The Kennedy Center

The Bells

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
© Peter Laki

In their biography of Rachmaninoff, Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda report an interesting story about how The Bells came to be written. The narrator quoted by the authors is a friend of Rachmaninoff's, a cellist named Mikhail Bukinik.

I had a cello pupil, a Miss Danilova, who once came to her lesson in great agitation; while she played, she seemed very excited and eager to tell me something. She finally revealed that Balmont's translation of Poe's poem The Bells had once made a great impression on her-she could think of it only as music-and who could write it as music but her adored Rachmaninoff! That he must do this became her idée fixe, and she wrote anonymously to her idol, suggesting that he read the poem and compose it as music. She excitedly sent off this letter; summer passed, and then in the autumn she came back to Moscow for her studies. What had now happened was that she read a newspaper item that Rachmaninoff had composed an outstanding choral symphony based on Poe's Bells and it was soon to be performed. Danilova was mad with joy. But someone had to be told her secret-and that's how all her emotions were unloaded during my lesson. She told me the whole story. I was astounded to think that our reserved and quite unsentimental Rachmaninoff could have been capable of being inspired by someone else's advice-to create such an important work! I kept my pupil's secret until Rachmaninoff's death.

Note that Rachmaninoff is being described in this excerpt as "unsentimental"-an adjective few would associate with him on the basis of much of his best-known music. Yet Rachmaninoff was extremely reserved as a person (except in the company of his closest friends and family), and not all his music has the intense, heart-on-the-sleeve lyricism of the Second Piano Concerto or the Prelude in C-sharp minor.

In The Bells, for instance, we will hardly find the broad, sweeping melodic gestures of those all-time favorites. It is an intensely dramatic composition that operates on several levels. The imitation of the sound of bells, in turn joyful and sad, becomes a backdrop for the expression of a wide range of emotions. That expression, however, is indirect. Each movement begins with an invitation to listen to the bells, which are then described "from the outside." It is significant that there are no verbs in the first person singular in the entire poem, except when the fire is personified in the third movement (this is an element that appears only in Balmont's adaptation). In the last movement, which is about funeral bells, the first person plural is used to suggest communal mourning: even here, a more personal approach is avoided.

In addition to the sound of the bells, another aural element plays an important role in the music. The intoxicating rhythm of the poetry, so irresistible in Poe's original, was matched by Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942), who was one of the most respected Russian poets of his time. It was probably that rhythmic element that made Miss Danilova wish for a musical setting in the first place, and the music does full justice to Poe-Balmont's verbal fireworks.

Rachmaninoff's fascination with bells did not begin with the choral symphony. In his early Fantaisie-tableaux for two pianos (Op. 5, 1893), the third and fourth movements imitate the sound of bells, which also appear in his opera The Miserly Knight (1903-05).

The first movement is about the sound of sleigh bells. The merry sleigh ride "in the icy midnight air" is a symbol for youthful optimism. The orchestra, chorus and tenor solo join together in an exultant melody with a colorful accompaniment. In the slower, dreamier middle section, the chorus sings with mouths closed, before a return to the joyful Tempo I.

In the second movement, the soprano soloist sings of wedding bells. The music, however, is not in the least a wedding march: it is, rather, a quiet and introspective piece concentrating on the solemn aspects of the ceremony. A gently rocking introductory theme sets the stage; a more sensuous, chromatically descending melody follows. The soprano's first entrance echoes the gently rocking theme. The quiet choral refrains suggest a certain detachment: the chorus acts as a mere observer, not a participant.

Next comes one of the wildest movements Rachmaninoff ever wrote. The "alarum bells" are sounding: there is a fire raging. Instruments and voices (there is no soloist in this movement) express great fear as the bells announce the terrible news. A menacing tremolo in the strings introduces the voice of the fire, which subsides for a brief moment, only to flare up again in a final eruption of violence.

The last movement opens with a mournful English-horn solo. The bells are pealing for a funeral procession, led, as it were, by the baritone soloist. After images of happiness, solemnity, and horror, we are forced to confront the specter of death here, which makes this movement, perhaps, the most personal in the piece. The orchestral colors are toned down, and the solo part is more speech-like than before. The inclusion of the "Dies irae" melody from the Gregorian Mass of the Dead, heard in so many of Rachmaninoff's works, is really appropriate here. It appears briefly in the bassoon, shortly before the tempo begins to speed up for a vivid portrayal of a frightful ghost. The initial funeral music eventually returns, and the work ends with a lyrical postlude for orchestra, singing the soul of the departed to rest.