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At-A-Glance

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Composed: 1913

Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (four bells, glockenspiel, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, gong), pianino, celesta, harp, organ (ad lib), strings, chorus, and solo soprano, tenor, and bass

About this Piece

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943. The composition of the choral symphony The Bells was begun in Rome in early 1913 and completed at Rachmaninoff’s home at Ivanovka, Russia, on July 27, 1913. The first performance took place on November 30, 1913, in Saint Petersburg, with the composer conducting.

In Russia, bells have held intense spiritual and cultural power for many centuries. Regarded as living beings, their pealing was believed to protect hearers from plagues and other misfortunes. Having spent much of his childhood and youth in the Russian countryside, Sergei Rachmaninoff grew up hearing bells, as he remembered in 1913. “All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian… …In the drowsy quiet of a Roman afternoon, with Poe’s verses before me, I heard the bell voices, and tried to set down on paper their lovely tones that seemed to express the varying shades of human experience.”

Strangely, it was an anonymous letter he received from a young admirer, later revealed to be a cello student in Moscow, that led him to undertake his choral symphony. She sent him a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1849 poem “The Bells” as freely translated in 1900 by the Russian Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942). One of the most popular and virtuosic Russian poets of his generation, Balmont was only six years Rachmaninoff’s senior. With its deep fatalism, gothic sensibilities, incantatory style, and mysticism, Poe's work resonated deeply among the members of the Russian Decadent movement, especially Balmont, who published five volumes of Poe translations. Balmont considered his version of “The Bells” an “adaptation, more an imitation than a translation.” He retains Poe’s four-stanza structure, each stanza treating a different kind of bell: silver sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarum bells, funeral bells.

Rachmaninoff gives each of Balmont’s four stanzas its own movement, varying in length and forces. In all four movements, the chorus is heard with orchestra, joined by the tenor soloist in the first, soprano in the second, and baritone in the fourth. The first movement opens in A-flat major, with the flutes, oboes, clarinets, triangle, piano, harp, and second violins repeating a three-note motif in imitation of small silver bells. After a lengthy introduction that gradually involves the entire orchestra, the tenor soloist enters on a held E-flat at pp, on the opening word: Slyshish (“Hear,” in Poe’s original). The entire chorus responds with the same word at ff. The jubilant mood gradually becomes more reflective, as the chorus takes up a wordless dirge-like motif. At the end, the cheerful mood returns, but tempered in the string part by a falling and rising phrase recalling the Dies irae motif from the Latin requiem mass.

In the second movement, an atmosphere of languid tranquility reigns, expressing feelings associated with romantic love and marriage. Although the shortest stanza in Balmont’s poem (only 14 lines, opening with “Hear the mellow wedding bells...” in the original), this is the symphony’s longest movement. The strings open with the same motif heard at the end of the preceding movement, colored with what sound like the tolling of bells in the brass and woodwinds. The soprano solo part soars to a high A on “golden bells”, set against a shimmering, transparent orchestral accompaniment. To open the third movement (Poe’s “Hear the loud alarum bells”), Rachmaninoff builds a powerful sound picture of alarm bells filling the air with tension, despair and terror, the harps and violins (playing sul ponticello) later joined by the entire orchestra, then the full chorus.

Owing to its funereal imagery, Balmont’s final stanza required a quiet, slow movement. It features some of the most seductive and complex orchestral writing of Rachmaninoff’s career, from the opening haunting English horn solo to the intricate reworking of the Dies irae motif, and to the liturgical threnody of the baritone solo over an obsessively rocking accompaniment in the strings (playing divisi in 10 different parts). There is little hope here, only endless grief and mourning. But in the score’s last few pages, the darkness lifts as the key changes from gloomy C-sharp minor to affirmative D-flat major. The strings offer some final consolation, playing a glowing refrain of the lyrical theme heard at the movement’s opening, promising peace and rest in the afterlife. —Harlow Robinson