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Program Notes: Symphonic Dances

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Friday, October 18, 2019 at 8:00 PM

Saturday, October 19, 2019, at 8:00 PM

Sunday, October 20, 2019, at 3:00 PM

Karen Gomyo, violin

POULENC Les biches Suite

PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19

RACHMANINOFF Symphonic Dances, op. 45


Stéphane Denève on this program

Les biches is performed rarely. Poulenc expresses the spiritual ecstasy you can receive in a concert hall, and yet the music can also have a warmth, a kind of a light.

Les biches has something to do with Mozart. There is a saying: “Humor is the politeness of despair.” In Mozart, you have music in a major key, which appears very light, but there is such sadness and melancholy behind it. Poulenc has this elegance—he was a dandy who would never complain—but you get hints of an internal despair. I programmed it to show that depth and lightness can go together.

Les biches was influenced by American jazz, which Rachmaninoff loved. While in America, he bought LPs for his daughter and went to jazz clubs.

It is appropriate that we program Symphonic Dances in the weeks after Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. Because Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninoff’s own “Resurrection” Symphony—the musical summation of a life.

For instance, at the end of the first movement Rachmaninoff makes peace with the failure of his First Symphony. He thought he’d destroyed the parts of this symphony, so when he quotes his symphony, it is his secret.

Symphonic Dances is redeeming—it’s a piece of hope. The ending is an Alleluia, a triumph over death. It was his last work, and maybe, because he composed this piece, he felt he could die.



Born January 7, 1899, Paris, France

Died January 30, 1963, Paris, France

Francis Poulenc
Francis Poulenc

Les biches Suite

The idea was simple. It would be a ballet with no story, “simply dances and songs,” according to Poulenc. But behind this innocent curtain, Les biches would hide truths, unutterable truths. “One can either see nothing,” Poulenc wrote, “or imagine the worst.”

The title holds a key: Les biches literally means “does” (female deer), and the phrase also refers to a group of women (“sweethearts” or “darlings”). But, more importantly, it had a specific meaning to an underground community of Poulenc’s Paris: Les biches were people with uncommon, or “deviant,” sexual desires.

Poulenc’s star was rising. Still in his 20s, he was on the tip of tongues, writing with a unique voice that embraced jazz, vaudeville, the Catholic mass, and the music of the 17th and 18th centuries. All music was welcome, all could go in the melting pot.

Yet Poulenc hid. As a gay man in post–World War I France, he masked the truth of his sexuality. A work like Les biches allowed him to hint at topics and relationships otherwise taboo in polite society: the game of sexual courtship, gender fluidity, same-sex partnerships.

Is Les biches a celebration or rejection of conventional courtship? A celebration or a rejection of libertine urges? A nostalgia for lost youth? Or a view of the role that women must play in society?

Poulenc’s music for Les biches doesn’t hint at such shadows and complexities. It is an innocent curtain of “dances and songs,” delighting in simplicity, full of “triads, simple harmonies, and uncluttered melody.”

The ballet was a hit. Its scenario was written by the fashion designer Germaine Bongard, and the ballet’s outward elegance and stylish design made it very modish in Paris’s most chic circles. As one writer put it at the time: “Les riches love Les biches.”

Listening guide

Characters: The Hostess is dressed for a party, complete with pearl necklace and cigarette holder. (This role was originally danced by Nijinska, the choreographer of Les biches.) Three Male Athletes, dressed in absurd work-out clothes, assume over-the-top body-builder poses. The Girl in Blue, a figure of ambiguous gender, wears blue velvet. The Grey Girls, two young women, are a lesbian couple.

Ouverture. A closed curtain shows women cavorting with deer and horses. The curtain rises on a stylized white drawing room, “with just one piece of furniture, an immense blue sofa,” Bongard writes in the scenario. “It is a warm summer afternoon and three young men are enjoying the company of sixteen lovely women. Their play is innocent in appearance only.”

Rondeau. Twelve women, in pink dresses and ostrich-feathered hats, dance in lines

and circles. Brass and wind players lead a perky dance that alternates between

impishness and romantic fantasy.

Adagietto. The Girl in Blue dances a solo. Entering “on her toes,” writes Jean

Cocteau (who was at the ballet’s premiere), “in an excessively short jacket, with her

long legs, and her right hand raised to her cheek as if in military salute, my heart

beats faster, or stops beating altogether.” Poulenc’s passionate score is inspired by

Tchaikovsky’s music for Sleeping Beauty.

Rag-Mazurka. The Hostess performs a solo dance with complex movements of the

feet. This character has “the chic of the casino and the brothel,” according to an

early review. The Athletes enter, parading in front of the Hostess, who flirts with

them. Poulenc draws his wind-dominated music from a Chopin Polonaise, tinting

it with the colors of French-ified jazz.

Andantino. The Girl in Blue and an Athlete dance together. They end in a

passionate embrace. The influence of Stravinsky’s tangy take on 18th century dance

music is evident here.

Final. A hectic dance features all of the dancers on-stage in various couplings.

Poulenc draws on music from Mozart’s Prague Symphony.

First ballet performance: January 6, 1924 in Monte Carlo, Monaco, by the Ballets Russes,

choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska

SLSO premiere: October 18, 2019, Stéphane Denève conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd

doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass

drum, field drum, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, tenor drum,

triangle), harp, celesta, strings

Performance time: Approximately 16 minutese Concerto in C major, K. 314



Born April 23, 1891, Sontsivka, Ukraine

Died March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19

In 1917, centuries of Tsarist control of Russia ended. The impact on Russian society, on Russian artists, was immense. The revolutionary Bolsheviks promised artistic freedom; the reality would be quite different.

At the time, Prokofiev was a young musical rebel. But he wanted nothing to do with the Revolution: born in the previous century, into a different society, this new world was strange, alien. His mind fled to simpler, musical world. To the world of this Violin Concerto.

The first movement of the concerto is marked sognando (“dreamily”). It shimmers, hovering like a mirage. Prokofiev titled a contemporary work Visions fugitives (“fleeting visions” or “escapist visions”), and echoes of this title lie in the dreamy visions of the concerto’s opening.

The second movement captures sounds from a different time. Prokofiev was drawn to the music of Haydn; their music shares a surface sheen, a quirky individuality, a wicked grin. Here, lightness presides: the solo violin buzzes around flutes on tippie-toes, yawning horns, chattering oboes. It is “like when you open a window for the first time in springtime,” wrote pianist Sviatoslav Richter. “Lively sounds find their way inside.”

Concertos often end with dazzle, but not this one. Prokofiev’s third movement sings a poignant, slow song of longing.

The concerto’s premiere was planned for 1918, then canceled when Prokofiev abruptly left Russia. He sailed to America, his heart heavy, his faith in his country shaken. The Violin Concerto sailed with him, traveling from country to country, waiting a further five years to receive its world premiere performance in Paris.

In its final moments, the music rises to the heights. Violinist David Oistrakh, a violinist later synonymous with Prokofiev’s works, said this music was “like a landscape bathed in sunlight.”

First performance: October 18, 1923, Paris, France, Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Paris Opera with Marcel Darrieux as soloist

SLSO premiere: January 25, 1945, Vladimir Golschman conducting with Joseph Szigeti as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: November 5, 2016, Han-Na Chang conducting with Jan Mrácek as soloist

Scoring: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, tambourine), harp, strings, solo violin

Performance time: Approximately 22 minutes



Born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia

Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff

Symphonic Dances, op. 45


Rachmaninoff spent much of his life in exile. Like Prokofiev, he left Russia in the confusion and disorder of the Revolution. He kept in close contact with friends and colleagues, and always imagined he would return to his homeland.

But soon he was blacklisted: Rachmaninoff was now a foreigner; worse, a Westerner. By 1940, the year he wrote Symphonic Dances, all doubt was removed: Rachmaninoff would never see his native Russia again.

“Losing my country, I lost myself also,” wrote Rachmaninoff. “I left behind me my desire to compose.” Between 1918 and his death in 1943, he would write just six original works. Symphonic Dances would be his last original composition.

The gaunt, taciturn man knew it, too. “That was probably my last flicker.”


Rachmaninoff wrote Symphonic Dances at the height of his fame. His busy career as a pianist and conductor was taking him across the U.S., and he had recently been given a hero’s welcome at Carnegie Hall.

Rachmaninoff wrote Symphonic Dances during a relaxing summer on his large beachfront estate in New Jersey. Artistic production is sometimes painted as a stormy beast, but Rachmaninoff kept tight, disciplined hours: After coffee, compose. 10:00 to noon, practice piano. Noon to 1:00, compose. Eat lunch and rest. 3:00-10:00, compose.

Yet he still felt this music deeply. The composer Richard Rodney Bennett, who assisted Rachmaninoff with the work’s saxophone part, described Rachmaninoff in the heat of inspiration: “[He] sang, whistled, stomped, rolled his chords, and otherwise conducted himself not as one would expect of so great and impeccable a virtuoso…”


“To the exile whose musical roots, traditions, and background have been annihilated,” wrote Rachmaninoff, “there remains no solace apart from the unbroken and unbreakable silence of his memories.”

Symphonic Dances is a musical photo album filled with Rachmaninoff’s memories. References to music from across his career dot its pages, most presented in joyful contexts, as if we leaf through this album with a gentle smile.

The tragic motto from his First Symphony, an abject failure at its premiere, appears in a bright major key. A melody from the Vespers, a work for a cappella choir, sings in praise of God: “[Jesus] has restored to life those who had fallen from it! Alleluia.” Even the melody known as the Dies Irae (the Latin mass of the dead) blazes with major-key, brass-led hope.

The music

Rachmaninoff is not a composer often associated with dance. His music rarely swings and tilts and grooves. Why would this aging, physically awkward composer, who never wrote a ballet score, cap his career with a set of orchestral dances?

Symphonic Dances is less a collection of dances, more a collection of mood pieces that lean towards darkness, lean toward night. Rachmaninoff originally gave the three movements titles: “Noon,” “Twilight,” “Midnight.”

Noon” conjures a shadowy daytime. Rachmaninoff’s ambiguous tempo marking is telling: non allegro (depending on your translation, “not cheerful” or “not fast”). After tentative steps the orchestra finds its feet, staggering into a light that is more brutal than dazzling. Warmth seeps into the movement’s central section.

Twilight” brings a strange liminal world. This waltz is far from the velveted world of Strauss and family. Rachmaninoff struggled with depression for much of his life, and was drawn to the darkness. Solo instruments whirl in the fog. Nothing is certain; danger seems around every corner.

Midnight” brings nerves. Strings jitter, winds shudder, bells chime. The music is occasionally jolted towards brightness, and a central section glows with warmth. According to Stéphane Denève, “the ending is an Alleluia, a triumph over death.”

The final word

“What is music?” wrote Rachmaninoff. “It is a peaceful moonlit night; it is the ruling of living leaves; it is the distant evening bell; it is that which is board of the heart and pierces the heart; it is love!

“The sister of music is poetry, but its mother is a heavy heart!”

First performance: January 3, 1941, Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra

SLSO premiere: April 5, 1968, Abram Stasevich conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: October 23, 2016, Cristian Ma˘celaru conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, tambourin, triangle, xylophone), harp, piano, strings

Performance time: Approximately 35 minutes


Program Notes by Tim Munro, the SLSO's Creative Partner.


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