleeting. Long withheld, the strings finally take up the melody in lush octaves, accompanied by piano and harp. When the outpouring is exhausted, Rachmaninoff gears back up to the quick, stoic opening, and it never comes back (neither does the saxophone). But the end of the movement introduces another melody in the strings—this one borrowed from his First Symphony, whose trainwreck premiere in 1897 had sent him into psychotherapy. Its brief, gentle reappearance here is Rachmaninoff closing the book on a painful chapter of his youth.
The second dance is a Viennese waltz, which by the mid 20th century already conjured nostalgia for a decadent, aristocratic past. Rachmaninoff’s take is not a bitter, ironic twist on the style, but more a half-memory of a Tchaikovsky ballet.
After a brief procession of halting fragments and tolling bells, the finale hastens into an excited flurry. Might Rachmaninoff even have borrowed some syncopations, scrubby strings, and touches of xylophone from the young Aaron Copland? But the most prominent tune (first heard in the piccolos and then violas) is actually adapted from Rachmaninoff’s own Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi (Blessed Art Thou, O Lord) from All-Night Vigil (1915). He takes a piece of Orthodox liturgy and remakes it as a jaunty orchestral groove.
A lugubrious interlude melts into a cradle song, and then Rachmaninoff resets to the frenetic opening. This time it culminates in the Dies irae—the Latin chant from the Requiem Mass—which we realize had been insinuating itself all along. But Rachmaninoff treats it not with dread, but with awe, then playfulness. A fateful drumroll reintroduces the gutsy Russian chant, after which Rachmaninoff simply writes “Alliluya” at the top of the score. Never has death’s dance been met with such joy and swagger.