Conducted by Karina Canellakis, the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest and Groot Omroepkoor perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s The Bells Op. 35 (Rusian: Kolokola), a choral symphony written in 1913. Soloists: Olga Kulchynska, soprano; Pavel Petrov, tenor; Mikhail Petrenko, bass. This performance was recorded during an AVROTROS Friday Concert on September 15, 2023, at the TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Conducted by Karina Canellakis, the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest and Groot Omroepkoor perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s The Bells Op. 35 (Rusian: Kolokola). Soloists: Olga Kulchynska, soprano; Pavel Petrov, tenor; Mikhail Petrenko, bass. This performance was recorded during an AVROTROS Friday Concert on September 15, 2023, at the TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells”

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells” (Russian: “Колокола”, Kolokola), Op. 35, is a choral symphony that stands as one of his most compelling and innovative works. Composed in 1913, this piece is based on the poem “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, albeit through a Russian translation by Konstantin Balmont. Rachmaninoff’s setting of the poem explores the symbolic significance of bells through the stages of life, from the joyous peals of youth to the mournful tolling of death. The work is scored for soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, a large mixed chorus, and an orchestra, making it one of Rachmaninoff’s most ambitious compositions in terms of scale and scope.

“The Bells” is a testament to Rachmaninoff’s mastery of orchestration and his ability to convey deep emotional narratives through music. The composer himself held this work in high regard, considering it among his favorites. The choral symphony is divided into four movements, each dedicated to a different type of bell and its corresponding stage of human life, reflecting a wide range of emotional and musical expressions.

Rachmaninoff’s use of the orchestra and chorus in “The Bells” is remarkable for its color and dynamism, with each movement characterized by distinctive themes and motifs that evoke the sounds and symbolic meanings of bells. The composer’s rich harmonic language and melodic inventiveness are on full display, seamlessly integrating the vocal and instrumental forces to create a powerful sonic tapestry.

The choice of Poe’s poem, despite its translation into Russian, underscores Rachmaninoff’s fascination with the theme of fate and the inexorable passage of time, motifs that recur throughout his oeuvre. “The Bells” showcases his ability to transcend the boundaries of national musical styles, combining Russian musical elements with a broader, universal emotional appeal.

Critically acclaimed for its emotional depth and technical brilliance, “The Bells” occupies a unique place in Rachmaninoff’s catalog and in the choral symphonic repertoire. Its premiere in Saint Petersburg was a significant success, and the work has since enjoyed enduring popularity, celebrated for its innovative synthesis of symphonic and choral writing and its profound exploration of life’s transience through the metaphor of bells.


1. Allegro ma non-tanto: “The Silver Sleigh Bells”- with tenor solo

The first movement is titled “The Silver Sleigh Bells” and is set to the joyful and vibrant text describing the sleigh bells’ tinkling. This movement captures the exuberance and brightness of youth, mirroring the poem’s depiction of a world filled with light, laughter, and the carefree days of early life. The choice of silver bells symbolizes innocence and purity, setting a tone of optimism and celebration that is reflected in the music.

Musically, Rachmaninoff employs a bright and shimmering orchestral palette to evoke the sound and atmosphere of the silver sleigh bells. The movement opens with a light, sparkling texture that immediately conjures images of a winter landscape, glistening with snow, under a clear, starlit sky. The orchestration is masterful in its depiction of the bells’ sound, using a combination of shimmering strings, delicate percussion, and woodwind flourishes to create a sense of magical wonder.

The tenor soloist introduces the main theme, singing the joyous and endless ringing of the bells, which fills the air with a sense of boundless energy and movement. The chorus responds and expands on this theme, their voices adding to the celebratory mood, and together with the soloist, they paint a vivid picture of youthful exuberance and the joy of life.

Rachmaninoff’s melodic writing in this movement is both lush and lyrical, with sweeping lines that rise and fall with the text’s emotions. The interplay between the soloist, chorus, and orchestra is seamless, creating a rich tapestry of sound that fully immerses the listener in the movement’s festive atmosphere.

The climax of the movement is both powerful and uplifting, with the full force of the orchestra and chorus coming together in a jubilant celebration of the sleigh bells’ sound. The movement concludes on a high note, leaving a lingering sense of exhilaration and joy.

2. Lento: “The Mellow Wedding Bells” – with soprano solo

The second movement is a vibrant and evocative depiction of wedding bells, titled “Mellow Wedding Bells.” This movement stands in contrast to the jubilant and youthful first movement, delving into the complex emotions and celebratory atmosphere of a wedding. Through this movement, Rachmaninoff explores themes of love, joy, and the anticipation of new beginnings, all the while maintaining the work’s overarching exploration of the symbolic significance of bells in human life.

Musically, the second movement is characterized by its lush orchestration and the use of the chorus and soloists to convey the nuances of the wedding celebration. The melody is often led by the tenor soloist, whose lines soar above the orchestra and chorus, embodying the personal and intimate moments of the wedding. The chorus, meanwhile, complements the soloist, providing a rich tapestry of sound that represents the communal aspect of the celebration.

Rachmaninoff’s orchestration in this movement is notable for its warmth and color, utilizing the full palette of the orchestra to create a sound world that is both radiant and nuanced. The use of bells, both literal and imitated by the orchestra, is integral to the movement, reinforcing the thematic material and adding to the overall celebratory mood.

The harmonic language of the second movement is rich and expressive, with Rachmaninoff employing a wide range of chords and progressions to evoke the varying emotions associated with a wedding. The movement progresses through moments of exuberance, tenderness, and reflection, capturing the multifaceted nature of the occasion.

The second movement is a key component of its narrative structure, transitioning from the innocence and exuberance of youth to the more reflective and introspective themes explored in the subsequent movements. Through “Mellow Wedding Bells,” Rachmaninoff not only celebrates the joy of love and union but also hints at the deeper, more nuanced emotions that such occasions evoke, making this movement a pivotal and richly expressive part of the choral symphony.

3. Presto: “The Loud Alarum Bells”

The third movement is titled “Loud Alarum Bells” and is based on the poem’s section depicting alarm bells or bells of warning. This movement represents the tumultuous and often fearful stage of maturity in the human life cycle, capturing the sense of alarm, danger, and turmoil that can accompany adult life. It is a stark contrast to the joyous and romantic moods of the preceding movements, delving into darker, more complex emotional territory.

Musically, this movement is characterized by its dramatic intensity and the use of dissonance to create a sense of urgency and distress. The orchestration is powerful and aggressive, with a prominent role for brass and percussion to mimic the clamorous sound of alarm bells ringing out in warning. The tempo is fast, and the rhythms are driving, conveying a sense of relentless energy and motion that mirrors the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life’s challenges.

The choir and soloists in this movement convey the text with a sense of urgency and desperation. The vocal lines are often angular and forceful, reflecting the anxiety and strife depicted in the text. The interplay between the orchestra and the voices heightens the dramatic tension, creating a vivid aural depiction of the poem’s imagery.

Rachmaninoff’s use of musical motifs and thematic development in this movement serves to enhance the narrative quality of the work, painting a sonic picture of societal upheaval and personal struggle. The alarm bells are not just a literal representation but also a metaphor for the internal and external conflicts that define the human condition at this stage of life.

4. Lento lugubre: “The Mournful Iron Bells” – with baritone solo

The fourth and final movement is titled “The Mournful Iron Bells,” and it delves into the themes of death and mourning, drawing to a close the life cycle explored throughout the choral symphony. This movement is based on the part of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem that reflects on the somber and inevitable end of life, represented by the tolling of funeral bells. In this section, Rachmaninoff’s music captures the solemnity and profound sorrow associated with the end of life, contrasting sharply with the earlier movements that depict youth, joy, and alarm.

Musically, the fourth movement is characterized by its deep, resonant orchestration and the use of slower, more measured tempos to evoke a sense of finality and resignation. The mournful tone is immediately established through the use of dark, rich textures in the orchestra, with the lower strings and brass playing a significant role. The bell-like sounds are now heavy and foreboding, far removed from the bright, jubilant peals of the first movement or the romantic chimes of the second.

The vocal writing in this movement is deeply expressive, with the choir and soloists conveying the text’s lamentation and despair. The baritone soloist, in particular, plays a pivotal role, delivering lines that ponder the inevitability of death and the soul’s journey into the unknown. The choir complements and amplifies this sense of mourning, with their lines often mirroring the solemn bell tolls that frame the movement.

Rachmaninoff employs a wide range of dynamics and textural contrasts to deepen the emotional impact of the music, moving from moments of introspective quietude to powerful, climactic passages that lay bare the universal anguish of loss. The harmonic language is complex and richly chromatic, underscoring the movement’s themes of mourning and reflection.

The conclusion of “The Mournful Iron Bells” brings a sense of closure not only to the movement but to the entire symphony, drawing together the life cycle themes explored in each part. The final moments are characterized by a fading orchestral and choral texture, suggesting the fading of life and the transition into eternity. This movement, with its profound emotional depth and masterful orchestration, showcases Rachmaninoff’s ability to convey the most universal human experiences through his music, leaving the listener with a sense of contemplation and solemnity.


M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

I am Özgür Nevres, a software engineer, a former road racing cyclist, and also an amateur musician. I opened to share my favorite music. I also take care of stray cats & dogs. This website's all income goes directly to our furry friends. Please consider supporting me on Patreon, so I can help more animals!

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