Tag Archives: Sergei Rachmaninov

🎻♫♪ – The Bells by Sergei Rachmaninov

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
96/501Title: The Bells
Composer: Sergei Rachmaninov
Nationality: Russian
Year:
1913

Three and a half years, that’s how long it’s been since I listened to the last Rachmaninov piece for the classical list (The Isle of the Dead). It feels like I start a lot of these classical music posts with a similar sort of sentiment, but wow this list is taking a while. Probably should listen to more than one a week if I want to make proper headway.

So let’s get to The Bells a choral symphony – based on a Russian adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe poem of the same name – in four movements. Each movement is based on a verse of the poem, which get darker and darker as the piece progresses and feature different sets of vocalists.

We start with sleigh bells (which was my favourite because it was remotely Christmassy) and then get to a darker more melancholy piece which, on first listen, had a repeated section that reminded me of ‘Moon River’. Most interesting of the bunch are the penultimate set of bells. This movement, where the male voices take over, it titled ‘The Loud Alarm Bells’ and that’s a pretty accurate summation of how it sounds. Actually makes for a more effective contrast when the pieces ends on the downbeat of the ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’.

🎻♫♪ – The Isle of the Dead by Sergei Rachmaninov

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 20/501Title: The Isle of the Dead
Composer: Sergei Rachmaninov
Nationality: Russian
Year:
 1909

Now, here we have a piece that is so far and away from The Western Wynde Mass that it’s hard to think of them being in the same category together. I guess that speaks to the breath of classical music as a genre.

Where most of what I have written about so far is based on some aspect of religion, The Isle of the Dead is actually inspired by a black and white photograph of the painting of the same name. Apparently Rachmaninov was disappointed when he later saw a colour version of the painting as it didn’t quite fit the music he’d created.

For the first time in this list I have come across a tone poem – a classical piece that musically tells a short story. In the case of The Isle of the Dead it tells the story of the journey to the titular island.

The entire piece feels mysterious and almost macabre. Seeing how the destination of the piece is the Isle of the Dead it makes total sense that there is a grand and almost maudlin feel to it. Most of the time Rachmaninov uses the music to feel of rowing and breathing through an almost regular rhythm. It remains because most of the piece is spent actually getting to the island.

Nearer the end of the piece it swells and grows into something more euphoric, which is a bit odd considering what the piece is called. Then again the picture is partially based on a good looking Greek island, and who wouldn’t be euphoric at reaching a gorgeous destination after a long time rowing. I have seen some interpretations that paint this as an escape, but I like the idea of it being a sense of relief after a period of toil and/or dread.

It was nice to listen to something different again. I guess next time it’s back to some motets.