Rachmaninoff is remembered and loved as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. He was born to an aristocratic family and as a child of nine entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Three years later he transferred to the Conservatory at Moscow, from which he graduated with a Gold Medal in 1892. That same year he started on a long concert tour of Russia and appeared in London in 1899 as composer, conductor, and pianist. He paid his first visit to the United States in 1909 and wrote his Third Piano Concerto for that occasion. Various inducements to stay failed to tempt him, and he returned to live in Moscow. However, in 1917 the Russian Revolution drove him abroad, and he was never to see his native country again. He spent most of the rest of his life in the United States and Switzerland and, rather unwillingly, continued to travel widely in Europe and America giving concerts.
Rachmaninoff wrote his last major work, the Symphonic Dances, in the summer and fall of 1940 at his Long Island summer house in Huntington, New York, while vacationing from a busy concert schedule. Rachmaninoff had originally given the three movements the titles “Morning,” “Noon,” and “Evening,” which were to signify the three stages of life: childhood, maturity, and old age. By the time the work premiered, however, he had decided to dispense with all descriptive references.
The first movement is built upon a traditional sonata form. It begins with a pulsing rhythm followed by a capricious main theme. An equally vigorous second theme is derived from the first. The development section is more subdued in nature, and the ballad-like treatment of the thematic material is permeated with Rachmaninoff’s characteristic nostalgia.
The second movement is an extended waltz, even though the typical 3/4 waltz beat is never present. The music is mostly nostalgic and at times even sad and macabre. The movement begins with a sinister fanfare, after which the basic rhythmic pulse is established. Following a short cadenza -like passage, the main theme appears and is developed extensively.
In the final movement, Rachmaninoff enriches his palette with an array of percussive figures, resulting in some electrifying musical punctuation. Conforming to a tripartite (A-B-A) form, the outer sections of the movement get their basic impulse from motivic cells, some of which are derived from Spanish dances such as the jota and the seguidilla. The middle section is nostalgic and lamenting, exhibiting a great deal of chromaticism. Upon the return of the main agitated section, the ancient Dies irae chant from the Gregorian Requiem Mass is heard. This chant melody haunted the composer throughout his career; he first used it in the First Symphony (1895). As if to dispel the invading darkness, Rachmaninoff introduces a new motif in the coda marked “Alliluya” [sic], and the work ends brilliantly.
The composer’s own version of the work for two pianos is performed this evening.
-- Notes by Ileen Zovluck; © 1998 and 2001, Columbia Artists Management, Inc.