Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances

Program Notes

Anders Hillborg: Exquisite Corpse
William Walton: Violin Concerto
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

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Anders Hillborg
b. 1954

Exquisite Corpse

Work composed: 2002
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, cimbasso, timpani, bass drum, bongos, chimes, 3 congas, crotales, glockenspiel, 3 log drums, marimba, opera gong, tam-tam, 5 tomtoms, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 14 minutes

“Hillborg creates pools of liquid sound … That is to say, his is a science fiction of our time – we recognize the strangeness.” – music critic Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

Anders Hillborg, considered Sweden’s foremost living composer, explores a wide spectrum of styles in his music, and he is equally at home in a variety of genres, including electronic, choral, film, television, chamber, and orchestral music. Since 1982, he has made his living as a full-time composer, a testament to his music’s lasting appeal to audiences around the world. Hillborg’s enduring love affair with sound – he once described the orchestra as a “sound animal” – is reflected in his use of unique timbres, artful counterpoint, and his ability to draw audiences in to his unique sonic realm.

When asked which piece someone unfamiliar with his music should hear first, Hillborg replied, “Exquisite Corpse, where I succeeded in making the music precise and varied. I also believe that it makes for fairly easy listening.” This 15-minute piece takes its name from a Surrealist parlor game of the 1920s, in which participants take turns contributing a single sentence (sometimes just a single word) to a collaborative story. When finished, each player folds over the paper before passing it on, hiding their contribution from the next player. In one early example, participants came up with the sentence, “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” (The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine). Alan Gilbert led the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in the first performance in Stockholm, on October 24, 2002.

For the Surrealists, fascinated with the concept of the unconscious mind, this game provided a means for accessing what lay beneath mindful thoughts and choices. One can hear Hillborg’s Exquisite Corpse as his musical imagining of the game played by some of the composers whose work has most deeply influenced him, including György Ligeti, Jean Sibelius, and Igor Stravinsky. Hillborg intersperses homages to his compositional mentors with a lofty brass fanfare, a ritualized drumming section, and a thickly textured phrase for strings that recalls Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Despite these diverse components, Hillborg manages to make Exquisite Corpse cohere from beginning to end. Listening to this music is like a dream that – while it lasts – makes a particular kind of sense, which may or may not last after the dreamer awakens.


William Walton

Violin Concerto

Work composed: 1938–39, rev. 1943
Most Recent Oregon Symphony performance: April 25, 1995; Robert Spano, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin
Instrumentation: solo violin, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, harp, strings
Estimated duration: 28 minutes

In 1938, violinist Jascha Heifetz asked William Walton to write him a concerto, and offered a generous £300 fee. Walton accepted, but expressed his reservations in a letter: “I wasn’t all that keen, knowing how difficult it could be.” Whether the difficulty to which Walton referred was dealing with Heifetz, or writing a work Heifetz would deem sufficiently virtuosic, is unclear. However, despite his anticipatory concerns, Walton agreed, knowing that a commission from the world’s greatest living violinist would do much for his own status as a composer.

As Walton worked on the concerto, he was also composing a score for a film, Dreaming Lips; in addition, the BBC commissioned a march from Walton to be performed at the coronation of King George VI. Walton, whose habit was to compose slowly and methodically, found his workload unexpectedly increased by yet another request for a movie score, this time for a film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. “It all boils down to this: whether I’m to become a film composer or a real composer,” wrote Walton about his dilemma. Fees for film music generally exceeded anything Walton could earn writing for the concert hall, but, as his comment reveals, Walton regarded film music as a lesser genre, and worried that his reputation as “a real composer” might suffer accordingly. In the end, Walton turned down the Pygmalion score and spent the spring and summer months in Italy working on Heifetz’ concerto.

“It seems to me the greatest drawback is the nature of the work itself,” Walton fretted. “It seems to be developing in an extremely intimate way, not much show and bravura, and I begin to have doubts (fatal for the work, of course), of this still small voice getting over at all in a vast hall holding 10,000 people.” Walton’s concern about what he saw as a drawback – the intimate quality of the music – turned out to be the concerto’s signature: its sweeping, rhapsodic melodies coupled with exquisitely tender interludes make it a favorite of both players and listeners around the world. The romantic nature of the concerto, as Walton acknowledged, expressed his feelings for Alice Wimborne, his lover and patron from 1934 until her death 14 years later.

The Andante tranquillo establishes the lush neo-Romantic atmosphere from the opening notes and Walton’s notation “sognando” (dreaming). The violin sings unrestrained, and the orchestra both complements and offsets the soloist – one moment yearning, the next fiery and tempestuous. Of the scherzo, marked Presto capriccioso, Walton said, “Quite gaga, I may say, and of doubtful propriety after the first movement.” The capriciousness of the tempo marking emerges throughout this delightfully unpredictable music, and the soloist revels in technical passages of eye-popping virtuosity. Walton struggled so much with the Vivace, fearing Heifetz would find it insufficiently “elaborate,” that he declared he would never again write a commissioned work. Ultimately, Heifetz was satisfied, sending Walton a telegram: “Accept enthusiastically.” Heifetz played the premiere with Artur Rodziński and the Cleveland Orchestra on December 7, 1939, in Cleveland, for an enthusiastic audience. Critics lauded “a stirring performance of a work of character and quality … personal, intense, direct, straightforward … the use of the violin is felicitous, from soaring cantilena to brilliance.”


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Work composed: 1940
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: September 24, 2012; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, alto saxophone, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, drum, orchestra bells, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 35 minutes

Sergei Rachmaninoff had great regard for the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director, Eugene Ormandy. As a pianist, he had performed with them on several occasions, and as a composer, he appreciated the full, rich sound Ormandy and his musicians produced. Sometime during the 1930s, Rachmaninoff remarked that he always had the unique sound of this ensemble in his head while he was composing orchestral music: “[I would] rather perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra than any other of the world.” When Rachmaninoff began working on the Symphonic Dances, he kept Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in mind for the premiere performance, on January 3, 1941. Several of Rachmaninoff’s other orchestral works, including the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Piano Concerto No. 4, were also either written for or first performed by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Symphonic Dances turned out to be Rachmaninoff’s final composition; he died two years after completing them. Although not as well known as his piano concertos or the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, both Rachmaninoff himself and many others regard the Symphonic Dances as his greatest orchestral work. “I don’t know how it happened,” he remarked; “it must have been my last spark.”

Nervous pulsing violins open the Allegro, over which the winds mutter a descending minor triad (three-note chord). The strings set a quickstep tempo, while the opening triad becomes both the melodic and harmonic foundation of the movement as it is repeated, reversed and otherwise developed. The introspective middle section of the movement features the first substantial melody, played by the distinctively melancholy voice of the alto saxophone. The final section of the movement returns to the agitated quickstep and fluttering triad.

The Andante con moto begins with muted trumpets and pizzicato strings executing a rather lopsided waltz rhythm that stutters fitfully, followed by a subdued violin solo. The main theme has none of the Viennese lightness of a Strauss waltz; instead its haunting, ghostly quality borders on the macabre and is suggestive of Sibelius’ Valse triste or Ravel’s eerie La valse. The waltz is periodically interrupted by sinister blasts from the brass section.

In the Lento assai: Allegro vivace, Rachmaninoff returns to the haunting liturgical melody of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) from the requiem mass. Rachmaninoff had used this iconic melody before, most notably in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In this work the distinctive descending line has even more suggestive power; we can hear it as Rachmaninoff’s final statement about the end of his compositional career. This movement is the most sweeping and symphonic of the three and uses the full force of the orchestra’s array of sounds, moods, and colors. In addition to the Dies irae, Rachmaninoff also incorporates other melodies from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, including Blagosloven Yesi, Gospodi, from Rachmaninoff's choral masterpiece, All-Night Vigil, which describes Christ’s resurrection. On the final page of the manuscript of the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff wrote, “I thank Thee, Lord!”


© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com