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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV: Bells / Rock (The)
By Graham Dwyer
The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo)
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 1943)
Fantaisie, Op.7 (The Rock)/The Bells, Op.35
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was among those Russian composers who chose exile, rather than remain in Russia after the Revolution of 1917, through the consequent civil turmoil and, as it turned out, the years of despotic oppression that followed. He was born at Semyonovo in 1873 into a family of strong military traditions on his mothers side and more remotely on his fathers. A tendency to extravagance had depleted his fathers fortunes, making it necessary to sell off much of their land and dissipating his wifes dowry. As a result of this, the childhood of Rachmaninov was largely spent at the one remaining family estate at Oneg, near Novgorod. The reduction in family circumstances had at least one happier result. When it became necessary to sell this estate and move to St Petersburg, the expense of educating the boy for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could make use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine with a scholarship.
Showing no particular industry as a student and lacking the attention he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed all his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from her husband and responsible for her sons welfare, arranged, on the advice of one of her relations, the well known pianist Alexander Ziloti, that the boy should move to Moscow to study with Zverev, a teacher known to impose the strictest discipline. In Zverevs house, however uncongenial the rigorous routine, Rachmaninov acquired much of his phenomenal ability as a pianist, while broadening his musical understanding by attending concerts in the city. At the age of fifteen he became a pupil of Zverevs former student Ziloti, a musician who had also studied with Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rubinstein and, thereafter, with Liszt. Rachmaninov had lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Sergey Taneyev and Arensky, and his growing interest in composition led to a quarrel with Zverev and removal to the house of his relations, the Satins.
In 1891 Rachmaninov completed his piano studies at the Conservatory and the composition of his first piano concerto. The following year he graduated from the composition class and composed the notorious Prelude in C sharp minor, a piece that was to haunt him by its excessive popularity. His early career brought initial success as a composer, halted by the failure of his first symphony at its first performance in 1897, when it was conducted badly by Glazunov, apparently drunk at the time. The work was then reviewed in the cruellest terms by César Cui, who described it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, accepting an engagement in this capacity with Mamontovs Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He was only able to return to composition after a course of treatment with Dr Nikolay Dahl, a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. The immediate result was the second of his four piano concertos, a work that has proved to be one of the most immediately popular of all he wrote.
The years before the Russian revolution brought continued successful activity as a composer and as a conductor. In 1902 Rachmaninov married Natalya Satina and went on to pursue a career that was bringing him increasing international fame. There were journeys abroad and a busy professional life, from which summer holidays at the estate of Ivanovka, which he finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, provided respite. During the war, however depressing the circumstances, he continued his concert engagements, not being required for military service, as he had anticipated. All this was interrupted by the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of the Revolution.
Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. From then until his death in Beverly Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largely on performance for a living. Now there was, in consequence, much less time for composition, as he undertook demanding concert-tours, during which he dazzled audiences in Europe and America with his remarkable powers as a pianist. His house at Ivanovka was destroyed in the Russian civil war and in 1931, the year of his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, his music was banned in Russia, after he had added his signature to a letter to The New York Times, drawing attention to the atrocities being committed by the then Russian government. The ban was withdrawn two years later. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrative concert-tours, but established a music publishing-house in Paris and built for himself a villa near Lucerne, where he completed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe, to spend his final years in the United States.
Rachmaninov completed his Fantaisie, Opus 7, generally known as The Rock or The Crag, in the summer of 1893, which he spent on the estate of new acquaintances at Lebedin, near Kharkov, able to work undisturbed in a summer-house built for his benefit. A note on the score declares that The Rock was written under the influence of Lermontovs poem of that name, following this with a motto taken from the poem:
On the bosom of a giant rock
Slept the night a little golden cloud.
It was later revealed by the composer that he had relied principally on a story by Chekhov, On the Road, which uses the same quotation from Lermontov as an epigraph and deals with the substance of the poem in terms of humanity. Two travellers meet at a lonely inn on Christmas Eve, a sympathetic and beautiful young woman and a middle-aged man, dogged by lifes failures. She listens to his troubles and leaves in the morning, while the man, left alone with his regrets, stands, covered by the snow that falls around him, the rock of Lermontovs poem. Rachmaninov introduces the work with a theme for cellos and double basses, joined by a recurrent descending interval of a semitone for the bassoon, representing the man, followed by the brighter sound of the flute, depicting the girl. The flute introduces a further motif which is to return throughout the work, a symbol of the mans troubles. These elements are intermingled, leading to a climax, as the girl leaves, while the man watches her sleigh disappearing into the distance, leaving him to his cares.
The Fantaisie was first performed in St Petersburg in 1896 under the direction of Glazunov and was received with customary severity by César Cui.
Rachmaninov started work on his choral symphony The Bells in early 1913, during a brief stay in Italy, and completed it at Ivanovka during the summer, dedicating it to Willem Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was first performed in St Petersburg at the end of November in the same year, under the direction of the composer, and in many ways marks the height of his achievement. The inspiration for the work came from a Russian version of Edgar Allan Poes poem The Bells by the symbolist poet Konstantin Dmitriyevich Balmont, a fellow exile from Russia after 1917. Here Rachmaninov was able to find musical and textual expression of his fascination with bells, used in the poem and the symphony to represent silver sleigh bells of birth, golden wedding bells, brazen bells of warning and the iron death bell. The work is scored for a large orchestra, with triple wind, six horns, a large percussion section, harp, celesta, piano, optional organ and strings, with three soloists and chorus.
The first movement opens in a vivid celebration of the joys of birth and youth. The tenor soloist calls attention to the silver sleigh bells. The hummed notes of the chorus, with a repeated motif, reflect, in contrast, the sleep of death that must await. Joy returns, but there are hints of death in a suggestion of Rachmaninovs recurrent Dies irae motif. The second movement makes this last clearer, the motif, in its bell-like form, taken up by the chorus and the soprano soloist. A further suggestion of human mortality is heard in a recurrent descending chromatic motif. Earlier motifs are transformed in the terror of the third movement, scored for chorus and orchestra only, with the bell-like Dies irae motif stressed, continuing use of descending and ascending chromatic motifs and fierce use of clashing accentuation and the insistent power of the percussion, propelling the movement to its savage conclusion. The final Lento lugubre opens with a cor anglais melody over an accompaniment for muted and divided strings. The baritone soloist calls attention to the bells of death, with their message of doom. An Allegro, with a more overt reference to the Dies irae, depicts the sombre fiend, the spirit of the belfry, before the return of the opening mood, now of resignation, through which a final glimmer of light shines.