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Program Notes: Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (March 16, 2023)

Updated: Mar 13, 2023


March 16, 2023

Sergei Prokofiev

The Love for Three Oranges Suite, op. 33bis (1919)

The Ridiculous People

Magician Celio and Fata Morgana Play Cards

(Inferenal Scene)



The Prince and Princess


Edvard Grieg

Piano Concerto in A major, op.16 (1868)

Allegro molto moderado


Allegro moderato molto e marcato

Vikingur Ólafsson, piano


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Symphonic Dances, op.45 (1919)

Non allegro

Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)

Lento assai; Allegro vivace


Program Notes

by Benjamin Pesetsky

Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff both fled Russia following the 1917 Revolution, eventually arriving in America, where they briefly competed as piano virtuosos on the touring circuit. Prokofiev’s zany, surrealist opera The Love for Three Oranges was commissioned by the Chicago Opera and written with an American audience in mind. In 1936, he repatriated to the Soviet Union, while Rachmaninoff never returned. Rachmaninoff wrote Symphonic Dances on Long Island in 1940 knowing it would be his last piece.

In between these two “Amero-Russian” works, we hear Edvard Grieg’s youthful Piano Concerto, his first international success. He combined everything he learned at the Leipzig Conservatory with his own Norwegian outlook and burgeoning interest in local folk music.

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev

The Love for Three Oranges Suite, op. 33bis

Sergei Prokofiev

Born 1891, Sontsivka, Ukraine

Died 1953, Moscow, Russia

In the spring of 1918 Sergei Prokofiev took an unusual Pacific route from Russia to the United States: he rode the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, then traveled to Tokyo where he played a few concerts to pad his wallet, and finally sailed for San Francisco by way of Honolulu. The slender, stern Russian even strolled Waikiki Beach. In San Francisco, he was detained by immigration authorities who closely questioned whether he was a Bolshevik. “No,” he said, “because they took my money.” “Have you ever been in jail?” the officer asked. “Yeah, in yours,” he claimed to have retorted.

At some point during the passage, he wrote the libretto for The Love for Three Oranges, an opera based on a Russian comedy that in turn was based on an 18th-century Italian commedia dell’arte play. The story is too silly to dwell on. But in short: the witch Fata Morgana curses a prince to fall in love with three oranges (yes, the citrus fruit). He travels to a faraway land to find them, and each orange contains a princess when peeled: the first two die of thirst, but the third he marries. The drama is populated by a surreal cast: the King of Clubs; Prime Minister; Jester; Magician; Cook; “ten ridiculous people”; Advocates of Tragedy, Farce, and Drama; monsters, program notes By Benjamin Pesetsky 21 drunkards, gluttons, guards, servants, soldiers, etc. Scholars have described the opera’s style as “anti-realist,” which is an understatement.

Prokofiev sold the concept to the Chicago Opera Association in 1919 and was commissioned to write the music. He conducted the premiere there in 1921 and arranged some of the most striking numbers into an orchestral suite in 1924. Prokofiev said he had “chosen a simpler musical language” to appeal to Americans. He succeeded—the March became a frequent cue in gumshoe radio dramas, and NBC’s Dragnet used a rip-off as its theme in the 1950s and ’60s.

First performance: December 30, 1921, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, the composer conducting

First SLSO performance: December 7, 1928, Emil Oberhoffer conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 9, 2007, Stéphane Denève conducting

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, strings

Approximate duration: 15 minutes


Edvard Greig
Edvard Greig

Piano Concerto in A major, op.16

Edvard Grieg

Born 1843, Bergen, Norway

Died 1907, Bergen, Norway

Why not begin by remembering the strangely mystical satisfaction of stretching my arms over the piano keyboard and bringing forth—not a melody. Far from it! No, it had to be a chord… both hands helping… Oh joy!… That was a success!

This was Edvard Grieg at five years old, as he remembered it in an autobiographical article, My First Success. And why not begin a piano concerto the same way, at age 25? Grieg’s Piano Concerto channels a sense of childlike wonder and experimentation. Its virtuosity is natural, not finger-twisting; while by no means easy, it feels at ease.

Grieg became Norway’s foremost composer by way of the Leipzig Conservatory, which had Felix Mendelssohn founded 15 years earlier. His hometown teacher sent him off from Bergen with the words: “you are to go to Leipzig to become an artist!” The reality was drearier: egotistical professors, cutthroat classmates, homesickness, and poor health. “I was 22 a dreamer with absolutely no talent for competition,” he recalled. “I was unfocused, not very communicative, and anything but teachable.”

Nonetheless, he picked up skills in harmony and composition, and a minor interaction changed his life. Another student owned a precious hand-copied score of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto and offered to trade it for a string quartet by Grieg (presumably to pass off as his own work). Grieg loved Schumann, and accepted the deal so he could study the piece more closely. He also had the chance to hear “the bewitching Clara Schumann” play her late husband’s concerto in Leipzig in November 1860, a performance he said was “indelibly impressed on my soul.”

It also made an impression on Grieg’s Piano Concerto, which he openly modeled on Schumann’s. Written in 1868, it became his first international success, and remains his only orchestral piece in a large-scale classical form (there are no Grieg symphonies, for instance). Having left the conservatory in 1862, he settled for a time in Copenhagen. “The veil fell off,” he said, “and suddenly my wondering eyes beheld the world of beauty which the Leipzig fog had hidden from me.” He married a cousin, Nina, and they moved back to Norway, settling in Kristiania (today called Oslo). He wrote the Piano Concerto while spending a summer in Denmark again, and it premiered in Copenhagen in April 1869.

A Closer Listen

A timpani roll accelerates into the first piano chord and its ensuing downward cascade. Even if you are hearing it for the first time, the opening will seem intuitively familiar. The main theme is expressive but cool-headed; the more lyrical response is svelte and honest. The movement culminates in a bold cadenza—we might imagine a five-year-old pianist who has grown up to play a lot of chords now, still curious about the sound of each one.

The slow movement evokes a hymn, or hushed poetry. This time the piano enters with just two notes, four octaves apart, gently meeting the orchestra’s outreached hand. The soloist plays along for a time, but twice gets a bit feisty. Finally, the pianist convinces the orchestra to support a more full-throated rendition of the hymn.

The finale was inspired by Norwegian folk music, which Grieg was just beginning to investigate while clearing his head of all the German Romanticism he soaked up in Leipzig. It also has a curious form—almost a miniature concerto unto itself, with an early cadenza and false ending, followed by a sort of internal slow movement. Then back at a fast clip, the concerto fiddles and trumpets its way to the end.

First performance: April 3, 1869, in Copenhagen, Holger Simon Paulli conducting, with Edmund Neupert as soloist

First SLSO performance: January 30, 1908, Max Zach conducting, with Katharine Goodson as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: November 14, 2021, Stéphane Denève conducting, with Víkingur Ólafsson as soloist

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 30 minutes


Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff

Symphonic Dances, op.45

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born 1873, Semyonovo, Russia

Died 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Last works are often romanticized in the popular imagination. Think of W.A. Mozart’s Requiem, Franz Schubert’s last piano sonatas, or the late string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven. Some are capstones to a life’s work, while others seem to look beyond this world. J.S. Bach signed off with both: the B-minor Mass as the dramatic apotheosis of his sacred music, then The Art of Fugue as a kind of cerebral coda.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances has a place alongside these pieces and is one of the most deliberate of final works. He left Russia in 1917 following the Revolution, and spent most of his time in New York, France, and at his Swiss villa. By 1940, he had relocated permanently to the United States to escape the Second World War and had not composed a piece in almost four years. He wrote the Symphonic Dances that summer at a rented estate on Long Island, and then hung it up as a composer, despite performing for another two years. It was the single exception to six years of compositional silence.

But what an exception. He took everything recognizably Rachmaninoff— the blankets of melody, sly harmonies, saturated colors, and Orthodox chants—and packed it into three taught movements. Stylistically, Rachmaninoff was always a composer of the long 19th century, but he had become a man of the 20th, interested in cars, speedboats, and airplanes. In these dances, he allowed some of that streamlined luxury into his plush Romanticism.

The piece’s origins lie in a proposed collaboration with Michel Fokine, the Russian choreographer who had created The Firebird and Petrushka with Igor Stravinsky in 1910–11, and later immigrated to New York. He had choreographed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1937, and the composer was eager to work directly with him on something new. He envisioned a piece called Fantastic Dances with movements called Midday, Twilight, and Midnight. He began to sketch it out for two pianos, but when the project fell through, he changed course and made it a concert work for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, who premiered it in January 1941.

The Dances

The first dance is high-strung, even mechanized. But after several minutes it peters out, giving way to one of the most breathtaking moments in the 24 orchestral repertoire. After a brief silence, the oboe and clarinet waver quietly, and then the alto saxophone enters with an aching solo that feels like it was discovered more than it was written. The warmth of the melody contrasts with the coldness of its scoring, with duets and trios of woodwinds ingeniously dovetailed. For nearly three whole minutes the winds play alone: it is intimate yet faraway, endless but somehow fleeting. Long withheld, the strings finally take up the melody in lush octaves, accompanied by piano and harp. When the outpouring is exhausted, Rachmaninoff gears back up to the quick, stoic opening, and it never comes back (neither does the saxophone). But the end of the movement introduces another melody in the strings—this one borrowed from his First Symphony, whose trainwreck premiere in 1897 had sent him into psychotherapy. Its brief, gentle reappearance here is Rachmaninoff closing the book on a painful chapter of his youth.

The second dance is a Viennese waltz, which by the mid-20th century already conjured nostalgia for a decadent, aristocratic past. Rachmaninoff’s take is not a bitter, ironic twist on the style, but more a half[1]memory of a Tchaikovsky ballet.

After a brief procession of halting fragments and tolling bells, the finale hastens into an excited flurry. Might Rachmaninoff even have borrowed some syncopations, scrubby strings, and touches of xylophone from the young Aaron Copland? But the most prominent tune (first heard in the piccolos and then violas) is actually adapted from Rachmaninoff’s own Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi (Blessed Art Thou, O Lord) from All-Night Vigil (1915). He takes a piece of Orthodox liturgy and remakes it as a jaunty groove.

A lugubrious interlude melts into a cradle song, and then Rachmaninoff resets to the frenetic opening. This time it culminates in the Dies irae—the Latin chant from the Requiem Mass—which we realize had been insinuating itself all along. But Rachmaninoff treats it not with dread, but with awe, then playfulness. A fateful drumroll reintroduces the gutsy Russian chant, after which Rachmaninoff simply writes “Alliluya” at the top of the score. Never has death’s dance been met with such joy and swagger.

First performance: January 3, 1940, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting

First SLSO performance: April 5, 1968, Abram Stasevich conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: October 20, 2019, Stéphane Denève conducting

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 35 minutes


Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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