“The Tragedy of Bell Ringing, the Harmony of Sound and Picture” Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp Minor”

  In 1892, there was a “bell ringing” at an electrical exhibition concert in Moscow, and a rising star strutting forward with a voice that would “rouse the enthusiasm of the audience”. He is Rachmaninoff – endowed with great hands, a handsome face, and a tall and burly figure of nearly two meters. He is like a handsome god in Greek mythology. The “bell” on the field is his ” Prelude in C sharp minor.
  This work was once titled “The Bells of Moscow”, and the composer tried to ring the “sorrowful bell” full of tragedy with a “fate theme”. Rachmaninoff said: “I have found satisfaction in all kinds of bells. It is the nature of the Russians to love bells. The people who ring these bells are artists… I always associate bells with tears. Together.” However, he also made it clear: “I didn’t have the bells of Moscow in my mind when I created this work… The inspiration for this work came so suddenly that I couldn’t shake it off.” Then we can’t help but ask this ” Where did the “bell” come from? Perhaps the composer imagined the sound after being touched by past thoughts and emotions, resonated with the audience with music, and felt the “bell” full of vicissitudes of that era in his works.
  ”Prelude in C-sharp Minor” is built on the “bell motive” and unfolds in a constantly changing three-part structure. The music begins with the Adagio, and the middle section is presented with a stormy Allegro. The reappearance section expresses the composer’s emotions with a leaping dynamic change from very weak to very strong. Strength and speed, harmony and texture, theme and sound range, they all reflect the pain and entanglement, despair and struggle deep in the composer’s heart.
Dynamic audio-visual distance

  ”Prelude in C-sharp Minor” consists of three parts, carrying the weight of Rachmaninoff’s life in his youth. The composer regards the creation of this piece as an image, using musical symbols to convey different sound forces to the audience. When people are listening, they will accidentally get lost in a musical illusion that seems distant, near, and moving. For example, when the music starts, the audience will first hear three powerful octaves descending, The “bell” motif then appeared, just like a grand sound background embedded in the music, and also imprinted in the life of the composer. Rachmaninoff used “Bells” to lead the audience to experience the style of Moscow at the end of the nineteenth century.
  The presentation section is “Adagio” (Lento), which develops around the “bell” motive in the low voice and the “lament motive” in the high voice. At the same time, the composer outlines two confrontational voices with the “theme of fate”. Among them, the two-bar introduction uses “A-G-C” as the fixed bass throughout the whole song, depicting the bells of the Kremlin. The pillar chords that appeared in the middle and high range later portrayed people’s silence with extremely weak strength. At the end of the first sentence, with the emotional climax brought about by the increase of the register, the amplitude of the sound is stronger than before; and at the end of this paragraph, as the register moves down an octave, the sound returns to the paragraph Very weak state at the beginning.

01 Manuscript of “Prelude in C-sharp Minor”

02 Audio-visual view of “Prelude in C-sharp Minor”

  The sound range of the presentation segment ranges from low to high, and the sound from far to near. Among them, the distant scene is expressed with a weaker sound. It shows a huge contrast between the characters and the environment, and expresses the loneliness of people. The close-up shots are expressed with a stronger sound, highlighting the main atmosphere and appearance of the part. In this way, the audience feels a relaxed sense of sound and picture during the listening process.
  The middle part is “very excited allegro” (Agitato), which consists of four phrases. Rachmaninoff maintained the core tone that represented the vocal elements at the beginning, and changed the timing, rhythm, and interval, maintaining a hidden chromatic line. This chaotic sound brought an auditory illusion. The presentation of the first sentence, the background sound formed by the fine triplet rhythm, interspersed with the hidden melody based on quarter notes, its musical character is no longer as introverted and hesitant as the first paragraph, as if in meditation. The roundabout “sad melody” and the cathartic fast-paced background create a rushing and restless tone. The sound range of the third sentence moves up an octave, and as the melody part continues to move upwards, the sound range of the accompaniment part also moves up. At the end of the fourth sentence, there is an emotional climax in the entire middle section, followed by a descending column chord played with great strength, played with a staccato, simulating the sound of people sobbing. This piece of music is presented in a way of separating movement and stillness, forming a mutually restraining and contradictory sound picture: the melody in the foreground is like the Russian people going from primitive depression to hesitation, and the composer is looking for light from the darkness; the background accompaniment is like a turbulent society The shackles of reality prevent people from breaking through the cage.
  In the reproduction part, the left and right hand parts are divided into two, and the “bell motive” is superimposed in octaves, the overall range of the sound range is expanded, and the full harmony sequence is played with great strength. Compared with the first piece of music, it is more visual and vivid rendering power. Rachmaninoff magnified the focal length of the lens, vividly showing his grief and indignation before our eyes. He sounded the last “wake-up call”, which is a cry and struggle against fate. The tragedy conveyed by the fingertips through the piano runs through this “destiny theme” in a “sonorous and powerful” texture.
Intense sound and picture color

  Individual composers combined audiovisuals in their creations, such as Scriabin, Sibelius, and Messiaen. Rachmaninoff is no exception. His works such as “Sound and Picture Etude” and symphonic poem “Island of the Dead” are very colorful, showing the world in his mind by describing natural scenery, fairy tales, paintings, etc. A picture.
  ”Prelude in C-sharp Minor” is Rachmaninoff’s early creation of the “sound and picture series”. Although it is not as mature as the middle and late period, the dark tone in its music is already pervasive. The composer not only expressed the distance and nearness, movement and stillness in the painting from the strength, rhythm and sound range of the sound, but also adjusted the color of the picture by changing the intensity and harmony of the harmony. The tonality of the whole work is in the key of C-sharp minor throughout, and the changes in the intensity of the harmony bring a degree of drama to the audience.
  The “Bell Motive” at the beginning of the work reveals a mournful cry and is full of heavy thoughts. In the presenting section, the chords that accompany it every time it appears as the background have dissonant seventh chords; while the chords of the “lament” motive are more consonant, and they form a kind of one after another effect with each other , even if this sound background sounds colorless and heavy, it also creates a color change between black and white. If the tension of harmony (the ratio of the number of dissonant chords to the total number of chords) is regarded as the color of music, then the work gradually transitions from mild dissonance in the first part of the music to moderate dissonance in the middle part of the music, The octave chorus and intensity of the reproduced section also doubled the dissonance of the sound. A picture that gradually transitions from white to gray and finally to black color shades emerges spontaneously.

  In addition, the coda of the work adopts an unconventional harmonic cadence, which becomes weaker and weaker. The lower part always maintains the long tone of the tonic of C-sharp minor, and the harmony selection of the upper part adopts a personalized modification to supplement the termination. The number of dissonant chords is mostly, which seems to be rusted after being washed by rain. The bell represents the composer’s pensive state of mind, creating an extremely dark tone. In the end, the music also ends with a consonant sound, and the silence on the dominant note falling on the tonic chord disappears.
  When playing the “Prelude in C-sharp Minor”, the performer needs to use different piano sounds to echo the various elements in the music passage. The whole song is built on the basis of bells, and the strong and weak, high and low sounds shown cause the transition between the theme and image, as if staging a sound dialogue between near and far, movement and stillness. The minor mode became the background color of the whole piece, but Rachmaninoff made consonant and dissonant harmonies appear alternately, showing the change of musical color for the piece with a single tonality.
  Rachmaninoff’s love for the motherland is sincere. He once said: “In my own works, I record my inner voice on the score as naturally as possible. My motherland has determined my temperament and worldview. My music is the brainchild of my temperament, so It is Russian.”
  Rachmaninoff’s instant inspiration took the tragic color of the bell as the core image of the whole composition, and unreservedly mapped his tragedy and nationality into the work, projecting a wonderful Philistine style in Russia at the end of the ninth century and his own miserable childhood. In short, only Rachmaninoff himself could draw this “Russian romance” sound and picture.