The Bells (Rachmaninoff)

The Bells (Rachmaninoff)

The Bells ( _ru. Колокола, "Kolokola"), Op. 35, is a choral symphony by Sergei Rachmaninoff, written in 1913. The words are from the poem "The Bells" by Edgar Allan Poe, very freely translated into Russian by the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. The traditional Gregorian melody "Dies Irae" is used frequently throughout the work. It was one of Rachmaninoff's two favorite compositions, along with his "All-Night Vigil", [Bertensson and Leyda, 191.] and is considered by some to be his secular choral masterpiece. [Harrison, 190.] Rachmaninoff called the work both a choral symphony and his Third Symphony shortly after writing it; however, he would later write a purely instrumental Third Symphony during his years in exile. [Steinberg, "Choral", 241.]

Composition

Rachmaninoff wrote to his friend Morozoff in December 1906, asking whether he could think of a suitable subject for a choral piece to follow his cantata "Spring". Nothing came of this request. However, while on a holiday in Rome, Italy early in 1907, Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter containing a copy of Balmont's translation of "The Bells". The sender asked him to read the verses, suggesting they were suitable for musical setting and would especially appeal to him. (This suggestion was both extremely sensitive and opportune. [Harrison, 186.] It was only after the composer's death that the identity of the sender was found to have been Mariya Danilova, who was then a young cello student at the Moscow Conservatory. [Harrison, 193 ft. 1.] )

Nor was Rachmaninoff the only composer to whom Poe's verses would appeal. The English composer Joseph Holbrooke set "The Bells" in their original language for chorus and orchestra. His piece had been performed in Birmingham under conductor Hans Richter in 1906. [Harrison, 186-187.] Earlier, in Russia, Ostroglazoff had composed a one-act opera based on "The Masque of the Red Death" in 1896. Nikolai Tcherepnin would write a ballet on the same subject in 1922. Nikolai Myaskovsky composed his symphonic poem "Nevermore", based on "The Raven," in 1909. At the same time Rachmaninoff composed "The Bells", his compatriot Mikhail Gnissen was writing "The Conqueror Worm" for tenor and orchestra, based on Balmont's translation of "Ligeia." [Harrison, 187.]

Parallels to Tchaikovsky

Circumstantially and compositionally, "The Bells" draws parallels between its composer and his former mentor, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Coincidentally, Rachmaninoff wrote the symphony in Rome, Italy at the same desk Tchaikovsky had used to compose. [Maes, 203-204.] Compositionally, the four-movement mirroring of life from birth to death meant the finale would be a slow movement. In this and other ways, it is a counterpart to Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, as well as to Gustav Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde". [Matthew-Walker, 74-75.] The fourth movement, with its image of the demonic bell-ringer, hearkens to the bedroom scene in "The Queen of Spades.Maes, 204.] The four movements are marked: 1) Allegro ma non tanto, 2) Lento, 3) Presto 4) Lento Lugubre.

Bibliography

* Bertensson, Sergey and Jay Leyda, with Sophia Satina, "Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music", {Bloomingale:Indiana University Press, 2001) ISBN n/a.
* Maes, Francis, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans, "A History of Russian Music: From "Kamarinskaya "to" Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002). ISBN 0-520-21815-9.
* Matthew-Walker, Robert, "Rachmaninoff" (London and New York: Omnibus Books, 1980). ISBN 0-89524-208-7.
* Steinberg, Michael, "Choral Masterworks" (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). ISBN to come.

References

External links

* [http://www.americansymphony.org/dialogue.php?id=246&season=1999-2000 Program notes]
* [http://home.earthlink.net/~akuster/music/rachmaninoff/kolokola.htm Kolokola and the Change of Poetic Meaning in Translation]


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