The Bells, Sergei Rachmaninoff

By Robert McColley, Fanfare

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Rachmaninoff completed his choral symphony, The Bells, in 1913, and thereafter liked it best of all his works. Its origins are strange enough. A girl he had never met, who admired the poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), sent the composer an anonymous letter, urging him to set to music “The Bells,” which she included, in a very free Russian version by Konstantin Balmont. Rachmaninoff was inspired. He devised a highly original form that suited his inspiration perfectly: a symphony (with the conventional four movements) with three soloists, chorus, and large orchestra. Rachmaninoff’s gloomy finale had a distinguished precedent in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony.

Poe’s poem was certainly the inspiration of both Balmont and Rachmaninoff, but the Russians actually changed its meaning. Poe’s exaggerated rhythms and repetitions, which delight some readers and offend others, are subdued, though to a degree restored in Fanny S. Copeland’s retranslation into English cited here. Most important were the significant additions Balmont made to three of the four stanzas. Balmont has added several lines to “Silver Bells.” To Poe’s evocation of carefree high spirits Balmont adds a meditation on death as a sort of heavenly reward: “That beyond illusion’s cumber, births and lives beyond all number, waits an universal slumber — deep and sweet beyond compare.”

This permits Rachmaninoff to introduce a dramatic contrast into his first movement, music brilliant and upbeat versus music sad and solemn. But here death seems rather gentle and reassuring.

In the second stanza, “Hear the mellow wedding bells, Golden bells,” Balmont is faithful to Poe. His version reflects the cheer, joy, and hope of the original. But not so Rachmaninoff: he introduces by various degrees the Dies Irae, centuries old, but appropriated by the composer as his musical signature. It dominates his powerful tone poem, The Isle of the Dead, and returns in two late works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphonic Dances. Earlier Hector Berlioz had used it in his Symphonie Fantastique, as had Franz Liszt in his Totentanz. Once again the music benefits from the tension between two contrasting moods.

III Poe: “Hear the loud alarum bells–Brazen bells! What a tale of terror now their turbulency tells!” Balmont follows this faithfully until Poe, after suggesting the alarm concerns fire, quickly abandons its imagery. Poe concludes his stanza with various expressions of terror, anguish, and despair, but nothing further about their cause. Balmont describes a “ruthless conflagration” at considerable length. This is the scherzo of Rachmaninoff’s symphony, and a grim affair it is. There is no soloist in this movement and the chorus, no matter how expert in projecting words, will scarcely be understood in the many passages where it must sing against a raging orchestra.

IV Poe: “Hear the tolling of the bells–Iron bells! What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!” Once again, Poe is chiefly concerned with a sort of horror at hearing death-knells, while Balmont presses on to make certain we are contemplating death and dissolution: “Glad endeavor quenched forever in the silence and the gloom.” And again, “Heavy, moaning, their intoning, waxing sorrowful and deep, Bears the message, that a brother passed away to endless sleep.” (Rachmaninoff sets these lines especially memorably for his baritone soloist.) But in the second part of his stanza Poe summons up beings enjoy the death of humans: “They are neither man nor woman–They are neither brute nor human–They are Ghouls.” As often happens in Poe, the supernatural is invoked to deepen terror, never to comfort; heaven is an illusion but hell is real. Balmont, again more given to the concrete, replaces Poe’s shapeless ghouls with “a somber fiend that dwells in the shadow of the bells, And he gibbers and he yells, as he knells, and knells, and knells.” Poe ends his last, as he has ended all his stanzas, with bells, bells, bells, bells . . . and a summary line, “To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.” But Balmont must carry through the explicit idea of death, “While those iron bells, unfeeling, through the void repeat the doom: There is neither rest nor respite, save the quiet of the tomb!” Here Rachmaninoff, who has so far worked to deepen the macabre aspects of the poem, and brought back the Dies Irae with all its jagged frightfulness, now ends the stanza and the entire symphony with music that is quiet, warm and reassuring. A musical lux aeternae brings back the accepting and serene view of death that Balmont had slipped into the opening stanza.