A warm spring day. A sky as blue as you can imagine it. Close your eyes. Can you feel that breeze, light as a feather? The sun is bathing your face. Can you feel it? Clouds. Shadows. Dark, light, dark, light. The clouds are passing by. The first movement is called a “Barcarole”, and that term usually denotes a song sung by the Venetian gondoliers with an accompaniment suggesting the rocking of the gondola on the water. Lean back, drift away! Alpha and Theta waves are traveling trough your brain and make you dream like in a daydream.
Sinking into deep sleep
The second movement speaks about the night. About love. By now you are asleep. Your heart rate is slowing down, your muscles relax, you are at peace. All is quiet except for those two pianos. Is it a dream? It may well be. You are sinking deeper and deeper into sleep. You are near the REM phase of sleep, the phase in which most of your dreams occur. You are floating on a harmonious melody through blue light, faint memories of the sky, of flowers in your garden, of a person in a blue dress.
But wait, what is this? Dissonance. Torment. Distress. You feel cornered by something oppressing, but you don’t know what it is. Your heart rate goes up, you get agitated. Sadness is tightening its grip. Tears are flowing down your cheeks, you are crying in your sleep. Tears – that’s what Rachmaninov called the third movement of this suite. But crying brings no relief. The third movement is shorter than the second one, but the agony seems to be without end, the melody locks itself in our brain and tortures you for four long minutes. Then the pain subsides, but now you feel a void which is even more gruesome. A monotonous, slowly paced melody, like a funeral procession closes the movement.
The bell’s message of hope
A crystal clear and vigorous melody is resonating in your ears. Ding, dong, ding, dong, ding, dong – bells! Why bells? They stand for hope, the Christian hope of deliverance from evil and resurrection. Easter – that is the name of the last movement of Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 1 “Fantaisie-tableaux”, Op. 5. You wake up, bathed in sweat. Darkness is chased away by rays of light forcing their way into your room and your brain. The night is over, the memories of the nightmare are fading rapidly as you embrace the beginning day.
The composer wrote this fantastic piece in 1893. A year before, he had graduated from the Conservatory of Moscow, and the piece was part of several pieces composed since that date considered to be dry-runs for his Piano Concerto No. 1. He dedicated Suite No. 1 to Pyotr Tchaikovsky, his idol. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky died before the premiere.
Op. 5 is one of those many pieces that make me shiver because of their extreme emotional content. This is perhaps the central element of Tchaikovsky’s legacy: a seemingly casual arrangement of notes expressing peace of mind, fear, romantic love, hope, doom – rapidly alternating and succeeding emotions, just as a young man may experience them. And if you want to go though these emotions yourself, I recommend the recording by Martha Argerich and Alexandre Rabinovich.
© Charles Thibo