The Bells

While I was familiar with Rachmaninov’s The Bells, I’d never listened to it in a focused way until re-introduced to it by David Nice’s Russian Music course. Here’s an excerpt from David’s program note for a performance of The Bells at the 2014 Proms:

‘All my life,’ declared Rachmaninov in his reminiscences, ‘I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells.’ He gives two examples of their impact on the Russian soul. One is a vivid anecdote of Chekhov hearing the Vesper bells and declaring they were ‘all that religion has left me’. The other is how the ‘four silvery weeping notes’ of Novgorod’s Saint Sophia Cathedral, familiar to Rachmaninov from childhood, found their way into his First Suite for two pianos and his opera The Miserly Knight. The bell-songs of Kolokola (to give The Bells its musical Russian title) are never far from two of Rachmaninov’s other church-related fixations – the stepwise patterns of orthodox znammeny (or ‘sign’) chant that dominate his symphonies, and the Catholic chant for the dead, the Dies irae, used to macabre effect in the orchestral predecessor to The Bells, the 1909 tone-poem inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Isle of the Dead. [cite]

Rachmaninov chose as his text for The Bells the poem by Edgar Allen Poe. The sections, drawn from Poe’s text, are entitled Silver Sleigh Bells, Mellow Wedding Bells, Loud Alarm Bells, and Mournful Iron Bells. Here’s the first stanza as Poe wrote it:

        Hear the sledges with the bells—
                 Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
        How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
           In the icy air of night!
        While the stars that oversprinkle
        All the heavens, seem to twinkle
           With a crystalline delight;
         Keeping time, time, time,
         In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
       From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
               Bells, bells, bells—
  From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells. [cite]

The Russian translation Rachmaninov used as his text is enticingly different:

Listen! Sleds rushing past in a row,
Rushing past in a row!
Their tiny bells ringing,
Their easy, silvery peal falls on our ears like ambrosia,
Their humming and pinging whisper of oblivion.
O how clearly, clearly, clearly —
Indeed, with sonorous childlike laughter —
In the clear night air
They tell the tale,
Of how deception and delusion
Will be followed by renewal
And that enchanting delight — delightful, tender sleep.
Sleds rushing, rushing past in a row,
Their tiny bells ringing,
Stars hear how the escaping sleds whisper,
And, following them, glow,
And dream, and shine, in the sky hovering;
And their fickle light
Silently enchanting,
Together with the ringing, together with the singing, tell of oblivion. [cite]

The Bells (1913) Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, with James Gaffigan conducting:

If you’re entranced by The Bells, I can’t imagine a better performance than Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation, available in full on DVD. An excerpt may be found here. (With thanks to David Nice for alerting us to this performance.)

The photograph at the head of the post is from our yard after the nor’easter that came through last night, depositing somewhere on the order of 15″ of snow.

4 thoughts on “The Bells

  1. Britt Holland

    I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! And hope that we will hear more of each other next year! Love, Britta XXX

  2. David Nice

    Of course – the ‘Silver Bells’ movement is perfect seasonal material! Yet it never gets extracted, and how quickly it’s overshadowed by the more lugubrious side of Rachmaninov. His depths never cease to astonish me.

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