I. Allegro ma non troppo (tenor/chorus) II. Lento (soprano/ chorus) III. Presto (chorus)
IV. Lento lugubre (baritone/chorus)
The majority of Rachmaninov’s choral works are a capella. There are only three exceptions in which he calls for an orchestral accompaniment. These are the cantata Spring (Vesna) written immediately after the Second Piano Concerto, the Three Russian Folk Songs from 1926, and TheBells op. 35.
The Bells was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem of the same name, which the Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont translated in 1912. A few months after encountering this verse in late 1912, Rachmaninov decided to take his family and leave Moscow. He complained that his conducting obligations were swallowing up too much of his energy, leaving insufficient time for composition. The Rachmaninovs journeyed to Rome where they lodged in a flat facing the Piazza di Spagna. Years before, Tchaikovsky had spent an extended period in the same apartment. Rachmaninov succeeded in composing the bulk of The Bells in Rome, finishing it the following spring at his country estate. The composition was premiered that same year conducted by Rachmaninov himself.
Rachmaninov stated publicly several times that the sound of church bells heard as a child during a sojourn in Novgorod made a lifelong impression on him. So did the human stories and emotions that they embodied. An example is the use of all four cathedral bells in connection with funeral ceremonies. In two of Rachmaninov’s works, the two piano Fantasie Tableaux (1893) and his 1905 opera Francesca da Rimini, we can clearly hear the descending motif derived from the bells.
In The Bells, Rachmaninov further develops this and utilises it more directly. Every movement elaborates an event from human life: birth, a wedding, fear and death. Poe uses silver bells as a symbol for birth and youth; Rachmaninov express this entirely through musical means – a tenor solo and a radiant chorus characterises the state of abundant joy and hope. In the Second Movement, a soprano is joined with a chorus and the wedding in the text is depicted through softly chiming golden bells; at this moment, Rachmaninov demonstrates his skills as a word setter with a splendid flowing melody. This mood is rudely broken in the following movement: we abruptly hear the bells of fear which are replaced in the finale by the unyielding iron bells. In the slow finale, which employs a baritone solo and a dense string accompaniment, the soul rids itself of its unbearable burdens to find peace in death.