Bells Speaking of Joy, Love, Terror and Death

Lento lugubre - Rachmaninov's 4th movement of "The Bells". © Charles Thibo
Lento lugubre – Rachmaninov’s 4th movement of “The Bells”. © Charles Thibo

Today, our journey takes us to Rome. The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov stayed here at the Piazza de Spagna in 1913 for two months in the flat of Modest Tchaikovsky, where his brother Pyotr Tchaikovsky had composed several of his works. At the time, Rachmaninov was deeply worried about his personal future, suffering from frequent diseases, tiredness, a lack of inspiration and the fact that his home country was moving to the edge of civil war. He had left Russia hastily towards the end of 1912 and moved first to Switzerland, then to Italy.

From innocence to wisdom

At the beginning of the year 1913, he wrote a symphonic choral called “The Bells” Op. 35, that he considered himself one of his masterworks. Rachmaninov set to music a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem permits numerous associations: the evolution of Man from youth to old age, from innocence to the wisdom, from naive optimism to the insight that all life is vain. Two moments contributed to his motivation to write this piece: the easygoing way of life in Rome, which gave him a temporary relief from his worries, and his correspondence with the Armenian writer Marietta Chaginyan. And perhaps the memories of his paragon Tchaikovsky helped too. When Chaginyan wrote to Rachmaninov, she used the alias “Ré” (French name of the note D). She draw Rachmaninov’s attention to the word plays in Poe’s work and possible associations with certain melodies, and Rachmaninov composed a piece in four parts for orchestra and a soprano, a tenor and a baritone voice.

The first movement starts with the high-pitched sound of small bells and is titled “Silver Bells”, a term borrowed from the first part of Poe’s poem. It confers a feeling of youthful optimism and innocent pleasure, not tainted by any shadows. The second movement, titled “Golden Bells”, takes up the idea from the second part of the poem describing the golden bells resounding at a wedding: a slow melody suggesting peace of mind and serenity, and around the middle of the movement, jubilant bells resound, in a pitch lower than the silver bells.

“Hear the brazen bells!”

Part III is the turning point of the poem and of Rachmaninov’s composition. The atmosphere becomes dark, oppressing, marked by fear: Poe speaks about alarm bells warning of fire and terror, and Rachmaninov mirrors this quite nicely. The lively opening is full of drama and stirs an emotion in me that I find difficult to describe, a certain apprehensive tension… It’s a fast movement, culminating in the chorus shouting “Hear the brazen bells, hear the loud alarm bells”. Part IV named “Iron Bells” finally describes death and the sounding of funeral bells. Interestingly, it’s that part I like best. The doleful opening is full of suggestive power and the contrast to the third movement is exceptional. After the panic, a sort of sombre serenity, black fog slowly rolling over barren land – beautiful! It reminds me of Franz Schubert’s obsession with death and shows that Rachmaninov is a deign heir of the Romantic period. Unfortunately he was also the last of that breed.

I can recommend the recording of the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev published in 2001 by the label Deutsche Grammophon.

© Charles Thibo

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