“Today is the 100th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth, and celebrations are in order…Rachmaninoff is still very much played, because pianists cannot live without some of his music, and audiences adore it. But his reputation in intellectual circles is nil…Can you imagine, say, Pierre Boulez devoting a season at the Philharmonic to a retrospective of Rachmaninoff? That has as much chance of happening as the earth reversing its spin, the sun going nova, and President Nixon waiving executive privilege and ordering John W. Dean to tell all he knows about Watergate.”
From “Did Rachmaninoff Collaborate With God?”, Harold C. Schonberg, New York Times, April 1, 1973
A lot has changed in a half century. As we approach the 150th anniversary of his birth, Sergei Rachmaninoff is now taken very seriously by musicians and scholars while still being beloved by audiences. Aspects of his music that were once considered reactionary or overly sentimental are now seen as forward-looking and even prophetic.
As part of both organizations’ celebrations of Rachmaninoff’s milestone birthday, the Cathedral Choral Society and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will join forces for the first time to present a concert at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday, March 19 at 4:00 pm. Titled To the Wild Sky: Rachmaninoff, Tennyson & Poe, the program includes Rachmaninoff’s tone poem The Isle of the Dead; his symphonic cantata The Bells, based on a poem by Baltimore’s own Edgar Allan Poe; and Ring Out, Wild Bells by the Chicago-based composer Augusta Read Thomas, based on the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The conductor will be CCS Music Director Steven Fox.
In preparing for this article, I listened to Rachmaninoff’s cantata The Bells for the first time. I can hear why he considered it one of his best works. Poe’s poem is itself written as a kind of piece of music, the sound of bells spelled out repeatedly throughout its four verses that take us through a life as defined by the tolling of four very different kinds of bells. The version of the poem that Rachmaninoff knew was translated and adapted into Russian by Konstantin Balmont, a great poet in his own right, who infused his version with the anxieties of early 20th century Russia on the brink of war and revolution. In turning this poem into a musical work, Rachmaninoff transformed its four verses into four movements, giving the cantata a symphonic form defined by Poe’s stages of life, structurally somewhat akin to Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Holst's The Planets. The piece seems to combine many of Rachmaninoff’s obsessions, even including some echoes of the piano concertos, since the bell sounds that permeate the work convey the essence of the acoustical properties of the piano, and, like the poem, the piece is a study of the primal power of sound itself.
Maestro Steven Fox agreed to answer a few questions I had about the concert and Rachmaninoff via email. I began by asking him about his first encounter with The Bells.
Steven Fox: I had known about The Bells since I read a biography of Rachmaninoff in college and I always remembered reading how proud he was of this work. I have performed the All-Night Vigil ('Vespers') many times, and I knew that those two pieces were Rachmaninoff's two favorites. So, there was always the curiosity in the back of my mind to perform The Bells. But not until I became music director of Cathedral Choral Society did I feel I had the right forces - a large chorus and orchestra - needed to perform this piece. When I started at CCS in 2018, I started to research the work more deeply with an idea to perform it at Washington National Cathedral.
Having gotten to know the piece well over the past year, I can understand why it was one of the pieces Rachmaninoff was most proud of. All of the beautiful melodies, the passion, the virtuosity, and the poetic qualities we associate with Rachmaninoff are on display in this piece to the highest degree. Moreover, it is a forward-looking work, modern in its harmonies and testing the boundaries of early 20th-century music. We have all been amazed by this music in rehearsals.
I can see how Rachmaninoff would have been drawn to Balmont's adaption of Poe's poem. The journey from sleigh bells and joyous youthful memories, to glorious, romantic wedding bells, to bells of alarm and war, and finally to funeral bells and eternal peace - these are all themes that we see in some of Rachmaninoff's other works. To have one poem that envelops these different emotions and stages of life must have been inspiring to Rachmaninoff.
The third movement and its bells of alarm and conflagration take on a particularly poignant meaning in today's world. The chorus and I have spoken about this in rehearsals. The text presages not only the 'Great War' that was about to break out when this piece was written in 1913, but also the war in Ukraine that is causing devastation today.
James Jacobs: How is Rachmaninoff as a composer for the voice?
SF: Rachmaninoff's choral writing is unlike that of other composers I have encountered. In both the Vespers and The Bells he requires the choir to move chromatically through the keys in a way that is very challenging but also extremely gratifying for the singers. Moreover, in all of his large-scale choral works, the vocal 'orchestration' is extraordinarily rich; he divides the choir into 8, 10, and sometimes even 12 parts (in contrast with traditional 4-part choral writing). His gorgeous melodies are often technically challenging to singers because of their length (where does one breathe?) and also their range - Rachmaninoff tests the extremes in both directions - asking a high C-flat of the sopranos in The Bells, and low B-flats of the Basses in the Vespers. In this way, his choral writing is virtuosic, just as his instrumental writing is. But the technical challenges are made easier because the lines make so much sense melodically and harmonically, and the voice leading is always natural.
JJ: Five years after composing The Bells, Rachmaninoff found refuge from the chaos in Russia and Europe in the United States. How should Americans feel about Rachmaninoff, and what can his legacy tell us about our country's role as a safe haven?
SF: Rachmaninoff and his family had to flee Russia following the Bolshevik revolution. But many of his best years were spent later in the United States. Culturally, Rachmaninoff always felt most connected to Russia and wrote a comparatively small number of works after leaving his homeland. However, living in the United States offered him performance opportunities and the chance to share his works with the international community so that they could live on for posterity. And we are the beneficiaries of this. The works of many other early-20th-century Russian composers were lost after the Bolshevik revolution.
Moreover, his story as an exile is again pertinent today as we see so many Ukrainians having to leave their homeland due to war. Again, it reminds us of Rachmaninoff's humanity and that so many of the themes he was addressing in 1913 are still present today.
JJ: Rachmaninoff was fortunate to live at a time when the study of mental health was finally starting to be taken seriously, though the science was still in its infancy. What can we learn from Rachmaninoff's struggles that can help today's creative artists struggling with depression?
SF: We tend to look back on Rachmaninoff as an almost mythical hero, and with good reason! But at the same time, we should remember that Rachmaninoff was human. After the critical failure of his first symphony, he went into a depression so deep that he actually stopped composing for three years. He and many of his friends thought he may never write music again. But, after this long hiatus, he eventually found the strength to compose again, and he wrote some of his greatest works.
I find his story inspiring and something for all of us to remember during moments when we are low and without hope of achieving our dreams. Rachmaninoff's story shows that it is completely possible to come back even stronger from these difficult periods in our lives.
JJ: Please remind us of the other concerts that are coming up this year of all the component players of this concert - the BSO, the CCS, and you, Mr. Fox - to continue the celebration of Rachmaninoff in 2023.
In New York, The Clarion Choir and I performed the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on Dec 31/Jan 1 of this year to begin celebrating Rachmaninoff at 150. The Clarion Choir will also perform the Rachmaninoff Vespers at Carnegie Hall on Friday, May 5th, 8pm. The BSO is leading a series of Rachmaninoff Concertos and Symphonies that they are presenting this spring around the composer's 150th birthday. It is wonderful that CCS and BSO could join together for this performance of The Bells, which is both a symphony and choral work all in one. We are very excited about this collaboration and hope that you enjoy the concert on March 19th!
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