Sergei Rakhmaninov was one of the best pianists of his age, but he is remembered primarily as a composer of twentieth century Russia (or the Soviet Union). His music is firmly based on his native country’s life and culture, often incorporating elements from folksongs and religious music.
Born into an aristocrat family, Rakhmaninov began studying piano at four. He attended the Moscow Conservatory, studied the piano and composition, wrote piano and orchestra pieces, and graduated in 1892. The negative reception of his first symphony of 1897 depressed him severely, but his 1901 Piano Concerto No. 2 was a triumph. In 1917, following the Russian Revolution, Rakhmaninov emigrated to the United States. Since he left his family and financial property behind, he decided to become a professional concert pianist to support himself. At forty-five, Rakhmaninov was already widely known as a pianist-composer, but he needed to broaden his piano repertoire to appeal to a wider audience. Having spent most of his time practicing and performing the piano, Rakhmaninov’s composing activities were limited. He nevertheless wrote six pieces, including Symphony No. 3 (1936) and the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43 (1934), as well as the Symphonic Dances. Regardless of his efforts, however, American critics did not appreciate his music much; for them, Rakhmaninov was a retrograde Romanticist, not a modernist they were looking after.
Written for a large orchestra, Symphonic Dances of 1940 is Rakhmaninov’s last completed work. It was written in a cottage on Long Island, New York. As the title suggests, this work is a set of three dances. Initially, Rakhmaninov named the piece Fantastic Dances and gave each movement a title: ""Noon,"" ""Twilight,"" and ""Midnight."" Rakhmaninov also thought of calling the three-movement piece simply Dances but such title would have given the audience an impression that he wrote dance music for jazz orchestra. Rakhmaninov eventually discarded all these ideas and settled on the more objective name: Symphonic Dances.
On the other hand, Rakhmaninov did enjoy listening to the sound of jazz orchestra, when he heard the 1924 world premiere of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in New York. Fascinated with Gershwin’s attempt to integrate European art music and American jazz, Rakhmaninov tried to incorporate some elements of jazz into his own compositions. The first of the three dances, for example, features a saxophone solo and the third features syncopated rhythm. There are some other noteworthy markers in this work. First, in the first dance, Rakhmaninov borrowed material from his own First Symphony, making this piece self-referential. Second, he quoted, in the third dance, a plainchant titled Dies Irae, usually sung at a Catholic Requiem Mass. The chant also appears in his earlier compositions such as the Paganini Rhapsody mentioned above, and the Second (1908) and Third (1936) Symphonies.