A young admirer (a student cellist) of Rachmaninov sent him, anonymously,
the symbolist writer Konstantin Balmont's Russian translation of Edgar Alan
Poe's poem and asked him to set the verses to music; and so, in 1913, in
Rome, Rachmaninov set to work on The Bells. The four types
of bells as described by Poe - silver sleigh bells, golden wedding bells,
brazen alarm bells and iron funeral bells - span the whole of human existence.
Although the text is American, Rachmaninov's sound world is unmistakably
and profoundly Russian. Rachmaninov observed:-
"The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used
to know - Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood
to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence. [
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. [
] If I have been at all successful in making bells
vibrate with human emotion in my works, it is largely due to the fact that
most of my life was lived amid vibrations of the bells of Moscow."
Rachmaninov translated the four sections of the poem into four movements
whose sequence corresponds to that of a classical-romantic symphony.
The character of Rachmaninov's music for The Bells may surprise those
listening to it for the first time for it is not as straightforward as they
might imagine. But one of the characteristics of great music is that it can
say so many different things at the same time. The two opening movements
devoted to sleigh bells and wedding bells are not all unconfined joy. In
the opening movement the tenor and chorus are transported by the joyfulness
of their sleigh ride:-
The little bells ring out,
their light silvery sound sweetly obsesses our hearing;
with their singing and their jingling they tell of oblivion
- oblivion - an underlying doleful tone reminds us that happiness
is transient. A typical Slavonic melancholy suddenly, briefly, overtakes
the joyous, ebullient music and the earnest tones of Sergei Larin add just
the right level of gravitas.
Then the Lento second movement begins:-
"Hear the holy call to marriage of golden bells,
How much tender bliss there is in that youthful song
yet the music's opening casts shadows, it is as if the tenderness of newly
married love is mixed with a warning, a foreboding, as if Rachmaninov is
reminding us of the responsibilities of marriage and that there are bound
to be storms ahead as well as sunshine. But the text is all dreamily romantic
and Marina Mescheriakova offers prayer-like supplications for the couple
and her voice is all tenderness and caresses.
But the peace is shattered in the demonic Scherzo:-
"Hear, the howling of the alarm bell,
like the groaning of a brazen hell
- and Pletnev's choir and shrieking orchestra create an atmosphere of danger
and dread in a reading of great urgency and attack.
The final movement is a sombre Lento lugubre in C sharp minor with the strong
yet doleful tones of Vladimir Chernov mourning above the grieving choir.
"Hear the funeral knell, lengthy knell!
Hear the sound of bitter sorrow ending the dream of a bitter life
The iron sound proclaims a funeral's grief.
And we unwittingly shiver
Yet despite the unrelenting gloominess of the text, Rachmaninov's treatment
is not all gloom for there is defiance, and hope too - and, in the glorious
melody, towards the end, consolation. This passage is particularly moving
in Pletnev's sympathetic reading. Interestingly, there is also a distant
echo of the agonising close of Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" and
Rachmaninov's habitual reference to the Dies Irae.
The booklet helpfully gives not only a translation of Konstantin Balmont's
Russian text (from which I have quoted above) that Rachmaninov set to music,
but also Poe's original poem that is quite markedly different although close
Sergei Taneyev studied with Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein. As a teacher
himself, his students included: Glière, Grechaninov, Medtner and
Rachmaninov. He was almost pathologically lacking in self-confidence yet
as a composer he was extremely meticulous in his working methods pre-planning
his often highly contrapuntal works with great exactitude. His style of
composition looked towards the west and indeed, John of Damascus shows
influences of Bach through Beethoven and Berlioz to Brahms.
This short choral work, without soloists, is very approachable and fuses
Russian folk and liturgical music with strict Bachian counterpoint. Refined
four-part fugal writing introduces the first chorus ("I travel along a path
that is unknown to me). Thrilling and dread fugal music for "On that day
when the trumpet resounds through the dying world
" contrasts with a
predominantly mood of relative calm.
A first class performance of Rachmaninov's thrilling choral masterpiece,
in excellent sound, coupled with a work that deserves to be better known.