Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff wrote the Spring cantata in 1902. Its premiere in St Petersburg took place in the hall of the Noble Assembly on 8 January 1905 with the participation of the Mariinsky Theatre Chorus (conducted by Alexander Ilyich Siloti). This work is unusual in many respects. Even Nekrasov’s poetry itself is unusual, forming the basis of the cantata in which the almost un-combinable is combined, where images of nature in wintertime and in springtime merge with the hero’s love drama (his wife’s infidelity, which almost results in a bloody denouement – a traditional melodramatic subject). But, however, unlike Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky’s play Don’t Live as You Want to but as God Commands (which forms the basis of Alexander Nikolayevich Serov’s opera The Power of the Fiend), with Nekrasov nature is not just a background for the unfolding drama. “Dishevelled winter” and the “winter blizzard song” in the hero’s mind become direct “co-conspirators” of the impending murder (predicting and even demanding its execution). Spring, with its anthem and Christian motifs of love, tolerance and forgiveness, however, is allotted a reconciliatory role at the close of the poetry. Vivid images of springtime nature are seen in their own right, as independent and existing almost outside the dramatic plot (“Rush-buzz Green Noise. Green Noise, spring noise!”).
In the music of Rachmaninoff’s Spring contrasting, even opposing elements are combined: the vivid, all-encompassing lyricism that comes from the composer’s romances, the highly vivid drama of the opera (the baritone solo has something in common with the Tale of the Old Man in Aleko), the rich orchestral sound that leads in the direction of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov’s works (in particular The Snow Maiden), the generality of the cantata-oratorio genre (the chorus as a personality) and the open expressiveness of the soloist’s monologue (in which, at times, one can even sense the influence of Modest Petrovich Musorgsky). Rimsky-Korsakov, who submitted Spring for the Glinka Prize, believed the music in this work to be beautiful from the first note to the last. But he also made a remark about the unusual nature of the embodiment of the scene of spring and the springtime awakening of nature. And in actual fact, in this Rachmaninoff was unlike anyone else. Instead of the expected clarity of sound and warm, soft colours, the composer created a dense and intense fabric for the orchestra and chorus using a complex writing technique. But, as a result, a surprising integrity of both the image of spring and of the whole work emerges, as does an exact sense of the composer’s unique style.
The Symphonic Dances (1940) was Rachmaninoff’s last major work, composed once he had emigrated to America and three years after his Third Symphony. Initially the work had a somewhat different title – Fantastic Dances – and its three sections were entitled Noon, Twilight and Midnight. In the final version Rachmaninoff changed the titles and abandoned any programme names.
There is much that points to the fact that Symphonic Dances was the composer’s final work. Rachmaninoff was as if looking back, summing up the results of his own creative life. At the close of the first section (set to bell chimes) one can hear the there of the first section of the first movement of the First Symphony which had been defamed at the premiere but which the composer later would not allow to be performed. In the third section one can hear the theme Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”, a medieval Catholic chorale about the Day of Judgement), which can be found in many of Rachmaninoff’s works as an idée fixe and which reaches its climax here. And at the very end the violas and the snare drum reach the culmination with the slightly modified theme of Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost from Blessed Art Thou, O Lord, the ninth part of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, composed in 1915. From the title it follows that there could be a ballet version of the work. In actual fact, Rachmaninoff corresponded with the choreographer Michel Fokine, discussing the possibility of creating a stage version of his final work. Fokine’s death in 1942, however, prevented the idea from ever coming to fruition.