The Bells (Russian: Колокола, Kolokola), Op. 35, is a choral symphony by Sergei Rachmaninoff, written in 1913. The words are from the poem The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe, very freely translated into Russian by the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. The traditional Gregorian melody Dies Irae is used frequently throughout the work. It was one of Rachmaninoff's two favorite compositions, along with his All-Night Vigil, and is considered by some to be his secular choral masterpiece. Rachmaninoff called the work both a choral symphony and (unofficially) his Third Symphony shortly after writing it; however, he would later write a purely instrumental Third Symphony during his years in exile. Rachmaninoff dedicated The Bells to Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Rachmaninoff wrote to his friend Morozoff in December 1906, asking whether he could think of a suitable subject for a choral piece to follow his cantata Spring. Nothing came of this request. However, while on a holiday in Rome, Italy early in 1907, Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter containing a copy of Balmont's translation of The Bells. The sender asked him to read the verses, suggesting they were suitable for musical setting and would especially appeal to him. This suggestion was both extremely sensitive and opportune. It was only after the composer's death that the identity of the sender was found to have been Maria Danilova, who was then a young cello student at the Moscow Conservatory.
Nor was Rachmaninoff the only composer to whom Poe's writing would appeal. The English composer Joseph Holbrooke set The Bells in its original language for chorus and orchestra. His piece had been performed in Birmingham under conductor Hans Richter in 1906. Earlier, in Russia, Mikhail Andreyevich Ostroglazoff had composed a one-act opera based on "The Masque of the Red Death" in 1896. Nikolai Tcherepnin would write a ballet on the same subject in 1922. Nikolai Myaskovsky composed his symphonic poem Nevermore, based on "The Raven," in 1909. At the same time Rachmaninoff composed The Bells, his compatriot Mikhail Gnesin was writing The Conqueror Worm for tenor and orchestra, based on Balmont's translation of "Ligeia."
The Bells is scored for soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, mixed choir, and an orchestra of piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, cor anglais, 3 soprano clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 tubular bells, glockenspiel, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, pianino, celesta, harp, organ (ad lib), and the standard strings of I & II violins, violas, cellos, and double basses.
The four movements are marked:
- Allegro ma non tanto: "The Silver Sleigh Bells" (Слышишь, сани мчатся в ряд) in A-flat major
- Lento: "The Mellow Wedding Bells" (Слышишь, к свадьбе зов святой) in D major
- Presto: "The Loud Alarm Bells" (Слышишь, воющий набат) in F minor
- Lento lugubre: "The Mournful Iron Bells" (Похоронный слышен звон) in C-sharp minor
Parallels to Tchaikovsky
Circumstantially and compositionally, The Bells draws parallels between its composer and his former mentor, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff wrote the symphony in Rome, Italy at the same desk Tchaikovsky had used to compose. Compositionally, the four-movement mirroring of life from birth to death meant the finale would be a slow movement. In this and other ways, it is a counterpart to Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony as well as to Gustav Mahler's 4th Symphony (starting with the comparison of the beginnings of both symphonies). Also some see the link between "The Bells" and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The fourth movement, with its image of the demonic bell-ringer, hearkens to the bedroom scene in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades.
In the Foreword to "Verses and Versions" by Vladimir Nabokov, the author seems to suggest that Rachmaninoff had, many years after composing the work, asked him to translate the Russian text into English, which may mean that Rachmaninoff was unaware the poem was originally written in English by Edgar Allan Poe. Nabokov seems to have been unaware that Rachmaninoff did, in fact, have an English translation of Balmont's Russian translation performed, by Fanny S. Copeland, in preparation for the 1920 publication by A. Gutheil. The necessity of performing an English translation of Balmont's text (as opposed to reverting to Poe's original) can be easily explained: given that Rachmaninoff's setting of Balmont is just as free as Balmont's translation of Poe, Poe's original text is highly incongruous with Rachmaninoff's musical setting. Rachmaninoff was unquestionably aware that the poem was authored by Poe and translated by Balmont, for he made these attributions in a letter to Marietta Shaginyan announcing the completion of the work.