Symphonic Dances
Symphony No. 94 in G, "Surprise"

In 1790, the year he turned 58, Haydn embarked upon an altogether new chapter in his career that was to produce more than a dozen of his best-known and most beloved symphonies. After having spent several decades in the service of the Esterhazy family, he was persuaded by the entrepreneur Johann Peter Salomon to travel to England late in 1790. While Haydn's music had become well known throughout Europe and the British Isles, he himself had not traveled extensively. There he composed a series of six symphonies to be performed in London's Hanover Square Rooms.

The "Surprise" symphony, so named because of the unexpected timpani stroke at measure 16 of the slow movement, was composed during summer 1791, when Haydn was staying north of London as the guest of Nathaniel Brassey, a Herfordshire banker. One of four symphonies introduced during Salomon's 1792 season, it rapidly became the most popular of the six dating from Haydn's first London sojourn. Haydn purportedly incorporated the "surprise" in the variations movement to arouse sleepy audiences from their somnolence. One can hardly imagine falling asleep during such a lively symphony, however. From its stately slow introduction and sprightly 6/8 opening movement through to the bouncy finale, this work bursts with country tunefulness and rhythmic vitality, a package rich in surprises even after repeated hearings.

Haydn's score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets; timpani, and strings.

Christmas Eve Suite

Christmas literary classics

In English-speaking countries, certain literary works are strongly associated with the Christmas season, especially Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (a/k/a “The Night Before Christmas”); Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol; and O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi.”

In Russia, the holiday classic is Nikolai Gogol’s “Christmas Eve,” a short story from his 1832 collection, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Like the other stories in the collection, “Christmas Eve” combines Ukrainian folklore with Slavic mythology and pagan figures. The story adds a devil, a witch, and additional supernatural elements that draw on the Slavic connection between the celebration of Christmas and the rebirth of the sun following the winter solstice.

Two operas based on Gogol

Both Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov composed operas based on Gogol’s story. Tchaikovsky’s setting, Vakula the Smith, is early; he revised it in 1887 as Cherevichki [The Empress’ Slippers]. It was his only comic opera. Just a few years later, Rimsky-Korsakov devised his own libretto and composed a new opera of his own.

Rimsky subtitled his Christmas Eve a “Carol Come to Life.” The score uses Christmas songs from Alexander Rubots’ anthology of Ukrainian folk music. The Suite’s five sections are played without pause, but are easy to delineate. “Christmas Night” is calm and rustic. “Ballet of the Stars” opens with an extended flute solo; later in this section, concertmaster, horns, and clarinet take a moment in the spotlight. “Witches’ Sabbath and Ride on the Devil’s Back” are suitably brassy and agitated.

The Suite’s most famous excerpt, the Polonaise, has its feet firmly planted in the Russian opera house. The dance takes place in a salon at the imperial palace in St. Petersburg. The blacksmith Vakula has traveled there hoping to learn the origin of the Tsarina’s beautiful slippers, which his beloved Oksana so admires. Any listener familiar with Tchaikovsky’s splendid Polonaise from Eugene Onegin will recognize the style: bold, brash, and confident. We are meant to be impressed by the opulence of the tableau – which does, of course, take place on Christmas Eve. In the opera, the courtiers sing an enthusiastic chorus of praise about the Tsarina’s virtues. Rimsky adapted the popular excerpt for concert performance.

The Suite concludes with “Vakula and the Slippers,” providing a serene close and a happy ending: Oksana agrees to marry Vakula when he presents her with the Tsaritsa’s slipper.

The opera was not a success. In his memoirs, Rimsky allowed that he had gotten a bit carried away in his treatment of Gogol’s tale, but that it had allowed him to write some “very interesting music.” Indeed it did, and lovers of Scheherazade will be delighted to discover this lesser-known treasure.

The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, three clarinets (third doubling E clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, alto trumpet, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, glockenspiel, tambourine, xylophone, tam tam, chimes, harp, and strings.

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Celebrity get-together, 1940 style

During the summer of 1940, following an exhausting concert season, Sergei Rachmaninoff took refuge on the then-bucolic north shore town of Huntington, Long Island. He hoped to compose some music and regain his failing health. Though he lived nearly three years longer, the work he composed that summer proved to be his last complete score. And a magnificent swan song it was. Rachmaninoff was deservedly proud, writing excitedly on 21 August to Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy:

Last week I finished a new symphonic piece, which I naturally want to give first to you and your orchestra. It is called ‘Fantastic Dances.’ I shall now begin the orchestration. Unfortunately my concert tour begins on October 14. I have a great deal of practice to do and I don't know whether I shall be able to finish the orchestration before November.

I should be very glad if, upon your return, you would drop over to our place. I should like to play the piece for you.

Ormandy responded promptly, accepting the composer's invitation for the following week. By then, Rachmaninoff had changed the title to "Symphonic Dances."

Although Rachmaninoff flirted with the idea of presenting the piece as a ballet, it is essentially a symphonic work that celebrates a lush orchestral palette. At the same time, vigorous dance rhythms suffuse all three movements, providing forward momentum and catching us up in a whirl of mysterious, compelling sound.

Expert outside consultant

The string parts to the Symphonic Dances are notoriously difficult, presenting a major challenge to the finest orchestra. There is a good reason: Rachmaninoff enlisted the assistance of the eminent violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler in editing the string parts, including all the bowings. While the strings do not always occupy the foreground, their presence is a constant factor throughout the Symphonic Dances.

The saxophone: unusual orchestral soloist

The first movement is dominated by a descending triad motive from which the balance of the musical material unfolds. Rachmaninoff takes superb advantage of his orchestral resources, continually surprising us with a panoply of percussion, woodwind and brass accents amidst the ongoing sweep of the strings. A unique stroke is the luscious solo awarded to alto saxophone in the more leisurely middle section. Precedent for using saxophone as an orchestral soloist lay in Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suites, Ravel's Boléro, and Ravel’s orchestration of Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Rachmaninoff's countryman Alexander Glazunov composed both a solo concerto for saxophone and a saxophone quartet. Still, the timbre was unusual: peculiarly close to the human voice, and vividly set with clarinet and oboe sharing a light accompaniment.

Another concert waltz, now in Rachmaninoff’s voice

The central waltz opens with muted trumpets in an eerie reminder of the composer's Russian roots. Pizzicato strings establish the ghostly waltz rhythm; a free violin solo lends a folksy, half-gypsy facet to the music. Rachmaninoff focuses on individual instrumental colors, whose chromatic lines often seem like veiled threats undulating beneath the smooth exterior of the waltz. The brasses of the opening measures return periodically, as if to herald the sinister spirits that seem to underlie this disquieting dance. Metric vacillation from 6/8 and 3/8 to 9/8 and back again add to the haunting character.

Dies irae: the wrath of God

Much has been made of Rachmaninoff's recurrent use of the medieval Dies irae chant in his music. The best-known example is the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, but there are several other occurrences among the composer's works. Its presence in the finale to the Symphonic Dances has been called Rachmaninoff's last and definitive statement. An English horn solo also makes use of Russian Orthodox chant. The two ideas bind together with the composer's original material to build to a dynamic close.

Rachmaninoff's achievement in this thrilling work is the melding of balletic impulse and symphonic grandeur. Vastly more sophisticated than the heart-on-sleeve romanticism of the early piano concerti, the Symphonic Dances are a superb example of his mature orchestral style.

Rachmaninoff scored his Symphonic Dances for a large and colorful orchestra comprising piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, tubular bells, xylophone, tam-tam, glockenspiel, piano, harp and strings.

© Laurie Shulman, 2019