Harmony as a cross-section of a life

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Rachmaninoff completed his three Symphonic dances, op. 45, (1940) with modern-romantic harmony, including echoes of Tchaikovsky’s Russia and a spicy original hue unlike any other, not like Rimsky-Korsakov or Scriabin (second prize for composition at the Moscow Conservatory when Rachmaninoff got the first), and very different from the surging swells of the ever-popular Second Concerto, composed four decades earlier. The first dance demonstrates bittersweet energy as well as any. It begins in C minor, at first timidly then confidently like a march, builds to a climax, fades to a calm and completely different section in C sharp minor, and finally returns to a varied da capo from A. march, followed by a short bell-shaped Coda-apotheosis in C major. At this point a new theme appears, a broadly expressive melody that has always struck me with an ineffable sadness, for it is spoken only once, never to be heard again, and fades into a gradual pianissimo silence. Years later, I learned from several different sources that Rachmaninoff had salvaged this beautiful melody from the wreckage of his First Symphony, which had suffered a disastrous premiere in 1897, and which the stunned composer then shelved after critics have trashed it. Rachmaninoff later remembered his first symphony as a failed effort, “childish, tense and pompous”.

Since Rachmaninoff’s death, the First Symphony has entered the concert canon, saved, published and recorded many times, reversing public judgment at its birth. But its cyclic construction on a basic theme, with an initial motif of four notes corresponding to the intervals of the famous dies irae, reveals the imaginative sense of Rachmaninoff’s symphonic form. In the boisterous (and undeniably bombastic) finale, the cyclic theme is extended to twice its original length, and it is in this displayed form that Rachmaninoff reclaimed the melody that appears at the end of Symphonic Dance nope. 1. It’s as if the melody serves as a gentle marker for five decades of a composer’s fully lived life. In 1940 he probably knew that the Symphonic dances would be its final composition. There is something profoundly revealing about the unusual indication of the tempo at the start: Non allegro, literally “not happy”.

Another marker of Rachmaninoff’s nostalgia in Symphonic Dance nope. 1 is less obvious. The middle section in C sharp minor, Slow, with its warbling winds (including a superb melody for alto saxophone), rises to a warm climax, then fades to a mid-register cadence, as the primo tempo begins to reappear. This moment, with a chilling bass clarinet, is marked misterioso:

This short passage is very clearly derived from Rachmaninoff’s once world-famous Prelude in C sharp minor, which he published in 1892 at the start of his career, which still survives today on the piano bench of everyone. world, and is sometimes still played:

The key, lead voice, and pitch classes are all 99% identical.

According to new grove, Rachmaninoff later regretted that his publisher, Gutheil, had neglected to obtain an international copyright on this Prelude. Rachmaninoff himself got tired of playing it as an encore; but in the Symphonic dances he contented himself with greeting him, as well as the dies irae and many others, in memory of his career.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy and other early 20th century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he published on many musical subjects and edited the fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) revised editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.
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