Did Rachmaninov realise that the Symphonic Dances would be his last work? Whether he had such a premonition or not, few composers have ended their careers with such appropriate music, for the Symphonic Dances contain all that is finest in Rachmaninov, representing a compendium of a lifetime’s musical and emotional experience.
The work’s composition was preceded by a big public retrospective of his triple career as composer, pianist and conductor. On 11 August 1939 Rachmaninov gave his last performance in Europe and shortly afterwards left with his family for the US, one of many artists driven from Europe by the approach of war. In the following winter season the Philadelphia Orchestra gave five all- Rachmaninov concerts in New York to mark the 30th anniversary of his American debut (in 1909 he had premièred his Third Piano Concerto in New York, first with Walter Damrosch and then with Gustav Mahler conducting). Rachmaninov appeared as pianist and conductor; the works played included the first three piano concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Second and Third Symphonies, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead and the choral symphony The Bells.