The Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, is an orchestral suite in three movements. Completed in 1940, it is Sergei Rachmaninoff's last composition. The work summarizes Rachmaninoff's compositional output.
The work is fully representative of the composer's later style with its curious, shifting harmonies, the almost Prokofiev-like grotesquerie of the outer movements and the focus on individual instrumental tone colors throughout (highlighted by his use of an alto saxophone in the opening dance). The opening three-note motif, introduced quietly but soon reinforced by heavily staccato chords and responsible for much of the movement's rhythmic vitality, is reminiscent of the Queen of Shemakha's theme in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Golden Cockerel, the only music by another composer that he had taken out of Russia with him in 1917.
The Dances allowed him to indulge in a nostalgia for the Russia he had known, much as he had done in the Third Symphony, as well as to effectively sum up his lifelong fascination with ecclesiastical chants. In the first dance, he quotes the opening theme of his First Symphony, itself derived from motifs characteristic of Russian church music. In the finale he quotes both the Dies Irae and the chant "Blessed be the Lord" (Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi) from his All-Night Vigil.
The work is scored for an orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, harp, piano, and strings.
- Non allegro (C minor – C major)
- Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) (G minor)
- Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – Allegro vivace. (D minor – D major)
Rachmaninoff composed the Symphonic Dances four years after his Third Symphony, mostly at the Honeyman estate, "Orchard Point", in Centerport, New York, overlooking Long Island Sound. Its original name was Fantastic Dances, with movement titles of "Noon", "Twilight", and "Midnight". While the composer had written to conductor Eugene Ormandy in late August 1940 that the piece was finished and needed only to be orchestrated, the manuscript for the full score bears completion dates of September and October 1940. It was premiered by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to whom it is dedicated, on January 3, 1941.
The Dances combine energetic rhythmic sections, reminiscent of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with some of the composer's lushest harmonies. The rhythmic vivacity, a characteristic of Rachmaninoff's late style, may have been further heightened here for two reasons. First, he had been encouraged by the success of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as a ballet in 1939 and wanted to write something with which to follow it up. Second, he may have included material intended for a ballet titled The Scythians, begun in 1914–15 but abandoned before he left Russia. While no manuscript for the ballet is known to have survived, this does not make his quoting the work inconceivable, given the vastness of Rachmaninoff's memory. He could remember and play back accurately pieces he had heard years earlier, even those he had heard only once.
The work is remarkable for its use of the alto saxophone as a solo instrument. He was apparently advised as to its use by the American orchestrator and composer Robert Russell Bennett. The composition includes several quotations from Rachmaninoff's other works, and can be regarded as a summing-up of his entire career as a composer. The first dance ends with a quotation from his unfortunate First Symphony (1897). The ghostly second dance was called "dusk" in some sketches. The final dance is a kind of struggle between the Dies Irae theme, representing Death, and a quotation from the ninth movement of his All-night Vigil (1915), representing Resurrection (the lyrics of the All-night Vigil's ninth movement in fact narrate mourners' discovery of Christ's empty grave and the Risen Lord). The Resurrection theme proves victorious in the end (he wrote the word "Hallelujah" at this place in the score).
Rachmaninoff wrote an arrangement for two pianos concurrently with the orchestral version. The first performance of this arrangement was famously performed by the composer with Vladimir Horowitz at a private party in Beverly Hills, California in August 1942.
The name Symphonic Dances suggests that the composition can be danced to. Rachmaninoff corresponded with choreographer Michel Fokine about possibly creating a ballet from the Dances. He played the composition for Fokine on the piano; the choreographer responded enthusiastically. Fokine's death in August 1942 put an end to any possible collaboration in this direction.
In the 1980s, Joseph Albano choreographed the dances for the Albano Ballet in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1991, Salvatore Aiello choreographed the Symphonic Dances for the North Carolina Dance Theater. Peter Martins did so in 1994 for the New York City Ballet. Edwaard Liang did so in 2012 for the San Francisco Ballet.
There exists an unpublished transcription of the entire piece by French composer/performer Jean Guillou, written for two organs.
- Nikolai Golovanov, conducting the USSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra, (1944 – 1st and 3rd mts, 1949 – 2nd mt).
- Yevgeny Svetlanov, conducting the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation
- Eugene Ormandy, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra
- Kirill Kondrashin, conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
- Mariss Jansons, conducting the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
- Yuri Temirkanov, conducting the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
- André Previn, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
- Vladimir Ashkenazy, conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra
- Lorin Maazel, conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker
- Eiji Oue, conducting the Minnesota Orchestra
- Enrique Bátiz Campbell, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- Robert Spano, conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
- Donald Johanos, conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra
- Eugene Goossens, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
- Sir Simon Rattle, conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker
- Martha Argerich & Nelson Goerner, at Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (version for two pianos)
- Nina Schumann & Luis Magalhães, TwoPianists Records (Version for two pianos)
- Valery Gergiev, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
- Semyon Bychkov, conducting the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne
- Valery Polyansky, conducting the State Symphony Capella of Russia
- Sir Charles Mackerras, conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
- Erich Leinsdorf, conducting the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra
- Leonard Slatkin, conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
- Vladimir Ashkenazy & Andre Previn, Decca Records (Version for two pianos)