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Transcending Reality

(dedicated to S. Rachmaninoff)



The Symphonic Dances (1940) is the last major symphonic composition by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It consists of three movements, which the composer designated initially as “Noon,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight.” To this day, many music critics continue to interpret this work proceeding specifically from these subtitles, even though Rachmaninoff himself dropped them in the final version.


The musical genre dances (in the original version, the title was Fantastic Dances) creates the expectation of a certain stage or visual interpretation of this work.  M. Fokine was even intending to create a ballet from this composition. 


Be that as it may, Symphonic Dances is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s coded summing-up of his life and his testament at the same time, and perhaps also a certain prediction fixed in musical images.



What could be “coded” in the Symphonic Dances?


Life itself introduced an apocalyptic perception of reality to the artist’s consciousness. It is not by accident that in many of his works, Rachmaninoff repeatedly used the musical theme “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”), i.e., the theme of the Last Judgment, which took deep root in the artist’s consciousness.


The lifetime of S. V. Rachmaninoff (1873—1943) coincided with a period of historic global upheavals. These disruptions unavoidably affected the course of his life and his creative work, which were both glamorous and tragic. He witnessed two world wars and three Russian revolutions.


Rachmaninoff’s musical ideas are written in such a way that one perceives them as visual images. The sound of trumpets and French horns turns into allegorical images of evil. The lyrical themes usually linked to Russian nature seem to be forces of goodness and light, remembrances of the composer’s motherland. The harmonic and rhythmic language of the Symphonic Dances reaches the highest levels of spiritual vision and philosophical depth in depicting our place on Earth through the forces of Good and Evil. This is a tragic work and possibly the spiritual apocalypse of the composer himself.



From music to painting


Symphonic Dances consists of three formally complex movements, all roughly equal in playing time. The proportions of the visual depiction, however, change. Parts one and two are the timeless image, the quintessence of the music’s meaning. The third movement’s content is disclosed in thirteen paintings. The number thirteen, the “devil’s dozen,” is likewise symbolic.


The series of paintings presented here, which I have titled Transcending Reality, is dedicated to the great composer. These paintings do not illustrate the music; rather, they commune with it. They are an act of co-experience and co-creation reflected in artistic images conveying the main meaning of the Symphonic Dances — the conflict between Good and Evil. This eternal topic has existed for as long as people have been asking themselves philosophical questions. Each has his own answer.


My answer, which may well be unusual, is contained in the poems that disclose the paintings’ “code,” its meaning, its connection with the music.

Please note that the two worlds, the white and the black, are depicted as the plot develops using words that are different yet belonging to the same order of meaning. The white world is voiced as light, love, purity, life, and day. The black world has its own terminology: night, evil, temptation, vice, darkness, and beasts.


The power of each force extends over only its own world, the white or black sphere. The word “sphere” in this case also carries the literal geometric meaning. The white and black spaces curve outward or inward all the time depending on the territory they act upon.


Note especially that the two worlds personifying the forces of Good and Evil don’t intersect, even though they mutually define each other. The white world is inhabited by white forces; it has no room for the black ones. To the black forces, the white world is hell, whereas in their own black world, the wicked creatures and their master feel just fine while the white ones are punished. Why would Day and Night punish their followers in their own spheres? Light and Dark battle each other for those who have not yet chosen “heir milieu of habitation.”


In the biblical hell or the “Inferno” of Dante’s Divine Comedy, all sinners are punished according to their desserts. But let me repeat again: why would the leader execute the black forces in their own black kingdom? The black ones must be rewarded in the black world for their services! The more sin, the sweeter their life! That’s how things are with the black ones. With the white ones, it is exactly the opposite!


This is the foundation for my new interpretation of Hell and Heaven.



*   *   *


The series is a philosophical interpretation of the struggle of opposites in the world, which is the main force for development of everything in the universe.


Despite the similarity between life in heaven and in hell, the forces are certainly different: the white force leads to order, preservation, and progress, while the black force leads to chaos, disintegration, and oblivion. Only man and his reason can consciously choose a path to follow. What is frightening is that the masses are capable of trampling, shouting down, and destroying all that resists idleness, debauchery, and meaninglessness, both in spiritual and in material life. Meaningless art, meaningless music, and meaningless literature that are justified by equally meaningless “philosophy” — this precisely is the human hell.


Rachmaninoff's symphonic work consists of three parts, all having a complex musical form and roughly the same length. However, in the visual representation, they were not divided proportionally: Part 1 "Opposition" and Part 2 "Temptation" are timeless representations, the quintessence of the main theme, contained in the music. Part 3 "Hell" is a movement, the substance of which is revealed in the 13 paintings. The Devil's dozen - is also a symbolic reminder of the theme.


I present to the judges of readers and viewers these paintings, poems, as well as my own interpretation of "heaven" and "hell". The main idea of these philosophical notions is translated into the social plane, which happens to be precisely my response to the very nonsense that I call "human hell”.




Valentina Battler

© Copyright Valentina Battler.  All rights reserved

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