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Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (1940)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. Non allegro

II. Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)

III. Lento assai – Allegro vivace

The Symphonic Dances (1940) of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is the composer's beloved final work, a swansong prophetically fixated on dark colors and death. Over its three movements, Rachmaninoff serves a lush romantic menu of sweeping lyricism and impetuous rhythmic sensibilities. The work's original title is said to have been "Fantastic Dances," with each movement titled Noon, Twilight, and Midnight respectively.

The opening Non allegro comes from an early ballet sketch that was dismissed as "un-balletic." The colorful and mischievous orchestration harkens to Rimsky-Korsakov paired with bombastic American pomp. The movement's tender offering is a familiar dish, a vocalise (featuring alto saxophone). The stark waltz of the Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) evokes the magic and intoxication of Tchaikovsky's ballets, and the finale, Lento assai – Allegro vivace brings new meaning to the "Dies Irae," a medieval chant of the dead. The work ends with a final battle-dance for life and death. Eugene Ormandy premiered the 35-minute score with the Philadelphia Orchestra on January 3, 1941.

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