Rachmaninoff’s The Bells
May 26, 2018
Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra with combined choirs
Victor Yampolsky, conductor
The Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra, University Chorale and Apollo Chorus of Chicago join together for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s The Bells. This May 26, 2018 performance in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall featured soloists Bahareh Poureslami (soprano), Scott Ramsay (tenor), and Keven Keys (baritone).
In 1913, an anonymous young admirer sent Rachmaninoff a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells,” in a loose translation by symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. (The sender turned out to be a young cellist, Maria Danilova, studying at the Moscow Conservatory.) The composer was instantly captivated by the text:
The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know—Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence. All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian… With Poe’s verses before me, I heard the bell voices, and tried to set down on paper their lovely tones that seemed to express the varying shades of human experience.
The work traces the same arc originally set out by Poe: in the first movement, music of childlike celebration is tempered with sober awareness of “deception and delusion.” The second movement uses tender and transparent textures to depict the solemnity and intimacy of wedding bells. The third movement, inspired by “alarm bells,” depicts the experience of terror: agitated, fearful, “the very groaning bronze of Hell!” The final movement, “funeral bells,” demonstrates Poe’s mastery of the macabre and finds Rachmaninoff reflecting on the nature of death. Extended elegies for the baritone and English horn give a gentleness to the work’s conclusion.